FUJI IN WINTER

I vividly remember my first time in the Fuji region. It was 2010, I battled exhaustion, nausea and the flu to stagger my way up to Hakone and the most I saw of Mt Fuji was an imaginary, distant blob in thick grey clouds.

TOKYO 2014 | FUJI FIVE LAKES

A fortnight in Shanghai and Beijing prior to the Tokyo leg of our family holiday had left three out of four of us with a vicious travel bug for about 70% of our week in Japan - fever, shakes, nausea, flu, loss of voice, migraine...the entire, vengeful package. I essentially crawled up the steep slopes of Hakone - through the Open Air Museum and the flower garden I was too sick to walk through - towards the five-star ryokan we had splurged on for the night. 80% of the special kaiseki dinner went uneaten (my dad bravely trying to convince us to do more than listlessly stare at the gloriously intricate cuisine in front of us) and I was warned not to spend too long in the onsen lest I pass out from fever. Sitting there, I was treated to award-winning views of drizzly grey sky.

My parents haven't been back to Japan since; I keep trying to persuade them you can't judge a country when you're sick but I think they've cognitively associated Tokyo with feeling the most terrible of terrible things ever, which is an awful shame. The convincing process continues - but at least Mt Fuji made up for our missed rendezvous with gusto.

You're not allowed to climb Mt Fuji in the winter so the best way to view the mountain is to go to the Fuji Five Lakes region. Most people tend to stay overnight at one of the ryokans (and enjoy the onsen) but because of our stay situation, we had to make it a day trip.

The most relaxing way to Lake Kawaguchiko is by the highway bus, which we found to be pleasant and clean. You can buy tickets in advance or on the day at the Shinjuku Bus Terminal that's behind the Yodobashi Camera if you exit the West End of the station. Definitely ask a staff member where to buy tickets in advance because it's almost impossible to find the ticket office by yourself (hint: it's not where you think it is). You have to book your departure time in advance but ask for the refundable ticket because then you can change the departure time from Lake Kawaguchiko at the station if you end up deviating from schedule.

We were lucky enough to encounter a sunny, clear day - apparently more common in winter, actually. I don't know how possible it is to just grab your camera and run out the door towards the bus depot when the weather looks good but...maybe you should try it. Or at least cancel the ticket if you wake up to cold and gloom (or if your life energy is leaking out of your body and into a mountain of tissues. I'm sorry for that mental image). We seriously couldn't believe our luck at the warm temperatures and the gorgeous sky...but no complaints here.

Chureito Pagoda is where I got these shots and a definite recommendation from one photographer to another. Even during winter, it was beautiful so I can only imagine how heartbreakingly gorgeous it must be during Autumn and Spring.

You have to buy a train ticket from Lake Kawaguchiko station to Shimoyoshida station (don't freak out if the train reaches Mt Fuji stop and goes in the direction you came from - it's along a different track!) and then the pagoda is a small climb up the mountain from the station, through farmland that is straight out of a Miyazaki film.

It'll take you a good 30 - 40min to get up there but it's not terribly exhausting. You can't really do much other than look at the pagoda but you can actually climb the entire mountain if you want and loop back down. A lot of the highlights on the mountain, like fields of flowers, are only available during spring though. Apart from two Thai tourists, we were the only people there - such a good feeling.

The rest of Lake Kawaguchiko is fairly sedate - good for soaking in nature but very quiet without too many shops or food places. Unfortunately, the wind was too strong so all the swan boats were closed, meaning we couldn't even paddle around on the lake.

There are special (adorable) tourist buses that run along all the attractions, which are mostly small museums dotted along the edges of the lake. We ended up walking from the Kubota Museum down all the way to the Music Museum (which is a road dotted with 'key points' on the tourist map). It was actually a relaxing stroll, even though we didn't go inside any of the museums. The Five Lakes region is definitely a place to spend a couple of days enjoying, simply because of the sheer amount of time it takes to get anywhere. Being limited by our schedule meant we couldn't trek out to either Lake Yamanakako or Lake Saiko for the Healing Village (Iyashi no Sato).

Daytrippers, also be warned that very few onsens are available to people who aren't staying overnight at the ryokan it's attached to. We managed to trek all the way up to Tensui Kawaguchiko onsen, only to find it was closed only on the one day we were there. The heartbreak was real (I had to read the sign several times and felt my heart sink as I finally processed the kanji). The second onsen near Lake Yamanakako (Benifuji no Yu) stops running return buses by around 4:30PM so go early - or you may end up giving up like us and taking the early bus home (along with Mt Fuji specific omiyage souvenirs).