Sunday, November 29, 2009

At the Foot of Fuji

It was half past ten and fifteen degrees when I arrived in Kawaguchiko, and a steady stream of hikers had already started up the wide, paved path to Tenjoyama Park. Scrambling towards the top, the visibility was perfect in every direction but the one I was looking at, Fuji suddenly cut off at the shoulder by a sun-lit bank of cloud.

It took less than half an hour from the train station to the upper cable car terminus. The last of the autumn leaves were dying on the branch, hanging limply like banners at an abandoned parade. People queued at the viewfinders as if the clouds obscuring the mountain would magically disperse upon the insertion of a hundred yen coin. In front of the gift shop was a plastic model of a cartoon rabbit knocking the breath out of a beaver. Across the lake, you could just about make out the first snowcaps of the Japanese Alps. When I saw a second beaver trussed up and hanging from the ceiling outside the men's toilets, I decided it was probably best to leave. It was another ten minutes to the peak itself, a disappointing clearing in the pines, with stumps left for seating, a cairn-sized shrine and what would have been half a view of Fuji in a gap between the trees.

The mountain calm was shattered as soon as I hit the lakeshore. There was a Fancy Shop and J-pop ballads, duck boats and sightseeing buses, speedboat rides and coffee restaurants. I followed the waymarked path out of town to the westernmost edge of the lake, passing Omuro Sengen Shrine, the oldest of Fuji's shrines, rusting jet skis, a motorbike lying in the empty swimming of a bankrupt hotel, blue and yellow boats with their hulls facing up, piled by the water's edge, waveboard shops and little roadside cafes with Christmas trees out front. I stopped for lunch on a lawn by the water. The clouds were getting thicker all the while.

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