Di, Steff and I departed Kyoto by Bullet Train (Shinkansen) bound for Mishima. We used our JR Rail Pass and the journey took just under two hours. There are several different shapes to the Shinkansen. There are those that befit the term Bullet Train and resemble a bullet and there are those that look more like a duck shape.
Having previously travelled the bullet type, today we were on the Duck Train or the Quack Express!! The ones that look like a duck are still called a Bullet Train, a term that is befitting the elegant speed and energy of such remarkable travel – Duck Train simply does not have the awe about it, does it!!!
After zipping through the Japanese country side for 350 kilometres, which included a couple of stops, we sadly left the comfort of our supersonic duck and caught a bus from the train station to Yamanakako and Yamanaka Lake. The bus takes over an hour and cost 1850Yen each (AUD$22 each). On arrival at Yamanakako we had five kilometres to get to our hotel so we caught a taxi for 1200yen. Unfortunately our routine with a third person being present was a little off balance – in times like these there is no need to lay blame – but yours truly left a small carry bag at the taxi office – this, completely innocent and understandable mistake, was not noticed until we exited the taxi at the hotel. Luckily the taxi driver took me back to the taxi office to pick up the wayward bag and returned me to the girls at the hotel – only charging for one additional trip.
We stayed at Sundance Yamanakako Villas, which was on the outskirts of the Yamanakako township, and was located across the road from the lake itself. We paid $AUD95 per night. The hotel room was in three sections, the entrance level, the bedroom was downstairs and it was 14 steps down a narrow staircase, then going up stairs from the entrance was a lounge – again up 14 steps in a narrow staircase – the place was narrow but high – I thought it worked pretty well and was a unique hotel experience.
Yamanaka Lake is located at the foothills of Mount Fuji and we had a misguided belief that we could easily travel up to Mount Fuji 5th station and do some hiking. Well Di and I were completely wrong on this and were totally in the wrong place. Yamanaka Lake is a lovely little place but we should have been at Kawaguchiko and the lake there if we wanted to go on Mount Fuji.
Firstly there are several different 5th stations on Mount Fuji. Secondly, to get to the main 5th station from where we were it would take over two hours of bus travel on two different buses – so with connections a round trip could take up to six hours – simply not worth a day trip in time, let alone cost. Thirdly we only had one full day in Yamanaka Lake (two nights) and it was simply not enough time to do a Mount Fuji trip. Realistically, we should have done our two nights at Yamanaka Lake and then gone to Kawaguchiko Lake for three or four nights if we wanted to do any hiking on Mount Fuji, let alone even attempting to climb to the summit of Mount Fuji. Live and learn.
Yamanaka Lake is called Swan Lake because there are a lot of swans living on the lake. On our first evening we were surprised at how empty, and sort-of-run down, the town looked. It was the start of high season in Japan and we thought the place would be buzzing. It appears that Yamanaka Lake is the poor cousin to other lakes in the area and has seen better days. We found most of the shops and restaurants were closed – with several restaurants closing as we arrived at 5pm. We were there Tuesday and Wednesday but still thought it would have been more active than it was.
After buying two minute noodles for dinner we were walking back to the hotel on our first evening when a giant swan was sighted wedged up on the lake shore – the photo clicking finger itched and had to be scratched so off we went to the lakes edge to take the photo. The giant swan was a large, tourist vessel that took tourists around the lake to get the best photos of Mount Fuji. The giant swan boat was either the most tacky tourist vessel ever or a stroke of tourism genius. It all depends on how you look at it.
Mount Fuji had been lost in a sea of clouds since we arrived. By walking to the lake’s edge we were shocked to see that Mount Fuji had roared out of its cloud barricade and was a sight to behold – it was awesome.
Thus the lake, the swan boat and Mount Fuji suddenly made the worst holiday snap ever – that I now share with you!!!
Yamanaka Lake is at the highest altitude of the five lakes surrounding Mount Fuji. Between November and February the sun sets directly on the peak of Mount Fuji and is known as Diamond Fuji, as it looks like there is a large diamond on top of Mount Fuji.
The next morning Di went to pick up our breakfast from the hotel office, this was included in the hotel room price. The hotel supplied us with a picnic basket that contained various bread rolls, coffee and yogurt – it was a rather novel breakfast experience.
Yamanaka Lake is the largest of the five lakes and the shore line distance is 14 kilometres. The next day I walked around the lake while the girls rode around on bicycles.
