How many times can you say that you and some friends jumped in the car and took a road trip to the tallest and most famous mountain in Japan?
Now I can say that I’ve done it.
And we did it right. We rented a car, left early, brought plenty of snacks, and stopped at (almost) all of the rest stops on the highway. Between the company, spontaneity, and absurdity of it all, it was the recipe for a perfect Sunday.
Renting a car turned out to be surprisingly easy. Or at least the booking of the car did. All online through Expedia, everything was in English and straight forward. The real adventure began when we had to find the rental car place though and then when we actually signed and picked up the vehicle. And of course the rental staff had to go over all the insurance, road policies, and this “is what the Japanese traffic signs mean”, but thankfully they had a binder in a few different languages so it was more painless than we expected.
And with everything done, we happily drove off in our tiny little navy blue Nissan! I was lucky to score the front seat, but just like how the Japanese drive on the left/wrong side of the road, their cars also have their steering wheels on the wrong side. So even though I was up front, I was in the “driver’s seat” (at least the drivers seat if you’re from a “normal country”). It freaked me out the entire day. I kept trying to step on the brake or gas and flinching when she made right turns directly across the middle of intersections.
Japanese city and suburban streets are NARROW. Some of these roadways would be considered one lane roads in the USA, but somehow they are two way roads here. Yes, Japanese cars are a lot smaller as well, but still a road shouldn’t require a game of chicken each time two cars come head to head. (This actually happens in Toyohashi near me, one car usually has to awkwardly pull half off the road into a parking lot/sidewalk/over the curb just to let the other car pass. And since this is Japan, and not New York City, people are actually respectful and will pull off willingly to let the other person by.) Its a bizarre place.
Anyway, aside from me trying to drive in the “wrong” seat all day, we had a blast trying to use the onboard navigation system which was set to English, but was still about 40% Japanese. The big freeway that runs basically from Tokyo down to Kyoto was like rt 95, but with one blood boiling difference; the top speed of this highway was 80 kilometers per hour, which translated to a very frustrating top speed of 50 mph. 50 MPH. Here we were ready to cruise along, and it was like being stuck in the slow lane behind a caravan of semis for four hours. To say it was painful was an understatement. Of course there were plenty of cars going our same speed and plenty going faster, but being a bunch of foreigners in a rented vehicle, we didn’t want to test the waters and risk getting a speeding ticket.
Nothing to do about it though, so we all just had to laugh and settle in for the scenic drive. Luckily, the drive was broken up by many rest stops, and these rest stops put every one I’ve been to in American to shame. Everything was so clean and the bathrooms were twice the size of any back home. One even had a TV monitor posted at the entrance of the women’s room that showed where the unoccupied stalls were, almost like some parking decks that have the little green lights above empty parking spots. The shops at these pitstops all had a few food options, a convenience stores, and then one or two local gift shops where you could buy food and snacks that were a specialty of that area, or were produced in that prefecture. We were driving through Shizuoka Prefecture and they are known for their green tea production, so there were many different types of teas for sale. Closer to Mt Fuji, there were all sorts of Mt Fuji toys and snacks and items. One item of interest was a blue curry mix (because My Fuji is always portrayed as blue with a white snow cap), which while intriguing, was very off putting to see something usually brown, such radioactive shade of blue.
After the car journey, we finally made it to our first destination, the Ice Caves! It was one tunnel that shared an entrance/exit but made an almost figure eight ring shape once underground with two difference path ways. All visitors were made to wear helmets, (which everyone in out little party was strongly against because, ew, shared headgear…), but there was a stretch of tunnel that ran for about 16.5 feet, that had an overhead clearing of only 36 inches! All four of us were waddling and crawling and cackling the entire duration, trying not to lose out balance on the slick surface. And of course we all smacked our heads on the rocks above us a dozen times. One of us walked down the initial stairs, turned suddenly and walked straight into the (very bent) overhead sign announcing the sudden heigh difference. We all just about fell over laughing at her. Anyway, moral of the story: we were very thankful we needed the hardhats to cover our hard heads.
