Meet the Hamptons of Japan

Lake Kawaguchiko offers stunning views of Mount Fuji

At Lake Kawaguchiko 7-Eleven it’s all Fuji. Among the strawberry cheesecake KitKats and mugwort mochi dumplings are blue-tinted Fuji bath plugs, Fuji rice crackers, Fuji chiffon cake, bottles of Fujisan Blue Cream Soda and boxes of house-baked Fujisan Blue Curry Rice. The challenge is to make this edible version of the Sacred Mountain look like the image on the box, which depicts a perfect cone of flattened rice with radioactive turquoise stripes rolling down the sides. If you’re visiting and don’t see Mount Fuji, fear not: the mountain can be found in many forms at your local grocery store.

At 3,776 meters (12,388 feet), Fuji is Japan’s highest mountain. Many visitors see it for the first time while leaving Tokyo on the Shinkansen. A few years ago, on an exceptionally clear day, I saw it from an airplane: a near-perfect cone rising incongruously from the glass and concrete expanse of Tokyo. I could just make out a semi-circular chain of lakes around the base. I promised I would come by.

I didn’t know it at the time, but the place I was going was Fuji Five Lakes (Fuji Go-ko), in Yamanashi Prefecture, less than a few hours from Tokyo, long a favorite weekend destination of Tokyoites craving some peace and quiet and freshness of the air – just as wealthy New Yorkers might flee to Eastport and Sag Harbor for a few days of relief from the city’s smog.

Even on a clear day, clouds of clouds are never far away in Fuji Five Lakes – but in October I was lucky. The day we arrived at Glamping Villa Hanz, Fuji was lost behind a curtain of clouds. Early the next morning a friend poked her head into my tent. “Fuji is out!” she hissed. It was as if someone had gotten up in the night with a ladder and painted its graceful slopes towards the sky.

Villa HanzVilla Hanz

Villa Hanz

You don’t have to climb Japan’s highest mountain to appreciate its beauty and cultural significance. Spectacular views of Fuji and the five lakes that meet at its northern base can be seen from the foothills and a chain of smaller mountains. Lake Motosuko’s iconic view of Fuji is featured on the back of the 1,000 yen note. The area is peppered with walking and hiking trails, and a dedicated bike path hugs much of the perimeter of Lake Yamanakako.

Glamping Villa Hanz is about a 10-minute drive from Lake Kawaguchiko. We stayed in geodesic ‘pao’ (dome tents), but there were also ‘glamping villas’ with large jacuzzis and a barbecue terrace and a luxurious century-old guest house, restored and rebuilt.

This being Japan, the camping experience was full of quirky charm. The glamping life came with class A kit, washing and drying toilets and instructions for everything. I’m not ashamed to say that it was a highlight to step a few feet away from my pao into a warm bathroom stall with a multi-nozzle shower and a toilet that stood out as I entered and warmed my thighs as I sat down. .

Writer Teresa Machan splits wood like a proWriter Teresa Machan splits wood like a pro

Writer Teresa Machan splits wood like a pro

An information booklet illustrated every item, from coaster and tongs to rice cooker, chimney starter, meat thermometer and the brilliantly lost in translation “digestive organ”, also known as a fire extinguisher. Useful for city dwellers who have never learned to light or extinguish a fire.

Our visit to the Fuji Five Lakes began with a trip to the Sengen-jinja Shrine, located in the forested foothills of Fuji and reached via a ‘worshipper’s path’ flanked by moss-covered stone lanterns and cedars with copper trunks from which a cherry-red sap radiated. .

For the Japanese, Fujisan is both a spiritual and physical totem. Sengen-jinja is the starting point for one of four ancient climbing routes used by Shinto pilgrims, and climbers keen to complete the full 10 stages of the Yoshida Trail can join the trailhead at the ‘climbing gate’ behind the main prayer room.

Paos at Villa Hanz is equipped with all the necessary comfortPaos at Villa Hanz is equipped with all the necessary comfort

Paos at Villa Hanz is equipped with all the necessary comfort

The shrine is one of 25 sites around Mount Fuji inscribed by UNESCO. Villa Hanz had organized a formal blessing – an expression of happiness for our visit – in the Hall of Worship. Dressed in embroidered robes, a miko (shrine princess) sang prayers and we bowed our heads and doubled over to acknowledge the gods. When we were blessed, we huddled for a group photo with our Villa Hanz host, after which my socked foot found the edge of a lacquered object and the ceremony was shattered as the two of us nearly fell to the ground. I’m sure I got a shock at the miko’s mouth.

