Mount Fuji Fall Colors Trip Report – Day 1

After wanting to visit Mount Fuji many times over the course of our last several trips to Japan, we finally decided to make it happen this time. The key considerations were Fuji Five Lakes region versus Hakone (Lake Ashi) and whether to do a day-trip or spend a couple of nights at Mount Fuji.

There were pros and cons with each option. The big reason we opted against doing Mount Fuji in the past is because our shorter trips would’ve required it to be a day trip. I was hesitant about a day trip because I had read numerous reports from people who only had done this, only to arrive and “see” Mount Fuji obscured by a blanket of clouds. For this reason, I wanted three separate days (arrival day, touring day, departure day) for a clear view of Mount Fuji.

This presented its own downside: cost. Mount Fuji is an expensive place to visit, namely due to costly transportation passes and hotels. The latter were doubly expensive since we’d be visiting during a weekend in the autumn, which is the heart of fall colors season at Mount Fuji…

When we first started planning this visit, we initially booked a “cheap” (in relative terms) crash pad because we noticed hotel availability was already slim. We were still debating between Hakone and Fuji Five Lakes at that point, but were leaning heavily towards the latter, so we booked our hotel at Lake Kawaguchi, and near their train/bus station.

About a week after booking that, we noticed a “new” hotel had popped up for booking via Marriott rewards: Fuji Marriott Hotel Lake Yamanaka. We tried to book as much of this trip as possible via rewards or Airbnb to minimize costs, and the point costs for this new hotel were pretty low, so this seemed perfect.

Unfortunately, the hotel had not even opened yet, so it was tough to ascertain where, exactly, it was located beyond the general area of Lake Yamanaka. Our assumption was that a major chain like Marriott wouldn’t just build a hotel in the middle of nowhere, so we decided to book it.

Having a lot going on in the lead-up to this trip, we didn’t give the hotel much thought until we were already on the trip, planning this leg during a train ride. After double and then triple-checking, we realized that Marriott did build a hotel in the middle of nowhere. (In actuality, it’s a remodeled hotel.) Apparently, it’s part of an initiative to open more hotels in rural areas of Japan for “travelers who increasingly want to explore beyond the gateway cities of Japan.”

Don’t get me wrong, we’re all about exploring new places, but not so much when that entails the prospect of expensive taxi rides because said places are inaccessible via public transit. Hoping there was at least a shuttle, we consulted the Fuji Marriott Hotel Lake Yamanaka and found nothing.

In any event, we took the highway bus from Shinjuku to Lake Yamanaka, stopping first to pre-activate our Japan Rail Passes. We had debated between the 7 and 14-day pass, and in hindsight, I think we probably should’ve done the longer one.

We cover the value proposition of the Japan Rail Pass in another post, but suffice to say, I think it’s always worth erring on the side of getting the longer pass if it’s close call.

After finishing our long bus ride from Shinjuku Station, we found ourselves at a small bus terminal with no sign of even a taxi, much less local bus service out to the rural oasis of the Marriott. Thankfully, there was someone staffing the terminal, and after a bit of confusion, they called a taxi for us.

During the ride, I was sitting on pins and needles as I alternated between watching the meter quickly climb, and gazing down at Google Maps as our little blue dot progressed to Fuji Marriott Hotel Lake Yamanaka at an agonizing pace. After about 15 minutes we arrived, our wallet 3,000 yen lighter. As we were checking in, the hotel’s shuttle from the bus terminal we were just at arrived. Talk about insult to injury.

That’s really the only negative thing to say about Fuji Marriott Hotel Lake Yamanaka, or really, our entire experience at Mount Fuji (and even then, we probably could’ve avoided that taxi ride had we simply emailed the hotel ahead of time). That aside, the hotel and its staff were exceptional, and the visit to Mount Fuji was amazing.

During check-in, the staff explained the shuttle service and local transportation to us, reassuring us that we could call the hotel for a shuttle if we needed one back to the hotel after the last scheduled time. They also provided us with some paper times guides for the buses, as Google Maps didn’t offer coverage of these buses for some reason. The timetables were entirely in Japanese, but thanks to the staff color-coding them for us, we had a pretty good idea of which buses we needed to use. Hopefully.

We requested a Japanese style room for the sake of a more authentic experience, which I regret. Almost every Airbnb at which we’ve stayed in Japan is of this same style, and I’ve had my fill of sleeping on the floor.

