August 10, 2018

Hidden Yamanashi

Though best known for Mt. Fuji, Yamanashi Prefecture is also actually home to gorgeous nature, great local food and ancient pilgrimage sites.

A statue of a Fujiko climber about to ascend Mt. Fuji at Yamanashi Prefecture's Kitaguchi-Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine

Ah Yamanashi — known internationally for its wildly popular Mt. Fuji climb and…well, not much else. This is a real shame. You see, this landlocked prefecture is host to breathtaking natural wonders as well as a rich historical pedigree. In addition to being the former domain of the legendary Warring States period (1467–1568) warlord Takeda Shingen, Yamanashi is surrounded by some of Japan’s tallest mountain peaks. As such, the prefecture boasts a collection of unforgettable views from its basin floor. Whether you’re a nature lover or a history connoisseur, Yamanashi delivers on a medley of interests for all

In keeping with typical central Japan fashion and despite having a wealth of attractions, access to many of Yamanashi’s more remote sites remains limited. Furthermore, the existing options can easily seem intimidating and confusing for the average traveler who doesn’t speak the language. While this is unlikely to change anytime soon, the local prefectural government is aware of the problem and is considering alternative means for bolstering the poor infrastructure. They’ve put together a collection of tours that address many of the pain points inherent in visiting some of Yamanashi’s amazing destinations.

As longtime readers may have noticed by now, this is a blog about getting off the beaten path. With that said, I tend to shy away from places that require travelers to rent a car. Simply put, the paperwork can seem unnecessarily daunting and not everyone is able to drive in a foreign country. As such, I’d normally be weary of introducing the following destinations if it were not for the new tours that Yamanashi Prefecture has put together. These excursions and travel options clear the logistical hurdles by solving the transportation dilemma.

Getting to Yamanashi Prefecture

Before diving into the two tours I will be introducing, let’s pause quickly to talk about how to get to Yamanashi. I’m going to assume that the reader is traveling from Tokyo. Should you find yourself venturing out from another location, just head on over to Hyperdia to figure out the best route. Note that there are many highways buses that run from Tokyo to various destinations within Yamanashi prefecture. While these options are apt to run slower than the train, the fees often cost less than 2,000 yen and may be somewhat more affordable for those on a tight budget.

Anyway, if you’re traveling from Tokyo, the fastest route to get to Yamanashi’s capital city of Kofu is to hop on any of the limited express AZUSA trains. The trains depart from the JR Shinjuku Station and will get you to Yamanashi in approximately 90 minutes or so. There are multiple hourly departures and the total combined fare will cost you just over 4,000 yen. While it is possible to make the trip to Kofu via local trains in 160 minutes, this option isn’t advisable unless you have a ton of time to kill and want to cut down on expenses.

Now, without further ado, let’s take a look at these two killer tours that the Yamanashi prefectural government is sponsoring…

Yamanashi’s Shosenkyo Gorge

Yamanashi Prefecture’s picturesque Shosenkyo Gorge

The first of the two tours is conducted by Amemiya Yoichi and his wife and will take you deep into the Shosenkyo Gorge. Located in the mountains just outside of central Kofu, this marvel of nature is one of Japan’s most beautiful ravines. It is part of the massive Chichibu Tama Kai National Park which covers large swaths of Yamanashi, Saitama, Nagano, and Tokyo prefectures. You’ll begin the excursion at the Greenline Shosenkyo bus stop and then meander your way through the chasm towards the 30-meter high Sengataki waterfall. Keep in mind the Shosenkyo Gorge is especially stunning during autumn when the leaves begin to turn.

After exploring the wondrous crevasse, it will be time for lunch and Yoichi has something special planned for his guests. You see, one of the local favorites of Yamanashi is a delicious noodle dish called hoto and you’ll actually have the opportunity to make your own eats by hand. Surprisingly, it takes a lot of elbow grease to properly flatten the noodles. Once you’ve muscled your way through the prep, you’ll then take your handmade hoto to the restaurant next door where you’ll actually get to devour your noodles. Talk about experiencing authenticity firsthand!

After finishing lunch, it will be time to continue on with your tour. The next stop on Yoichi’s itinerary is the ancient Kanazakura Shrine. To reach it, you’ll need to hike up roughly 300 steps through a cluster of truly massive cedar trees. While the current shrine’s structures are but a mere rebuild, a spiritual monument of sorts has stood here for nearly 2,000 years. Kanazakura Shrine pays homage to Mt. Kinpu which is located at the top of the Shosenkyo Gorge. The shrine also has one of only a few cherry trees that produces golden hued blossoms. If it’s a clear day, be sure not to miss the amazing view of Mt. Fuji from the dedicated lookout vista.

Tour paricipants practice writing the kanji for Takeda Shingen’s slogan, fu-rin-ka-zan

After visiting Kanazakura Shrine, the final stop on this tour will feature the calligraphy workshop of Yoichi’s wife. Following a cup of refreshing tea and a traditional Japanese wagashi treat, you’ll be instructed on how to properly hold and use a brush. Thereafter, you’ll have the opportunity to try your hand at doing some calligraphy yourself. With a nod to local history, Yoichi’s wife will walk you the steps for writing the characters representing wind, forest, fire, and mountain as pictured above. These characters form Takeda Shingen’s notorious slogan of Fu-Rin-Ka-Zan that was borrowed from Sun Tzu’s legendary writings.

If you’re interested in booking Yoichi’s tour, check out the links below. Note that your guides are a senior couple in their 70’s and their English is by no means flawless. Nevertheless, Yoichi and his wife certainly invest their best when communicating with guests. Strangely enough, this turns out to be a feature rather than a flaw and adds a layer of authenticity that a more polished product might lack. Furthermore, the interplay between husband and wife can at times be hilarious and offers a unique glimpse into an aspect of local life that most travelers seldom experience.

