Japan 20 : Bleak Landscape

Mount Fuji Awaited.

Ever since setting off, the goal had been to get to Mt. Fuji. This was partly because it was the one place I had pre-booked before going to Japan, and partly because I had become enthralled with the romanticised idea of waking up in a traditional Japanese house, sliding open the paper doors and staring out at the peak as I sat munching breakfast on a tatami mat. Even though it was not quite the end of my journey around Japan, it seemed to be the place I was always heading towards, the final stops of my quest being on the now familiar and somehow less anticipated Yamanote train line of central Tokyo.

Though I had to forgo the traditional aspects due to most of the hostels and hotels still being closed for the winter and many of the rest pretty full up, I had managed to get myself into the local K's backpack hostel, a small friendly stopoff a stones throw away from the lapping waters of Lake Kawaguchi. Fujikawaguchiko - the town that circled it - seemed to be the most suitable of the towns around Fuji, the rest of them seeming a little bit remote and thus as Japan was just emerging from its winter ice-fest, were perhaps not the best of ideas.

Today's journey would be based on the email I had received from K's about the best way to get to Kawaguchiko from Osaka. It would involve my final Shinkansen ride around the south coast of Honshu until I arrived at Mishima, and then a bus journey all the way to Fujikawaguchiko Station, where I could ring them for a free lift.

Hamamatsu felt a little dull, despite the clean, fresh air and so I decided that even though there was much to explore of the city, I wanted to satisfy my itch to get to my next destination. I checked out about 10am and got the next train out of Hamamatsu. Although the scenery to the south should have been of equal concern, my face was pressed firmly onto the north-facing side of the train so I could catch my first sign of the mountain. Sure enough, once we'd got past Nagoya and through a long tunnel, the iconic shape rose out of the hillside. Even from many miles away it looked enormous, probably because it was the only major mountain for miles around.

Mishima station followed soon after. I got off and after a little trouble working out which way to the bus stop (including slipping through a cars-only tunnel) I paid my 2130yen (about £12) to the woman through the ticket hatch (who probably had seen a thousand confused foreigners go the same way and had shooed me towards the bus stop without being asked) and waited patiently.

The bus, as with the trains, arrived dead on time, and after heaving my backpacks onto the seat next to me, it set off with me and a few other passengers. The bus headed through quiet, immaculate streets on a beautiful clear day, the ever present mountain peeking through the gaps in the horizon and getting ever closer. The bus spent a long time increasing in altitude as it headed through the beautiful mountain pass, and then as it descended down the other side, we came across the first of the Fuji Five Lakes - Lake Yamanaka. I could have got off at this point for a look around, but the buses were few and far between, so we carried on to Kawaguchi Station where the bus dropped me off. The station is a little different than many others in Japan, looking like a log cabin and having a large tourist shop inside. Here and there I saw fellow backpackers, heaving round packs the size of mine and often worse. They, like me stood transfixed at the sight of Mt. Fuji, now taking up a considerable portion of our peripheral vision.

Hearing the rumble of an impatient stomach, I went down what seemed to be the main street until I hit a 7/11 shop, and bought everything that looked recognisable, including an unexpected mini tin of Paprika Pringles, which my local back home had long since stopped doing. Because I had gone some distance, I decided to forget going back and proceeded onwards towards the hostel on foot.

This was perhaps not the best plan; my backpacks were heavy, there was a noticeable blast of fresh, chilled air, and the road ahead of me contained none of the landmarks that I could remember from the directions. I searched in my backpacks for my little black notepad and studied the map I'd biro'd down. Amongst some strange sights I had put down like the mysterious 'Herb Hall' was a little black dot that represented the hostel, and a load of other dots. An unmarked road heading to the right off the road I was on would take me directly to my destination. Problem was, I had no idea what the road was called, other than there was a closed gas station nearby. After some walking there seemed to be an intersection, and there was something gas-station-y across the road, so I took a chance. The road headed downwards and to the north (which was good because the lake was that way) but became increasingly narrow and twisty. At the point of giving up, I rounded the back of a house and emerged onto the road that circled Lake Kawaguchi.

