I was drawn by the glimmer of lanterns between the trees, the hum of people congregating, the scent of incense on the warm evening air. I’d just re-entered Maruyama Park, having climbed the hillside through a forest strung with the webs of yellow orb spiders and their hosts to watch the sun set over Kyoto – the former capital of Japan and the country’s cultural centre.
My feet carried me down the path to a great gathering: paths lined with painted lanterns, people clasping their hands and bowing before shrines, lighting incense and waving the smoke towards their faces … and a queue of young and old, men and women, leading into Higashi Otani Mausoleum, carrying buckets of water and trowels and thick-stemmed flowers. It was the first night of Obon – a Japanese Buddhist tradition to honour the spirits of one’s ancestors, when families reunite to tend the graves of the departed – and I’d inadvertently wandered into the midst of this most sombre and vivid of celebrations.
The mausoleum sprawled up the hillside, and I climbed higher and higher, past rows and rows of grey, rectangular, stone and marble graves – each one of them marked by a square paper lantern burning above – up crooked staircases and along narrow alleyways between the stones until I reached the top, where I gazed down at the blanket of lanterns spread out below, the lights of the city blinking on as the sky turned to crimson and purple hues. As if sensing death on the air, a dozen crows circled in the air above me, cawing in eerily human voices and crashing clumsily into the surrounding trees. It was as spine-tingling a sight as one could expect to find in two weeks of adventure. And I was on day one.
The two weeks in question comprised a Wandering Free tour of Kyoto, Matsumoto, Tsumago, the Japanese Alps, Fujiyoshida, Mount Fuji and Tokyo. That I had arrived during one of the most significant festivals – and, consequently, one of the busiest travel periods – in the country was coincidence.
The full package
I had some trepidations. I was the only non-UK citizen in a group of 14, and also the only one under the age of 37. Your enjoyment of a tour has a lot to do with the person guiding that tour. Our guide, Mayuko, was fun, personable, energetic, knowledgeable and, most importantly, could weather an onslaught of distinctly British humour from our limey collective. Our time in the cities was, strictly speaking, free time, but she organised daily optional itineraries for most places, taking in popular sights and a couple of more off-the-beaten-track ones. I had every intention of going it alone most of the time, but quickly learned that I’d see much more by sticking to Mayuko’s schedule and letting her navigate the bus and rail systems for us. It removed a little of the personal sense of discovery that comes with travelling solo, but made up for it in sheer volume of experience.
Alone and with the group I took in some of the top sights in Kyoto, including Nijō Castle (with its squeaking ‘nightingale floors’), Ryōan-ji Temple (home to the most famous Zen garden in the country), Ninna-ji Temple, Kinkaku-ji Temple (the country’s most popular tourist attraction – Kyoto is home to a lot of superlatives), the famed Inari Shrine (known for its thousands of torii – traditional Japanese gates), and we went geisha-spotting in Gion.
Of course, we weren’t in Japan just to visit the cities. We were there to climb mountains. We travelled to the small village of Tsumago-juku to warm up with a half-day walk on the Nakasendō Way, an ancient feudal trading route used during the Edo period (1603-1868) that helped the shogun consolidate power.
We spent the night in Tsumago in a ryokan – a traditional inn that is an expensive but essential experience for any visitor to Japan. There, after washing off the day’s walk, we donned light-cotton kimonos and gathered around the dinner table for a visual and culinary feast of traditional food, before spending the night on mattresses on the floor in rooms with delicately decorated paper walls and sliding doors.
Aesthetics are big in Japan, and nowhere is this better expressed than in the food. It doesn’t matter if you’re eating shabu shabu in an upmarket Gion restaurant, breakfast in a mountain hut or a lunchtime snack from a convenience store, everything is simply conceived, elegantly presented and distinctly flavoured – like this meal served at the ryokan.
Japanese food is centred around rice with side dishes and soup. Each individual dish is served separately; traditionally, it is considered anathema for them to touch. This has the effect of making each meal appear like a culinary collage. Rice, fish and miso soup are staples of every breakfast, which takes some getting used to, and for lunch I regularly snacked on onigiri – triangular parcels of rice and seaweed.
The Japanese Matterhorn
From Tsumago we travelled by train and bus to Chūbu-Sangaku National Park, in the Japanese Alps, where we began our climb of Mt Yarigatake –also known as the Japanese Matterhorn, for its resemblance to the famed European peak. We ascended more than 2 000 metres over a day and a half, sloshing along muddy paths through deep, green forest in a torrential downpour, clambering over slippery rocks alongside a pale, milky-blue river draped with an eerie mist, supping on dinner and beers airlifted in by helicopter at the overnight hut (it’s pretty remote), and climbing a valley flanked by towering, tree-covered buttresses and scattered with brightly multicoloured flowers that gave way to patches of snow.
