Last month, after a six-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam, our plane landed at Tokyo’s Narita Airport just after 7am. My family and I were there for a 12-day self-drive odyssey, and we were very excited.
Since it was already autumn, it was rather chilly that morning. The airport was crowded but there was enough helpful staff to guide visitors for swift immigration and customs clearance.
I have heard so much about Japan – its cleanliness, people, culture and landscapes but for some reason, I had not visited the Land Of The Rising Sun.
After clearing customs, my son, James, took delivery of an MPV and we headed southwest to Odawara City. The two-hour drive marked the beginning of an exciting journey for us in Honshu Island. It was an eye opener in many aspects.
We drove up and down hills lined with beautiful trees, passing by farmlands and villages. At Odawara City, we chose a homestay run by a Chinese from Liaoning Province of China. Leaving our luggage there, we immediately headed for Owakudani in Hakone, a hugely popular tourist resort.
The iconic snow-capped Mount Fuji dominated the skyline and was visible at every turn. Sometimes, it stood against the clear blue sky and at other times, it was covered by wisps of cloud. It was simply awesome.
Our first stop was a roadside rest stop where we grabbed some sandwiches and buns for breakfast. This place is patronised mostly by truck drivers, and its toilet was clean and did not stink. We had heard so much about Japanese toilets before this, and this rest stop was proof of that.
From the Owakudani base station, we took the Mount Fuji Panoramic Ropeway for a 45-minute gondola ride to the hill top. It was rewarding as we were able to see mountains covered in green trees in the low lands, which then turned red and gold as we went higher up. Mount Fuji stood as a beautiful backdrop.
We took many pictures throughout the ride. When we reached the Hakone Yumoto Station, there was a cluster of shops selling snacks, drinks and souvenirs. The place was crowded with tourists.
We bought some of the famous “black eggs”, which are regular chicken eggs that had been boiled in the hot spring water. As a result, the sulphur in the natural water turn the egg shells black.
For nature lovers, this stop is only but a foretaste; The best is yet to come along the winding mountainous route half way up the mountain.
After spending an hour or so at Hakone Yumoto Station, we took the ropeway down to the Hakone-machi Port on the shores of Lake Ashi, where we boarded a “pirate ship” for a sightseeing cruise and marvelled at the unobstructed views of the shorelines dotted with small villages and townships. We went on the top deck although it was rather chilly.
Lake Ashi is one of the five lakes around Mount Fuji and a popular stopover for tourists. The water was calm and crystal clear, mirroring the blue sky and surrounding mountains, giving you the feeling that you are on a lake tour in a Scandinavian country.
On our way out, we saw restaurants, souvenir shops and, as the region is famous for its natural hot springs, many homestays offering onsen. A proper, traditional onsen is the ultimate Japanese “challenge” where one is to take a bath – without wearing any clothing – in public tubs filled with natural hot spring water. Well, I tend to avoid such “extreme sport”.
While we were in Odawara, we also visited the Kanagawa Prefectural Museum Of Natural History, featuring an impressive collection of marine life and giant land creature skeletons. There are pre-historic mammals and dinosaurs, tiny sea shells, giant snakes and ocean fish. The stuffed animals looked so alive, it was as if they were ready to pounce on us! The visit was informative and educational, especially to our grandchildren.
Of note is the Oshino Hakkai Heritage Village which showcases the original quaintness of thatched houses, little fish ponds and well sculptured trees. They have a street selling local delicacies like roast sweet potatoes, and mochi served in different ways.
Not to be missed is the Kubota Itchiku Art Museum which houses a collection of super-sized kimonos. These are not for wearing but rather, considered art pieces. No photography is allowed to preserve the fabric and glorious hues of the kimonos on display. The museum is set in a serene garden whose trees are about to turn into autumn colours when we visited.
On the third day, we took the Subaruline from Fujikawaguchiko that snakes around Mount Fuji through valleys and forests, up to Fujinomiya, the fifth station at 2,400m. It is the highest station that vehicles can drive up to and is the gateway to the Mount Fuji summit for climbers.
There is a shopping complex with restaurants and souvenir shops, bustling with tourists and mountain climbers. There is also a platform for viewers.
There is no water or power lines here. Five thousand litres of water is transported up daily costing JPY50,000 (RM1,572) a day while electricity is supplied by two large generators that run day and night.
The route up was a dazzling display of colours as the greenery gradually gave way to gold and red maple and larch trees on the mountain top. There are several look-out points along the way offering a panoramic view and picture opportunity of the amazing landscape.
But the hidden gem is the small Komitake Shrine at the back of the complex surround by maple and tall larch trees with leaves turning red, dancing in the wind.
The air was clean and crisp although a tad chilly. The landscape was breathtaking. It was magical when shafts of sunlight seep through the golden foliage, driven by the morning sun.
We bought some snacks and souvenirs and once again we took tons of pictures before we bade “Sayonara” to the mountain.
We left Hakone on the fourth day, visiting several tourist spots along the way, including the Kawaguchi-Ko Music Forest. We have had a good sensorial and visual feast of the countryside by then, so we headed towards the coastal areas.
We stopped by some famous tourist spots and finally, we hit the seaside resort Atami before going to Yokohama and Tokyo, making a big loop around the north, and then back to Narita.
No one can claim to be too old for some fun by the sea. There were three generations on our family trip, and everyone was game to be entertained by some clever fish at the Kamogawa Seaworld in Chiba.
At first, having to put on raincoats to watch some killer whales perform was, to us, highly illogical. But we sportingly complied and were fortunate to find the front seats empty.
The whales performed superbly. Every trainers’ hand signals were followed to the dot. They loved interacting with the audience and that’s when we found out the reason for wearing raincoats and why the front seats near the pool were empty.
Whoosh! The orcas propelled salty water out of the pool which neatly landed on the spectators. We were all drenched from head to toe – raincoats were of no defence!
Were we angry with the fish? Not at all. Before we recovered from the first water soak, though, another huge wave came. We were sure those whales were having a great time soaking us to our socks!
There were two other outdoor performances – by sea lions and dolphins – that day. The park also houses several huge indoor aquariums exhibiting various types of sea life.
As we boarded our MPV half drenched and left for the glittering big cities of Tokyo and Yokohama, it was the mischievous killer whales that stole our hearts.
Hoo Ban Khee is a former correspondent for The Star in Beijing, China.