How We Ended Up in a Ryokan at Lake Yamanaka with a View of Mount Fuji

We arrived in Tokyo without a plan. All we knew was that we had two nights booked at a hotel and would figure out the rest when we got there. That’s how I’ve been living around the rest of Asia, buying bus tickets the day I leave and finding a bed when I get there, and Matt’s been doing the same for the past year all over the world, so it was against our every instinct at this point to try and book things ahead.

Unfortunately that is the only way to travel in Japan, especially during cherry blossom season. We first experienced this frustration in Tokyo when our two nights were up and we had to find somewhere new to sleep, and everything was full unless we wanted to spend US$200 or more for one night (obviously we did not). Eventually we lucked out and found a room in a hostel for a few nights, but then what?

Kyoto was fully booked. Osaka was fully booked. And the overnight buses to get to either were fully booked. Any ideas we had for our next move went out the window so we had to get creative – what else is around Tokyo that has accommodation and can buy us a few days to figure out the rest? We’d heard good things about Kamakura, which was just an hour south of Tokyo on the way to the Kansai region, so we checked the area. Matt found a place in Yamanakako for two nights. He booked it before it disappeared.

We hightailed it to the bus station and got on the next bus to Yamanakako, which happened to be leaving in 10 minutes. Things were looking up.

It turned out that we actually weren’t going near Kamankura but to a lake closer to Mt. Fuji, Lake Yamanaka. This was a happy accident – Matt was dying to see Mt. Fuji and I was right there with him. Ideally we would’ve been able to climb it, but that season doesn’t start until July, so just being in its presence would have to be enough. It was.

This random detour was a highlight of my time in Japan. Yamanakako is a tiny lakeside town with one main road and an incredible clear view of Mt. Fuji. With the exception of the handful of French in our guest house we barely saw another foreigner. We stayed in a traditional Japanese ryokan, which meant our room was a big rectangle with bamboo mats on the floor. When we arrived the owner, who didn’t speak a word of English, poured us hot tea at the table in our room as a welcome. When it was time to sleep, we laid mattress pads on the floor; of course we put down more than necessary to make pretty much the entire floor into a huge bed. I felt like a kid making a fort. And we each got kimonos to wear down to the in-house onsen (basically a hot tub), which we visited each day we were there.

When we went out for dinner we walked into the only open nearby Japanese restaurant and were gawked at by all; we were the only foreigners in there. It was fantastic. They sat us right between two tables of Japanese men, clearly locals who were regulars at this place, and while we ate our selection of local specialties and drank our beers they asked us questions in broken English and hand motions, and one guy even showed us pictures of his family, including a son who is in the U.S. Army. The second night we went back and had nabe, a delicious meal of assorted seafood cooking in a hot pot on the table. We loved this place.

The day we went exploring was everything it should’ve been. We started at Fuji Sengen Shrine. At the base of the mountain, this is the beginning of the pilgrimage up Fujisan, a place to stop and pray to the mountain and for a good ascent. It’s a beautiful complex; a handful of red buildings with swooping roofs are surrounded by soaring pine trees. It’s quiet, peaceful, and encourages contemplation.

After the temple we went to a viewpoint over Lake Kawaguchi. Fujisan is a spectacle, a majestic feat of nature. From the flat surroundings it rises up, a solo peak dominating the landscape, perfect in its conical form. I couldn’t stop staring at it. This mountain means more to the Japanese than just a land mass; it’s a spiritual place, a place that permeates art and writing throughout Japanese history. Being there, seeing it, I can understand why. It is inspiring.

We walked down the hill, enjoying the euphoria of what we’d just seen, and to say a proper goodbye we grabbed a bottle of sake (we chose a local one that had the image of where we were on the label) and found a perch across the lake from Fujisan for sunset. We sipped, we stared, we took tons of pictures.

The next day we tried to leave. I say tried because the awful problem of everything being booked had not disappeared, and we had nowhere to go. We wasted hours trying to figure out a next move before giving up. It was too late in the day to go anywhere, so we had to stay one more night. Despite the fact that were in this tiny lake town before tourist season really hit – it looks like a blast in the summer when you can actually boat, swim, and hike the mountain, but was still too cold for any of that – it was also all booked up. We found another ryokan with one room available, attempted to hitchhike around to the other side of the lake before finally being picked up by the bus, and had another beer and Fujisan sunset while we came to terms with our plan.

Which was to go back to our instincts. Tomorrow we would go to Hiroshima. We had no tickets and no hotel room booked, we were just going to figure it out as we went. That’s how we’d survived for a year, why change things now?

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