Following what had been an interesting previous week, albeit travelling through a less notable area of the country, this last week took us to two of Japan’s finest (and arguably most famous), sights – historic and stunningly beautiful Nikko, followed by that most iconic of all places and images associated with Japan, Mount Fuji.

The blue road shows our route through Nikko and on via the edge of Tokyo to Mount Fuji.

Fortunately last week’s travels took care of the bulk of the long drives that we should have to do here in Japan (seems strange, I know, but despite the fact that distances aren’t great here, travel is slow away from the expressways, especially when you get up into the mountainous parts). Following the east coast most of the way south from Sendai we cut inland near Iwaki for the tortuously windy route up to Nikko. It’s a long haul up, but it’s Nikko’s higher elevation that is part of the appeal. Famed primarily for its great shrines, cedar rows and nearby Lake Chuzenji, Nikko has a revered place in Japanese history. Home of Toshogu, the famed Shinto shrine was established in 1617 as a lavish memorial for Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan throughout the Edo period. Nikko also attracts folks from the nearby Tokyo area who at this time of year are sweltering in the oppressive humidity associated with Japan’s rainy season. We know it well and had begun to feel it ourselves so it was a definite relief getting to Nikko’s cooler climes.

Nikko’s cedar- lined approach.
Yomeimon Gate, Nikko Toshogu Shrine.
The intricacy of design is incredible.
Part of Taiyuin Shrine, Nikko
Taiyuin Shrine, Nikko.
Part of Taiyuin Shrine, Nikko.

Ian McQueen ( author of Lonely Planet’s ‘Japan’ travel book ) aptly describes visiting Nikko as “sensory overload”. I’d been before, in 1983, but this was Lois’s first time so it was interesting to get her impressions – and she did not dispute his. Whether it’s the stunning beauty or grandeur of the various shrines, it’s spiritual relevance to the Japanese, or perhaps just the fusion of nature ( it’s very beautiful here ) and historic Shinto structures, Nikko really does take your breath away. Combine this with the fact that you get cool relief from the torpor-inducing humidity of early July in Japan and Nikko is an easy place to just “chill” ( if you’ll excuse the pun ! ).

It’s not far up the mountain to Lake Chuzenji and while famous enough to once host part of a G7 Ministerial Meeting, we actually found it a little disappointing. The day was hazy, which didn’t help, but it was just a bit run down and had clearly seen better days. Also a bit of a holiday spot for Tokyo-ites, Chuzenji’s best sight, in our opinion, was pretty Kegon Falls, a thundering cascade you will hear well before you see it.

Most definitely the highlight of our detour to Chuzenji, the impressive Kegon Falls.
Lacquerware is a specialty in Japan. It’s beautiful stuff and lasts forever- we still have, and regularly use, a set we bought in Japan almost 40 years ago. Here at a store in Chuzenji.
While we were underwhelmed by Lake Chuzenji, it was nice to see some local wildlife at least.

With only Mt Fuji ( and the nearby Hakone area) left on our planned Japan itinerary, we sought a way to get there from Nikko while skirting metropolitan Tokyo ( which more or less lies in between ). We’ve comfortably driven every other major Japanese city ( some just as congested ) but Tokyo’s size is on another scale – you can be stuck bumper to bumper for hours just in suburbia here ( and we were, as it turned out, on a rainy and overcast day ). We’ll need to go to Tokyo again ( or close, at least to nearby Yokohama anyway ) when we ship out, but for now we tried to avoid as much of it as we could. A grinding drive it was, but we survived the journey there and parked up for a few days in the Lake Yamanaka area, ready to explore “Fuji”.

It seemed almost claustrophobic at times driving around Tokyo, so we avoided as much of it as we could.

Everyone wants that clear, snow-capped view of Mt Fuji on a cloudless sunny day of course, but locals will tell you that is very rare. I once got most of that from a Shinkansen ( Bullet Train ) window, but even then there were still clouds. During this visit it would be days before Fuji fully emerged so we could see her completely and while we eventually got the full sun ( and very little cloud ) view, there was of course precious little snow, it now being the middle of summer here. We moved around a bit in the area, camping at different sites, exploring the “5 Lakes” area around the base of Fuji and found this a most enjoyable period of the Japan experience so far; we met some interesting folks, slowed the driving pace down ( almost to nothing ) and made good progress each day in preparing the van for shipping ( I’ll add some “shipping” context in the next blog ) – a fairly big task !

