Backpacking Tips, Experiences, Japan, Japan

Tokyo side trips: Mt. Fuji, Nikko and an age-old Japanese temple festival

Japan’s four distinct seasons unfold different vistas of the country for travellers. While spring and autumn will stun you with breathtaking, colourful landscapes, summer will give you a chance to enjoy culture trips and join various seasonal activities hosted during vacation time. Winter gives you the opportunity to participate in traditional festivals, relax in an onsen (hot spring), and gorge on seasonal Japanese dishes.

While my spring visit to Japan did reward me with picturesque landscapes covered with stunning hues of pink as well as the perfect view of Mt. Fuji, I was overjoyed to be a part of a traditional spring festival that I got to know about from an expat settled in Tokyo.

Based on a pre-planned itinerary of Japan (on a tight schedule), I was meant to visit Lake Kawaguchiko (most popular among Fuji Five Lakes) on Day 8 of my tour of Honshu island to view the spectacular Mt Fuji. However, two observations provided some fresh perspective.

Firstly, after checking the forecast for Fuji Five Lakes region one day prior to the visit, my travel companions and I realized that the weather was not favourable for Mt Fuji viewing the following day. There was a very likely possibility that the mountain would be completely shrouded in mist, and, therefore, invisible. Many visitors who visited on that day ended up disappointed. Secondly, we came to know about a popular temple festival in Kawasaki that was scheduled for the next day.

Kanamara Matsuri, or festival of the Steel Phallus, is a fertility festival that takes place in spring every year at the Kanayama-jinja shrine in Kawasaki Daishi temple. Intrigued by this piece of information, we decided to check out the festival and then proceed to Nikko which was originally planned for a later date. We postponed Mt Fuji viewing to the following day and hoped the weather would support us.

Kawasaki Daishi temple
Kawasaki Daishi

In the morning of Day 8, we took the JR Odoriko (Limited Express) to Kawasaki station. From there, we walked to Keikyu-Kawasaki Station and took the local to Kawasaki Daishi. We used JR pass for the first leg of the journey and ICOCA card for the Keikyu line as it was not part of JR. By recharging the card at different stations where there was less rush, we could move through the automated ticket gates effortlessly during our entire trip. I would highly recommend carrying at least one of the contactless smart cards like ICOCA, SUICA, or PASMO while touring Honshu. They are actually inter-changeable.

On reaching the venue of the Kanamara Matsuri festival, we were stunned by the huge gathering of foreign tourists enjoying the fanfare with the locals. I was glad to have made it to such a unique celebration. The phallus, as the central theme of the event, was reflected in illustrations, candy, carved vegetables, decorations, and a mikoshi parade – a portable shrine carried on the shoulders of locals associated with the ritual.

After a quick tour of the shrine, the fair and the parade, we took a local back to Kawasaki station (paid with ICOCA). From there, we took a train on the Ueno-Tokyo Line to Tokyo. At Tokyo station, we boarded the Yamagata Shinkansen for Utsunomiya. From Utsunomiya, we took the local JR train to Nikko. The entire journey, completely free with JR pass, took around two and quarter hours.

On exiting Nikko station, words failed us as we took in the sight that unfolded that sunny afternoon. The distant snow-covered mountains of Nikko National Park cast a spell on us. We boarded the World Heritage Sightseeing bus headed towards the UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples of Nikko. After paying the bus ticket with ICOCA card, we got down near Shinkyo, the landmark wooden arched bridge over the gushing Daiya river. We didn’t walk on the bridge though. Instead, we took a few pictures from the adjacent bridge meant for regular traffic.

Needless to say, Nikko’s World Heritage site had a lot to offer. However, we already had had our fair share of temple visits in Japan and wanted to head to Kegon waterfalls and Lake Chuzenji located inside the national park. We walked across the road towards the Shrine complex entrance and concentrated only on the largest and most popular temples. The first one was the Rinnoji temple. We bought a combination ticket for 900 yen to visit the main hall at Rinnoji and Taiyuin byo (mausoleum), but decided to visit Rinnoji on the return leg. We walked further towards the Toshogu shrine complex and bought tickets (1300 yen/person) from the ticket office at the entrance.

Toshogu turned out to be a relatively large temple. Some portions of the complex were undergoing renovation. Similar to most shinto shrines in Japan, Toshogu consisted of a stone torii archway. After entering the complex through the archway, we climbed a flight of stairs to reach the shrine. On its right was an impressive five-storey pagoda with Chinese zodiac signs carved around its first level. Elaborate carvings and sculptures in rich colours decked the temple gates and the structures within. The gilded shrine was shining bright in the afternoon sun.

After visiting Toshogu, we continued towards Nikkosan Rinnoji Taiyuin, passing the Futarasan shrine on the way (we gave it a miss due to lack of time). Rinnoji Taiyuin mausoleum is the final resting place of Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun. The main shrine, the hallway, and the worship hall, are designated as national treasures. There was a sense of calmness around the place.

Yashamon gate (Taiyuinbyo)

We returned to Rinnoji temple and entered the complex. The main structure of this Buddhist temple was the Sanbutsudo hall that enshrined gilded wooden statues of three different manifestations of Buddha. We considered ourselves lucky when we got to know that the hall had just emerged from scaffolding after staying obscured for almost a decade due to renovation work.. There was a treasure house and a small Japanese garden with a pond behind it that could be accessed with a separate ticket priced at 300 yen. We gave it a miss.

A brisk walk from Rinnoji brought us back to where we started – the bus stop near Shinkyo bridge. We caught a bus for Chuzenji onsen. The winding mountain path cutting through snow covered rocks was absolutely breathtaking!