That night, the last shuttle from the hotel had already run. This was problematic for a couple of reasons. The first was that I wanted to capture the sunset behind Mount Fuji, and also see the autumn illuminations along the Lake Yamanaka promenade.

To remedy this, we decided to walk out and see what kind of vantage we could find of Mount Fuji from our area. Fittingly given our rural location, I found a field which offered a serene setting, albeit somewhat odd juxtaposition.

The other problem was dinner. In our haste at the bus terminal, we had not thought to grab any food from the 7-11 located next door while we waited for our taxi. This came back to bite us. We either needed to pay another ~$60 for a round-trip taxi back to that 7-11, making it the most costly meal anyone has ever consumed at 7-11, or eat the hotel’s dinner buffet, which was ~$60/person.

While the former was appealing as it might earn us a spot in Guinness, we chose option three: eating nuts, jerky, and trail mix provided during the free “light refreshment” hour for Marriott Rewards members. We were still fairly hungry after this, but in the battle of frugality versus hungry, frugality won the day.

Our hotel had a hot springs-fed onsen in it, which is something that’s been on Sarah’s bucket list for a while. Me, not so much. I tolerated public bathing when we stayed at a ryokan a couple years ago, but even that was uncomfortable. I did it in the name of having an open mind about travel experiences. If given the choice, I’d definitely opt for a private shower.

Onsens take the awkwardness of communal showers and ramp it up a notch with a bunch of etiquette and rules that are seemingly designed to confuse and intimidate. I read several blog posts about these in preparation for this onsen experience, but they didn’t fully prepare me for it.

To make matters worse, Sarah wasn’t feeling well, so I was sent as something of a sacrificial lamb to be able to write about the experience. On the “plus” side, she had the benefit of learning from my gaffes when she did visit the following night, and had a great time. Perhaps that was her plan all along, and this whole “not feeling well” thing was merely an elaborate ruse?!

I waited until 10 p.m. to go, when I assumed most people would be gone. Not the case. Apparently, onsens are something of a late night party scene, because it was incredibly busy at this hour.

For obvious reasons, I don’t have photos of the onsen. So you don’t go conjuring mental images that you cannot unsee, I’ll scatter serene photos of Mount Fuji throughout this section from the following day. You’re welcome.

As for the onsen, this one started with a sprawling locker room, with multiple rooms for getting ready followed by the actual bathing pools. I still have little clue what purpose about half of these rooms served.

My first mistake was wearing street clothes to the onsen. Everyone else was in their hotel-provided yukata (kimono).

I didn’t wear my yukata because the English translation said not to remove it from the room (this was elsewhere clarified to not remove it from the hotel–as in, don’t wear it out on the street).

Second mistake: starting to wash in what I think was actually a post-onsen hand-washing sink. I never quite figured that one out. Its actual purpose will forever elude and haunt me.

My third mistake was chilling in a bathing pool indoors, the existence of which also baffles me. I was the only one in this pool for about 5 minutes, as I noticed others continually using a door to go outside. Finally, I tested where this door led, and it was to the actual outdoor onsen. Perhaps this indoor pool was a red herring for foreign tourists like me?

My final mistake (at least I hope–who knows what other gaffes I made without realizing them) was taking the full-sized bath total from our room while everyone else had these small, ‘modesty’ towels. At first blush, this may not seem like much of a mistake; after all, larger towel equals more modesty, right?

The thing is, you’re supposed to place this towel on your head while in the bath. Have you ever tried balancing a full-sized towel on top of your head? Probably not, but it’s every bit as comical as it might seem. At least in hindsight; at the time, it was incredibly embarrassing. Finally, I gave up on this and just set the towel on the ledge next to the bath.

In any case, these supposed modesty towels served little purpose, as most guys just walked around totally nude. I sat in the far end and studied the corner with far greater concentration than I’ve ever studied anything. Nevertheless, people occasionally managed to find a way to enter my field of view.

Given all of the effort I was making to look the only place where people weren’t sitting, this felt like I was being trolled. It was also awkward being the only Westerner in the bath, as everyone else was conversing around me.

After what felt like an eternity (I think it was actually 10 minutes), everyone else suddenly left, all at once. For the next 20 minutes or so, I had the onsen all to myself. This part of the experience was pure bliss, and almost made the rest of it worthwhile. Almost.

