We started our journey in history-filled, ultramodern Tokyo, but now, after two full days in that exciting city, we board the bullet train for our trip through rural Japan. As we travel south towards the old castle town of Odawara, the busy urban landscape gradually gives way to quieter views: mist lies along the harvested rice fields, and we catch glimpses of the Pacific Ocean, dotted with rocky islands. The Smithsonian Journeys bus is waiting in Odawara when we arrive, and it takes us along a mountain road to Lake Ashi, at the foot of Mt. Fuji. Riding on a boat across the lake, we look back at the shore with its tall cedars, and here and there, orange-red torii, or Shinto gates. The great mountain herself is invisible behind a screen of clouds, but the misty air intensifies the bright color of the torii, making the ancient structures glow against the dark green of the trees. The largest torii extends out into the lake itself. It marks the entrance to Hakone Shrine, where, the story goes, the first Kamakura shogun sought guidance in the 12th century.
From Lake Ashi, we travel by bus to the 5th station of Mt. Fuji, an area described in legend as ruled by the mischievous long-nose goblins known as Tengu. Mt. Fuji has been a sacred site in Japan since time immemorial, and climbing the mountain has long been considered a form of ascetic discipline and worship. The sun appears and disappears as the bus makes its way up through the mountains, but by the time we arrive, Mt. Fuji towering above and the scenery below are obscured in a thick fog. Disappointed but not discouraged, we visit nearby Komitake Shrine. There, we light incense and ask the Shinto gods to blow the clouds away. Stepping out from the shrine, we look up to see the thick mist moving to reveal an edge of bright blue sky—and then suddenly, Mt. Fuji herself comes into view. Our prayers have been granted! Even though I have seen the mountain numerous times, its majestic size and perfect shape still take my breath away. Everyone, foreign tourists and Japanese alike, exclaim in wonder. Then, just as quickly, the clouds close again and Mt. Fuji disappears behind her veil.
That night we stay in a 150-year old Japanese ryokan, or inn, on the shore of Lake Suwa. On our arrival, hot green tea is prepared for each of us in our traditional-style tatami rooms. We are treated to a delicious dinner of local seasonal delicacies served on an array of beautiful ceramic dishes. Then, those who are game go to the inn’s hot springs bath. Part of the bath is outdoors, within a garden, bordered by rocks and plants. There can be few things more relaxing than soaking in the steaming mineral waters, surrounded by nature. We go back to our rooms completely refreshed. In our absence, the futon have been laid out, and after a final look at the peaceful lake spreading out beneath my window, I, for one, fall immediately to sleep.
Want to learn more about our Eternal Japan tour? Check it out here!