Upon arrival at Lake Yamanaka, this was our “view” of Fuji….we were told it was ‘somewhere’ behind the red circle !
A couple of days later it had improved somewhat, and you could make out most of the mountain. The peak, however, remained shrouded in cloud.
Generally the Michi No Eki’s ( Roadside Stations ) provide a safe, secure, flat, and usually quiet night to park up. We generally seek to avoid the big trucks but sometimes they just find us ( especially when we park in the long bays ). Little sleep while these guys idled their engines most of the night. This place was close to Fuji but we still could not see the mountain due to visibility ( or lack of ).
We did a lot of packing, repacking, sorting and cleaning while waiting in the Fuji area. For security and sorting different items ( what stayed and what came with us ) we needed lots of cardboard boxes. Very helpfully supplied by a nearby Family Mart. But we still needed at least one big box……….more on that later.
One day we found a great, quiet, level place to park up, when it was NOT raining, where we did a big shipping prep. We seemed to be quite an object of curiosity to the locals.
We needed to find one large, simple duffle type bag to carry extra stuff and struggled to find one in the mall. We then chanced upon this little shop which provided exactly what we needed – and the staff took great interest in our Japan travels !
An early morning, sunrise view, from Roadside Station Narusawa.
Pretty sunset view of Mount Fuji.
One of our best views, from Hirano Beach on Lake Yamanaka.
Another, from close by.

Once we finally got some nice views from the base ( the best place to view it ) we decided, on a particularly fine day, to drive up as far as we could – to the “5th Station”, or “Gogome” as it’s known in Japanese. We knew it would be cooler at least and even if we were not set up to climb to the top there were shorter hikes from the 5th Station and the views down would be spectacular……or so we assumed. A good thing our expectations were managed, as it turned out – no sooner had we begun to ascend the Fuji Skyline Road than thick clouds wafted in and blocked any visibility. From the highest (5th) station we could see absolutely nothing at all ( making any hikes rather pointless ). Well, at least it was cooler up there !

Fuji’s reputation for bashfulness is well-deserved it would seem and she was most temperamental during our visit.

A multitude of hiking options in the area. A very reasonable looking day at this (low) level.
This map would have been most useful – if we could have seen anything at all ! Surprisingly quite a few still set out to hike when we were there.
View from the 5th Station parking area – practically ZERO visibility. A somewhat disappointing end to our Fuji visit.

Finally, here is a short video clip of the week that was- enjoy.

From the Fuji area, as we await onwards shipping confirmation, we’ll head east, then south to explore nearby Hakone and the Izu Peninsula.

Till next week….

Appendix: Another “Only In Japan” experience

So I spoke above about preparing the van for shipping – among other things that involves boxing a lot of the contents and in the process of doing so different sized boxes are needed. In one of the images above the van is parked outside a “Family Mart” convenience store since the staff there willingly gave away as many of their small packing boxes that I needed. Small boxes, though, are in plentiful supply – what I sorely needed was at least one much larger box and they had none. I was kindly directed to a larger supermarket nearby. After wandering around it I noticed a large display of regular tissue boxes. It was obvious from the packing boxes underneath the stacked tissue boxes that they had all come in a very large box – precisely the size I needed.

I approached a staff member to ask if there were any such empty packing boxes in the back. She understood and ran out back to check. Returning a few minutes later, head bowed, she apologized profusely advising there were in fact none. I thanked her for looking and went elsewhere in the store. Not two minutes later she had chased me down, and beckoned me back to the “tissue” department. There, right in front of me now, was a large empty tissue packing box. At first I was puzzled – had she not just looked and said there were none ? Indeed, she had said that. But, then I noticed that the tissue box display had grown very considerably in size – it was about 4 tissue boxes higher than when I had arrived, and, frankly, almost toppling over ! Yes, you guessed it ( and it quickly dawned on me ) – she had gone out back, gathered a couple of colleagues, pulled a full packing box off the rack, brought it out and emptied it on to the rather significant tower of tissue boxes that were already there – all, so I could have an empty packing box ! Now, I was polite, and definitely as charming as I could be, but I’d never graced that store before, nor would I likely again. I was, most definitely, just a visitor. It didn’t matter – this is just the kind of thing I/we have experienced so many times here that it just speaks to the culture of helpfulness in this amazing country.
I’ve said it before, but I need to say it again – only in Japan !!!

This large empty packing box was “created” just for me !