The walk was flat and enjoyable. Unfortunately Mount Fuji was back hiding behind the clouds and if you didn’t know it was there, you simply would not believe such a prominent mountain rose up so majestically – the clouds completely obstructed the mountain.
The gals went the opposite way to me around the lake and we met in a spot where the Mount Fuji photos would have been at their best if we could see the bloody thing. The girls rode on and stopped for coffee and cake – they had to fill the hole the cycling created in their tummy, I walked on.
The lake is very picturesque and the walk was a comfortable two and a half hours.
That evening we had a party for Steff as it was her last night with us – we went to the 7/11 store and bought a collection of party food and some Sake. This Sake, though, was not as smooth as the better stuff we purchased in Kyoto, but hey it washed the cobwebs away and tingled the toes. It was a lovely, little end to our brief stay in Yamanaka Lake.
The next morning, after our picnic breakfast, we set off in a car hired by Steff for a road trip to Yudanaka – yay road trip!!!! The journey took three hours and cost a mammoth AUD$70 in road tolls – @#$#@#$!!!!!
We had one stop on the road trip, yay road trip, at a service centre for coffee and lunch and we were confronted with a maze of vending machines – it was vending machine heaven or hell, depending on your perspective.
We negotiated the coffee vending machine Cappuccino with differing degrees of success – bearing in mind there are buttons for more/less coffee, sugar, milk, etc.
The adventurous lady, that Steff is, braved the fries vending machine and we ate hot French fries from a machine, it was interesting to say the least.
No road trip in Asia would be complete unless the toilets were discussed and, of course, the Japanese computerised loos are simply divine and a pleasure to place your butt on. In fact the ladies toilet had miniature boys and girls loos for little kids – helping mums out here.
The loos also had automated toilet seat cleansers to emphasis Japanese efficiency!! Di loved the loos.
We were soon in Yamanouchi and at our hotel, the Bozanso, and paid $AUD100per night. It’s not cheap staying in Japan. Yamanouchi is about an hours’ drive from Nagano, which is the closest large city. The area is famous as a ski resort in winter, it also has many hot springs and is home to the Jigokudani Snow Monkeys; which was the main reason we came here.
Sadly though it was where Steff left us and she continued on her own to Tokyo – it was so lovely to see her and travel with her for a few days – bye Steff, we miss you!!
Di was so excited to see her name on the hotel door as we entered – she felt special. We soon discovered that we were the only occupants of the hotel.
This hotel was a Ryokan traditional style hotel – which meant we paid extra to sleep on the floor!!!!
The Ryokan rooms have a small room to enter whereby you remove your shoes and put house slippers on. Then you step onto a Tatami floor. Tatami floors are made of rice straw and wood chips and they have a slightly, spongy, flooring that is comfortable to walk and sleep on.
A Ryokan room will also have a balcony or a porch that is separated from the main room by a rice paper sliding door.
There will also be a tea table and cushions. The’ beds’, or should I say mattresses, are stored away in cupboards and brought out when it is night time.
If the room is a true Onsen Ryokan it will have a communal bath for all the guests to bathe in – one for the ladies and one for the men. The one we stayed at cheated a little and we had modern toilet and shower facilities but we also had a communal bath – we never got around to taking a communal bath, especially as we were the only guests, in hindsight though we should have!!!
I could not resist the opportunity to dress Japanese and have some green tea in a traditional Japanese tea setting – my poor knees screamed in agony whilst kneeling but I managed to get the photo – it’s all about the photo!!!
The Japanese owner of the hotel was a lovely chap who used to live in San Francisco in America for a while. I asked him what he did in America and he laughed and said “I was a cook in Japanese Restaurant of course” – hey so much for stereotypes. The owner also had a quirk for Rock and Roll and the lobby area was filled with Rolling Stones, Beetles, etc, memorabilia – it was nearly like wandering through a 60’s dedicated music museum!!!
We had one full day at Yamanouchi and set off early the next morning to get in as much as we could. The owner of the hotel drove us to the Snow Monkey Park in his car – we were the only guests so he had nothing else to do I guess. The snow monkey park is about a four kilometre uphill walk from the Yamanouchi town centre. There are buses that can take you there, taxis too or you can easily walk.
The walk from the park entrance to where the snow monkeys are is about two kilometres along a lovely forested path. As you walk you can hear the river below and it all makes for a peaceful 20 minute mountain hike.
