Monday, August 22, 2016


We only spent one full day in Tokyo (we’d return for a few days at the end of our trip), and as we re-packed, we started the first of several cuts to our one, physical travel guide, removing the sizable Tokyo section to lighten our load.

We took a Shinkansen bullet train south to Hakone, near Mt. Fuji, and picked up a cute little Nissan Moco.  The rental agency (Nissan) had a one car garage, and our car occupied that one spot.  A pleasant gentleman showed us the car features entirely by gesture, as he spoke no English (but was clearly accustomed to this process).  The most useful thing he showed us was the built-in navigation system, which he’d preset to speak English directions, even if the menu system was entirely in Japanese.  It took us a while to get the hang of it, but it would eventually save the day (the in-country GPS is not to be discounted, especially someplace like Japan).  Among the various things he showed us was the parking brake, we’re sure, but David still managed to drive about a block with it on, thinking the car was a bit gut-less.  There’s no sense of scale in this grocery parking lot, but an American compact car would barely fit between the painted lines (those are 13” wheels).  It had a bench seat, and was strangely spacious inside, given how tiny it looked from the outside.
We’d been a little intimidated by the thought of driving in Japan (it’s a right-hand drive country, for one thing), but it would allow us to see about two more days’ worth of sights than if we’d relied on trains alone, due to the lengthy, winding routes trains must take into the rugged mountains around Mount Fuji and in the Japanese Alps further north.  We soon found we’d worried for nothing.  Signage was actually excellent (the stop sign being the only non-English sign—and that one is pretty obvious).  Navigation was generally easy with a combination of Maps.Me and Google Maps (and, eventually, Kiki, the name we gave to the Moco’s navigation system).  Best of all, Japanese drivers are the most considerate, reasonable drivers we’ve ever encountered (sample size: 13 countries).  Britain had set a high bar for us, but Japan easily took the prize.  Also, the Moco was really fun to drive on mountain roads.
We reached Yamanakako around lunch time, found a grocery store there, and got supplies for a picnic lunch, which we ate at a nearby lake Yamanaka, where the boats were mostly swan-themed.  The lake is popular with actual swans, though we didn’t see any, and it is one of the five lakes in the Mt. Fuji region  The drive was very pretty!  We were surprised by the cherry blossoms in the country side; we expected to see a tree here or there, but we saw entire hillslopes that were pink, red, or white with cherry blossoms, much like slopes of aspen in the Rockies.
When we arrived in Fujiyoshida, it was still early afternoon, and we decided to hike up to Chureito Pagoda, not far from our hotel.  It was a short hike, in terms of distance, but involved around 400 stair steps, climbing up through a cherry tree forest.  We stopped regularly to enjoy the view (that euphemism for catching our breath was born on the Inca Trail) and exchange grins with Japanese tourists who were doing the same thing.
The hike was definitely worth it, though.  Mt. Fuji was shrouded in clouds, but the cherry blossoms made up for it.  You can see the base of Mt. Fuji in the distance in most of these photos.
The pagoda was also quite pretty.  Not pictured is the rustic stadium seating area immediately behind us which was relatively packed with tourists with an array of camera gear that you’d ordinarily only see on the sidelines of a professional sports event, all with their shutter fingers ready in case the clouds broke, and revealed Mt. Fuji (spoiler--they did not).
Since we hiked up the steps we decided to take the serpentine road back down, which was pretty in its own right with the evenly spaced red lanterns under the white blossoms.
On the way down we met with a Laotian couple with a nice camera who asked us to take their photo—which we did. They offered to return the favor with David’s camera, and we got a nice photo as they were familiar with how his camera worked.
The cherry blossoms seems to be bursting out around every corner, as commonplace in Fujiyoshida as cottonwoods on the prairie. There is a delicate beauty to a lot of the horticulture in Japan. So many different flowers and trees than what we’re used to.
We checked in to our hotel, which had clearly not been renovated since the late 80s, but which was spotless and in impeccable repair.  I don’t know if “dated” really is the appropriate term; it felt like we’d stepped over the velvet ropes in a museum, and were going to spend the night there.  Those are robes (yukata) and belts (obi) on the bed. It's common for guests in hotels to don their yukata or pajamas provided by the hotel  The leather chair in the corner was a massage chair—including calf cuffs.  Lana gave it a shot, and found it was quite effective, and welcome after our lengthy stair climb. 
That night we enjoyed an interesting meal of Houtou, a stew-like dish native to this area which huge, chewy noodles and pumpkin, along with various options for protein (the below photo is boar houtou).  There are some shots of it in our Finding Our Food Footing post. After dinner we had our normal dessert of Morinaga bar and finished the evening with another calf massage before bed.

We had to move on from the Mt. Fuji area before we fully were able to discover it; that would become a recurring theme for our time in Japan. We’d like to make a trip back in the fall to see the flip side of all these cherry blossoms—beautiful fall foliage that we’ve been assured is just as spectacular.