I had my bearings now - the unmistakable Kawaguchiko Bridge was across the water in front of me, and all I had to do was follow the road around clockwise for a few hundred yards and I would be there.

K's was a welcome sight. As I approached, I made a mental note of the line of bikes for hire in the garage, as heading around such a large place on foot would not get me very far. It had only been open for a year and everything still looked new. A reception with a trio of Japanese teens eagerly helping fellow backpackers get their bearings, a couple of computers for contact with the outside world, and beyond a kitchen and dining room fitted out with numerous furnishings that would not look out of place in a style-conscious student dig.

I removed my boots at the entrance and sorted out my room, and was given a set of linen to make up my bed with. I had taken the cheaper option of a room sharing with 3 others (2700yen per night - about 14 quid), and it finally hit home as I entered the room that sharing with strangers was going to be a very new experience for me. Two cosy bunk beds took up most of the room, which contained little else other than a heater and a window that stretched from floor to ceiling. The bathroom was also shared but this time by the entire floor, and it was off down the hallway. Being the naturally distrusting Brit, my excitement and joy was turning sour at the thought of leaving all my worldly possessions in a room where three others could walk in and work their way through it. I wasn't anywhere near a set of train station style lockers, so what was I to do?

I had a bit of a think, and as I sat there warming up my cold feet on the heater it struck me that I was reverting to type, something that I was determined not to do until I set foot back on British soil. Japan and its people had universally welcomed me; people were kind and helpful and I had not once felt like I ought to get the hell out of a situation, or seen any evidence of petty thievery. Also, I was in a hostel, the people who stay at these places had a code of honour, you stay, you chat and make friends, and you leave. A hosteller doesn't rifle through unattended backpacks because one day it could be theirs that gets rifled.

Trying hard to keep this in my head, I turned the heater off and headed out of the room, sans backpacks. It was now mid afternoon, and the sun was a little past its best. Armed with this knowledge, I put my boots back on and headed out.

Lake Kawaguchi is split by the bridge into a big part and a smaller part. Since I would be on foot today, there looked to be just enough light in the sky to head round the smaller part and then back along the bridge. The other part could wait until tomorrow. Almost immediately on reaching the shore again, I came across an Italian restaurant, which I reckoned was a good candidate for tonight's nosh.

I rounded the back of the grounds and the lake behind revealed a shoreline with a mixture of small sandbanks merging into slippery rock formations. I headed down onto one of the banks to get a good view of the lake, the water was crystal clear but the banks were strewn with beached pedalos and tourist boats in the shape of whales, which if it had been running this early on I would have definitely taken.

The closed-ness of the place continued along the coastline. The nearby Kawaguchiko Gem Museum was open but deserted, and the far eastern side of the lake was flanked by a selection of hotels, each of which looked pretty full, except for a few which appeared to be derelict. One especially on a tip of rock edging out towards the shore looked in particularly bad condition, although someone had decided to paper over the cracks by edging it with party lights. Next door to that was the entrance to the Mt. Kachi Kachi Ropeway, a well-known pursuit for tourists to reach the Tenjō-Yama Park at its peak, and yes, they were both closed for the winter months as well. I was semi-consciously keeping my eye out for alternative eateries, as the tum was beginning to grumble again but, with the exception of a small saki bar, there seemed to be no food going other than that being served at the hotels.

My deflated feeling was given a boost partway round when instead of staring at the water and the hotels, I looked upwards a little and had my best view yet of Mt. Fuji, the ever present figure looming over the entire area. Doused with a generous capping of snow, the winds were high on the peak and great clouds of snow could easily be seen blowing off the peak. As I had left the hostel, I had overheard some mad people enquiring about trips to the summit, who were told that the stations to the mountains' peak had been abandoned for the winter. They were told in frank terms if they went up there unaided, the mountain rescue would not come to rescue them.

