Travelling through Japan taught us much about patience and respect.
From the smart neat queues that organised themselves at regular intervals along train platforms, to their great patience as we grappled to articulate ourselves (sometimes resorting to complicated and creative hand gestures), we took guidance from locals and their behaviour in every day life in Japan.
We found that english is not commonly spoken, or more likely not confidently spoken, meaning asking for directions can be difficult. Even if you figure out where a place might be, most of the street names are incomprehensible symbols to us. So finding a restaurant with photos of food became our guiding light at times. What we lack in Japanese language skills however, was compensated by the helpful, friendly and patient people who were always offering to assist in any way they could, especially on our journey from Tokyo to Mt Fuji. That’s what we loved about Japan.
On announcing we would be going from Tokyo to Mt Fuji, the key word apparently would be patience. You see, a cloudless Mount Fuji can be elusive, and we weren’t to get our hopes up. There were, however, methods to improve our chances of seeing her.
Firstly, January is one of the best times to make a journey from Tokyo to Mt Fuji, especially to catch a glimpse of Mount Fuji, which also coincides with low (cold) season. We didn’t, however, bank on practically having the entire place to ourselves.
Secondly, if you’re making the effort to visit, spend a couple of nights there at least, ideally in a Ryokan to get the traditional Japanese experience.
Thirdly, be prepared to stand on a freezing cold rooftop for an hour and a half from 05:30 in the morning to get a 3 minute glimpse of Mount Fuji. I did this on our first full day there, and was so glad as the top of Mount Fuji was revealed around whips of cloud as the sun rose.
Mount Fuji nestles itself in the ‘Fuji Five Lakes’ region, so if you’re making the journey from Tokyo to Mt Fuji and staying overnight, you’ll need to pick a lake to catch your glimpse of the mountain. Our decision was based on our usual criteria: find the least developed and quiet area. And so it was clear, we would be staying on Lake Shoji.
Sitting in our Ryokan, a fresh steaming pot of green tea brewing on the table after our early start, we admired our vista. In front of us, the mostly frozen Lake Shoji glistened in the early morning light, as Mount Fuji remained completely covered by clouds. Perhaps today wasn’t to be our day.
After spending most of the morning under cloud cover, around lunchtime to the West, there was a break in the cloud and it was heading our way! The result was two hours of almost perfectly clear conditions. There she was in all her beautiful glory.
Sitting on the freezing cold sand and stones in front of the frozen lake, we admired the view as small wisps of cloud moved around the mountain. It was at this point that we noticed the peace and quiet bring interrupted by what I can only describe as some sort of sonic whoosh across the lake! It took us a few seconds to realise it, but these noises were coming from the lake as it thawed in the warmth of the afternoon sun.
A few minutes later and the sonic whoosh returned, this time forming huge cracks in the ice! Our attention was now focused on where the next crack would appear rather than Mt Fuji. Yes we are easily entertained, but we couldn’t help but be fascinated and excited by it! And so we sat for hours and enjoyed the magnificent show of nature.
From Tokyo to Mt Fuji, a different taste of Japan
That evening brought another experience we’ll never forget, but for a different reason. Sitting in our Ryokan on the shore of Lake Shoji, we had our first truly authentic Japanese banquet. A table brimming with ‘unique’ locally sourced ingredients…the kind you never imagine eating or even consider to be edible!
To set the scene, we like to think we are pretty open-minded eaters, and are generally willing (and excited) to try almost anything, especially on our travels. In fact it’s one of the aspects of travelling that we love most and is usually a big factor in our decision-making on where to visit next. We especially love sushi and couldn’t wait to eat as much as possible on this trip. However from Tokyo to Mt Fuji and its lakes, we had no idea it would be such a different experience.
Starting with the positive, we couldn’t believe the attention to detail and incredible number of plates we were presented with for just the two of us! Another example of the patience and care inherent in the Japanese people that we’d already fallen in love with. Every single dish was beautifully presented in its own unique plate or bowl. In fact this table of dishes made it into our ‘The 20 Best Japanese Food Experiences’ article.
Without hesitation, we tucked into the delicious tempura and sushi that was beautifully presented in front of us. For the tempura, lots of colourful and varied vegetables and fish. Everything from courgettes, mushrooms and jalapeño pepper to fresh tiger prawns, each lightly battered and accompanied with a sweet dipping sauce.
Alongside the tempura were 3 deep pink slices of fresh tuna sashimi, sitting in their own delicate bowl accompanied by a generous helping of soy sauce, wasabi and fresh ginger. It was absolutely mouthwatering and by far the freshest and tastiest we’d had so far in Japan!
These two dishes were the highlights. Where we became a little unstuck was in the presentation of some of the other dishes on our table. There was one dish in particular that caught our eye (for all the wrong reasons). A large curled-shaped shell with a small piece of meat sticking out the top of it skewered by a toothpick. What the heck is that, I thought to myself as I gingerly picked up the shell and took a closer look. Without any instructions as to how to eat it, Laura grabbed the two ends of the toothpick and delicately began to pull the piece of meat out of the shell.
Oh. My. Goodness.
The more polite version of our reaction to its scarily long length and unappealing colour! I’ll never forget the look on Laura’s face. Ever the optimist, it was a hilarious mix of shock, confusion, anticipation and a little fear…
Unsurprisingly, “I think you should try it first” were her next words.
Well I wasn’t one to turn down a challenge. So after studying the creature for a little while, which I can only describe as some sort of unusual dark brown sea shell animal, I decided to try it. Eyes now closed, I took a small bite from the end and was instantly overcome the saltiest flavoured thing I had ever encountered in my life. It’s not often I say this about food from around the world, but it was disgusting. After an awfully loooong chew later, it was over.
(Later, one of our readers explained to us that our little brown urchin shell friend was in fact a species of sea snail known as a horned turban, or a ‘Sazae’ in Japanese. Apparently they are best in Winter and Spring (mm this was it at its best?), and apparently I wasn’t meant to eat the very bit I chose to eat as that is actually the snail’s intestine. Trust me to pick the worst part of the snail to try! Well at least that explains why I didn’t appreciate the ‘authentic’ taste!)
I was feeling a little less open-minded by now, and so was Laura.
“I’ll try ANYTHING else but that” she said.
I didn’t blame her!
It was at this point our waitress brought over the last dish for our table. A lovely big bowl of hot steaming fluffy rice. We’ve never felt so relieved and happy to see plain old rice!
From Tokyo to Mt Fuji, we’d now officially tried at least 4 or 5 new species including eel tail, squid arm, octopus and turbo cornutus. Wow! We were most definitely on a culinary adventure as well as a cultural one. We couldn’t wait for the rest, despite not particularly enjoying Mr ‘Sazae’!
Full and satisfied by what had been an extremely memorable day, we decided to retire and set our alarms for (hopefully) another exciting Mt Fuji sunrise. After all, she was worth waking up early for.
How To Get From Tokyo To Mt Fuji
We caught a morning train from Shinjuku station. To get to Kawagichiko station (the main station for the five lakes area), take the Azusa, Super Azusa or Kaiji trains on the Chuo line, and change in Otsuki for the Fuji Kyuko line to Kawagichiko station. From there, we caught a local bus to the Fuji Five Lakes area and our chosen quiet spot, Lake Shoji. The buses are less frequent in the low season (winter) so be sure to plan your timings ahead if you’re visiting at this time! Enjoy! (For up-to-date information, we recommend checking this website.)