Fujiyama (Mount Fuji), Japan’s highest mountain, is located 100km west of Tokyo. Two popular centres for exploring the region are Fujigoko (Fuji Five Lakes) to the north, and Hakone to the southeast. Clouds often block the view of Mount Fuji, so it is lucky if you get a clear view. Generally, visibility tends to be better during colder seasons than in summer, and in early morning and late evening rather than in the middle of the day. Unfortunately, visibility was extremely poor during our three-day stay.
Fuji Hakone Pass
We pre-purchased a Fuji Hakone Pass, which was convenient and good value. The Fuiji Hakone Pass is valid for three days. One version includes a round trip from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo. The other version is limited to the Fuji-Hakone area, and this is the one we purchased because we planned to travel to Kyoto directly from the Hakone area. Therefore, we purchased separate bus tickets from Shinjuku Station in Tokyo to Kawaguchiko Station in Fujigoko.
- Purchase at Odakyu Sightseeing Service Centre – Ground Floor, Odakyu Railway Shinjuku Station West Exit (8:00-18:00)
- Reserve seats on the train and bus (try to reserve a seat on the left of the bus for a better chance of seeing Mt Fuji).
- The pass includes unlimited free use of designated forms of public transport.
- The pass also includes discount entry at about 90 museums and restaurants (50+ in Hakone; 40+ in Fujigoku area)
Travel to Kawaguchiko
We checked-out of Richmond Hotel, Asakusa, and forwarded our luggage to Kyoto. We took a small overnight bag with us to Fuji. We caught the Tsukuba Express to Akihabara Station and switched to the Yamanote Line to Kanda Station, and then took the Chou Rapid to Shinjuku Station. There, we wandering the labyrinth of Shinjuku, disoriented. We climbed stairs to the outside world thinking that it might be better. Wrong! Rain, wind, and cryptic Google Map added to our trials. Finally we arrived (it is just across the road from the station, if you find the correct exit), soaking wet and annoyed, 15 minutes later. I hate Shinjuku Station!!!
On the 3rd and 4th floors of Tokyo Basuta Shinjuku (Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal) are the bus bays, in four colour-coded sections: Section B (blue) covers Hakone and Fujigoko. The bus trip to Kawaguchiko Station takes just under two hours. We were seated in front a woman who may be the world-record-holder for continuous speed talking, without taking a breath.
Kawaguchiko is a resort town at the eastern end of the lake Kawaguchiko. The best views of Mount Fuji are from the northern shore of the lake, and visibility is best early in the morning, before 9:00am, or late afternoon.
We arrived at Kawaguchiko Station. Next door is a ticket office, tourist shop, and cafe, and a luggage storage area. Note: you have to pay each time you open the lockers. There are bus bays just outside. There are three sightseeing bus lines and they accept PASMO or Suica cards. The red line travels around the east side of Lake Kawaguchiko to the north from the Station. The green line travels to nearby Lake Saiko. The blue line travels further, to Lake Shojiko and Lake Motosuko.
On a clear day, Mount Fuji provides a backdrop for the station, but there was no view when we arrived. It was raining and visibility was reduced to 2m at most because of low mist.
We called the Rakuyu hotel to arrange a shuttle bus. The route was circuitous and the hotel was perched on the side of a hill overlooking the lake – a great location, but we would never have found it by ourselves. We arrived before check-in time but were allowed to leave our bags. Then the shuttle took us back to the station from where we caught the green-line bus. Through the mist, we could see it was a really beautiful region, with small hamlets nestled beneath the steep hills that surround the lake. Unfortunately, the windows fogged up so we couldn’t see much at all. So as soon as the rain stopped, we get off and took a brief walk near the lake.
We stopped into at tiny soba noodle shop (不曹庵) on the shore of Lake Kawaguchiko and enjoyed a simple delicious lunch of noodles, pickles, and rice.
We caught the bus back to the station, and the shuttle to the hotel, where we relaxed in our beautiful room, with tatami matting and low seats by the picture window with an expansive view over the lake.
In the evening, we had an amazing traditional ryokan dinner. We were the only people not wearing yakata. Afterwards, Brad went to the onsen, while I used the bath in our ensuite (I wasn’t comfortable to try communal bathing) before retiring to our futon beds.
We had a traditional ryokan breakfast before checkout, and then took the shuttle bus to the station, where we hired a locker for our luggage. Brad bought two Mount Fuji themed t-shirts, and when he opened the locker he had to repay ¥600. This sulking elf statue (below) looks over the intersection opposite the station.
Itchiku Kubota Art Museum
It was a short wait for the red line bus to stop 19 n the north coast of Lake Kawaguchiko, where the kimono museum is located. The kimonos are the work of Itchiku Kubota who is famous for reviving and modernizing a 15th century silk-dyeing technique called Tsujinohama, which uses stitches to protect the fabric from the dye. Kubota designed the kimono museum and extensive gardens. The museum is open 9:30-17:30, ¥1,300, and does not allow photography.
After leaving the museum, we walked back along the lakeside toward Kawaguchiko Station.
Outside Fujiyama Cookie, we caught a red line bus the rest of the way back to the station.
Kawaguchiko Muse Museum
We caught the green line bus to the beautiful Yagazaki Park and then walked through the park to the Kawaguchiko Muse Museum, which houses a collection of the touchingly life-like dolls created by Atae Yuki. Visitors can watch how he works in a fascinating film. Then we returned to the station to catch a bus to Gotemba.