Passing the last of the hotels, I rounded another corner to find an outcrop jutting out into the lake, on top of which was a small shrine. Sensing a photo opportunity, I scrambled up the narrow pathway, a mixture of earth, slippy rocks and tree roots to the pagoda at the top, where - wouldn't you know it - a donation box had been placed. As I took my photographs in the failing light, fitting myself horizontally and vertically into the cramped remaining space not taken up with tourist milking machines, I felt chilled - the wind was howling and it had turned from fresh to freezing, and was gusting enough for my semi-kneeling body to not feel so secure perched up high on a rock. As I turned to go back down again I was surprised to see a Chinese guy eagerly staring back up at me. Shaking the chunky camera suspended around his neck, it was clear he wanted me to get a picture of him looking out to the lake.

So there we were, me trying to lean back on some old wooden fencing so I could get some distance between myself and the guy, who was now doing the same thing rather dangerously over the lake, whilst attempting to look like he was just relaxing in the breeze. He posed, I took a picture and handed it back. He posed again, not taking the hint. I took another. By the fourth round the chill winds had got the better of me, I placed the camera down on the donation box and scrabbled back down to the road again, not looking back.

There was little else to do once round the corner from the shrine, as I had reached the bridge. I headed over, braving the increasingly harsh winds and occasionally swapping sides to take pictures until I was finally at the other end. Heading back to the Italian, I was looking forward to some grub, but things did not look good. There were no longer any cars outside and the building itself had no lights on inside, and it was now quite dark. Unbelievably it had closed. I searched around for opening hours and found them - it closed at 6pm, and it was now half past. Suddenly a little panicked, I began to round the lake once more, but none of the places I'd passed were willing to take on non-paying guests, even the saki bar seemed to have shut up shop.

I headed back to the hostel, and figured that somewhere in Fujikawaguchiko there must be some district filled with restaurants serving food. I headed south, and after a fair amount of fruitless and slightly hurried night-time searching, returned to one of Japan's many streetside vending machines and got a choccy bar and a drink. It would have to wait until the morning.

I got back to the hotel and trudged in. One of the English speaking receptionists, just closing up the shop asked what was wrong and I relayed my lack of findings. She disappeared into the back and came out with a piece of paper detailing the restaurants no more than five minutes away to the west, the only place I hadn't been to. I vowed to make use of this information the next day.

I went up to my room. It was still pretty early (about 8.30) but I had been defeated and was tired. I spent a little time alone with the heater on my toes, and then headed downstairs to try and catch a session with the computer. People were chatting happily with each other about where they had been and where they were going, sometimes mentioning places in Japan I had stopped off at, sometimes mentioning places far beyond, it brought me back down to earth a little bit - I was not much more worldy as I had been a month earlier, and there was an awful lot more out there to experience, much of it proudly and excitedly relayed by these people, coming together and effortlessly making friends in an instant. This wasn't me - I can't just get chatty with people, the thought of it was incredibly nervewracking. Suddenly I felt very withdrawn from the people around me. I quietly took my turn on the computers and sent off some emails.

'I'm Dave', said a guy who had come quietly over and stood next to me. His name was Dave. Somewhat honoured that someone had taken the trouble to make contact with me, I made the effort to overcome my unsociability that so often strangle and we started to chat. He was Australian and had just come over from Tokyo where he was spending the most part of his holiday. We chatted about where we were going, and where we had been, where we come from, and it dawned on me as we chatted that it's not so difficult to do; that I might just be able to fit in with the crowds after all.

Eventually, I returned to my room, which was still empty. Someone had taken the bed opposite because it had been made up with fresh linen, as I had to do with mine, and there was a trustingly placed backpack on top of the mattress. As I had hoped, the code of honour was strong amongst my brethren and my things had gone untouched. I was miffed but also a little relieved that I was the least sociable and first to get ready for bed, I ditched the jeans and dived straight in, turning the heater up a bit to combat the cold from the outside. A little later, a Chinese guy (not the one from the shrine - that would have been creepy) came in, and a couple of girls entered later still and took the top bunks. It was all a little liberal for my delicate sensibilities, but I managed to catnap through the night until the morning.

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