Repeated volcanic eruptions (the last was in 1707) have created unusual volcanic features, including lava tree fungi, wind and ice caves, and a dense forest that took root on a lava plateau. In the Aokigahara Forest, mossy roots grip the shallow ground like a troll’s toes. The sky is green under a dense canopy. Our guide, Makoto, who had a bell attached to his backpack, pointed to claw marks on a trunk. According to Makoto, there are 30 Asiatic black bears in the area and probably three in Aokigahara. “They are vegetarian, but it is best not to provoke them,” he said.

Guide Makoto points out the claw marks of Asiatic black bears in the Aokigahara ForestGuide Makoto points out the claw marks of Asiatic black bears in the Aokigahara Forest

Guide Makoto points out the claw marks of Asiatic black bears in the Aokigahara Forest – Teresa Machan

The porous rock of the forest interrupts the magnetic field, and before he left Makoto held his compass over a rock so we could watch the needle spin.

Porous rock plays a role in Fuji’s sought-after water, earning it the nickname “water mountain.” The mineral-rich meltwater is filtered through layers of basalt and seeps underground before being tapped at springs, wells and onsen. Local onsen sing about the vanadium content of the water, which is said to lower blood pressure. As a bonus, Villa Hanz has its own source of Fuji spring water, as well as a small onsen.

Silky spring water nourishes large vegetables and flavors the sake and noodles. The chewy local noodles are a delicacy best slurped into a bowl of hoto. Every restaurant has its secrets, but the basic recipe is a stew of oily noodles boiled in spring water and cooked with seasonal vegetables in a miso broth.

At the family-run Ide Sake Brewery, which has been brewing in the same location for 300 years, Fuji spring water is the elixir in a fine brew. During a tour, the current owner (21st generation) told us how his 16th generation ancestor made the leap from soy sauce production to sake brewing. It was a smart move. In Sengen-jinja, rows of sake barrels are presented as offerings to the gods. Too bad they don’t get to try the sake ice cream.

Canoeing is a popular activity on Lake KawaguchikoCanoeing is a popular activity on Lake Kawaguchiko

Canoeing is a popular activity on Lake Kawaguchiko – Teresa Machan

Back at Villa Hanz we visited the Kura to collect kindling. The Kura, a modern take on the traditional Japanese warehouse, is the place to book activities, plant an ax in wood (under supervision) and gain insight into Japanese knife mastery.

The ingredients for dinner were delivered to each pao’s outdoor kitchen around 6 p.m. We unwrapped a pot of seafood in oil – an entree that sizzled on the skillet – vegetables for grilling, rice, chicken, pork steaks and generous strips of Wagyu. For dessert there were bananas to cook in their peels and caramel sauce to pour over them. Thanks to our ceramic ‘Kamado’ barbecue and brilliant instructions (‘place the charcoal on a gentle slope’ – who knows?) the dinner was a complete success.

Then we lingered by the fire pit under the stars before toasting in the cypress barrel sauna. With a group of four women, we vowed never to give up control of the barbecue again.

On our last morning, I yanked myself out of the huge, soggy futon bed to do a canoe paddle at dawn and discovered that a miracle had occurred that night. Fujisan has its own lexicon for the natural phenomena that occur all year round, and our last night coincided with hatsu kansetsu – the first snow cap of the season. Quite an event.

Toy and Hat, our canoe guides, arrived with tea, biscuits and homemade honey and said it was auspicious. Secretly, I was relieved that my clumsy antics at the shrine had not offended the gods. Our canoes glided across Lake Kawaguchiko until we saw the snow-capped peak of the mountain outlined in the lake.

To hatsu chancetsu, goraiko (sunrise from Mount Fuji) and also known as Fuji (a shade of red immortalized in an Edo-era woodblock print) we could add “upside down Fuji.” In the inverted reflection I could see the mountain’s flattened crater bowl for the first time.

Now all I had to do was return to the 7-Eleven and make this beautiful thing in rice.

How to do that

Teresa Machan was a guest at Glamping Villa Hanz (0081 555 728 282; Pao accommodation costs from 32,128 yen (£176) per night for two people. Breakfast costs 2,373 yen (£13) per person. Villas from 40,890 yen (£224) per room. Activities outside the location cost extra.

Return flights from Heathrow to Tokyo (with a stopover in Frankfurt) cost from £1,200 per person ( A direct train from Tokyo to Kawaguchiko Station costs 2,360 yen (£12) and takes 70 minutes.

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