The hiking trail eventually meets the river and there are several resort spas, with hot springs, near the park entrance.
There was a large jettison of steam in one spot by the river that looked pretty darn hot!!
It costs 800 Yen or AUD$10 to enter the monkey park. The snow monkeys congregate near the river where there is a man-made hot spring bath for them.
In the winter months, from December through to March, the monkeys use the hot springs to stay warm – like a hot bath. You will see many photos of snow covered monkeys lounging together in the steaming hot water – unfortunately it was July when we went and extremely hot.
The monkeys are actually Japanese Macaques but are known as Snow Monkeys due to the winter setting where they are often covered in snow. The monkeys are wild but are completely at ease around humans. YOU CANNOT feed them at all and, because of this, the monkeys do not expect to be fed by humans and do not get aggressive when not fed.
There were just loads of baby monkeys around with it being just after spring. The adults seemed content to simply groom each other eating the fleas found. The baby monkeys though clung to mum, but were adventurous enough to explore the immediate surroundings and provided unlimited amusement to any clucking female tourist present.
There is a live cam in the park where you can watch the snow monkeys online.
The river setting among the hills made for some great photos and it was terrific to see these lovely wild animals in a nearly natural habitat. I found the snow monkey experience wonderful and a must do if you visit Japan. We stayed nearly two hours and then commenced the walk back along the hiking trail. Once out of the park it was a four kilometre downhill walk to Yamanouchi.
The walk to Yamanouchi is easy enough and it is amazing that you constantly hear the sound of running water, even though you are not next to the river.
There are underground canals all along the footpath where water is constantly flowing – make sure you empty your bladder on leaving the monkey park or the sound of running water will make you very uncomfortable!!!
Once into the Yamanouchi town it is a gem of a walk as the town streets are narrow and very traditional.
The town is located next to a fast flowing river with many small bridges crossing it. There are numerous steam outlets spurting hot vapour into the air.
The underwater streams are constantly underfoot and your bladder is forever at bursting point – to solve this there are numerous public toilets – some of which are the communal Onsen types whereby you enter naked – so choose wisely if you are easily embarrassed.
There are also several hot spring outlets whereby you will see steam coming out of a small dripping pool of water.
I stuck my fingers in one of these steaming pools and let me tell you – it was @#$#@# HOT!!! We even found a place that was selling hard boiled eggs that was slow boiling in the pond at the front of their house – yes I had to try the delicious treat.
I loved walking through Yamanouchi, it wasn’t crowded with tourists and certainly had that traditional Japanese feel to it.
Our last stop was at Heiwa no ako Park – Good Fortune Park and its Good Fortune Route to Heiwa Kannon Buddha, Miroku Monument and Enmei Tobacco Monument. Yep, Tobacco Monument, that is what I said.
The route has three deities, the stone Buddhist image of Miroku, who provides protection against earthquakes – this is an earthquake area.
The second deity is The Goddess of Mercy and World Peace, who guarantees a long and peaceful life in happiness.
Finally, the third deity is The Tobacco Deity for Prolonged Life, who helps smokers stay healthy whilst they smoke.
This is for real, I kid you not. What you are supposed to do is visit all three deities and then go to the big bell in the centre of the park and toll the bell, and then your wishes for an ‘earthquake free happy smoke filled life’ will come true. I was particularly amused at all the stubbed out cigarettes surrounding the deity for tobacco as this deity is supposed to also help people quit smoking.
The Good Fortune Park overlooks the town of Yamanouchi and the Goddess statue is easily seen from the town. There are 112 steps up to the Goddess and the bell and then a further 100 steps up to the Buddha image. The Tobacco Deity is at the start of the 112 steps perhaps to torture the smokers by having to climb all the steps to get their happiness.
It was a long and rewarding day in Yamanouchi. The next morning our hotel host drove us the short distance to Yudanaka Train Station and we caught a 45 minute local train to Nagano Train Station. We then used our JR Pass for a train to Tokyo.
I think seeing the Yamanouchi area in winter would be special and, from what I have heard, the skiing is outstanding. I did, though, thoroughly enjoy my two night stay there in summer. Perhaps three or even four nights would have been better because there are many hiking trials in the area and we could have also visited a spa and hot spring. If you visit Japan you must try at least one night Onsen Ryokan style!
The adventure continues………………..