Japan: 'We're Stymied as to the Best Way to Take It All In'
Two friends want to hike Mt. Fuji, explore the excitement of Tokyo, and mellow out in Kyoto--all in a single week
"We don't need to be pampered, and can do with very simple places to stay," says Sue. "We'd rather spend our money on other things." Kimi Ryokan, in the Ikebukuro district, is a popular, friendly guesthouse; double rooms cost as little as $55. The women are also intrigued by capsule hotels, so we steer them to Capsule Hotel Fontaine Akasaka, one of the few that allow women to rent miniature sleeping compartments. But we warn them about the obvious: Capsule hotels are more for bragging rights than comfort--in other words, one night is plenty.
Next on the itinerary is 12,388-feet-tall Mt. Fuji. Sue is the more hard-core hiker of the two, and she was hoping we'd help her convince Kate that they should climb the mountain from the base to the summit. The trek takes about 12 hours each way, so many hikers break it up over two days. Given the limited time Sue and Kate have, we can't get on board with the idea, especially considering that if they do the longer hike they may be too sore to enjoy the second half of their trip. As an alternative, a bus from Shinjuku can take them partway up the mountain, to the Kawaguchiko Fifth Station. Even from there, it's no easy stroll. The average climb to the summit is five hours.
Though Sue is more gung ho about hiking, Kate has a personal reason for climbing Mt. Fuji: Her uncle hiked the mountain more than 40 years ago and subsequently lost his prized Japanese walking stick. "Dad wants me to bring back a replacement stick for his brother," says Kate. Gift shops are interspersed along the path, and high-quality walking sticks cost less than $10. As Kate ascends, she can have chops, or seals, burned into the stick for about $2 apiece to prove how high she's made it.
The bullet train will speed them 320 miles in two hours and 40 minutes to Kyoto, a city that doubles as a giant museum of Japanese culture, with some 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines. The Higashiyama district is the place to go. It's dense with fantastic sites, including the popular Ginkaku-ji, with a sprawling moss garden and enigmatic sand sculptures, and the flower-lined trail along a canal at the base of the mountains, known as the Path of Philosophy. For a hearty, affordable dinner, they should go to Omen, a noodle restaurant with an English menu where the house specialty is steaming udon noodles in a rich broth. "As long as it doesn't involve eating something that's still moving, we're willing to try it," says Sue.
"Hostels are fine by me," says Sue. "They're a great way to meet other travelers." Budget Inn and Tour Club are clean, well-run, and less than 10 minutes by foot from the train station; both offer a choice of dorms and private rooms. Sue and Kate can rent bicycles at either to explore on their own, or join a bicycle tour run by the Kyoto Cycling Tour Project. At some point, the women want to experience a soak in a traditional hot spring. They might try western Kyoto's Funaoka Onsen, which has been in business since 1923 and remains popular for its wooden bathtubs, large sauna, and outdoor bathing area made of cedar and rock.
If they have any time left, Kate and Sue should head south of the train station to the Temple Tofuku-ji and its Garden of the Hojo, carefully designed with stone and moss. Or to Kyoto's Arashiyama district, where they can wander through a bamboo grove and visit Okochi Sanso Villa. Admission to the villa, which was built by a famous old samurai-movie star and boasts a spectacular view of Kyoto, includes access to its expansive gardens and a cup of green tea.
Hopefully, the weather will be clear on the train ride back to Tokyo so that Kate and Sue can catch one final view of Mt. Fuji. The Japanese believe that whoever passes by this sacred mountain should make a wish. We imagine that after whetting their appetites with this quick taste of Japan, Sue and Kate will be wishing for a return trip--with more than a week to spare.
The Japan National Tourist Organization helped us arrange seven-day train passes for Kate and Sue from the Japan Railways Group, free of charge. The passes, normally $240 apiece, will make it that much easier for the women to do (and afford) everything they want during their packed trip.