Not exactly a glowing endorsement of going to an onsen, but it is what it is. One thing that does frustrate me–and this extends far beyond the onsen–is that Japan has an inordinate number of social conventions. In many cases, these seem like unnecessary complication at best, or arbitrary barriers to entry at worst. Regardless, I guess the onsen was a unique experience, and something I can now cross off my bucket list (it was never on there to begin with, but I’m adding it now just so I can cross it off).

Programming note: due to it currently being the height of fall foliage and autumn illuminations season in Japan–and since we have been focusing on fall colors our first few days in Kyoto–we will be doing posts on fall colors over the next few days before resuming the trip report next week. We’ll pick up there with our full day of touring Mount Fuji, which features much less humor at my own expense but many more photos of Fuji’s beauty…

If you’re planning a visit, please check out my other posts about Japan. I also recommend the Lonely Planet Japan Guide to help plan.

Your Thoughts

Have you ever visited Mount Fuji? Did you do Five Lakes or Hakone? Is going to an onsen something that interests you? Any questions or feedback about what we did in this installment of the trip report? Hearing your feedback about your experiences is both interesting to us and helpful to other readers, so please share your thoughts or questions below in the comments!

17 replies
  1. seira
    seira says:

    the “post-onsen hand-washing sink” — I think it might be the sort of water acclimation area. if there was a big plastic scoop next to it, then that’s what it was. instead of just sinking right into super hot (or super cold) water, people like to scoop up some of the water and dump it over their backs to “acclimate” their bodies to the temperature, before getting in the full bath. since I didn’t see it, I can’t say for sure that’s what it was, but it’s my best guess.

    as for why no one was in the indoor pool, it’s simply because the outdoor pool is much better – not all onsens have outdoor baths, so they feel extra luxurious, and it’s great to be sitting in a hot bath sunken in with rocks outside especially when the air is crisp. it’s just not the same sitting in a steamy room indoors with people showering all around you. it wasn’t a trap, it’s just much less popular!

    Reply
  2. Alis
    Alis says:

    Hi everyone!
    Thanks for all the helpful insights and spectacular photos Tom. I’m trying to plan wanting to see fall foliage in Mount Fuji, Tokyo and it’s outskirts this year. During what part of the fall month were you there?
    Any feedback would be greatly appreciated…thanks a bunch!
    Alis 🙂

    Reply
  3. Donald
    Donald says:

    Loved reading about your onsen experience! Especially timely as I just got back from my first week in Japan and followed your footsteps in many ways – it was amazing.

    -TDL/TDS
    -1 night at the Hilton Tokyo Bay
    -Hunny Hunt was a delight, TDS is beautiful, and I loved riding the other unique headliners: JttCotE, Sindbad, Tower of Terror, etc. That said, Animal Kingdom is still my favorite park to be in.
    -Tokyo
    -2 nights in a Shibuya Airbnb
    -Highlights included Sensō-ji, Tsukiji Market, the Imperial Palace tour, and Shinjuku at night
    -Kyoto
    -4 nights in an Airbnb near Kiyomizu-dera
    -Explored Higashiyama, Kinkakuji, Arashiyama, Fushimi Inari, and Nara. Also made it to Nishiki Market and Toji Temple

    The trip was a *major* success in terms of sightseeing, and I loved Kyoto, but my single favorite experience was an onsen (Fufunoyu) in Arashiyama! A little awkward figuring out the steps at first, but soaking in the hot water felt so, so good. I probably spent 90 minutes there and loved it so much that I squeezed in another onsen (Kurama) on my last afternoon.

    One of the things I liked was how *slow* the onsen experience can be, especially compared to the breakneck pace of daily life. Tokyo is unlike any other city I’ve experienced, combining the concrete jungle effect of Manhattan with the sprawl of LA, and even Kyoto is a fast-moving place when you’re maneuvering through its subway stations, Nishiki Market, etc. Makes me understand the value of the onsen experience in Japanese daily life – I’d go back to one in a heartbeat. But first, getting back to Japan somehow!

    Reply
    • Donald
      Donald says:

      Forgot to say, thank you for all you’ve shared on your travels. This site + DTB really helped me nail my week in Japan, and things couldn’t have gone more smoothly.

