Having seen Mount Fuji from Shimosuwa, we hadn’t quite imagined how long it would take to actually get there. Our train ride was over five hours and I began to think that this mountain must be massive. The final train we got was a Thomas the Tank Engine themed train! Apparently there is a Thomas Land near Mount Fuji! Rather unexpected, but it was quite a fun final leg to our journey. It was dark when we arrived at Kawaguchi station , but nevertheless, it was extremely busy. We paid an exorbitant taxi fare and arrived at our hostel to find a note for us with our bed sheets at reception. The hostel was pretty much a camping ground; perfectly adequate facilities, but not much in the way of atmosphere, the common space being tiny and people in the dorms turning in early in anticipation of being up early to hike the following day.
Feeling a bit claustrophobic in the quiet of the dorm rooms, we decided to go out for dinner. We walked along a quiet road to a ramen restaurant, where a kind young Japanese man who was also eating there helped us decode the menu. It was quite an eerie feeling walking back in the inky blackness, knowing that somewhere out there was a huge mountain, but you couldn’t see where it was. You could just about make out grey cloud drifting over the forest high above. I felt like I was being watched by a vast, silent presence, and my heart started beating a little faster!
The next morning, we rose and eagerly went out on the balcony to see the view. Fuji-san was there, but shrouded in cloud, which occasionally shifted a little to give a tantalising glimpse. Laughing, we resigned ourselves to the possibility that we had travelled all that way to see a volcano that we could see more clearly from our previous location. However, as we breakfasted, the sky cleared, and it became obvious that it was going to be a perfect day. We went on a short climb from the station that led up to a viewing platform – we could have taken a cable car, but we would have had to wait an hour because the queue was so long. It only took 25 minutes, so it was a bit of a no brainer. Halfway up, we had our first unspoilt view of Fuji-san. The mountain really is magnificent. It is colossal; the crater alone is around 4km across. The base is so wide and the gradient so gradual and gentle at first, it seems to embrace the surrounding land in a fatherly fashion. The volcanic rock was dark and provided a striking contrast with the bright white snow that crested the top half and the clear, baby blue sky behind. There was a small white cloud which crept over the crater, clinging to it like a child. In the summer, we would have considered climbing it, but we didn’t have the time or the equipment to tackle Fuji at this time of year, and to be honest, it was much better seeing it from afar! It is Japan’s highest mountain and an active volcano, but is currently ‘sleeping’ – it last erupted in the early 18th century.
On our way up, we had met a couple of Japanese girls who were on a day trip. When we reached the official viewing platform, they explained some of the silly games that tourists could play. One involved trying to toss two small pottery plates through a rope hoop – if you managed, you would have good luck. We both failed; I more miserably than Luke. Another was a heart shaped twist of metal that framed Fuji from which hung a bell on a rope. You were supposed to ring the bell three times – the man rings it once, looking at the woman, then the woman rings it looking at the man, and then you ring it together looking at each other. We did it of course, but I don’t know if accomplishing this would outweigh the bad plate throwing luck. We will keep our fingers crossed. There were several cartoon-like models of a racoon and a rabbit, and they explained the story behind it. Apparently the raccoon killed the grandma, who had hung the raccoon over a fire for stealing food, so the rabbit rubbed salt in the raccoon’s wounds… or something like that! I think there is a slightly tamer version now for children. After an ice cream, which we carved into the shape of Mount Fuji (they really are missing a trick there), Luke and I continued our hike up the mountain, into the quiet of the woodland.
There was rather a lot of up, and we had stopped to take off layers when we spotted someone coming towards us up the path. I squinted a little, and then gasped in surprise – it was Harriet, the English girl we had met on our final leg of the trans-Siberian railway! Talk about it being a small world! It was fun catching up with each other’s adventures and comparing our experiences in China and Japan, but after an hour or so, Luke and I realised that we would miss our trains to Tokyo if we didn’t turn around soon, so we stopped for a quick picnic before heading back down. We made surprisingly good time and were able to collect our things and amble to the platform at a leisurely pace.