You can book a tour with Yoichi via the links below…

  • GoWithGuide
    Walk & Experience Shosenkyo, Japan’s Most beautiful ravine!
  • Veltra
    Shosenkyo Gorge Hike & Hoto Cooking Tour from Kofu with English-Speaking Guide

The Pilgrims of Mt. Fuji

A historical painting of pilgrims exploring Mt. Fuji’s lava caves

While most are aware of Mt. Fuji as a mountain to climb, only a handful of individuals realize her importance as a religious symbol. Enter Tomomi, our guide for the second tour and one which the prefectural government is looking to promote. Tomomi will take you on an educational journey that will follow the trail of Mt. Fuji’s ancient pilgrimages. Given several sites are poorly accessed, it would be quite difficult to experience them without the aid of an informed guide like Tomomi. As a side note, Yoichi’s tour can be enjoyed by those of all fitness levels however mobility is a must if you wish to get the most from Tomomi’s adventure. Please be aware that there will be a fair bit of walking and spelunking.

The first stop on this tour will be the impressive Funatsu Lava Tree Molds. This peculiar phenomenon is the result of massive timbers being encased in lava following previous eruptions at Mt. Fuji. The largest of the tree molds is quite similar to a massive cave. This location has long been used as a sacred pilgrimage site. In fact, worshiping devotees of Mt. Fuji believed the resulting hollows resembled the interior of the human body and thus a journey into their depths was a symbolic rebirth. The cave ceilings are very, very low and you’ll need to remain in a hunched position for a good 10 to 20 minutes. Please be honest with yourself regarding your physical capabilities before entering the abyss.

Assuming you make it out of the caves with your knees intact (which is easier said than done if you insist on venturing to the deepest point), it will then be time for lunch. To every extent possible, Tomomi will arrange for you to sample a local specialty of the Mt. Fuji area such as Yoshida udon. These appetizing noodles have a firm but surprisingly chewy texture. Unfortunately, many of the locations that prepare this unique dish are quite small meaning reservations can be difficult to arrange. Fear not though, in these rare situations, Tomomi will ensure that you’re well-fed and completely re-energized for the remaining tour. If you’re a diehard foodie who absolutely must sample the regional fare, I highly suggest booking with Tomomi well in advance.

A Japanese tour guide explains the Fujiko cult to a group of travelers

After you’ve eaten your fill, the tour will continue on foot to the Kamiyoshida area which leads to the base of Mt. Fuji. En route, you’ll pass several spots related to the worship of the internationally acclaimed mountain. For example, one stop will pass the former home of the Togawa family. This historic lodging has a legacy dating well over 250 years and once served as a place of respite along the pilgrimage route to Mt. Fuji. Moreover, in addition to providing modest accommodations for weary travelers, the Togawa’s were also deeply involved in the worship of Mt. Fuji. Today, their ancestral residence curates a small collection of artifacts related to the sacred mountain and Tomomi will skillfully guide you through the significance of each.

While I hesitate to steal any of Tomomi’s thunder (she really does an amazing job explaining the contextual background), I do want to urge you to pay special attention to the historic climbing attire that is on display. As you view the austere white garb, it’s easy to envision why pilgrims would need to prepare to confront death before attempting their climbs. After all, to risk ascending Mt. Fuji back in the day was to court death itself. Fast forward to present day, even in the hellish of Japanese summers, travelers tote winter jackets and all sorts modern gear when attempting to summit the mountain. It’s rare that you’ll have an opportunity as visceral as this feel history in every fiber or your being.

Stone lanterns line the entrance to Yamanashi Prefecture’s Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine

The final stop on Tomomi’s well planned itinerary will be the Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. This reverent site was once regarded as the most important bases of Mt. Fuji worship. Those on a pilgrimage route to Mt. Fuji would pause here to purify themselves and pray before risking their lives summiting the holy mountain. Truth be told, this location deserves its own honorable piece, but suffice to say, it was one of the most impressive shrines I’ve visited thus far. The central areas are flanked by a host of behemoth sized trees that are easily over 1,000 years old. Furthermore, Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine also boasts one of the largest wooden torii gate in all of Japan.

Much like other sites of ascetic mountain worship, Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine was historically an amalgam of Buddhism and Shintoism. In fact, this syncretic union was once the norm until the religions were forcibly separated by the fledgling Meiji government in 1868. The historical account of how Buddhism and Shintoism became intertwined is beyond the scope of this article (I’ll direct you here instead for that). Nevertheless, astute students of Japanese culture shouldn’t be surprised to find the trappings of both faiths scattered throughout Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine. Once you know what to look for, the marriage of the two religions is noted everywhere.

Anyway, if you’re interested in booking a tour with Tomomi, you can do so with the links below. She really does an amazing job at showcasing the historical importance of Mt. Fuji as a religious icon. While the hike is indeed an unforgettable experience, it’s rather easy to overlook the sacred significance of the mountain when you’re up that close.

You can book a tour with Tomomi via the links below…

  • GoWithGuide
    Trace the Footsteps of the Pilgrims of Mt. Fuji
  • Veltra
    Private Mt.Fuji Pilgrimage & Nature Tour with Local English-Speaking Guide

There’s Still More to Yamanashi Prefecture

A replica of the helmet of the warlord Takeda Shingen from Yamanashi Prefecture

In addition to these two tours, Yamanashi prefecture offers a host of interesting adventures. From the remnants of warlord Takeda Shingen’s castle to some plump peaches and delicious wine, you really can’t go wrong. I’ll be heading back down there this fall so stay tuned for another installment of hidden Yamanashi.

Update: By the way, here's the result of that second trip back to Yamanashi Prefecture…

Until next time travelers…