Japan 21 : Going Downhill Fast

I woke the following morning to the sounds of bed springs. It appeared that the girl on the top bunk across from me had invited her boyfriend in and they were waking each other up with some 'snuggling'. The girl on my top bunk was either asleep or absent, and the Chinese guy had turned into a mass of crumpled bedsheets. The bright sunlight from outside was a positive sign that I could get up without looking like some sort of cat burglar, so checked my watch (about 7am), excused myself from the apologising couple and headed to the bathroom.

Everything was chilled ice cold, with a gentle, fresh mountain breeze coming from the bathroom window. I got myself a quick shower and shared a sink with an unknown lady as we brushed our teeth in unison. I had fortunately decided to dress before leaving the cubicle because everyone else had been woken up by the new day ahead of them and were beginning to queue up for the amenities.

I packed away my things and straightened my bed, taking the smaller of my backpacks so I could stock up on snacks for the day ahead. I left my larger pack down the side of the bed, this time with a degree more confidence, and said goodbye to the now singular girl and headed to the ground floor. Some kind soul in the kitchen area lent me some milk and pointed towards a communal pile of slightly musty but usable teabags had been supplied for westerners parched for a cuppa. It wasn't the most recognisable of leaf, but it tasted like home.

Dave came in a little later and we had a quick chat about what we were doing. Dave was heading wherever the retro bus took him and I was doing much the same only by manual means. The bus in question was a fleet of identical tourist buses in a retro style that made regular stops around the Sai and Kawaguchi lakes. Though the thought of being chauffeured around sounded pretty good for a day, it kind of restricted where I could go and meant I would be at the mercy of the bus times, so I declined Dave's offer of going round together and stuck with my original plan of pedal power.

After checking outside that the howling winds I had occasionally heard through the night had actually gone, I handed over a banknote to the girl behind the table. 1000 yen got me a days' loan of one of the hostel hire bikes, and if I was to get a decent days' sightseeing in, it was going to be a prudent purchase.

I started out by getting back to the Kawaguchiko Oohashi bridge and then heading along the shoreline around the larger part of the lake. The narrow road generally followed the perimeter of the lake, although it was often some distance from it and was replaced with walking and cycle tracks that went a bit closer. I passed some picnic areas at Yagisaki Park, just coming back to life after the winter and guarded by some of the most intimidatingly large ducks I have ever seen, shortly followed by the Kawaguchiko Muse Museum. This was a small building set a little away from the lake, and was the home to the work of Yuki Atae. Though the premise of walking around a museum dedicated to some cloth dolls doesn't sound much fun, I have to say, this place won me over. The models of children, old people and the odd nymph or sprite, were beautiful and their features and poses were so expressive, I could not fail to walk out of there impressed.

Shortly afterwards, the road wound back on itself as it negotiated around a square of land set on a small hillock and was home to a major shrine. The Fuji Omuro Sengen Shrine was more of a collection of shrines, with a large Shinto temple and a stone-built Buddhist building located in their own walled areas and connected together by a track that went through the site. Some of the sculptures were beautiful, such as the sphere surrounded by dragons, the entrance pathway lined with giant stone lanterns and a sculpture dedicated to the art of Yabusame, or shooting arrows from horseback, which is often depicted as here with an arrow shot through a fan. I pushed the bike around the area as respectfully as I could, taking in the sights on offer, a journey that was marred only slightly on my exit through the lantern path to find one of the houses next door airing their dirty mattress out of the window.

I headed up a random side road to the hills above on a whim - and with little more than a nice view to show for it, I freewheeled back down and gathered a little pace, heading to the western side of the lake. Between the Omuro Sengen Shrine and here there was little in the way of tourist attractions that I could see, so I enjoyed the fresh air as I got used to cycling around the twisting roads. After a short while I came across a large, blue road sign offering me a choice of direction. Either carry on around where I was going, or head west, up a steep hill towards lake Sai. In order to give me some temptation, a shrine was placed a few hundred yards up, surrounded by tall trees and looking intriguing, so I decided to take a little look and then perhaps head back.

Something happened at that shrine, because common sense went right out the window. The deceptive hill was bad enough to get to the shrine, but it was clearly steeper the further up it went. My mind had been made up however, that I wasn't going to simply freewheel it back down again, but finish the climb to the top; that way, I could say I had seen two of the Fuji Five Lakes (3 if you count Yamanaka on the way in).

