It wasn’t a matter of if but how. Long before itineraries were made or hostels booked, we knew that our trip to Japan wouldn’t be complete without a visit to it’s iconic centerpiece: Mt. Fuji. We had read of train rides that ran by the mountain, offering spectacular views, and of a base camp near its foot where climbers journeying to the peak began their trek, but neither of these had the experience of Mt. Fuji that we were looking for. We craved more than a glimpse from a train car and certainly had no intention of doing any climbing in the dead of winter. Instead, we wanted a place to quietly contemplate it from afar and we found this in Hakone, a small town perched on the shores of Lake Ashi.
Upon arriving in Hakone, we couldn’t help but notice the unmistakeable lake-town vibe it had. The small buildings scattered across the landscape, clear blue skies, cool, crisp air blowing in off the lake, and, perhaps best of all after having just been in Tokyo, a slow and quiet lifestyle. Anxious to take part in the latter, we found a bench near the lake to enjoy a picnic and take in the scenery, which, apart from the beautiful view of Lake Ashi, gave us our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji. From that angle though, it was just a sliver of white peeking out from the surrounding hills.
Eager for a full view, we began working our way around the lake. Along our walk, we went through a centuries-old cedar forest, which, despite being alongside one of the busier roads in the town, was incredibly peaceful. As we passed through the forest, massive trunk after massive trunk sat perfectly aligned along the curves of the road. Tall and straight, they looked almost like ancient Roman columns, only rather than holding up giant marble roofs, these appeared to hold up the sky.
Before coming on the trip we had read about the “shyness” of Mt. Fuji and how it’s often obscured by clouds, but, as we emerged from the forest, the reality of our first full view of the mountain couldn’t have been further from this. The peak, nearly perfectly symmetrical, was as clear and detailed to us being miles away as the hills just a few hundred yards away. It was so clear in fact that we could see the veins of black that coursed through the snow capping the peak. The whiteness of it clashing beautifully with the expanse of blue sky.
Even though the scenery wasn’t going anywhere, we decided that we would have to sit for a while to take it all in and fully appreciate the beauty of it. So, we chose a spot along the lake, which was perfect because, apart from Mt. Fuji in the distance and the lake itself, there were plenty of other things to look at. Small, humble hills dotted the shores of the lake, worn rowboats bobbed on the water, and a lone orange torii gate sat partially submerged in the lake. It was like looking out at a painting. An entire story preserved in one scene.
After nearly an hour of looking out at the view, the first deterrence from the stillness of the scene before us came when a large ship sailed across the water towards a small port out of our view. This was our signal to move on as riding on the ship to the other side of the lake was one of the activities we had been looking forward to doing in the town.
So, we made our way to the port and boarded the ship, which, for some reason, resembled a pirate ship right down to the elaborately dressed captain walking around the docks taking pictures with people. The ride on the boat, while extremely cold and windy, was enjoyable and gave us a different perspective of the lake and Mt. Fuji. After about a 30-minute ride, we got off on the other side of the lake where we discovered that the cable car we had planned to take to the top of one of the hills was partially closed due to volcanic activity. Curious as to how far we were allowed to go and what scenery awaited us there, we took the cable car as far up as they would allow us, which was worth it because along the way we got a uniquely spectacular view of Mt. Fuji.
With little to do around the cable car station itself and running out of daylight, we decided to start making our way back to the train station, taking the cable car back down the hill and boarding the ship to take us back across the lake. Somehow, with just an hour or so separating us from our last ride, the trip was exponentially colder and windier, making it more a trip of endurance than enjoyment.
Back on solid ground, we began retracing our steps back to the station. Once back, the setting sun announced it was time to return to Tokyo, but our watches, which only read 6:00, told us otherwise. Determined not to be fooled into an early departure by the premature dusk, we began our search for an onsen, a natural hot spring popular in the hotels and resorts around Hakone.
Because of their popularity, we only had to venture across the river that ran alongside the station to find one. Never having gone to an onsen before, we were clueless as to what to expect, though we anticipated something similar to an outdoor hot tub; however, the experience was so much more than that, being an almost ritualistic experience where there were clear rules and guidelines about what to do and how to act.
The first of these guidelines was that bathing suits weren’t allowed so, naturally, the second one was that we had to go our separate ways. Despite being in different areas for the entirety of our time there, we later found that our onsen experience was pretty similar. As we entered the changing rooms, our first order of business was to remove our clothes. Piece by piece, we removed each article as reluctantly as in a game of strip poker. As we did this, we noticed that we seemed to be the only ones with inhibitions about public nudity as naked children ran around the room followed by equally naked octogenarians.
Being clear outliers in our uneasiness, we quickly dropped it and headed to the indoor pool, the next step in the process that culminated in the outdoor hot springs. Before getting into the steaming water, we had to first stop at a bathing station where we showered our bodies and hair while sitting on a short stool. After our bath, and a quick dip in the indoor pool, we were finally able to head outside into the freezing cold and slide into the onsen’s soothing water. The experience was purely natural, down to the stone interior of the pools, the wooden huts standing over them, and the bamboo forest surrounding it. We laid our heads back, closed our eyes and enjoyed every minute of it.
Unfortunately though, the minutes faded away as quickly as the steam into the frigid nighttime air and, after an hour and half of pure relaxation, we decided it was time to go. As we entered the changing room, we put on our clothes as reluctantly as we had taken them off, headed back to the train station, and boarded our train for Tokyo.