Summer Travel: Fascinating Japan Japan is a very safe country


A volcanic mountain with a perfect snow-covered crest, Mt Fuji or Fujiyama is woven into the fabric of Japanese identity. It can be seen even from Tokyo or Yokohama, nearly 100 km away. We began our quest for the venerable mountain from Shizuoka, a port town towards its south. The car rental was close to the train station. Armed with an international driver’s licence, we secured our Toyota Yaris in next to no time. The April air was cool and the highway driving was pleasant, with free-flowing traffic. We passed a tollgate and stopped at a service plaza for lunch. Pulling out from there and turning a bend, the view took our breath away. Towering over the horizon was Mt Fuji, in all its majesty. Fujiyoshida, our destination, was still a fair distance away.

Fujiyoshida is a village 120 km from Shizuoka on the northern slope of the mountain. Famed for its iconic street-view of the peak, now the place and the adjacent areas have developed into a small town with boutique hotels and self-help lodges. Fujiyoshida offers easy access to all the lakes that surround the mountain. Bright, blooming spring was still a few weeks away, but there were plenty of tourists around. The sky was clear early morning as I went for a walk. It being a Sunday, the town was late to come alive. I had the streets all to myself. The sun shined brilliantly on the giant snowy cone of the mountain.

Tips for travellers

  • Japan is a very safe country. Citizens are extremely courteous and go out of their way to be helpful.
  • Japanese visa is inexpensive and can be secured directly online or from the regional consulate.
  • A New Delhi-Tokyo round ticket in spring can cost around Rs 90,000.
  • Road and railway are fast and efficient but expensive. Express highway toll can be as high as Rs 12 per km. A 7-day unlimited Shinkansen rail tourist pass costs Rs 27,000 per person.
  • Cars are available on rent but you require an international driver’s licence issued specifically for Japan. A small car (Toyota Yaris/Suzuki Swift) can cost Rs 6,000 per day. Petrol costs around Rs 95/litre.
  • In rural areas, you are likely to get traditional sea food. Continental food is easily available in larger towns. A breakfast of bread, cheese and eggs with coffee should cost around Rs 1,000 per person. It will be ideal to check in advance for halal or vegetarian food.
  • All toilets in Japan are fitted with advanced mechanism and buttons for water cleaning.
  • We stayed for two nights at Fujiyoshida and visited the Chureito Pagoda and Lake Kawaguchi. The second day proved less rewarding as the mountain obstinately hid behind the clouds
  • We had used Shinkansen bullet trains for commuting between major towns. Returning the rented car at Shizuoka station, we took a train to Tokyo and from there, further north to Morioka. We passed the major towns of Fukushima and Sendai on the way. It takes around 2.5 hours to travel over 500 km from Tokyo to Morioka
  • Morioka and Akita are the major commercial centres of northern Honshu. They are also the administrative capitals, respectively, for the prefectures of Iwate facing Pacific Ocean in the east, and Akita in the west. Further north is the Aomori prefecture. These three northern prefectures and Fukushima, Miyagi and Yamagata just south, form the Tohoku region, known as the granary of Japan. Hills, forests and farmland dominate the region.

  • ecuring a rented Mazda 2 from near the Morioka station took a bit longer. We stayed at a ryokan, a traditional inn with tatami-matted floors, offering a communal hot bath and a Japanese breakfast. Lake Tazawa, the deepest lake in Japan, is a volcanic caldera. Our room on the third floor was facing the lake with splendid views of the serene deep water and the snow-covered hills beyond. Spring thaw and blooming cherries come later in the north. It rained the first day and it was bone-chilling cold.

    We drove in the rain to Kakunodate, a former castle town and Samurai stronghold in Akita. A few of the Samurai houses have been converted into museums. An elderly lady guide conducted the tour. The wood-built houses were around 200 years old. The Samurai way of life came into prominence by their legendary repulsion of repeated Mongol conquests in the 13th century. Shoguns, the regional chieftains, and Daimyo, the feudal lords, dominated the Japanese landscape for centuries till the Meiji restoration of the later half of the 19th century that re-established the imperial hegemony. The Samurai were the military elite retained by the feudal lords and are characterised by extreme devotion to their lord, valour and selflessness. I reckon that cultural homogeneity, the hallmark of modern Japan, owes more to its long feudal traditions than to its abrupt transition to western-style modernity.

  • We stopped for lunch at a restaurant that served Indian food. It was run by Pramila from Nepal, who is now settled in Akita. Rajender, her husband, spoke at some length about the local economy and community. Rice and fruit farming is now pursued exclusively by the elderly despite generous government incentives and subsidies, as the youth mostly prefer larger urban centres of the south than the traditional way of living in villages.

    The sky cleared up the next day and we chose to drive north to Aomori through forest roads. The woods in the hills and farmland were still covered in thick snow. The scenic road on the edge of Lake Tazawa soon joined a highway over the hills to the north. The drive was pleasant through the snowy woods and farming villages.

    Villagers drove small cars and a few could be seen with pitchforks preparing the farmland for the forthcoming season.

  • Our first plan was to drive till Omo, the northern cape famed for its tuna. But soon we realised that traversing over 400 km and back through small roads could be taxing. There are tolled three-lane highways all across Japan where high-speed driving is permitted. But our choice was always the scenic smaller roads through the countryside.

    We took a flight back to Osaka to spend our last two days there. Sitting next to me was Shintaro Suzuki, a French scholar from Kyoto. Originally from the north, he talked about the demanding student curriculum, farming in the north, the population shift towards the elderly owing to declining birth rates, etc. As new friends, we parted our ways promising to stay in touch.

    Spring was gradually making its presence felt in the south in this first week of April. Blooming cherry trees in many colours had started to line the avenues and parks in Osaka. We took a short day-trip to Kyoto to be with the crowd in the spring bonhomie. There were many tourists, especially from Taiwan, Korea and even India

  • The back alleys and suburbs were teaming with office or school-goers on foot or on bicycles early in the morning. It felt good to be in this proud and beautiful island nation

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