After five nights in Tokyo, we spent one night in Kawaguchiko, which is near the base of Mt. Fuji. We hoped—maybe even expected—that we’d get a glimpse of that iconic view. So we grabbed our Japan Rail passes and hit the road. It took only a couple of hours on a couple of trains to get there. The second one—the local, if you will—was a private rail company that had the most fantastic trains.
Here’s the one we rode on the way there.
And on the way back:
A nice looking rail car from the outside, to be sure. But check out the interior.
Those shelves on the left are an honest-to-god library (more useful to those who can read Japanese, but still). Those floors are real hardwood. Unbelievable! It was raining on the way back down the mountain, with very few people in the train, so it was like hanging out in a cozy study with a steadily changing view of the countryside. For example:
For much of the trip, there was a single track up the mountain. At a few points during the descent, we had to wait in the station for the train going in the opposite direction to pass us before we could continue. (And, being Japan, this meant that it was punctual to the minute.)
Kawaguchiko, when we finally arrived, was not exactly what we had expected. It was lovely, for sure. It reminded me of being on a lake in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
But the weather was not, as you can see, terribly clear. And evidently it is more often cloudy than it is clear, which isn’t great for the casual visitor. It used to be that one could sometimes see Mt. Fuji all the way from Tokyo. Nowadays, you often can’t see Mt. Fuji from, well, the foot of Mt. Fuji.
We nonetheless checked out our hotel’s observatory to see what we could see.
And here’s what we saw.
Har har har! We didn’t see that! It’s hard to believe that photo is real!
Here is the best picture I actually got.
As an aside: the staff of the Fujikyu Railway was very apologetic that we didn’t actually get to see Mt. Fuji, so they gave us some picture postcards with, well, the iconic picture-postcard image of the mountain. We also got some sweet candies with pictures of trains on them. End of aside.
The town itself was kind of kooky. It was clearly a bustling and super-popular retreat in, say, the mid-20th century. There are several nice, if dated, hotels that haven’t really been renovated since they were built. The town has a smattering of mediocre restaurants and a lot of kitschy shops selling souvenirs and the kind of stuff that kids want while on vacation. Soft-serve ice cream was easy to come by, for example. And some kid-friendly watercraft.
We soon found out that the only dinner options in town appeared to be very expensive multi-course menus offered by the big hotels, which we weren’t really in the mood for. We figured we’d walk back down to the stretch of road that had the mediocre-looking lunch restaurants and grab a quick dinner there. So off we went down the hotel driveway, went to turn at the appropriate point, and found the street in complete darkness. Not a single restaurant was open for dinner. Gulp.
This was especially hilarious because of an earlier almost-snafu that would have left us penniless. Japan, you see, is a very cash-oriented society. The number of places that take credit cards is far smaller than you might expect. So we would visit an ATM pretty frequently just to make sure we had money for basic survival needs.
When we got to Kawaguchiko, we needed some more cash, so we went to a Lawson’s Depot (a chain of convenience store that, like 7-11, originated in the United States but is now Japanese, and which can be found all over the country) to use their ATM. Hey! Funny! It accepts only Japanese-issued cards! And there’s no other ATM in town! And the hotel has no suggestions! I really thought that we would have to have a dinner of whatever we could find at Lawson’s with our remaining $10.
Except there was, thank god, another option: at a 7-11 way out by the train station, which we found on our own. Whew. (Pro tip: All of the 7-11 stores in Japan have a “Seven Bank” ATM that accepts international cards.)
Anyway, the pitch-black street of restaurants was a real kick in the teeth after our earlier Triumph Over Adversity. Fortunately, after much walking around in the cold and dark, we finally found the one place that was open. It had distinctive decor.
The whole resort felt a little bit tired. Our room was perfectly fine, and fascinating in part because it was a Japanese/Western room: there was a Western-style bed, as well as a space where you could sleep Japanese style.
But it was also just a little old. And, coincidentally, it was the single most expensive place we stayed the entire time we were there. More expensive that Tokyo, more expensive that Kyoto. Go figure.
So we didn’t see Mt. Fuji, alas, but we had a rather nice and quirky and relaxing 18 hours in Kawaguchiko. It was a nice little palate cleanser between the Tokyo and Kyoto. The next installment of the Japan trip, coming soon: Kyoto.