Next we were off to Aokigahara Jukai, or the “Sea of Trees”, (or the “Suicide Forest” in the media). The Sea of Trees is a 7,413 acre forest at the northwest base of Mt Fuji and is considered young at a spritely 1,200 years old. The trees were tall, imposing, and unique and everything down below was covered in lush green underbrush. We stayed on one of the loop trails and were the only ones around for some stretches. At one point, the forest dampened all sounds of cars, crowds, and even animals and we were surrounded by the mist and silence. It was eerie. Even though the forest itself was beautiful, this was not my favorite stop on this adventure. Also, at this point my feet were getting cold and I needed a snack.
Leaving the forest behind, we headed out to find the famous Chureito Pagoda, which if you’ve ever seen one of those gorgeous postcard pictures of a tall, red Japanese pagoda with cherry blossoms in the foreground and majestic Mt Fuji in the background, then you know which pagoda I’m talking about.
So the good thing was that because it was cold, the viewing area near the pagoda was practically empty. The bad news is that that day was gray and overcast and we couldn’t actually see the mountain… Bummer. But again, we were driving up there rain or shine, so we took everything in stride. The views from the pagoda were spectacular nonetheless, and we still had fun posing as our own mountain to make up for the cloudy views!
We wrapped up our pagoda photoshoot and ran back down to the car because the already cloudy sky was getting even darker as the sun was setting. Our next stop before dinner was to see one of the five great lakes around Mt Fuji. We found parking near Lake Kawaguchi and found our way onto a path encircling most of the lake. Supposedly on clear days, not only can you see Mt Fuji herself, but also a reflection of her in the lake. We tried to see any sort of anything, but the water was choppy, the sun nonexistent, and the mountain still hiding behind clouds. So we didn’t stay long… especially since we sort of parked in a cafe parking lot and didn’t eat at the cafe.
By now it was dark, and definitely time for dinner. Our friend who was driving us is a vegan, so our dinner options were dictated by where she could find a meal. Luckily, one of the options was this tiny little Italian place down a backroad going away from the small town. We accidentally drove by it the first time because the lights were off since it still wasn’t open for dinner (and also because we totally missed the parking lot entrance in the dark). But when we finally parked, we were the first people seated for dinner that night.
The menu was limited and I had my reservations because I’ve seen Japan do some interesting things to Italian food here…and not all of them the good type of interesting… but two of us got personal pizzas and two of us got pasta dishes. I went with something akin to carbonara, with the addition of mushrooms, and it was honestly phenomenal.
We were all genuinely surprised at how delicious everything was! Who knew this tiny tiny backwoods town could cook up top notch Italian dishes!?
We all but rolled out of the restaurant and landed back in the car, getting ready to make the 4 hour drive back. We fought with the GPS system again and this time it took us a different route to reach the freeway. Let me tell you about the road it took us down.
It was fully night time now, the sky was clearer of the day’s clouds and the moon was just coming off of being full a few days ago. Imagine a narrow, two lane road with no street lights, that serpentined through a dark forest. Parts of the road were lined with metal guard rails that started and stopped without reason and there were no breaks in the rows upon rows of trees for the first 30 minutes we spent on that road. It was dark and scary and my friend Jen and I were ready to jump out of our skins if we saw anything funky.
Thankfully, a minor miracle happened and the trees finally started thinning out and actual buildings could be seen again. I think we let out a collective sigh of relief. Then the best thing happened—the moon came back out and for the first time that day, we saw Mt Fuji. Her imposing shadowed silhouette rising up out of the darkness that stretched out before us. It was honestly awe inspiring.
So naturally the three of us not driving started yelling about how beautiful this sight was, and our driving friend yelled at all us to stop because she wanted to see it too. Then we all started yelling at her to keep her eyes on the road. It was very loud for a few minutes. Finally we found a side road (or maybe a driveway) to pull into so we could all get out and look at the mountain which had eluded us all day.
It was quite possibly the most perfect end to our journey.
We only missed about half a dozen turns all day, stopped in at 5 different rest stops, drove through beautiful mountains, took way too many pictures, and spent about half the time laughing at the unfortunate state of the weather and the other half laughing at each other. We got back well after midnight, each of us tired but truly happy with how the day turned out. It’s experiences like this that define my time here. Good friends, good conversations, and great adventures!