February 8, 2023

I love Japan. I’ve only spent a little bit of time here – but in that short period, I’ve learned that it offers everything I want from a place. The landscapes, the cities, the food, the people and culture, the technology, and much more. I’ve said it before – if Japan were the first country I ever came to, I doubt that I would have spent so much time going other places. My first trip here was a solo trip in pre-covid times. It was very limited and I only visited Osaka and Hiroshima. That trip was amazing but this one is far more important. I’m here with my 11-year-old daughter and favorite travel buddy as a surprise Christmas present. She doesn’t know yet – but we’ll be going to Tokyo Disneyland Sea in a few days – I’ll write separately about that.

This is a budget trip with a few splurges. I managed to book us flights on ZipAir, which is Japan Airlines budget carrier for about $750 each. Our first few nights are paid for with points from my IHG credit card – the only hotel we could afford with the points I had was the Crowne Plaza near Narita Airport (where we flew in). There are not a lot of activities nearby so I knew that our second day would need to be filled and decided to book a private guide for full day tour. This was our biggest splurge besides Disneyland with hotel.

 

I arranged for the guide to pick us up and drop us off at our hotel. As for the tour – I felt like it was important that we pay our respects to Fujisan (Mt. Fuji) first thing and the guide told me it was very reasonable to expect to drive to Mt. Fuji, visit the Fuji Temple to pay respects, play in the snow (Sophia’s biggest Christmas wish), and enjoy some food and cultural activities through the day with a possibility of soaking in some hot springs while looking at the majesty of Mt. Fuji. With no disrespect to our guide – I do wish that he had told me that we would be sitting in the car for nearly eight hours as we fought through Tokyo traffic. It was a long day and while we accomplished most of what we wanted to do – I’m not sure I would recommend anyone do it the same way.  There must be a better way that would be less expensive and not involve eight hours of car sitting – maybe a train to get past Tokyo and then a local guide closer to Fuji.

 

In any event- our first stop – the Mt. Fuji temple sanctuary was four hours after our pickup. It was beautiful. The massive Torii made of old cedar and spruce and the towering majestic trees lining the stone lantern girdled path to the temple created a very suitable sense of awe.

The complete name is the Kitaguchi Hongu Fujiyoshida Shrine. It is dedicated Konohana-sakuya Hime, the goddess of Mt. Fuji. Her name translates as Princess Blossom of the Trees. This is also the original starting point of Fuji’s Yoshida trail, which runs all the way up to the mountain’s summit and it is tradition for those who intend to climb Mt.Fuji to start here with a prayer. The 1000-year old cedar trees are ultra-impressive. The temple itself is around 400 years old and the Torii is the second largest in Japan after that at Hiroshima.

There is a lot to see around Mt. Fuji but we didn’t have much time to explore. There is a wild amusement park with the most terrifying rollercoaster I’ve ever looked at. Our mission though was to get to the snow. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much snow to be found at the altitudes we could reach so we settled for visiting the Yeti snow-park where there were a couple of small slopes covered in manmade snow and ice. It was terrible stuff to introduce Sophia to skiing or snowboarding on, so we opted to take some sled runs and roast a few marshmallows in the lodge area fire-pits. It was fun. There was no chance for making snowballs, snow angels, or snow men with the snow there – it wouldn’t stick and was ice on the surface. I laughed realizing that the snow in Dubai during the heat of summer had been superior to the snow of Japan (on this day at this place only) on a cold winter day. I’m truly lucky to be living this life and I’m so grateful.

Our guide (who was 71 and wore leather pants!) was very focused on getting us to somewhere and I had to request he stop so we could take photos and visit the shrine – otherwise he would have driven right by them. Same went for lunch, he would have probably skipped stopping had I not insisted. He was a nice older man and drove us safely while providing some information along the way. Finally, after the snowpark, it became obvious that what he wanted was to get us to the hot springs. I’m not a stranger to hot springs but I had expected that since I was traveling alone with an 11-year-old girl he would take us someplace that was family friendly – but no, he was taking us to his favorite nude hot-spring (which looked awesome) and wouldn’t hear of taking us anywhere else. I told him that we needed to go somewhere Sophia could wear a swimsuit and where we could soak in the springs together but he insisted she would be fine and nice Japanese ladies would make her comfortable. He was really ready for the hot-springs – had his bag prepared and we could sense his excitement. Sophia agreed to look and I made it clear to him that if she said no, then it wasn’t going to be a hot-spring day. Man, he really tried – the attendants came out and guided her back to the hot tubs while we waited. She came back and was like, nope, no way – not going to go have a bath with a bunch of naked women speaking Japanese all by myself. I don’t blame her a bit. The attendants explained that there were family friendly options nearby – but our guide said ‘no, they’re no good’ when we got back to the car. If I hadn’t of said no, I think he would have made us wait in the car while he went in and had a soak – he actually suggested that I have Sophia wait in the lobby while he and I go have a soak! This guy probably took the tour just because he wanted to soak in the hot-springs. I don’t blame him either – it looked wonderful, but there was no way I was going to put Sophia through any scenario of that situation.

I asked him to stop somewhere for lunch and we used an automated restaurant to get beef rice bowls. The partitions between even diners who are eating together is a strange thing to get used to. Masks are still everywhere in Japan.

And then – the four hour drive back through heavy Tokyo traffic. I dozed off at one point and woke up to music. Looking up, I was surprised to find that the driver(because in truth, he was more driver than guide)  had turned on the TV on his dash and was watching a variety program while he drove! I asked him if that was allowed in Japan because it seemed unsafe and he replied “No, it’s not allowed or common but it’s okay as long as you keep watching the road.”  To be fair, he got us to and from Mt. Fuji and delivered us to our hotel safely, so maybe it was okay…but no, definitely not okay. Interestingly, while in traffic I saw that he was not the only driver watching TV while he drove – talk about distracted driving!

We got back pretty exhausted and too late for dinner. Thankfully, lunch had been kind of late so we weren’t hungry at all.

I’m glad to have seen Mt. Fuji and visited the shrine. I’m happy Sophia got the chance to play in the snow. I’m grateful our driver got us to and from where we wanted and back, but I wouldn’t recommend doing it this way to anyone else. Way too much car time and honestly a train would have been more enjoyable (and faster). It was a beautiful day and some epic sights but next time – definitely not this way.

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