      Next, I’d love to visit China. Not the *biggest* Disney Parks fan (I don’t meet the characters or care much about Star Wars/Marvel/Frozen, etc.), but I’m enough of a fan that I’d love to see all the parks one day. HKDL and SDL are calling me, and even if I only spend 24 hours at each of them, would be the perfect gateway to exploring Hong Kong and Shanghai themselves. Hong Kong, I imagine to be easy enough (a longer flight but more English!). It’s Shanghai that worries me – but I’m up for figuring it out. Now I just need more vacation days…

      Reply
      • Tom Bricker
        Tom Bricker says:

        Hong Kong is definitely the easier place to explore, and we prefer the city to Shanghai, as well. We should have more content on Shanghai soon, but in the meantime, one somewhat under-the-radar experience is the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel. It’s a ‘trip’ in more ways than one.

        Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      Would you recommend making the trip to Kurama? We’ve been debating going there, but since we’ve mostly missed the boat on fall colors there, we were leaning against it.

      Reply
      • Donald
        Donald says:

        Hi Tom – sorry I’m late in circling back here, but wanted to reply!

        I think Kurama could be a worthwhile excursion from Kyoto. There’s a bus line that gets there pretty quickly (departing from Kokusaikaikan, the northernmost stop of the Karasuma Line), and the town itself looked like a pleasant, compact area to explore (I only had time to use the onsen, but the bus passed through it). Kurama-dera Temple also looks interesting, and collectively it could be a great half-day. I think the advantage of Kurama is it’s easy enough to explore w/ Kyoto public transit, while providing something new!

        Cool to hear your perspective on Hong Kong and Shanghai – I have to say Japan is absolutely beckoning me to return, and if I do, would love to visit one (or both) of these cities as well! That said, Kyoto set the bar really, really high (even with fall crowds) – you set my expectations correctly and it still delivered! And whoa, just googled the Bund Sightseeing Tunnel – never seen that before but your description is an apt one. Looks so cool!

        Reply
  4. Tanford
    Tanford says:

    1. Wear the yukata to the onsen.
    2. Disrobe in the changing area.
    3. Grab the little towel and head over to the rinsing area.
    4. Wash yourself.
    5. Use the little towel just to keep yourself covered as you walk over to the onsen pool.
    6. Place small towel on your head.
    7. Get in, sit back, relax and enjoy. ♨️♨️♨️

    We stayed in Hakone on one of our trips. It was a long day of traveling with lots of transfers from Tokyo but the ticket agents do a good job at explaining all stops and transfer points.

    We hiked to the top of Mt. Fuji this past summer and stopped in Kawaguchiko for the onsen after a long (bullet hiking) overnight hike to the summit.

    Now that you’ve tried the onsen, (and added that to your bucket list just so you can cross it off your list) you should add trying an outdoor onsen while the snow is falling onto you to that list….that’s a next level experience! ❄️♨️ We lucked out traveling through Hokkaido a couple winters ago. We pretty much had the onsens to ourselves everywhere we went.

    Hope you have a great time in Kyoto!

    Reply
  5. Kayla
    Kayla says:

    I read about onsens after you tweeted about it. Trying to balance a bath towel on your head is the stuff of comedy gold. Were there signs or directions, just in Japanese? Or are people supposed to arrive knowing the etiquette already? Although obviously an English translation may not have been that useful, given your other experience. I’m looking forward to more Mt. Fuji and fall colors photos!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      There were a few signs (“men only”) but most of the etiquette is presumed knowledge. I had read about it on blogs, but the problem with that is that it isn’t the same as being there, and also that (I assume) each onsen has its own nuances that you don’t really grasp until you’ve had a few experiences with different ones.

      Reply
  6. Sara Watson
    Sara Watson says:

    I really loved the onsen culture in Japan and the chatty atmosphere between women. However my boyfriend who speaks good Japanese had a really awkward time while locals happily gossiped about the “Furry Bear” in their midst before he started answering back!
    Having lived in Germany for years where nudity was not really taboo I got used to it as well I guessed. Glad Sarah enjoyed it!

    Reply
    • Tom Bricker
      Tom Bricker says:

      The nudity didn’t really bother me–I definitely could’ve done without it, but that wasn’t the stressful aspect. It was more the ‘burden’ of so much protocol, and the knowledge that even the slightest mistake could earn scorn.

      Reply
      • Sara Watson
        Sara Watson says:

        I totally get that! My first time in America I was super confused by restaurant etiquette (tipping for example) I remember being panicked when a waiter asked me “are you still working on this?” wondering if i should leave fast!

        Reply

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