Enjoying Mt. Fuji at Kawaguchiko Lake: No Hiking Required
Fuji is Japan's most famous and beloved landmark so it is on most people's "must see" lists. However, not everyone is willing or able to climb it. Fortunately, there are many ways to enjoy Fuji and the surrounding areas without hiking. Fuji is actually surrounded by a number of lakes that were formed hundreds of years ago due to lava flow from Fuji damming the rivers. Of the five lakes, Kawaguchiko is the most well known and the most developed. As it’s only two hours from Tokyo by bus, it’s also fairly easy to access. You can take a cruise or a swan boat or just walk around the lake, taking in the sights and stopping at the various shops (like Fujiyama Cookies!) However, there is much more to Kawaguchiko than that, and it is home to quite a few interesting museums, many of which offer views of Fuji.
Music Forest is a family friendly European styled garden and museum. As the name implies, the park is dedicated to automatic musical instruments and music boxes. Music Forest houses mechanical organs and other automatic instruments as well as large music “boxes” — many of which aren’t shaped like boxes at all and have dolls that appear to be the ones playing the music. There are two buildings. The first is the organ hall, whose main attraction is giant automatic organ called the dance organ. At first glance it looks more like a building facade than an organ, and there are countless dolls around the room that play music along with the organ.
The second building is the history hall, where you can listen to various automatic music boxes and instruments as well as get a closer look at how they work. Concerts are also held here. In order to fully enjoy these instruments, short shows are held once an hour to demonstrate the dance organ, the automatic instruments, and the music boxes. Everything is well timed so it is easy to go from one thing to the next, and while the presentations are in Japanese, it is easy enough to understand. The history hall presentation does offer an English explanation of the mechanics of the instruments, which was an appreciated touch. The rose gardens and the grounds themselves are also beautiful, and be sure to check out the cute but very brief water show at the pond. Weather permitting, you can even see Fuji though unfortunately, it was cloudy when I visited.
From Kawaguchiko station, you can take Kawaguchiko line retro bus to the Ukai Orugoruno Mori Bijutsukan stop. The park is open from 9 until 5, and tickets cost 1500 yen. From their website, you can also buy discounted tickets, and visitor’s centers or other tourist spots also offer pamphlets with a 100 yen off coupon.
Kubota Ichiku Museum
Close to the Music Forest is the Kubota Ichiku museum. While I had never heard that name before visiting, it ended up being one of highlights of Kawaguchiko. Kubota Ichiku was an artist who created stunning dyed kimono. When he was young, he stumbled upon a Tsujigahana dyed textile, and he made it his life’s mission to recreate and revive this dyeing technique that had been largely forgotten. The dyeing process is long and laborious. First, the design is sketched onto the kimono. Then the sections are gathered into small clumps that are tied with vinyl that protects parts of the kimono from the dye. These clumps are individually colored before being covered so the whole fabric can be dyed, steamed, and rinsed. After the vinyl is removed, any embroidering or hand painting is done.
It is impressive enough that he essentially invented this technique himself, as the real methods of Tsujigahana have been lost to history. However, he had far loftier ideas than simply making beautiful kimono. His masterpiece is entitled the Symphony of Light, a series of 80 kimono representing the four seasons and the universe. Arranged next to each other, the kimono blend perfectly into each other. Unfortunately, he did not finish the collection before his death, but his family are still working on the remaining kimono.
In the museum, you can see many of his kimono. Before you enter the main hall, you will be offered a chance to see an English language video explaining his life and the kimono dyeing process. While the video is rather long, it is worth it for the valuable information it supplies; I appreciated the kimono more after learning about their history. The kimono are absolutely stunning, and it is amazing to see these beautiful (and surprisingly large) pieces up close.
The museum building and the gardens are also striking and unique. Upon entering, you are greeted by a large gate that seems like a relic from a fallen society. The path up is set in a beautiful wooded area, and the gardens are also a good place to enjoy fall colors. There is even a small waterfall, which can be viewed from the tearoom inside the museum. I enjoyed the grounds and its quirky architecture almost as much as the kimono! Additionally, there is another cafe and exhibit room that offers views of Fuji on a clear day though this does require another fee.
From Kawaguchiko station, you can take a bus to Kubota Itchiku Bijutsukan bus stop. Alternatively, it is a ten minute walk from the music forest. For those arriving by car, both it and the Music Forest offer free parking. The museum is open from 10 until 4:30 and it is closed on Tuesday. You can buy a combo ticket for 3000 yen that includes the Music Forest as well as the monkey theatre.
The real highlight of the Kawaguchiko area is the Chureito pagoda, which is located slightly away from the lake area. You will first come to Arakura Sengen shrine, and from there, you must climb 400 steps up to the pagoda. While this may seem daunting, the view is absolutely worth it. The five story red pagoda itself is beautiful, but it is especially striking with Fuji in the background. It is no wonder it is a famous photography spot! Pictures do not do it justice though as it is absolutely breathtaking in person and well worth the effort. It is especially popular in the spring when the sakura are in bloom. You can access it from a 10 minute walk from Shimo-Yoshida station.
Lastly, if you venture slightly away from Kawaguchiko, you can find Oshino Hakkai. The area used to be home to a 6th lake, which has long since dried up. Now, you can find 8 beautiful ponds that are fed by snow melt from Fuji. The area is rather touristy and jam packed with visitors, but its beauty proves that it is popular for good reason. The water in the ponds is shockingly clear, and the fish and bright green plant life make the ponds wonderfully picturesque. The old style buildings and watermill complete the picture. You can even see a clear reflection of Mt Fuji in the aptly named Kagami-ike ("Mirror Pond"). Despite the crowds, it is an easy place to relax and enjoy a stunning natural scene. 7 of the 8 ponds are located within easy walking distance of each other, and there are signs in English and in Japanese so getting around is easy. There are of plenty of shops to buy food or omiyage, and you can even fill a water bottle with water from the ponds. From the main shop near the ponds, you can also cross a bridge to a circular walkway that gives you a better view of the pond.
The ponds themselves are free save for Sokonukeike, which is located in the Hannoki Bayashi Shiryokan open air museum (open 9-5, 300 yen). Unlike the other stops around the lake area, parking is not free, but many of the shops will waive the fee if you purchase a souvenir. It’s about a 20 minute bus ride from Kawaguchiko station to Oshino Hakkai or Oshino Hakkai Iriguchi, and there are a few options; some buses bound for Gotemba stop there or you can take a Fujikko bus.
These are just a few of the attractions available around Kawaguchiko. While it may not be a huge city, it has plenty of interesting things to offer so there is something for everyone. It is well worth the visit, and Kawaguchiko is a wonderful relaxing way to enjoy Fuji.