On the second night I was sitting alone outside Yaridake Sanso, our hut at just under 3 000 metres above sea level and 200 metres below. A local climber walked out of the hut and gestured up at the pair of headlights descending the treacherous route from the summit. ‘Wow, look at all the lights up there. They’re crazy!’
He wasn’t wrong. We’d summited earlier that day, when the mountain was shrouded in a bright white fog, climbing ladders and chains up vertical rock faces. Now the mist had cleared and the full moon hung over the horizon – illuminating the clouds that lay in deep drifts between the mountains below like the breakers of a silver ocean frozen in time – but it still seemed a foolhardy endeavour.
My cohort, who had travelled from Tokyo, asked where I was from and if I was just there for sightseeing. I explained my itinerary and mentioned that after Yarigatake we were set to climb Mt Fuji. ‘Mt Fuji?’ he exclaimed. ‘You are crazy, haha! Are those your friends up there?’
This was representative of the majority of the responses to news of our plan.
Typhoons and tourists
I almost didn’t get to find out just how crazy we might be. After a brief stopover in Matsumoto, a city with a great deal of historic architecture, where I bought an amazing ice-cream sandwich and an antique machete, we travelled southeast by train, bus and train to Fujiyoshida. At the same time, a typhoon swept up the east coast of Honshu, rendering Fujisan inaccessible to all but the foolishly foolhardy.
We waited out the storm in the area around Lake Kawaguchi, the second-largest of the Fuji Five Lakes and a popular tourist destination, where we toured a saké distillery and visited the museum of legendary textile artist Itchiku Kubota, whose Symphony of Light depicts a panorama of seasons and vistas flowing from one kimono to the next.
By the next day the weather had cleared, and we bussed up to Fujinomiya 5th Station, at 2 400 metres altitude – the most popular starting point for the hike. It started innocently enough, with the lower reaches blanketed in indigenous forest that gradually gave way to volcanic scree, the rain only light and intermittent, and the crowds easy enough to overtake.
The last point is crucial: if Yarigatake is a climber’s mountain, Fuji is a pilgrimage, attempted by everyone. Around 250 000 people scale the mountain annually during the official climbing season, from the start of July to mid-September.
The general idea is to catch sunrise from the summit, so we bedded down in our hut early, at 9pm, after watching a storm of towering thunderclouds flickering over a distant Tokyo, to rise again at 2am to climb the last 700 metres. In the darkness and freezing cold, we joined a queue of headlamps that snaked its way up and along the jagged, rocky path, hemmed in on all sides by jostling backpacks.
The summit, which we finally reached just before 5am, is hardly a tranquil respite. There are shops dispensing hot broth and drinks, a vending machine, a post office and a temple. And all those people. And the only litter I saw in Japan. It looks a bit like a post-apocalyptic wasteland. I found a spot away from the crowds, where I attempted to ladle my breakfast into my mouth while I lost feeling in my fingertips waiting for the sunrise.
Was it worth it? Yes. Would I do it again? What do I look like, crazy? Well, you could say so, actually, because 10 hours after summiting Fujisan, I walked through the gates of Fuji-Q Highland, an amusement park in Fujiyoshida, where I rode Takabisha (the world’s steepest roller coaster), Eejanaika (the roller coaster with the most inversions in the world), and Fujiyama (which used to be the tallest). Don’t say it’s not a country of contrasts.
Finally, we found our way to Tokyo, a city too vast to explore in two days or to describe in a few hundred words. Tokyo has something for everyone, from the serenity of Hamarikyu Gardens to the sensory overload of Tsukiji Fish Market, from the proliferation of kawaii (cuteness) overload of Takeshita Street to the geek mecca of Akihabara, from the pulsing mega-clubs to alleyways full of minuscule eight-seater bars.
And then, just to bookend the trip with celebrations, on our last night in town we attended the Hibiya Park Marunouchi Ondo Bon-odori Dance Festival. There was no judgement as I joined thousands of dancers local and foreign in a repetitive, trance-like dance around a fountain in a park surrounded by towering skyscrapers, figuring out the moves as I went, the air as warm as the smiles of those around me.
I’d travelled from the old capital, where the locals had welcomed me to watch them gather for the most solemn of reasons, to the present one, where they welcomed me to celebrate gathering for the most joyous of reasons. Did I feel big in Japan? You bet.