July 23, 2020

Savoring Kawaguchiko

Found in Yamanashi, Kawaguchiko is a spot that is normally crowded but thanks to the pandemic, its lakeside attractions aren't as busy anymore.

Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchiko, a beautiful lake in Yamanashi Prefecture

Alright, confession time folks. For a good while now, I have wanted to revisit the lovely area of Kawaguchiko (lit. “Lake Kawaguchi”). While I have traveled to this area of Japan several times, my adventures occurred prior to Japan’s inbound tourism boom. Since that time, the popularity of Kawaguchiko and nearby Mt. Fuji has skyrocketed thereby resulting in a massive influx of overseas travelers. Seeing as I am vehemently committed to featuring Japan’s off the beaten path destinations whenever possible, it simply hasn’t made sense for me to tangle with the throngs of tourists.

Alas, the year is sadly 2020 and we are currently in the midst of the worst pandemic in recent history. With Japan’s borders securely locked shut, it shouldn’t come as a complete surprise that inbound tourism has virtually flatlined. Indeed, this is tragic news for the industry; however, the silver lining reveals mainstream destinations (previously burdened by over tourism) are now surprisingly bearable. Seeing the busloads of foreign visitors are all but absent, I am planning on taking advantage of the situation to cover areas such as Kawaguchiko that I’d likely avoid during peak tourist tides.

Now, while Kawaguchiko might be firmly located on the beaten path, that doesn’t mean that it can’t cater to readers of this blog. In fact, much like Miyajima in Hiroshima Prefecture, opting to overnight in Kawaguchiko offers lodgers an opportunity to experience a less frantic side of this charming locale. What’s more, a good number of the ryokan here have jaw dropping views of Mt. Fuji. Assuming that the damn summit isn’t hiding behind the clouds, I cannot think of a better way to start the day than waking up to the sight of Japan’s most iconic landmark.

Getting to Kawaguchiko

A Fujikyu Railway with Mt. Fuji in the background

Given Kawaguchiko’s mainstream status, the journey could not be more simple. Moreover, the entirety of the trip can be done without speaking a lick of Japanese thanks to the ample English signage. All you need to do is make your way down from Tokyo to Kawaguchi Station. By far, the fastest option is to take one of the Fuji Excursion Limited Express trains. Though more costly than taking the local trains, this speedy service will get you to Kawaguchiko in approximately an hour and a half. What’s more, you won’t need to change trains after departing from Shinjuku Station.

Of course, those with time to kill who want to save a little bit of coin can opt to take the pleb route. This entails taking the JR Chuo Line out to Takao Station and then making a transfer to reach Otsuki Station. Thereafter, you’ll need to change trains again and take the Fujikyu Railway (which, by the way is NOT covered by the JR Rail Pass) to your final destination. Either way, just refer to the likes of Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the train schedules. Simply plug in your point of departure and let the route mapping do all of the heavy lifting.

Once you have reached the Kawaguchiko area, know that things become a bit more challenging logistically. Basically, the entirety of the region is served by a complex network of buses. Though typically this would be a nightmare to navigate, the popularity of Mt. Fuji ensures that you won’t be the first perplexed tourist in town. Just head on over to the local tourism office and they should sort you out. Note that you probably want to snag yourself an all-you-can-ride bus pass here as it will save you some cash while also making bus payments a painless process.

The Kawaguchiko Area

A lakeside shot of Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchiko in Yamanashi Prefecture

If you recall from the introduction above, Kawaguchiko literally means “Lake Kawaguchi” in Japanese. As such, it should come as no surprise that there’s a serene body of water to enjoy. To avoid mixing up my terms, I am opting to use Kawaguchiko when referencing this section of Japan and then use the moniker of Lake Kawaguchi to specify the lagoon. My apologies if this seems a tad confusing but otherwise you’re going to need to infer from context which of the two that I am talking about.

Anyway, Lake Kawaguchi is one of five lakes encircling Mt. Fuji. Located at an elevation of 800 meters, Lake Kawaguchi offers a cool and very much welcomed reprieve from the searing summer heat. Because of these conditions, many locals head out to the lake for outdoor activities as the season begins to warm. All around Lake Kawaguchi, you’ll find folks enjoying camping, boating, and other such recreations. What’s more, many of these leisurely amusements also welcome overseas visitors to unwind for a bit.

