A Yuru Camp-inspired Trip to Yamanashi: Fujiyoshida (Part 1)

Just west of Tokyo lies the scenic Yamanashi Prefecture—home of Mt. Fuji and its famous amusement park, Fuji-Q Highland, that holds a several world records for its thrilling roller coasters. After climbing the mountain during my first summer in Japan and visiting the theme park a few months later, I thought I had seen everything this prefecture had to offer. However, after watching the comfy camping anime Yuru Camp (localized as “Laid-Back Camp”), I realized that there were many amazing places I had overlooked. Aside from Mt. Fuji, Yamanashi has beautiful campsites by the lake, hiking trails, kind locals, and an abundance of delicious food too!

In the first season of the anime, Shima Rin, the main protagonist of Yuru Camp, explores several campsites around Fujiyoshida on her scooter and meets other interesting characters through her adventures. In later episodes she explores the surrounding prefectures of Nagano and Shizuoka which I have both traveled to for music events so seeing them featured in the anime felt nostalgic. Though she prefers traveling alone, she eventually realizes that group camping can be extremely fun and rewarding. I relate to this feeling in many ways. Through the anime I have learned a lot of random facts about Japan and discovered a number of destinations I would like to travel to which is why it is one of my favorite series. I recommend it to everyone as it is extremely relaxing to watch!

Over the past weekend I decided to plan a three day trip to Yamanashi to see some of the spots mentioned in Yuru Camp and also meet up with some friends that live near Kofu Station. I decided to spend the first day sightseeing in Fujiyoshida solo so I could get acquainted with the area (Shima Rin style), then take the local train to Kofu and see my friends the next two days. This turned out to be a phenomenal idea because I was able to cover a lot of ground with the help of a kind local and my friends who own two cars. Though it is definitely possible to see Yamanashi by local train and bus, having a car is nice to reach the hiking trails and waterfalls.

Getting to Yamanashi (Shimoyoshida Station)

Since Yamanashi is the prefecture directly west of Tokyo, there are a number of ways to travel there by both train and bus. Because I am a pretty spontaneous person, I decided to hop on the local trains around 10am because they are pretty cheap and require no reservation. I rode the Chuo Line to Takao Station, then transferred on the same line to Otsuki Station where I took the Fujikyuko Line to Shimoyoshida Station. This journey took roughly 2 hours and cost under 2400 yen. This is nothing compared to the price of taking the shinkansen to Kyoto or Osaka!

You can also look into booking a bus ticket from Fuji Express or purchase one at the Shinjuku Bus Station if you don’t want to deal with transfers. These are around the same price as the trains but may be cheaper if you book them in advance.

Kofu Station is another popular destination in Yamanashi which I will be covering in my next article. Shimoyoshida Station is closer to the Five Fuji Lakes and Fuji-Q Highland which is why I came here first. It also is a great are for viewing sakura in the spring.

Trying Curry at “Little Robot”

As I usually do my morning workout before I travel anywhere so I can enjoy my food guilt-free, I was quite peckish when I arrived at Shimoyoshida Station. I decided to walk to a vegetarian-friendly curry restaurant called Little Robot that was 8 minutes down the road. Here they have delicious Indian curry sets for both veggie and meat lovers as well as vegan desserts. I tried a vegetable lunch set that had 3 mild curries, lightly fried vegetables, and a healthy portion of yellow rice. The combination of spices here was simply amazing and it gave me the energy I needed for hiking! I also ordered the vegan coconut balls because I was curious what they tasted like. Once again, they were powdered to perfection and you could tell that they were baked with love.

The owner and waitress were super friendly and invited me to a yoga class at their restaurant that night, but unfortunately I did not have time to go. However iff I come back here in the future to see the sakura, I would love to come! Yamanashi people definitely have a reputation for being genuinely friendly which I’ll get into under my next heading…

Chureito Pagoda

Out of all the places in Fujiyoshida, the Chureito Pagoda observation deck is one of the most iconic viewpoints in the city. Unfortunately since I came here in February there were no sakura or red leaves on the tress, but during the late spring and early fall seasons this area is picture perfect. The best thing is regardless of the time of year you can get the perfect view of Fuji up here. The hike is roughly 25 mins from Fujiyoshida Station and is fortunately a leisurely one. This pagoda is located in Arakurayama Sengen Park and has several trails and gardens you can see as well.

