Mount Fuji is a beloved and sacred peak that is an unforgettable sight and easily viewable, which is why I was frustrated when on a visit in 2013 I was able to get to within a few miles of the mountain only to find it obscured by thick clouds.
I wasn’t alone that steamy Sunday. Thousands of others had swarmed the resort towns on the Yamanashi Prefecture side of the mountain to revel in the addition of the mountain to Unesco’s World Heritage list as a cultural asset for inspiring artists, poets and religious pilgrims.
So on a return trip to Japan last May my wife and I set out again to bask in the glow of Fujisan, as it’s known to the Japanese. But this time we traveled to the Shizuoka Prefecture side of the mountain, farther away and to the south, for better views.
In decent weather, finding the best places to take in Mount Fuji is not hard because it dominates the landscape and also because hundreds of inns and restaurants market their vantage points. In fact, Japan persuaded skeptical Unesco delegates to also include one of the most celebrated viewing spots — Miho no Matsubara, a beach bordered by thousands of pine trees about 50 miles from the mountain — on the World Heritage list.
“For us, the beauty of the mountain can only be seen from the distance, so for us it is natural to include this part,” Seiichi Kondo, the commissioner for Cultural Affairs, said in 2013.
Miho no Matsubara isn’t just a good place to see the mountain, it is also a cultural icon. For hundreds of years, artists have incorporated the views from there into their work. The beach is central to one of the most famous noh plays, “Hagoromo,” or “The Feathered Robe.”
The play, which is performed every October illuminated by firelight on the beach, is based on a folkloric story about the goddess of the mountain, who visited the beach and was so overcome by the beauty of the sand and the pine trees that she removed her robe and hung it on a pine tree before bathing.
A fisherman found the robe, but the damsel begged him to give it back to her because she would not be able to return to heaven without it. He gave it back after the maiden promised to dance for him in the sky. The pine tree, which is believed to be about 650 years old, now sits behind a wooden fence.
Mount Fuji is so revered, and enthusiasm for the mountain’s inclusion on the World Heritage List so well received, that the government created a new national holiday called Mountain Day to begin in August 2016.
We didn’t want to wait that long to celebrate, so during our trip last May we made plans to travel from Tokyo to Miho no Matsubara. Along the way we stopped at a hot spring, or onsen, that would be relaxing and offer great views of the mountain.
We focused on the Izu Peninsula, famous for its rugged coastline, fresh air and great fish. The towns that dot the area provide a convenient seaside getaway for millions of people who live in the Kanto region, a kind of Jersey Shore for Tokyoites.
The peninsula’s best-known town, Shimoda, is where Commodore Matthew Perry arrived in 1853 with several American naval ships, the beginning of the end of Japan’s 250 years of self-imposed isolation.
We found an onsen called Shotokan at the other end of the peninsula in the port of Numazu. The city was not as remote as other parts of Izu, but it had spectacular views of Mount Fuji.
Getting there was easy, too. The Odoriko express train, which runs hourly from Tokyo Station, left us in the Izu Nagaoka station in two hours. A driver from the onsen met us there and took us by van to the inn, about 15 minutes away.
Even before we entered the inn, we could see that it was in an ideal spot to admire the mountain. The view across the cove along Uchiura Bay was filled with sailboats, ferries and fishing boats. After women in kimonos ushered us into the lobby and gave us free glasses of beer, we took in the mountain on a cloudless afternoon.
Our corner room on the fifth floor of the six-story inn had its own pebble-filled entranceway and 12 tatami mats with two sets of windows that afforded more great views. After cups of green tea and small sweets, my wife and I dressed in yukata, or light robes, and went to separate baths on the floor above.
After showering, I dipped into the sun-soaked outdoor bath. The grand view of the mountain was out of a picture postcard. In the foreground was a crescent-shaped harbor with a gumdrop hill that gave way to green lowlands and Fuji’s snow-capped peak.
I was soon joined by a man from Chiba Prefecture who said he had visited many hot springs, but the views at Shotokan were among the best. I didn’t disagree.
Part of the allure of a high-end hot spring are the elaborate meals, and Shotokan did not disappoint. We had our own private eight-mat dining room with a painting of Fuji on the wall. The small ceramic chopstick holders were in the shape of the mountain, too. Our waitress, Aya, a cheerful woman from Nagasaki, did a good job of describing each of the nine courses. The first was a delectable assortment of bite-size appetizers that included scallop, shrimp, salmon in a honey marinade, fried Camembert and snapper in jelly.
A clear soup with aonori, a kind of stringy seaweed, with a fish ball made of minced snapper, was next. Afterward, we nibbled on sashimi: hirame, shima aji, maguro, botan ebi and isaki, or grunt fish.
Each course was more elaborate than the one before, and included mackerel, fried clams and for dessert a baseball-size Japanese citrus fruit called the hyuganatsu, a member of the yuzu family. The chilled jelly tasted sour with a sweet aftertaste that cleansed the palate.
The meal was so pleasing that I fell asleep before I could take a moonlight dip in the bath. But I was up by 4:30 the next morning to admire Fuji at sunrise.
After another bath, we returned for breakfast, this time with the windows open so we could see the mountain as we enjoyed soup, eggs and an assortment of pickles and seaweed. Then came soup with large asari clams and grilled sun-dried mackerel.
Sated, we took the van to the station for the 80-minute train ride to Shimizu, a city on the other side of the Surugu Bay filled with uninspiring strip malls, warehouses and auto repair shops, making me wonder whether we had taken a wrong turn.
After about a 25-minute bus ride, we were let out a few blocks from a long wooden promenade with pine trees on both sides. The walk under the canopy of trees had the feel of a grand entrance, and at the end of it we climbed a small hill covered with pine trees to the beach on the other side. We had arrived at Miho no Matsubara.
The beach hugs the coastline for about four miles and is abutted by about 54,000 pine trees, some of which were shaped by the wind and leaned inland.
The sand was more black than white now. In one direction, the bay stretched out to sea and in the other, Fuji loomed large, even on a hazy day. Japanese are fanatics about photography and there are entire websites devoted to finding the best spot to take pictures of the mountain from the beach.
While we were there two monks in saffron robes and a handful of tourists snapped pictures and took in the view. As my feet sank in the sand, I could imagine why painters like the spot so much. The mountain, sea and trees blended together in equal proportions, with Fuji as the center of attention. I could also see why the mountain was a beacon to fishermen returning from sea and the travelers who centuries ago passed the mountain on their way from Tokyo to Kyoto.
As we drove back to the station and rode the train to Tokyo, we caught occasional glimpses of the mountain, but we never found any views better than those we’d just experienced.
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