I decided to spend the first two days outside of Tokyo at the foot of Mount Fuji, in the Fuji Five Lakes region. Known for its amazing views of the mountain and local countryside, it is also home to Fuji Q Highland – Japan’s most thrilling amusement park.
Fuji Q Highland
“Get there early” the internet reviews instructed, “or there won’t be any fast passes left!”. Well of course this was the day I overslept. I got to the park at 10:30 am and all the fast passes were sold out. There was a fair warning upon buying the ticket that waiting times for a single ride were up to 3 hours long (!) and they weren’t exaggerating. I finished an entire book and two small meals in the lines that day. It says a lot about the quality of the rides that I still don’t view it as a waste of time.
Currently, there are four major roller coasters in the park. Ranked in order of increasing adrenaline levels, I added links to first person videos that weren’t taken by me (I was too busy screaming):
- Fujiyama (1996) was once the world’s tallest and fastest roller coaster and continues to rank highly in the world. It is so high that on windy days they have to close it.
- Dodonpa (2001) is the world record holder for fastest acceleration.
- Eejanaika (2006), a “4th dimension” roller coaster with seats rotating within the car, has the most inversions of any roller coaster.
- Takabisha (2011) is the steepest roller coaster in the world, dropping at an angle of 121 degrees.
By far the most thrilling moment of the day was on Takabisha – that excruciatingly slow, purely vertical rise followed by a 121 deg drop was insanely suspenseful and fun.
Standing in the lines, I had time to study the crowd. The place had a more rural feeling than Tokyo, with less hipstery cloths and more delicate make-up. The level of English dropped significantly, though, which made it difficult to find anyone to talk to. I managed some hand-gesturing conversations and practiced my pathetic but rapidly growing vocabulary.
Throughout the day, one thing that never got old was the view:
Taking my first photograph of Mt Fuji, I remember thinking: “This mountain deserves to be centered”. A rule I would later brake many times.
As the day drew to a close, I picked up my luggage and took the train to nearby Kawaguchiko lake. After three nights in a capsule hotel, it was time to try the other end of the spectrum: a traditional Japanese ryokan. Here is an example of what Japanese service feels like: At 19:00 pm I was picked up from the train station by the owner of the ryokan himself. He was waiting for me in a van, insisted on opening the door and that I sit in the safest spot: (back seat, behind the driver). In Japan, it is customary for the most important person to sit in the safest spot.
Kamiza (上座?) is the Japanese language term referring to the “top seat” within a room, meaning the place of honor; […] the kamiza is the seat or position that is most comfortable, usually furthest from the door — because this is warmest, and was safest from attack back in the feudal period.
When entering a room in Japan on a formal occasion, participants are expected to assume the correct seating position, and to leave the kamiza free for the most important person present, either a guest of honor or the person of highest rank. However, if one humbly sits somewhere indicative of lower status and is then encouraged by the host to move to the kamiza, it is acceptable to do so.
The best seats in a car in descending order of rank are: directly behind the driver, behind the front passenger, in the middle of the back seat, front passenger seat, driver. In air-plane or train passenger seating, the “top seat” is the window-side, followed by the aisle seat and then the middle seat.
After exchanging some pleasant small talk in broken English, the owner let me know that there are no restaurants near the ryokan, and offered to drive me to a 7-11, where he waited while I got myself some bentos for dinner.
Upon entering a ryokan (and any house in Japan), you’re to leave your shoes at the door and put on slippers for walking indoors [Image from Wikipedia].
When entering a bathroom, there’s another pair of slippers waiting for you – wearing the house slippers in the bathroom, or vice versa, is considered very bad manners.
(by the way, in my opinion, all this borderline obsessiveness to keep clean is null and void by the fact that there were no shower slippers in the communal showers, and it’s really hard to bring your own without looking like a barbarian for carrying “dirty” shoes around. I mean, this is a place where countless travelers have rubbed their feet on the wet floor after walking all day… This is where slippers are needed the most!)
Getting into my room, I was pleasantly surprised by the zen, minimalist interior design. The tatami floor felt amazing against my naked feet, the sheets smelled nice, there was a sense of quiet and peace.
In Japan, the size of a room is often measured by the number of tatami mats, and there are rules concerning their proper number and layout.
I spread my dinner and made some tea using only half the pots and devices on the table (if anyone knows a method for preparing tea that incorporates all of them in a logical fashion, I’d love to know). Soon I was asleep.
Fuji Five Lakes
Upon waking up I opened the window and realized I’ve been sleeping in the shadow of the mountain all night. This was how one of the most memorable days of the trip began:
Taking a quick shot of the other side (this was the view from the bathroom!):
Stepping just outside the ryokan:
I planned to spend the day riding a bicycle around Kawaguchiko lake. As it happened, my host had a few rusty bicycles in his shed and lent me one for the day (for free!). I grabbed a map and charted the following course:
The idea was to circle the lake, ascend a ropeway for a scenic view, and visit Churito Pagoda nearby if time permits. All in all about 30 km on bike, up and down hill. Here are some shots from the day:
It was around this point that I found myself singing Beatles songs out loud while pedaling. I specifically remember performing “It’s getting better” into the wind, probably with a stupid, happy grin on my face.
I try not to spam you with images of the mountain (trust me, I have quite a few), but it was almost always in my field of view and it’s hard to overstate just how large and majestic it is, or the effect that its presence has on the mind. Truly an iconic mountain.
It was here that I started to understand the respect and awe with which the Japanese speak of Fuji-san. Honorable Fuji is still an active volcano, having last erupted ~300 years ago. It is heavily featured in Japanese arts, most famously “The wave” in Hokusai’s series of 36 views of the mountain. It is considered a semi-deity in Shintoism (regarded to have it’s own soul) and is a pilgrimage site of sorts. I was told that it’s even featured in several school songs for schools that aren’t in viewing distance of it (and on a clear day, there aren’t many that qualify to this category).
[The mountain and me]
[Red Fuji (Aka-Fuji, 赤富士).]
The ropeway was sadly not operational due to strong winds so I headed straight to Churito Pagoda, where the following sign made me realized I had to climb ~400 stairs first.
I left the bicycle near a temple at the bottom – untied, unlocked, and in plain sight. It was still there when I got back. At the top, I saw this (I think it was worth the climb):
(My first ever HDR images, taken handheld).
This was an exhausting (and terrific) day, battling the terrain and the winds on an old, rusty bike. This is what I looked like before leaving for Kyoto: