I've been in Japan for three years now. During my first visit, I did most of the touristy stuff - going to temples in Kyoto, eating all the weird food, even going to Kamakura. But ever since actually moving here, I kind of stopped and forgot to visit the rest of the country, which is partially due to sheer laziness on my side, and partially due to Tokyo making it a bit complicated to get out given its enormous size.
So even though I can see Fuji-san, one of Japan's most iconic landmarks, from our apartment's window on a clear day, I never actually went there. This year, for the weekend following my birthday, I decided to change that, and go take a closer look. Hopping on a car or train to get there would have been too easy, though, so I got on my bicycle, and scheduled 2 days, one to get to the area known as Fuji Five Lakes, and another one to encircle the mountain.
I followed the advice found on the English-speaking sites regarding getting there, and headed out to 道志道 (Doushi-michi) from 相模原市 (Sagamihara-shi) on Saturday morning, which leads all the way to 山中湖 (Yamanaka-ko). On paper, it's a relatively small street, following a river bed as so many other mountain roads in Japan, since the river would already have carved a valley with more or less appropriate grades into the mountains:
There was two unexpected things though. Firstly, this road is rather well-known, and in particular among motorcyclists. As it turns out, they gather in groups of around 15-20 people, and interestingly, within those groups, the types of motorcycles are pretty homogenous. There's the classic gang of people riding their overspec'd super sports machines, but there's also groups of young people on pimped up 50cc machines, groups on classic bikes of all the same kind, and so on. The end result is that every couple of minutes, there is the blaring sound of engines whizzing by, which is not quite the soundtrack I was hoping for. And while they are relatively cautious when overtaking, given the sheer number of riders, some of them will have accidents. On that day, I saw one young woman mourning at a road side mark where her friend died shortly before, plus two more wrecks that had crashed on that very day.
The other problem: it's all uphill. Here's the full height profile, starting from our apartment, and ending at 富士河口湖:
The average climb is only 3% or so, but it is really uphill all the way, except for the short dip around 75km, and it gets steeper and steeper the further the road progresses. There was also a very persistent head wind blowing on that day, making the whole climb even more exhausting. The grade is mostly managable at the beginning, but about 3 or 4km before the peak, it gradually steepens, to 6%, 8%, and then the last 1km or so feels more like 10%, although I didn't really measure. Suffice to say, I was more than happy to see this tunnel, after passing it, there is no more climbing to be done:
I had booked a stay at at small Japanese style hotel (旅館) at 富士河口湖 (Fujikawaguchi-ko) called 丸弥荘 (Maruyaso), so I took the north route around 山中湖, which turned out to be a very good choice. There is a cycling road winding right along the shore of the lake, and while going there, I was treated with great views on Mt. Fuji in the sunset, which pretty much made up for all the efforts getting there. The pictures don't really do justice to its actual size, it surely looks a lot more majestic in reality:
The clouds just opened up for a couple of minutes, and it would be the only time to get an unobstructed view of the top of the mountain. After letting gravity propel me to the hotel, I spent the rest of the evening going back between relaxing in the 温泉 (Onsen) which is available to guests at any time, and stocking up on calories again.
The quirky elderly owner of the place had treated my to a room with a mountain view, so here's what I woke up to the next morning:
Quick breakfast, and off I went, to encircle the mountain counter-clockwise, until eventually reaching Hakone, where I would meet up with my fiancée, who had booked a lovely room with a private hot bath there. For going around the mountain, there is pretty much only one road, which inevitably includes some more climbing, but at a much easier grade than the day before:
The first 30km or so where mostly lined with trees on the side, which kind of defied the point of going around Mt. Fuji, but at least they would open up to the other side, with some nice vistas across 富士河口湖:
Around the time of the first descent, though, the forests gave way to rather open farm lands, and from that point, I had Mt. Fuji on my left side pretty much all the time. The top was covered in clouds all day, but at least the rain was only intermittent:
The only really tough part of this ride was the mountain range in front of Hakone, which are something around an 8% grade, but felt more like 10% with 2 days of riding in the legs. There is a tunnel on top, after that, the descent is pretty steep, making for a very quick dash into Hakone, and maybe catching a quick glimpse of the lush greens and the waterfalls along the way:
We met up at Yaeikan, which is a gorgeous Japanese style hotel, and offers rooms with in-room hot spring bathes. While not exactly a bargain, it's a truly great experience to soak in the water from the hot springs, without any interruptions, and not having to care about other people using the bath, all while overlooking the surrounding scenery:
All in all, it was a fantastic birthday weekend. If I did the trip again, I would likely pick a different route to 山中湖, or possibly leave on a Friday morning to avoid the weekend motorcycle crowd. It may also make sense to do this at the end of May / early June instead of my mid-April weekend, when it's a bit warmer in the high lands around Mt. Fuji, but before rain season hits and the rain becomes unpredictable.