The trip to Mt Fuji does not start well. Picked up in a large bus at our hotel and told I would have to pay at the bus station before departure. Premonitions of chaos as the bus circles the station three times before we can get off – sakura season (cherry blossom), the busiest time of the year. Inside there are several hundred lost souls, milling about, brandishing cash and cards: the queue where I am directed to is as dysfunctional as any in London and decidedly un-Japanese. Not helped by the fact that the teller is not only masked but is also dumb! Literally.
Finally I make my way on to the bus – last passenger – and am directed to my seat (oh yes, all seats numbered!). Sigh of relief as I find myself in a window seat, right side of bus for views, and next to an attractive Canadian woman, who is here chaperoning her daughter on a three-month modeling assignment. They are living in a tiny flat with only one gas ring, and finding it interesting, but challenging, especially the fact that English is so little spoken. The daughter, however, is treated like a princess, chauffeured everywhere amid much bowing and scraping.
The bus takes us through wooded hills, sprinkled with wild cherry trees; they differ in that they flower and leaf simultaneously, whereas the cultivars flower first. There are small towns and villages, surrounded by dry fields and vegetable gardens. Several people are taking advantage of the gorgeous spring weather and are turning the soil and planting out seedlings.
Our first glimpse of Fuji is as picture post card as you get: the perfect cone with a slice off the top, soaring majestically out from behind the nearby hills. The closer we get the more perfect it becomes.
Atsuko, our guide, is enterprising: she sings a children’s praise song to the sacred mountain and teaches us how to make out own origami version. We stop for a better view, along with 50 other buses, at the visitor centre. A Nepalese couple – he is here, along with several other thousand people, thankfully not all on our bus, for a global ophthalmology conference – are late back and, in a rare display of Japanese temper, she lets rip. ‘Not fair! Be punctual. Next time we leave you behind!’ It is a real culture clash – Japanese punctuality with subcontinent latitude.
The bus is indeed a hotch-potch of nationalities – Malaysian, Australian, British, French, Arab, Indian – and by the end of the tour we are exchanging emails and blog addresses. We go up to about 1000m to the 1st station; we should have gone to the 5th, but a massive avalanche three weeks ago has closed the road. I watch people frolicking in the snow; perhaps it’s the first time they have seen it.
In the afternoon we wend our way to Hakone, a popular lake resort with hot springs and an escape from the Tokyo in the heat of the summer. We pass several ‘private hotels’, built by companies for their employees and made available for stays of no more than 3 days at a fantastically reasonable $40 per night, full board. Hakone is also home to a number of the weirdest museums ever: of Meissen porcelain; Lalique crystal; teddy bears; dinosaurs and even one dedicated to The Little Prince! The French guys in front of us are bemused. In Odawara (bullet train station), there is even a fishcake museum – the only one in the world, unsurprisingly.
The poor elderly Indian lady has been copiously sick as result of the hairpin bends, and her daughter deposits a revolting looking bag in a bin. Oh dear.
Here we take a cable car (how Swiss, home from home). The views from the top are spectacular – Mt Fuji of course, mountains (70% of Japan is mountainous, so 127m people live in an area one-third the size of California!), lakes and even the Pacific Ocean. Below us is a golf course, the greens all brown after the winter.
Then a 20 minute boat trip across the lake for the final bus ride to the bullet train (my third!), which we make with minutes to spare (all those latecomers were on my hit list had we missed it) and unreserved seating, but no problem. There Sherry and I part company, along with our other new friends; Atsuko kindly finds me a taxi. It’s been a 10-hour day and the poor old leg is beginning to complain. Hill-walking is a bit premature, it’s telling me!