Imagine a place where all your troubles turn into vapour and float away as you overlook a gorgeous scenery you’ve only ever seen in pictures before. A place that makes you stop and revel at the beauty of life, where every single precise detail creates the glory of the bigger picture. That’s what staying at a ryokan in Kawaguchiko, a lakeside village near mount Fuji, felt like.
What’s a ryokan, you ask? In a nutshell, it’s pure pampering of both the body and the soul. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns which come with their own hot springs and cater to your every need. Meals are included in your stay in a traditional ryokan, and boy will you not be hungry!
We knew our stay at Koraku Onyado Fujiginkei was going to be special from the moment we arrived – the staff wouldn’t even let us go through the trouble of having to check in at the reception. Instead, a woman wearing a kimono would immediately direct us to comfy sofas where she processed our check in seemlessly as we were sipping our fruity welcome drinks.
The traditional Japanese kaiseki meals are a huge part of a ryokan stay. If you do come across a ryokan that offers the option to spend a night there without the accompanying meals… don’t even briefly entertain that option!
The breakfast will easily keep you goying all day. Aside from a few smaller dishes, ours included a grilled fish, rice, pickled vegetables and miso soup – amongst other things!
The dinner comes in several tiny courses – typically upwards of ten different small dishes, each of which is a form of art on its own. Marvel at the attention to detail, and indulge in tasting the variety of flavours. Do try to pace yourself and not gorge on everything at once, especially before you get instructions on how each dish is intended to be consumed. (We made the mistake of eating raw pork that we were meant to cook ourselves – though it was still delicious regardless).
Depending on your ryokan, the staff will speak a varying degree of English, but in any case they will always attempt to explain what every course is. The mystery of the parts that are lost in translation only makes the experience more enjoyable!
We opted for a Japanese style room, meaning sleeping on the floor on tatami mats. While I was originally a bit worried if I’d get any sleep, it turns out I’d never slept better in my entire life! The hot springs right before bed time probably contributed to this, but more on that in a moment.
Another wonderful part of a ryokan experience is the chance for you to wear a yukata – think of this as a more casual version of kimono that you can wear around your acommodation. The staff will instruct you on how to tie your obi correctly (this differs for men and women) and will let you pick a design of your liking. While I probably never mastered tying my obi bow in the correct manner, I had immense fun walking around in my yukata and attempting to kneel in it on the floor for a few moments while enjoying my afternoon matcha tea.
A ryokan is no ryokan without a hot spring, onsen. Unless you can splurge on a private onsen, the typical onsen is shared – there are female ones and male ones, which are normally marked by the colour of the drapes upon entrance.
It is actually forbidden to wear any type of swimwear in an onsen, and you need to remove your towel before getting into the hot spring as well, to avoid contaminating the water. The onsen etiquette can be intimidating for westerners, but common sense will get you far: make sure you wash yourself properly before entering the shared bath, don’t take pictures and don’t stare.
The initial awkwardness of hanging out naked with a bunch of strangers will disappear fairly quickly. More often than not, your fellow onsen dwellers may actually strike up a conversation with you, and will not be deterred by the nakedness or your lack of knowledge of Japanese. Surprisingly, this is not as odd as it sounds and soon enough you will find yourself attempting to converse with a local about your home country.
Most onsens within ryokans open very early in the morning (think 5 am), close during the day and reopen again in the evening until fairly late at night. Try to make your jet lag work in your favour and you may just luck out to get the place to yourself.
Our ryokan had an indoor and an outdoor onsen, out of which the outdoor one was definitely the more lavish option. Since the water in the hot spring is hot in any weather, I am unsure who would opt for the indoor bath as opposed to the one on the rooftop terrace overlooking Mount Fuji. Oh, that’s right.
The vicinity to Mount Fuji is without a shadow of a doubt Kawaguchiko’s main draw. As one of the Fuji Five Lakes locations, it boasts stunning views of Mount Fuji, but unlike the other lakes it’s easier to get to. You can reach Kawaguchiko within 2 and a half hours from Tokyo on a train (you can check the specific train timetables using Hyperdia).
Do note that you will have to change trains in Otsuki, and the local Fujikyu train from Otsuki to Kawaguchiko is not included in your Japan Rail Pass – in fact, you’ll need to purchase your ticket and an additional special pass, for whatever reason. Still, the journey only costs approximately ¥2,000 so it’s well worth it.
The main issue with Kawaguchiko is its unpredictable weather. On a sunny day, you’ve never seen anything more glorious – the reflection of Mount Fuji in the water is to die for, and there’s a lot to do when the weather is pleasant:
You can hire all forms of floating devices to cross a part of the lake (this ranges from speed boats to plastic swans), or just stroll around and take in the views. If you’re more adventurous, you can go on a several hour hike. There’s plenty of options around, aside from the obvious Mount Fuji. A mild one would be taking the Kachi Kachi ropeway (named after a Japanese cartoon rabbit with a penchant for pranks) and doing a three hour walking trek that will reward you with scenic views of the lake.
Unfortunately, there is no guarantee that this will be the case. The area is known for its temperamental weather, so chances are it may end up being rainy and, more importantly, cloudy, meaning that you may not see Mount Fuji at all.
Keeping yourself busy in Kawaguchiko on a miserable day can be rather tricky, since the town is far from bustling and the entertainment and shopping selection is… bizarre. I kid you not, we walked into a Canadian Christmas decoration shop on our quest of finding ways to spend a cold and rainy day in Kawaguchiko.
One of the better options is seeing a monkey show at the Sarumawashi Theatre – this is primarily aimed at kids but is far more entertaining than the Music Forest right across the street. This is a western-style music instrument museum (translation: essentially a bunch of souvenir shops with a strange sickeningly sweet atmosphere). I would very much encourage you to skip it.
In spite of the above, or rather, because of the above, I would highly encourage you to spend at least two nights in a ryokan in Kawaguchiko. This will effectively give you 3 days worth of chance to see Mount Fuji in its full glory. Supposedly the best odds are between 5 and 6 am, a time known as the Golden Hour (again, work with your jet lag). If the weather ends up being crappy, you can always escape to the hot spring and indulge on amazing food at your ryokan… life could be far far worse.