Among Japan’s many physical features, none comes even close to matching the manner in which its loftiest peak has carved out the fondest niche in the national psyche. The Mount Fuji name and image are evident practically everywhere in Japan today — as they have been one way or another over the centuries.
Reflecting the great affection in which it is held, Japan’s most beautiful mountain is also its most climbed. However, the beauty in the beholder’s eye definitely improves with distance. Up close, the 3,776-meter mountain presents a different aspect. Anyone who has ever clambered up it during the official two-month climbing season from July 1 — along with reportedly more than 200,000 trekkers a year — knows that ascending the thing is like a never-ending slog up an uninspiring, though wildly popular, slag heap.
The most picturesque way of appreciating the mountain’s physical form is to do so from Fuji’s Five Lakes — known in Japanese as Fuji Go-ko.
Mount Fuji is classified as an active volcano, though it has been dormant since its last eruptive outburst in 1707-08, when the spewed-out ash reaching Edo (present-day Tokyo) was so thick as to prevent daytime reading. Before then, it was anything but dormant, and lava flows from the volcano dammed up rivers, giving rise to the five lakes at its northern base. As three of these lakes are still linked by systems of underground channels, their water surfaces are at the same altitude.
Apart from those slow-footing it up Mount Fuji itself, this is not an area where too many people do much walking around. The lakes attract windsurfers as well as tourists in swan boats who pay a rapacious ¥2,000 for the 20-minute privilege. Anglers in rapid speedboats tear across the lakes with unseemly haste to reach their favorite fishing spots. Gaggles of dour bikers cruise around on Harleys, their faces looking as if they haven’t been corrupted by a smile in a decade. You see phalanxes of a few dozen helmeted cyclists, all sporting wildly differently colored lycra, coursing along the roads at decidedly non-doping speeds.
The lakes around which those activities are centered present their different characters. Lake Kawaguchi is the most developed of the handful and functions as the center of tourist action from the town of Kawaguchiko on its shore. Westernmost Lake Motosu is agreeably quiet, remote and basks in its fame as supplying the image that graces the ¥1,000 bill. On the banks of Lake Sai is Aokigahara, the forest nationally infamous as a favored haunt for suicides. Lake Shoji is the smallest of the lakes and is connected to lakes Motosuko and Sai by underground waterways. Largest of the lakes and somehow the least atmospheric is Lake Yamanaka, whose most remarkable feature — a giant boat shaped like a swan wearing a crown — upholds the time-honored Japanese tradition of ferrying tourists around on lakes in vessels of impeccably awful taste.
One of Lake Kawaguchi’s most popular attractions is the ropeway up Mount Kachi Kachi, whose name derives from a famous folk tale of revenge involving a hare and a tanuki (raccoon dog). As you ascend, the English commentary is delivered with striking exuberance, though it’s so cringingly bad that even Japanese passengers snigger embarrassedly.
Not to worry, because the view from the top of the mountain is grand. You can see impressive banks of cloud behind which you assume Mount Fuji is lurking, you look down at Lake Kawaguchi rolled out like a blue doormat, you see Fuji-Q Highland amusement park, whose roller coaster appears trivial from this height, but which even seasoned aficionados of such things confess scares the living daylights out of them.
As befits such a popular destination, there are more tourist museums than you could shake a climber’s staff at. Among the assortment, there’s a doll museum, gem museum, music-box museum, teddy museum, several dodgy art museums and a radar dome museum. The most engaging is the folk village of Saiko Iyashi no Sato Nenba, which also calls itself “Healing Village.” This open-air facility stands close to Lake Sai on the site of a farming village that was destroyed by a landslide in 1966. Today, the village consists of more than 20 thatched houses that have been converted into mainly shops and galleries specializing in traditional wares. And it certainly provides a fair insight into village life in the prewar years, when the everyday world was one dominantly and agreeably shaped in terms of paper, wood, stone and straw.
On the far side of the lake from the folk village is another set of physical features — ones that resulted from Mount Fuji’s vulcanological handiwork. During eruptions, the surface of the lava would harden in some places while the molten inner depths continued to flow away elsewhere. In this way, lava caves were created.
Among the caves open to the public are Narusawa Ice Cave, notable for its prodigious amount of the frozen stuff; Fugaku Wind Cave, notable as a cold-storage place for silkworms; and 360-meter-long Saiko Bat Cave, notable for its complete dearth of visible flying mammals. However, the cave’s exhibition area gamely makes up for the lack of fly-by-night creatures with its extensive displays of all manner of batty images cropping up apparently everywhere in human culture — and “culture” here even stretches as far as to include the “Batman” television series. Somehow, it all comes across as rather a shock — those costumes they could actually get away with on 1960s TV.
If scrambling around lava caves is the most hands-on fun in the Five Lakes area, the most serene spot is found in the shape of Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. This ancient Shinto jinja is the traditional starting point for pilgrims ascending the peak and, befitting the great spiritual endeavor, the grand construction is mystically impressive with its huge overarching torii and stately avenue flanked by mossy stone lanterns and majestic cryptomerias leading up toward one of today’s several summit routes.
These days, few who make it to the top of Mount Fuji are actual pilgrims. But it is still somehow rather stirring at night in season to watch the glittering procession of distant lights as hikers make their ascent like a slowly moving constellation over the massive, looming dark hulk of the volcano.
Getting there: From JR Shinjuku Station in Tokyo, Otsuki can be reached in about an hour by JR Kaiji limited-express train. From there, it is about 45 min. to Kawaguchiko Station on a Fujikyuko Line train.