As I was setting up my tripod to take pictures, an older Yamanashi local approached me a started a conversation with me. He asked me the usual questions I get daily like where I was from, what I like about Japan, etc., then offered to drive me around the area. Since I saw him talking with other people around me and thought he was trustworthy, I took him up on his offer because there were a number of places that I wanted to see. This wasn’t the first time I hitch-hiked around rural Japan, anyway, and I was down for the adventure.

Kaneyamano Falls

Though Kaneyamano Falls haven’t been featured in Yuru Camp yet, they were still a destination that I really wanted to check out. Luckily they are a simple 15 minute drive from the pagoda and a 3 minute walk from the parking lot. To be honest I was expecting more of a hike to reach them, but they weren’t disappointing in the slightest and I got my hiking in later. Seeing a waterfall during the winter is a beautiful experience. In February there is not as much snow in the Fujiyoshida area, but the tiny patches of it lingering around the falls made it a wonderful spot for photography.

Local Shrines

As most Japanese guides are quite fond of showing tourists their local shrines, I couldn’t turn down my driver’s enthusiastic proposal to see Kitaguchi-hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine and Arayayama Shrine. I was impressed with the beautiful pine forest that lined the entrance to Sengen Shrine. Since we came here on a quiet Friday afternoon there weren’t many people here and we could enjoy our time here in peace. Both of these shrines are close to the falls and are easily reachable by car or local bus.

Lake Yamanaka

I woke up at 6am this morning to watch episode 5 of the currently airing Yuru Camp Season 2 before I departed, and was thrilled to see that they featured Lake Yamanaka near where I booked my hotel. This scenic lake is simply a 10-15 min drive from central Fujiyoshida and is absolutely breathtaking to see. I came in the afternoon and the sun was shining creating a beautiful sparkling effect over the water. This was pure bliss.

Here is a screenshot of Lake Yamanaka the anime which accurately depicts the patches of snow that I saw around the lake:

The anime version of Lake Yamanaka.
The real thing looks almost better than anime.

In the summer I would consider camping here so I could see the beautiful sakura around this area and the Fuji Five Lakes. In the winter I would recommend staying in a hotel or ryokan because the chill is simply too cold. Please see my recommendations at the bottom of this article.

Oshino Hakkai

Oshino Hakkai is a small village with interesting architecture that is just a short 10 minute drive from the aforementioned shrines and lake. It has 8 ponds and of course a clear view of Fuji year-round making it a popular destination. Unfortunately most of the vendors were closed for the winter, but we had fun walking across the bridge and seeing the koi swim in the pond. The roofs of the houses here reminded me of Shirakawago and were fun to see. The building structure in Yamanashi is definitely more exciting than houses found in Saitama or Chiba surrounding Tokyo.

Traveling during the off-season definitely means less is open, but you have the whole place to yourself which is the best!

After doing photography at all of these destinations I was fully satisfied and politely asked to be returned to my hotel. My driver kindly bought me chocolate bread and wine from Family Mart and dropped me off. What an amazing day, and this was only the 1/3 of the entire trip!

Accommodations

There are a number of affordable ryokan and hotels in this area, but if you are a backpacker like me then I definitely recommend staying at a guest house because it has everything you need. I chose Fuji Hostel YOU and got a private twin bedroom all to myself for 3200 yen per night. This guesthouse is located between Fujiyoshida Station and Mt. Fuji Station and has plenty of restaurants and convenience stores around it so it was the perfect choice for me. I would gladly recommend it to all of my friends.

Overall, Fujiyoshida is simply remarkable because you can see Fuji from anywhere you look. You can access Fuji-Q Highland and many beautiful parks and trails while feeling extremely close to the mountain in the heart of Japan. If you are a nature enthusiast then you cannot simply pass this place up. It’s crazy that it’s taken me this long to explore this area, but better late than never. I am happy that anime inspired me to travel here.