The hill was steep and it got steeper. The poor little bike, though well oiled, just didn't have the gears to make cycling up it a practical option and so I got off around the corner. The road was steep enough at one point for it to have to loop back on itself and wind back and forth a couple of times like you sometimes get. A dirt track off to one side was just too much of a temptation for me, it seemed to be able to cut the while twisty bit completely out, and it did, in a way. Unfortunately that way culminated in a large set of bike-unfriendly stone steps at the top, resulting in much pedal-shin bruising and swearing.

It did get me almost to the top, and after a gently curving corner's worth of hill, I was greeted with a tunnel, fortunately the engineers who built this road decided enough was enough and they would bore a hole through the rest.

Coming out the other side brought me face to face with lake Sai, and the view was both refreshing and different to Kawaguchi. Much less evidence of tourism, with few houses or hotels, many obscured from view by the still-present forests, and what there was in the way of buildings looked a bit chocolate-box and not so much geared to the sort of tourist trade I expected - perhaps they were made for the people who actually lived there. It felt like I had stumbled upon their 'secret place' where the local residents would hide from the onslaught of the obnoxious tourists the rest of the year, hidden through a tunnel at the top of a hill so steep it would probably kill a good percentage of those who tried to make it. Then one of the retro buses pootled past me and I realised perhaps not.

Even so, Sai was definitely worth the trip. After cycling for a while on the gently undulating north side, I let the bike roll down a dirt track to the waters edge. Lake Sai was beautiful, and as I looked around it was clear just how remote it was up here, the dense forests overbearing in all directions, so large that Mt Fuji itself could only just manage to poke its tip above them. The waters were beautiful crystal clear and the air was as fresh as any I had ever breathed.

I crunched through the stony gravel at the shore side for a while before heading back to the bike. I was getting a little peckish and was relieved to come across a cafe as I hit the north-west edge of the lake. I cycled past initially thinking it was closed, but thankfully it wasn't after checking the door. Inside was a quite surreal scene. A small band of musicians made of plastic were playing along to the Mission:Impossible theme tune amongst others, with a group of tubby owls for an audience. It was enough to stop me in my tracks, and was only jarred out of my hypnotised trance by a familiar 'hello' from the corner of the room. It was Dave again, who had got off the bus at Sai and was taking a breather. He was doing a rather good pencil drawing of Mount Fuji, which by this time had found a gap in the mountains and was looking its usual dominant self. We chatted about what we had seen and done over some green tea and kitkats (the cafe didn't have much to eat) and among other sites he mentioned a strange place further along named the 'Saiko Batcave' - something that we both thought would be good to visit, only so that we could say we did.

After a while I had got my breath back and departed again. Just outside the cafe was one of the Fuji maps, which showed many of the attractions. There was the bat cave over on the other side of the lake, and also an intriguing 'icicle cave' located on a loop that would take me away from Sai and then back again, meeting up just next to the bat cave. There was also a 'Saiko Wild Bird's Forest Park' as well just around the corner. It was decided - I would try to fit all three in. Not long afterwards, I came across a log-cabin building set back from the road. This was the bird sanctuary. It was fortunately free (or at least, nobody charged me an entrance fee). The lower floor was a gallery of pictures and taxidermy, and the pictures continued up the stairs to the first floor observation room. There didn't seem to be much to observe, though. The trees to the left were still bare branches, and the open area to the right was the site of what looked like what used to be a giant ice sculpture of a ship, although the ice had mostly melted, leaving the sorry-looking wooden skeleton underneath. I later found out this was the remains of the years' beautiful Sai Ice Festival which took place a month earlier.

I was about to leave the observation deck when I noticed a guy in a Saiko Bat Cave coat walk out and sit on a chair with his hand out. A few moments later, a bird flew out of the tree, landed on his thumb, and started feeding on the seeds he was holding. A little while later another came, then another. It was a simple thing, but lovely to watch, although I felt I was spying on the guy as he was enjoying an indulgence in his lunch break.

