(Fourth in a series about do-it-yourself eco-tourism!)
Yamanashi Prefecture and the Fuji Five Lakes Area are prime hiking ground. Mount Fuji is there for the taking (or viewing from other hikes if it's not open), and the nearby hills and mountains are covered with trails for any skill level. (Some hikes are even guided!)
Perfect weather - blue skies with warm temperatures - was predicted for our second day, so we decided to head out for a hike. Our hostel provided us with a simple map for a hike that would take us the better part of a day, and to a number of great Fuji viewing sites. We were hopeful to get some great photos based on the weather forecast and clear views. (Hopeful is the key word.)
Hardy souls that we are we started from the bottom of the ropeway (cable car) and walked to the top. After getting slightly lost, a kindly older gentlemen set us on the right course - stick to the path to the right and then grab the trail as it heads almmost literally up past a small shrine with a bathroom - and we made our way up to the first viewing spot. No Fuji-san. Clouds had moved in and shrouded the mountain.
We carried on through a relatively young forest showing some of the first signs of spring - little sprouts pushing up through the leaves, and clear signs of ground ruffling. We were both hopeful and fearful that it was either wild boar (the area was temporarily protected) foraging or monkeys looking for snacks. We began second-guessing the salmon onigiri's we'd brought for a snack.
The fairly well-marked trail then took us along a steep hillside and through a beautiful Japanese cedar grove where the floor was still drifted with snow. Clouds periodically showcased the valley below while we sat down for a moment to have our snack. Little spits of snow reminded us we were in the mountains, and so we carried on ever higher and through ever-increasing amounts of snow until we reached the peak only to find Fuji still well-obscured by clouds. Sighing heavily, we began our descent.
The map promised a waterfall - Haha no Shira Falls - on our way, and as we continued down the mountain and the snow lessened we continued to zero in on it. We heard it as we walked through an old cedar grove, and the sound increased as we came to a makeshift stairway. Much of the stream up to this point had been damned and channeled, so we weren't quite sure what to expect. What we did find took our breath away.
Huge cedar trees and shining black angular rocks cut seemed to barely contain the spring meltwater pouring down through the gap. A magnificent cedar gripped the side of the waterfall impossibly positioned just next to the falls and hanging over a small shrine at the bottom. A few of last year's hydrangea blossoms clung to their stems along the side of the stream. It felt old and wonderful. This alone was well worth the trip.
As the sun lowered itself to the horizon our trail flattened and gradually became more civilized. We passed a huge old rambling building that must have been a mill of some kind in the past, but now sat relatively defunct. A massive highway overpass rumbled overhead obscuring the now perfect (of course!) view of Fuji-san. After pausing to take a photo or two our thoughts began turning toward a big bowl of houtou and a trip to the onsen. But as we looked to our right the sunlight filled a silent courtyard filled with some of the biggest trees I've ever seen. Houtou and the onsen would wait.
Sengen shrine is one of the oldest and most magnificent shrines I've seen in Japan yet. The buildings themselves are wonderful - sweeping roofs with enormous hanging eaves - but it is the group of seven cedars that nearly bring the viewer to tears of joy. Huge trunks tied with the blah blah signifying a sacred tree, the cedars rise up and up. One is protected by metal sheeting all up one side from what we presume is an earlier lightning strike. The rest all have lightning rods discreetly tucked in their branches and running the length of their trunks to protect against similar future incidents. We sat for a moment at the foot of these giants soaking in the peace and grace of their presence in the setting sun.
As we rode the Retro Bus (a small bus conveniently making regular rounds of Lake Kawaguchi to its frequent stops) back to the hostel we savored the now spectacular views of Mount Fuji, and the thought of a second bowl of houtou udon. That and a trip to the nearby onsen would warm us through and through, and make a perfect ending to a great little do-it-yourself eco-vacation!
A Few Final Thoughts
Taking an eco-vacation doesn't have to be expensive or difficult. You can make your own like we did. Mass transit - the bus from Shinjuku (remember, no bathroom on board so appropriately dehydrate yourself), bike touring to get a feel for the place and the people, a good hike to explore and take in the magnificent scenery, local food - so tasty you'll need that bike ride and hike, as well as staying somewhere where you can cook your own meals if you hanker for it. Now, get out there, have an adventure or to, and tell me all about it!