One feature that sets the Kawaguchiko area apart is the high prevalence of hot spring sources. All around the lake, you’ll encounter a number of traditional ryokan. Sadly, many of these venues do not open their baths for day trippers; nevertheless, there are several offering such an option should you be seeking a good soak. Additionally, the circumference of Lake Kawaguchi is also home to numerous museums and other attractions. Here are some of the spots that I suggest you check out…

  • Mt. Fuji Panoramic Ropeway
    If you want to get a good overall glimpse of Lake Kawaguchi, there’s no better way to do so than to take this ropeway to the summit of Mt. Tenjo. From there you’ll have a panoramic view of all of Lake Kawaguchi as well as Mt. Fuji weather permitting.
  • Kawaguchiko Museum of Art
    This is a must see for all fans of modern art. The facility houses a great exhibit highlighting both foreign and Japanese compositions. Additionally, you’ll also find a collection of paintings and photographs portraying Mt. Fuji.
  • Kawaguchiko Music Forest
    This scene is more of a theme park than a museum. Here, you’ll find a host of music boxes, mechanical organs, and assorted automatic musical instruments. The grounds have a distinctly European vibe and offer spectacular views of Mt. Fuji on good days.
  • Yamanashi Gem Museum
    This site houses a collection of precious stones and crystals that were unearthed in Japan and abroad. What’s more, you can also snag yourself some unique jewelry and trinkets here given half the facility is dedicated to selling merchandise.

All in all, I’d budget for at least a half-day to explore Lake Kawaguchi. It’s just the type of place made for a leisurely carefree stroll.

Kawaguchiko’s Chureito Pagoda

Mt. Fuji and the iconic Chureito Pagoda during cherry blossom season

No mention of Kawaguchiko would be complete without introducing the Chureito Pagoda. This relatively new structure was created in 1963 and boasts a killer view of Mt. Fuji (at least when it’s not hiding behind the clouds). In fact, the vista is so breathtaking that it is frequently featured in Japanese promotional materials all over the world. Chances are that you’ve likely seen some rendition of the above photo over the years. To be frank, the Chureito Pagoda’s likeness is often overused to the point of becoming a meme. While I get that you probably can’t find a frame that more quickly conveys J-A-P-A-N, it does get a bit tiresome.

My gripes about constantly being bombarded with imagery of the Chureito Pagoda aside, know that the view is genuinely as good as the marketing spam makes it out to be. To enjoy the scenery though, you’ll need to hike up 400 plus steps to reach the Chureito Pagoda’s location. Though technically part of the Arakura Sengen Shrine sitting at the base of the mountain, the Chureito Pagoda itself is found higher up the hill. While I won’t lie to you and say that it’s an easy ascent, individuals of all fitness levels should be able to make the climb without worry.

While impressive year-round, note that the Chureito Pagoda approaches its bloom during spring and autumn. During the spring, the structure is perfectly framed by some truly gorgeous cherry trees. As for autumn, the vibrant fall colors add a special touch to an already otherworldly scene. Honestly, it’s really hard to say which of these two occasions is the more beautiful. I guess I’ll leave it up to you, the reader, to decide….

Attractions Near Kawaguchiko

Mt. Fuji, Lake Saiko and the forest of Aokigahara in Yamanashi Prefecture

Truth be told, there’s enough content around Mt. Fuji to keep you busy for several days. This is one of the main reasons why it’s wise to consider overnighting in one of the many ryokan surrounding Lake Kawaguchi. While I definitely encourage you to do some further research, I’d like to leave you with a few of my top recommendations before wrapping this one up…

  • Aokigahara
    Often referred to as Japan’s “Suicide Forest,” Aokigahara is a primeval wood that unquestionably benefit from a rebrand. Though it is tragically true that many Japanese people do indeed take their lives in the deeper parts, the forest is also one of the most tranquil locations that I’ve ever experienced. To be blunt, you don’t know what silence is until you’ve trekked some of the trails crisscrossing Aokigahara.
  • Fuji Q Highland
    Did you know that Mt. Fuji has its own theme park? Situated in the vicinity of Kawaguchiko, Fuji Q Highland is a popular day trip for Tokyoites. The park is best known for its record-setting roller coasters and anime-themed attractions. Always striving to be an industry leader, Fuji Q Highland is constantly reinventing itself and adding new additions to its already impressive roster.
  • Kitaguchi Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine
    Though it’s certainly a mouthful to say, this sacred sepulchre is one of my favorite shrines in Japan. While the main Mt. Fuji shrine can be found in Fujinomiya, this sub shrine on the other side of the peak provides better access for people living in Edo (modern day Tokyo). Traditionally, in the days of yore, the shrine served as a popular point where pilgrims would gather before embarking on their quest to scale Mt. Fuji.

Until next time travelers. Hopefully, it won’t be too much longer before you can all go back to planning your trips to Japan…