When the bus came to a halt at the onsen stop, we couldn’t hold our excitement looking at the snow-covered grounds and a placid Chuzenji lake in the middle. A slippery walk took us to the free observation platform from where we stared at the half-frozen Kegon falls in amazement. After spending some time in the snowy wooded area, we headed back to the bus stop as dusk set in.

Kegon falls-Nikko

The ride back to Nikko station was a quiet one as we were busy watching the shadows of the evening. We passed the well lit Shinkyo bridge, glowing bewitchingly in the darkness.

The hypnotic beauty of Nikko has left an unforgettable mark that seems to keep drawing me to the memories of the trip to the national park to this day. This is definitely a must-see place even if you have a short time in Honshu. Easy access from Tokyo by train.

Day 9 greeted us with clear skies and bearable temperatures. We headed cheerfully for Lake Kawaguchiko to catch a view of the iconic Mt Fuji, an active volcano considered to be the highest mountain in Japan. First, we reached Shinjuku station by metro. From there we took the train on JR Chuo line to Otsuki station. We then transferred to Fujikyuko Line and boarded the local (paid 1170 yen in cash for one-way ticket since neither JR pass nor IC card were accepted) to Kawaguchiko. The train had colourful motifs of Mt Fuji painted on the carriages that looked quite appealing.

On reaching our destination, we got caught in a foot-traffic jam. After a lot of jostling, we exited the station and headed for bus station no. 4 just outside the train station. From there, we took a bus to Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway near Lake Kawaguchiko. On approaching the lake, we were finally rewarded with a clear view of Mt Fuji. Before entering the cable car complex, we spent some time savouring the sublime moment. Everything was just picture-perfect – the beautiful Kawaguchiko lake against the backdrop of Mt Fuji, its snow-clad peak appearing to touch the sky!

Inside the Kawaguchiko ~ Mt. Fuji panorama ropeway, also known as Tenjo-Yama Park Mt. Kachi Kachi Ropeway, we joined a long queue for purchasing cable car tickets. We decided to opt for a set coupon for 1640 yen/person that included round trip cable car tickets and Fuji Express Line (Kawaguchiko-Otsuki) one-way ticket (for our return journey).

After spending almost half an hour in a second queue for getting into the cable car, we were finally on our way to the top of Mt Tenjo! The view was most certainly worth the wait.

The observation deck was covered in heavy snow and very slippery. This, coupled with a large crowd, made it difficult to spend much time there. Probably, summer and autumn would be more apt for the ride up to the observation deck. However, we were rewarded with a terrific view of Mt Fuji which suddenly seemed almost within reach!

We hopped into a cable car going down and soon found ourselves in a cozy little cookie shop located at the entrance of the ropeway station. The handmade cookies, shaped like Mt Fuji with white frosted tops, looked quite inviting. Each one was priced at 140 yen (rather steep). I picked up three different flavours – matcha, strawberry, and chocolate. In my opinion, the strawberry one tasted better than the other two.

There were plenty of cyclists around Lake Kawaguchiko, trying to cover as much of the Fuji Five Lakes area as they could.

We explored the restaurants and shops in the area and then sat in one of the benches by the lakeside. Munching into our fresh scones purchased from one of the bakeries nearby, we watched the passing tour boats on the lake, brimming with eager tourists.

As the chill was setting in, we began our long journey back to Tokyo. I thought it necessary to add that since we visited Kawaguchiko during early spring, we missed out on various attractions as roads were still closed due to heavy snow in the area.

If you plan to visit during late spring, summer or autumn, you can actually take the sightseeing retro buses (red, blue, and green line buses) to explore the region extensively. I would recommend purchasing a bus pass (1500 yen) that gives you unlimited rides on the sightseeing bus lines. You can plan your itinerary for the day using the bus timetables mentioned here. Needless to say, if you start early from Tokyo, you will be able to cover more places.

While the Red line bus will take you to Kachi Kachi ropeway, scenic view point of Sakasa-Fuji (for viewing the reflection of Mt Fuji in the lake), Oishi Park, Kawaguchiko Natural Living Center and Music Forest Museum (art museum with vintage organs & live performances), the Green line bus stops at interesting spots like the lovely Yagizaki Park, Saiko lake, Fugaku Fuketsu (Wind Cave), and Saiko ‘Iyashi no Sato Nenba’  (a preserved site from a former farming village that was destroyed by a typhoon in 1966). Another fascinating place to visit is the Ice Cave, or, Narusawa Hyoketsu – one of the region’s most famous lava caves that is covered in ice all year round. It can be reached by the Blue line bus.

Walking back to our hostel, we stopped by a small Korean restaurant for dinner. To me, the difficult part about ordering a meal in Japan was the guesswork. We would simply point at a photo of a meal that looked good, as there was no way of knowing the name of the dish which would be in Japanese without any English translation, and hope that it would match our expectations. The entire process of ordering would take place in silence with heads vigorously nodding or shaking. Fortunately, our fears about the food proved unfounded most of the time. It was only in our resort hotel in Noboribetsu (Hokkaido) that we got a chance to find an English-speaking waitress who explained every item on the menu so that we could make an informed choice.

One thing is certain though – be it spring, summer or autumn, Mt Fuji remains unsurpassed in magnificence. Whether or not you manage to cover the sightseeing spots in the region depending on the season, you must make it to one of the five lakes – Yamanaka, Kawaguchi, Saiko, Shōji or Motosu – to capture the majestic Fuji.

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