Fuji full frontal

Bypass the overcrowded spots and head straight to Lake Shoji for idyllic scenery and postcard-perfect panoramic views of Japan's iconic Mount Fuji

We're sitting in the back of a local bus heading towards Lake Motosu with snow-capped Mount Fuji occasionally making an appearance outside our windows. The driver, a diminutive Japanese man in his forties, fixes his attention on the road despite our audible "Oohs," and "Ahhs," and non-stop camera clicks. It's been some 30 minutes since we've left Kawaguchiko Station, a well-known gateway for the exploration of Mount Fuji and its five surrounding lakes. Unlike most tourists, our destination today is the lesser-known Lake Shoji, the smallest of the five but arguably the most attractive.

Like most of the world's natural wonders, Mount Fuji requires first-hand experience to truly grasp its majestic beauty, and while most guidebooks will tell you the obvious and to stick around the popular areas of Lake Kawaguchi and Lake Yamanaka, a visit to Mount Fuji can only be enhanced by a trip to Lake Shoji.

Located to the northwest of Mt Fuji, between lakes Sai and Motosu, Lake Shoji lies within the sprawling Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park which, as the name suggests, covers several tourist attractions in and around Fuji-Goko (the Fuji Five Lake region), Hakone, the Izu Peninsula and the Izu Islands. The bus driver catches our eyes in the rear-view mirror, calling out "Shoji-ko!" We get off and find ourselves in the embrace of multi-hued hillside forest, springtime cherry blossoms and a dainty lake glistening in the late morning sun, showing off a reflection of the Kodaki Fuji (Mt Fuji holding a child _ so named because Mt Fuji looks like it is holding Mt Omuro in its arm).

There is a camp site and a cluster of family-run ryokans (traditional Japanese inns), restaurants and cafes on the other side of the road, but apart from a couple of aspiring fishermen on the lake, the area feels almost deserted.

While its peaceful ambience may not appeal to more energetic and excitable travellers, it's this very characteristic of Lake Shoji that makes it an ideal spot for those who prefer to take their time admiring Fuji-san in a quiet setting. And even if you're feeling a little restless, there is still a host of nature-based outdoor activities on offer including fishing, boating, camping and hiking. The latter comes highly recommended via Panorama Dai, an impressive viewpoint at 1,325m that offers a sweeping 360-degree vista of not only Mt. Fuji, but also Shojiko, Mount Omuro and Aokigahara Jukai (the Sea of Trees, also infamously known as Suicide Forest). Popular especially among elderly fit Japanese, this particular hiking trail takes around two hours to complete.

To get the most out of your stay, you should spend at least two nights at a local ryokan _ this will heighten and complete your Mt Fuji experience. As is often the case, our ryokan, Yamadaya Hotel, offers a half-board package that includes breakfast and dinner elaborately prepared in the traditional, multi-course style called kaiseki. An integral part of a ryokan stay, this Japanese haute cuisine consists of tapas-sized dishes of seasonal ingredients and may include sashimi, grilled fish, pickled seasonal vegetables, soup and a handful of intriguing amuse-bouches that look far too pretty to be eaten. After a hard day hiking, nothing soothes sore muscles better than a soak in a hot bath. Ryokans typically have either an indoor or outdoor onsen (hot spring). While lacking an outdoor facility, Yamadaya Hotel does offer a private bath on its rooftop facing Mt. Fuji and the lake. Guests here are allowed a 30-minute slot each throughout the day. We recommend going for a soak during sunrise or sunset for unrivalled views and atmosphere.

WHEN TO GO

The Fuji Five Lakes region boasts cultural activities and events all year round, but late spring (from the end of April until the beginning of May) and late autumn (the end of October to mid-November) are perhaps the best times to visit the area. Avoid travelling during summer (May to August) as the muggy heat can be unbearable, and there's often poor visibility around Mt Fuji. For more information, Fujikawaguchiko Sightseeing Information Site (www.fujisan.ne.jp) has all the details including a weather forecast and links to local live webcams. The Yamanashi travel guide (www.yamanashi-kankou.jp) also comes in handy if you're after specific information on national parks around the mountain.

GETTING THERE

Flights to Tokyo start from around 16,500 baht. Once there, catch a bus to Kawaguchiko Station from Keio Highway Bus Terminal in Shinjuku. Once at the station, take a local bus bound for Motosu. It takes around 40 minutes to arrive at Lake Shoji. Buses are not frequent on this route so make sure to plan your trip carefully.

WHERE TO STAY

There are a couple of hotels and ryokans around Lake Shoji. Shoji Mount Hotel and Yamadaya Hotel both offer half-board packages starting from around 19,000 (5,960 baht) for two people per night. An option of Western or Japanese style room is also available. Try booking through Japanican.com.

About the author

Writer: Chanun Poomsawai