Gotemba Premium Outlets
The bus trip from Kawaguchiko to Gotemba, passes along Lake Yamanpaka, and takes about 90 minutes. Buses leave throughout the day and stop at the Gotemba Premium Outlet, which provides views of Mount Fuji on a clear day. We ventured to the bridge connecting the two sections of the shopping complex, but there was nothing to see but rain and mist. We weren’t interested in outlet shopping, but we were hungry and bought some snacks to sustain us on the next leg of the journey before we caught the next bus to Hakone, which took about 40 minutes to reach Ohiradai, a tiny hamlet in the mountainous Hakone region.
The bus pulled over in the dark, on the narrow main street of Ohiradai to let us disembark. In the rain, we walked up the steep narrow winding side street to the hotel, with cars speeding past us. We were greeted by the owner or manager who seemed stressed and asked for our passports and cash payment for the room. Only then he told us the hotel was booked out to a party of people who had booked the restaurant, so we couldn’t have dinner there, “but I’ve given you the room with the best view”.
The room was directly above the switchback railway line. It had twin beds, with no shower or bath despite us booking a room with an ensuite bathroom. As we arrived at night, we couldn’t judge whether the view was good. Brad argued about the ensuite and the owner or manager said he’d contact booking.dot.com to discuss the misrepresentation of the room.
We asked about meal options in the area. He said, “There are some Japanese restaurants down by the station”, which was the first clear indication that neither he nor the hotel were Japanese. We later learned that the hotel and staff were Taiwanese, and seemed to be set up to cater for Taiwanese tourists. We asked about a shuttle or taxi to the village but he said they wouldn’t come because it’s not far enough (even though it was offered on the website). Exhausted, we headed to the village below. We couldn’t see any izakaya but found a sushi restaurant and gratefully ate the meal, which was delicious, with a small bottle of sake. During dinner, Brad received a call from booking.dot.com offering us breakfast instead of an ensuite bathroom – we were confused by the lack of equivalence.
Once we returned to the hotel, we asked about bathroom options and were told the onsen was being used by the party, but would be free after 10:00pm. The idea of public bathing really doesn’t appeal to me. The idea of using an onsen after a tour group has finished with it, makes me fear I might reflexively vomit into the back of my throat. No thanks – I washed myself in the basin in the room (I’ve spent three weeks in a camper van, so I know how) while Brad went to the onsen.
We sought out the maitre’d and – in desperation – we bought a ridiculously priced gift box with two tiny sake bottles that apparently President Obama had some relationship with, but the full significance of the relationship was lost in translation. I glanced at it and with consternation, I noticed there were ‘things’ floating in the liquid. Brad inspected it and then realised they were gold flakes – a ‘thing’, apparently.
The train chugged by below us, every 30 minutes. Thankfully it stopped sometime between midnight and 5:00am.
We woke up cranky, after a really bad night’s sleep, and we looked out the window at the view (below), and then went to the dining room for breakfast, which was called Japanese but it wasn’t like any Japanese meal I had had before …
We left the hotel and walked down the steep hill and through the village to Ohiradai Station, which is small and quaint and picturesque. Ohiradai is one of the three switchbacks on the Tozan Railway line. We caught the crowded train to Gora. We decided to do the “full tourist experience” of the Hakone Circuit: Tozan Railway, Tozan Cable Car, Ropeway, boat, and bus, which we read took about 3 hours to complete.
So we caught the Hakone Tozan Cable Car which connects Gora and Sounzan station, in a journey of about 9 minutes. The journey was through thick mist on the day we travelled.
The Ropeway from Sounzan on the mountain down to Togendai beside Lake Ashinoko, a trip of about 30 minutes was also through thick mist (as seen below).
We disembarked about half-way down the mountain, at Ōwakudani, in an active volcanic valley. It is famous for its eggs, boiled black in volcanic waters. We bought a bag of five eggs. To eat the eggs, people crowd around high tables, with salt and bowls to take the blackened shells. The eggs are supposed to bring long life but it is considered unlucky to eat more than two, so we ate two each and then offered the fifth to a man standing near us.
Then we continued on the Ropeway to Togendai, where we had coffee while we waited for the pirate boat to take us across Lake Ashi.
The boat trip took about 30 min to Hankone-machi, where we spent a while looking at the intricate Yosegi puzzle boxes made in the region. Then we caught the bus to Yumoto through many hairpin bends. Yumoto is a bustling tourist hub with markets, street food, souvenir food, and restaurants. At a restaurant, we rested and had a simple meal. Three women chatted in the kitchen. When I got up, one said “camera” and gestured for me to show her mine. She held it and groaned then passed it to another woman who held it and groaned. I laughed “It’s a good camera: Japanese – Canon”. I showed how my shoulder strap helps support its weight.
We caught the train back to Ohiradai by 4:30pm – we had spent most of the day on the loop. We planned to return to Gora for dinner but decided to eat at the hotel instead, which we regretted. The food looked vaguely Japanese in presentation but it wasn’t Japanese. What the waitress referred to as miso shiru didn’t even have any miso in it …. it was a broth with dough bits in it, served in the type of bowl usually used to serve miso … that’s where the resemblance ended.
We loved our time in Japan, but our experiences in this hotel prompted Brad to name it: “Oh.Here.I.Die”.
In the morning, we didn’t bother with breakfast. We checked out of the hotel, and caught the train from Ohiradai to Odawara, where we caught our first shinkansen train: the Hikari Express to Kyoto. Shinkansen are wonderful!!