Going back downstairs, I went through a set of doors and found myself in a cafe. What looked to be the family business of daughter, mother and gran all sprang to their feet - their look of eagerness at the prospect of a rare customer, combined with my still-empty stomach convinced me that I should stay a little longer. Plonking myself down at a window seat besides a fish tank, I perused the semi-English menu (thankfully with many pictures) and settled on an unusual combination of a hamburger in gravy with rice and vegetables and a side salad. It was a bit weird, but tasty enough and enjoyable, my gazes of attention switching between the ice festival remains and the bloops of the fish swimming about beside me.

I paid the tab and said good-bye and headed out of the door. I was about to get on my bike when I had second thoughts and headed round the back of the building. The guy in the Saiko coat had finished his bird feeding and was sweeping up, so I took a shot at asking him through the power of mime about the birds. He directed me in surprisingly good English to the front of the building where I could purchase bags of seed for 100yen (there was no-one there, you just popped a coin into a birdbox). Elated, I went round the back again, held my hand out with some sunflower seeds on it, and waited. Sure enough, the birds began to flit from the safety of the trees to my thumb, eye the seeds on offer and then take one quickly before heading back again. They were always the same kind, about the size of a sparrow, with long tails and red flashes on their faces, and black and white stripes on their wings. I spent a good half hour there, until it was clear they had got their fill. Just as I was leaving, a couple took my place, so I showed them where to stand and what to do, and the lady shrieked with joy as the first bird swooped down for a snack.

Leaving the sanctuary, I followed the signs for the icicle caves, which took me away from Sai and up the hill on a long, straight main road, which was pretty busy with trucks and cars. Again, it was pretty steep and quite long, and another pushing session got me to the top, where a crossroads in the road pointed back downhill towards Sai and the Batcave. On the corner of the crossroads was a tourist shop, another log cabin affair which also had a sign for the icicle cave. I left my bike at the entrance and walked down the gravel track into the woods.

A shabby-looking shack was the ticket booth, beyond which the trail went over the hill, deeper into the forest. I paid my money and headed further along and it was not long before I came to a steep stairway into the earth. This was the entrance to the caves, a super-slippy, dimly lit track into a damp cave. Not far inside the entrance were some beautiful examples of natural ice sculptures, but that was pretty much it, the single track split down the middle, ending not so long afterwards with a cramped section filled with piles of old storage cans that were used as a food larder. To be honest, it was a bit of a disappointment all round.

Tramping out into the fresh air once more, I went back to the tourist shop and looked at the gift boxes. Damn near every town I had visited had tourist shops like this one and each of them included a display of finely wrapped boxes of chocolates, cakes or biscuit selections, the wrapping paper evoking the spirit of the region or having a depiction of the local tourist draws. Predictably, the place had a large central table piled high with all sorts of boxes containing sweet treats, and most of them were making the most of the nearby snow-capped mountain. Since it was quite close to the end of my holiday, I decided that today I would begin to buy a few souvenirs, of which a couple of these boxes would form the beginning. Resisting the temptation to take advantage of the 3 for 2 offer on some Mount Fuji toilet roll, I chose two of the largest and most interesting boxes, not caring at this point whether they fit in the basket on my bike. Fortunately, they did, although they did stick out and dance around a bit as I sped quickly down the long hill back towards Sai. I prayed that the brakes on my little bike would hold by the time I would need to use them in earnest, but for the time being, it was an icy-cold invigorating speed to the bottom.

Fortunately, the brakes did hold out, and soon a sign appeared pointing to both Sai and the batcave. Hoping that this would be a little better, I headed towards it. When I got there, it was much the same layout as before. A tourist shop set back from the road, with the trail to the cave just next to it. This time, an assistant, who clearly had had too much sugar on his cornflakes bounded up to me with a big smile and a helmet in his hand. I asked him if I could stow my cake boxes and bike somewhere, and on crossing his palm with silver, he took them away to a safe place and gave me the helmet to try on.

If I had to be honest, the helmet was making me a little nervous, but I pressed on. The thought of spending my last moments under tonnes of rock just as Japan got one of its famous earthquakes made my feet attempt to change direction more than once. The batcave was on a trail into the woods as before, but the trail was a wooden walkway which twisted its way approximately to the destination - and then disappeared into the subterranean cave below.

