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Sunday, Sep. 4, 2011
Year-round playground Yamanashi
By SALLY KIKUCHI
In all of my visits to Yamanashi Prefecture, never before has catching sight of Mount Fuji left my heart beating so fast. Certainly, any view of that lofty symbol of Japan is sure to impart a sense of awe at its scale and natural beauty. But this time, it was the 121-degree freefall right after my fleeting glimpse that rocketed my pulse rate and took my breath away.
With at least seven major twists, and 1,000 meters of track that rears up to 43 meters (141 feet) above ground level, Takabisha is the latest Guinness world-record addition to Fuji-Q Highland in Fujiyoshida.
Despite the three-hour wait in summer showers, the two-minute ride was worth it! After being buckled in and sent off by staff chanting, "Bisha! Bisha! Takabisha!" there was barely time to brace for a nosedive in darkness as the unforgettable ride began.
If this adrenaline rush isn't enough for you, though, the amusement park is also home to Fujiyama (once the world's tallest roller coaster), Dodonpa (highest acceleration at launch), Eejanaika (fastest and highest "fourth-dimensional" coaster) and plenty of other fun attractions.
While Fuji-Q is sure to please thrill-seekers, there is plenty more in Yamanashi to satisfy your thirst for a weekend adventure if being thrown around in a steel machine is not your cup of tea.
In fact, this area north of Mount Fuji has always been my first choice for a weekend away from the dog days of summer in the city. And as I was once a JET Program teacher there for two years, Yamanashi holds a special place in my heart.
Personal links apart, though, the area's charms can cater to anyone's tastes — from hiking to relaxing in onsen hot springs, from sightseeing to eating local specialties, there really is something for everyone.
Yamanashi's main attraction, of course, is Mount Fuji, whose official climbing season runs from the beginning of July up to the end of August. Each day and night then you can be sure a new set of ambitious climbers will be trekking up to Japan's highest summit, at 3,776 meters, for a stunning view of the sunrise.
As the saying goes, those who never climb Mount Fuji are fools, but only a fool would climb it more than once. I guess that means I am no fool — but I definitely hope that anyone determined to follow in my footsteps goes prepared and doesn't fool around.
When I made the ascent with a friend, we set off with our packs full of water, food and extra clothing. But even with a few hours' rest at the 8th Station huts at around 3,200 meters, we were still exhausted when we arrived, shivering, at the top.
If climbing Mount Fuji is not an option for you, how about having your own playground for a few hours in its forests? Forest Adventure, run by Outdoor Japan at Narusawa on the mountain's northern slopes, was Japan's first high-wire and ropes course. For a few thousand yen, you get strapped into a harness and complete the introductory training course before heading off to conquer the zip slides, Tarzan-like swings and other derring-do activities to test your limits. The staff are friendly and encouraging, and it's a safe place full of new challenges for children and adults alike.
While you are in the area, exploring the attractions around Lake Kawaguchiko is sure to yield a balanced mix of recreation, history and culture.
You can do this by hopping on a tourist bus from Kawaguchiko Station or, if you're like me, you can rent a bicycle and travel at your own pace with cool mountain breezes on your face.
Then, the closer you get to the waterfront, the more you will notice just how much awaits you. In late June, purple hydrangeas dot the lush-green slopes, and Kachi Kachi Ropeway is an ideal way to take in some amazing views. Signs also advertise fruit-picking in nearby orchards, while banners for upcoming summer festivals wave in the wind. Then there are boats you can rent to join the anglers patiently adrift on the lake, paragliding sessions to jump at or barbecuing to be done at one of several campsites.
However, if you're looking for more of a cultural fix, check out Fujiyoshida City's various temples and shrines. Combine a hike with the perfect photo opportunity by visiting Chureito Pagoda atop a hill just a short walk from Shimoyoshida Station and accessed via several flights of steps from the lantern-lined entrance or from the grassy hillside itself. While the wintertime view from there of snow-capped Mount Fuji is stunning and sublime, and that in spring with a multitude of cherry blossoms is exquisite, really it's just a great year-round place to sit awhile in peace.
Up the road from there is another cultural landmark that actually serves as the entrance to a famed Mount Fuji pilgrimage. Built in 865, Fuji Sengen Shrine rests in the center of a serene forest, approached along a path lined with mossy stone lanterns. The wooden torii gate is said to be one of the largest of its kind in Japan, and it is rebuilt slightly larger every six decades. Around the torii are sacred trees more than 1,000 years old that are said to protect the shrine.
Takeda Shingen (1521-73), a famous local warrior, is believed to have taken a particular interest in this shrine, which was to become the focal point of Mount Fuji worship during the Edo Period (1603-1867).
Just as Takeda is iconic to Yamanashi, its specialty foods are also a pride of this prefecture.
Yoshida teuchi udon uses firm noodles that are made from scratch and only briefly boiled; while houtou is an unmissably delicious dish of assorted vegetables — typically pumpkin, carrots, potatoes and onions — served piping hot in a miso-based soup with flat noodles that here are likely handmade.
Fancifully or not, everyone round here will tell you that Takeda and his troops ate houtou before every battle, and that he was responsible for popularizing the dish. What's certain, though, is that it's best on a cold winter's day — but delicious any time.
Afterward, if your appetite allows, try shingen mochi for dessert. It's a rice cake covered with ground soybean powder and kuromitsu (black honey). As popular souvenirs, packs of mochi or houtou are ideal for sharing with friends when you return home.
If you're one who enjoys a fine pint, though, then your trip here isn't complete until you have partaken at Fujiyoshida's local watering hole, the Fujiyama Brewery, which typically hosts more than 1,000 customers a day. This microbrewery's spacious beer hall welcomes you to settle at one of its rows of tables alongside the mighty vats in which Mount Fuji's natural water is combined with hops grown on its flanks.
To accompany a steak from the German- themed menu, perhaps, there's a choice of Weizen, Pils or Dunkel beers to choose from: Weizen has a fruity flavor and comes with a lemon slice; Pils, with its light and refreshing taste, is the most popular; and the Dunkel brew made using dark-roasted malt has an altogether stronger bite. It's a great, cozy place to hang out alone or with friends — if you're not driving or riding a bike afterward!
As abundant as the area's attractions may already seem, there's other beautiful lakes to visit, too, or the Narusawa Ice Cave to be explored year-round. Or, you could dive into one of the area's giant Mont Blanc ice-cream desserts before teeing off at one of its many country club golf courses.
And then there are the onsen establishments dotted everywhere, with most claiming the temperature or mineral content of their hot-spring water (or both) is particularly beneficial in some way or other.
Meanwhile, the Tourist Information Center in Fujiyoshida is sure to come up with plenty of other recreational ideas — whether parks, galleries, temples or shops that are worth checking out as well.
But, of course, summer isn't the only time to lap up Yamanashi's charms. Return in the fall to view the koyo leaves in their red, orange and yellow glory. Or go in spring for a hanami picnic under the cherry-blossom trees that turn the mountains pink. Winter is a paradise for Mount Fuji photographers, and winter-sports fans can go wild at the Fujiten Resort.
In short, any trip to Yamanashi will likely leave you, like me, just longing to return.
Getting there: Kawaguchiko Station and Fujisan Station are on the Fujikyu Railway from Otsuki. Buses from Tokyo, Kofu, Gotemba and elsewhere stop at the stations, and the Chuo Expressway allows easy road access. For more details, call Fujiyoshida Tourist Information Center on (0555) 22-7000 or visit city.fujiyoshida.yamanashi.jp.