Thursday, June 21, 2012

Mount Fuji

Disclaimer: While we were physically at Mount Fuji, the fog never lifted enough for us to get a good look. Please do not expect any grand photographs of the mountain in this post.

After four days in Tokyo, we were headed for the resort village of Kawaguchi-ko, at the base of Mount Fuji. Taking the bus there was yet another example of the great care that the Japanese take to ensure that everything is easy and efficient. Before we left Tokyo, we had to activate our Japan Rail Passes, which we had purchased in Canada and allow us unlimited use of the excellent train systems. Using a colour-coded highlighting system to keep track, a clerk checked that each letter of the information we gave exactly matched our passports, then another clerk double-checked each letter. During this meticulous process, they apologized several times for the wait. A comparison to the processes that we encountered in India will underline how surprising all of this is for us: when we had to get special permission to travel near the TIbetan border in Himachal-Pradesh, we waited an entire afternoon for a clerk to transcribe our names incorrectly on a pass that was never carefully checked by anyone when we passed official posts. And when we took the bus in India, we were never really sure if we were getting on the right one. We had to climb on top of the bus and strap our bags onto an overflowing pile of miscellaneous packages while praying that the bus didn’t take off until we were back inside. When we lined up in Tokyo for the bus to Kawaguchi-ko, a white-gloved luggage man took our bags from us and gently placed them in the bottom of the bus, but only after confirming twice that we were getting on the correct bus for our destination. As we climbed into the hills and then the mountains outside of Tokyo, announcements in Japanese, Mandarin, and English announced each stop.

We arrived at our hostel in Kawaguchi-ko and were very pleased to find that it was a world away from our squished and noisy Tokyo residence. As a bonus, we had been placed in a Japanese-style room, with tatami (bamboo) mats, a low table to kneel at, and sliding paper screens on doors and windows. At night we would move the table and pull out the futon mattresses from the closet to turn it into a bedroom. It felt like we were on a little vacation away from the big city, and everything we did at Fuji was more relaxed than the frantic sight-seeing that we felt we needed to do in our short time in Tokyo.

The first thing we needed to do was to find something to eat, so we decided to try the local specialty at a restaurant recommended to us by the staff. Kawaguchi-ko is famous for hoto – thick, handmade noodles in a miso and pumpkin broth. 

The restaurant was large and beautifully decorated, with traditional tatami floors and wooden walls covered in Japanese art. While Antonia was taking this picture, she gently knocked into a large wall-hanging as the shutter went off. The picture will tell you who first realized it. (The hanging swayed back and forth slightly but was unharmed – we left immediately, as it was decided that we were not graceful enough to be in such fine surroundings.)

Skies had been cloudy and foggy since we arrived, so we hadn’t yet caught a glimpse of the famous mountain, even though we were right at its base. Our guidebook describes Mount Fuji as ‘notoriously shy,’ and it’s actually rare that the fog in front of it clears outside of winter months. Our best bet, though, was very early morning, so we set an alarm for 4 am, then 5 am, then 6 am, getting up each time to see only a completely grey morning sky. As it wasn’t raining, we decided to rent bicycles and cycle around the circumference of Lake Kawaguchi-ko, visiting some points of interest along the way. 

Our favourite site was the Itchiku Kubota Kimono Museum, set up by Kubota, a textile artist, in an amazing building nestled on the mountainside and made of 16 thousand-year-old cypress trees. The gallery itself was a piece of art, with wood, glass and stone used together in creative ways. Just as beautiful was the display of hand-dyed kimonos depicting Fuji landscapes in bright colours. We learned that each kimono was dyed over thirty times and took a year to complete. Photographs inside the museum were prohibited, but you can see some of the kimonos here.

By the time we were exactly halfway around the lake and farthest from our hostel, it began to rain hard and we were thoroughly soaked when we returned. We decided it was the perfect time for our first visit to an onsen. Onsen are hot springs that originate from volcanic sources – since Japan is an archipelago largely made up of dormant and active volcanoes, the country is covered with onsen and bathing in them is an important leisure activity for locals. Luckily, there was one just around the corner from our hostel, and we spent a lovely afternoon bobbing around in it. All of the bathing areas were very clean and bright, similar to a Canadian spa, but it cost only ten dollars to spend all day. It was separated by sex, and Antonia and Emilie tried both indoor tubs – each a different temperature, one very bubbly – before heading outdoors and sitting in the hot pools while a light, refreshing rain fell on them. Their favourite was a row of small baths for individuals, like large cauldrons, being filled by their own spouts and spilling over into a larger bath. They spent a lot of time relaxing in those, quite sure they looked very just like Roman goddesses in a Botticelli painting. James and Yann also enjoyed outdoor tubs but most likely looked less like Roman goddesses.

The morning of our departure, we still hadn’t seen Mount Fuji, so we decided to take the cable-car up nearby  Mount Tenjō, renowned for fantastic views of Fuji, to look out into the blanket of fog and imagine what we were missing. Mount Tenjō is also famous as the setting of a beloved folktale, in which rabbit tortures a tanuki (Japanese raccoon-like animal) in various ways as revenge after the tanuki kills a farmer’s wife and tricks the farmer into eating her in a soup (the full story is here). As if that wasn’t strange enough, the rabbit and tanuki are mascots of the mountain, and there are caricatures of the rabbit torturing the tanuki everywhere, as well as a shrine dedicated to the rabbit at the top. Depicted here is the scene in which the rabbit offers to help ease the tanuki's bug bites, but puts on a peppery ointment instead:

On Mount Tenjō, we saw very nice views of the lake and surrounding areas, but we were surrounded by cloud when we got to the top. Here is the famous lookout spot - we could almost picture the lucky tourists snapping pictures of Fuji through the heart on a clear day.

Having given up on actually seeing Fuji, we began to descend Tenjō on a hiking trail, and arrived at a small rest area. 

We gazed in the direction of Fuji, and Yann was the first to spot something incredible  – a small break in the clouds allowed us to get a tiny peak of Fuji! We were ecstatic even to see a small bit of it, and we stayed to watch a few more porous clouds go by. Even though we only ever saw small, fractured parts of the mountain, this moment seemed miraculous to us since we thought we wouldn’t get to see it at all. The pieces that we saw gave us the impression that a full view of Fuji would have indeed been very magnificent.

We have seen many technologically-advanced products in Japan, but James believes that the single most impressive technological innovation here is the Japanese interpretation of the Western toilet. They are fitted with a set of a dozen or more controls to the side. Many are still a mystery to us, but we know that the toilet can the turned into a bidet, with several different possible water pressures and positions, and a warm air to dry you off afterward. You can also play the sound of flushing water if ever you would like to mask rude noises without wasting water. There is also a deodorizing feature. When you flush (different pressures are available, of course, depending on your needs), a little faucet pours above the tank so that you can rinse your hands before the water refills the tank. Antonia’s vote for best Japanese innovation goes to green tea Kit Kats.