The cave was lit with an eerie green glow, from lights that looked as if at one point they gave off white light, but had been over the years covered with a film of greeny goo. It started off quite pleasantly, but then the roof began to get lower and lower, and then it split off into many possible routes. Typically, I chose the most awkward route, which took me through a gap no more than three feet high. My backpack got wedged on the ceiling, and my knees got covered in goo on the rough ground below, but I finally made it through to an open area, where it suddenly became clear which direction to go in to avoid getting crap all over me. The cave ended in a boarded up section which I resisted the temptation to ride through in a minecart, Indy-style, and so I headed back the easy route, taking a few long-exposure shots along the way.

Daylight was a welcome thing, and at this point I had decided that I had seen enough caves for now, having reviewed the state of my clothes and hands after scraping myself through a few hundred feet of damp, green goo. I followed the road back to Sai and followed it around until I reached the tunnel I had come through on the way here. The day was getting past its best, so there would be just enough time to go around the last part of Kawaguchi before getting home. I sped quickly down the steep hill and rejoined the road that followed the lake.

Just a case of getting back to the hostel, now. The light was fading a bit, and my legs and back - not used to cycling at the best of times - were now short tempered, so I concentrated on making the most of the view on the three or so miles required to get back. Fortunately, Kawaguchi was mostly very scenic, with a helpful cycle/walkway around much of it which cut out a large and ominous tunnel partway around for good measure, although it was clear that Kawaguchiko was far from a moneyspinner when it came to tourism - there was more evidence on this side that the hotel trade was a tight industry with the corpses of several buildings off the track of the flow of tourists. Hitting the home straight, I was distracted slightly by a crowd of people around the entrance to the Music Box museum, which I would have gone in had the punter outside not tried to force me to park the bike over the road in a car park and drag myself there and back again.

Once finally over the bridge and back at the hostel, I flopped myself on the bed about 6.30 just as the last of the light was ebbing away. Dave had arrived sometime earlier, rather selfishly looking far more refreshed and far less like he had just crawled through a slimy passageway in a cave with precisely no bats in it, contrary to the advertisement. I uploaded a few photos as we chatted and then after a quick wash and clean up, headed out by foot to the nearby curry house, which was insultingly easy to find now I had a map.

One thing the Japanese can't do, is a good curry. There, I've said it. Perhaps I mentioned this before, but the experience at the 'Ali Ba Ba's' was the worst of the three I'd experienced. The fish tikka starter was a grey fish with a dry, tough texture. The restricted menu meant only a chicken masala looked any bit good, but the chicken was fatty and.. 'pipe-y' - as in connected to what I assume were some of that ex-chicken's internal plumbing. I ate what I recognised and left the rest.

Back at the hostel, the ground floor was overflowing with people wanting to use the computers again, and since I hadn't finished my emailing I sat cross-legged on the floor waiting for the computer around my little group to work its way through those who had sat before me, the collective memory of the group forming a graph on the floor of whose turn it was next.

It always fascinated me how people from all over the world and different places could just come together and talk as if they had known each other all the time. It was a phenomenon that I had trouble doing with people across the street I didn't know, but now it was time for me to find out. One particularly interesting-sounding guy - Aaron - was sat cross-legged across from me, regailing to the entranced group around him - me included - about his travels around Japan and the world. He looked the part with combat pants and a straw hat with dreadlocks escaping from underneath, he was a picture of an experienced traveller. He rattled off stories of how this place reminded him of some other trip across the world a year before, some of the sights and sounds he had seen, and crazy coincidences of meeting his mates halfway across the world as their seperate journey's crossed. The whole room was abuzz with these people - pleasant, interesting, full of enthusiasm and knowledge and willing to share and learn. It was a really positive atmosphere and I found myself being able to hold a little of the conversation myself.

After a little while myself, Aaron (who was from the US) and an Iranian woman (who's name I unfortunately couldn't remember - sorry) headed through into the communal living room and sat down on a random collection of futons and tatami mats and continued our chat, eventually breaking up near midnight to get some kip.

As I lay in bed, my mind was for the first time since arriving in Fuji, content. The experience had all been about worrying that I was going to be able to survive in a social, communal hostel - me a definitely unsocial, uncommunicative and often grumpy being. The people I had met, on both sides of the reception desk had helped me realise that any and all those fears were unfounded, and that there was a lot of enrichment to be had and shared simply by being there and interacting with those on a similar journey. It was a shame that on the following day I would have to leave for my next destination.

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