In my next article I will be writing about Minobu and Kofu—two areas in Yamanashi that are frequently referenced in Yuru Camp. Please look forward to my continued anime-inspired adventures through Fuji Town!

Living Life the Way it’s Supposed to be Lived (Onsen Trip to Nagano, Japan)

Snow falls gently on Lake Nojiri in Nagano creating a a picturesque winter scene.

Right before the second emergency state for Tokyo and surrounding areas was declared on January 7th, a number of business owners gathered in Nagano Prefecture to discuss what would become of their once booming industry that has rapidly declined this year due to the effect of the corona virus. According to a friend of mine who owns several ski resorts and ryokan in this area, they are currently only at 1/4 capacity this year. Usually Nagano is one of the most popular areas to do winter sports because it is easily accessible by shinkansen and has many hot springs where you can spend the night. It was also where the 1998 Winter Olympics were hosted and is famous for its snow monkeys which normally draw in a number of visitors from around the world each year. According to the Foreign Press Center, Nagano has surpassed Okinawa for having the longest life expectancy in Japan of above 80 years for both men and woman. Seeing the local tourism drop in such a boisterous place is a fatal blow to the nation, but also can’t be helped in this situation.

Though this is a tough time for everyone, currently many people in Nagano are strategizing what they can to keep their businesses alive. My friend who I met through writing articles online invited me to Nagano right before signing the contract to close one of their hotels for a final celebration. This became a two day trip that was completely sponsored and I am very fortunate that I was able to travel here so spontaneously. I previously traveled to Nagano in 2018 and saw the snow monkeys as well as an indie music show in Matsumoto, but I’ve never stayed at a ryokan here. Like the ryokan in Nara that I stayed at during my last sponsored motorcycle trip, this one did not disappoint!

Getting to Nagano

From Tokyo Station, Nagano Station is only 1 hour and 20 mins away and only costs 8340 yen to ride the Hokuriku Shinkansen there. This is less hassle than going all the way to Kyoto or Osaka. I was initially worried about traveling here due to heavy snowfall last weekend and almost cancelled my trip, but my friend assured me that the snow was further north by Toyama and my trains from Tokyo would not be affected. I left around 9:30am and made it to Nagano Station by 11:30am. The trip was peaceful because I mostly slept on the train and drank a cup of umeshu from Ueno for a buzz when I woke up. Since I didn’t travel during the New Year’s holiday, this was my first major trip of 2021 and it was sure a memorable one!

Lunch at Hotel Metropolitan Nagano

Just as I arrived to Nagano Station, my friend was waiting for me in the parking lot with their car. The temperature was definitely chilly but not as cold as I had expected. I was happy to see the vast view of the snowy mountains but was also starving. Fortunately my friend was hungry too so after exchanging quick greetings we drove to Hotel Metropolitan Nagano and had a delicious lunch set at Shinano. I ordered a balance of sashimi, rice, tempura, and vegetables and has some delicious miso soup to warm me up. I loved the decorative dishes and the wine they had on display here. Already I was proud of myself for braving through the snow and making it here because the food was worth it!

Exploring Lake Nojiri

Since our ryokan checkin time was at 15:00, we had around 3 hours to kill. We decided to drive around Lake Nojiri since it was on the way to the onsen. Though the area around Nagano Station was mostly just frosty, we were surprised to see thick layers of snow piling up just 5km away on the forest roads. Fortunately my friend had a lot of experience driving here so it was not a problem. Once we arrived at the lake, we got out of the car to do some photography. There was a beautiful island in the middle of the lake that gleamed in the gentle sunlight. There were also little log cabins in clusters on the edge of the lake. My friend informed me that this area was called “Gaijin Mura” because foreign missionaries have owned property and have lived here for over 100 years. According to Outdoor Japan, they have managed to protect the place from “bubble-era developers” so this is actually a good thing. This area already has a number of resorts so it’s refreshing to see this atmosphere. You can rent cabins here year-round which sounds like an awesome to do in the summer!

I remember a while ago one of my Japanese friends traveled to this area and called it “雪の国” on Twitter. With all of the snow flurries around I can definitely see the reference to “Snow Kingdom” in Mario Odyssey!

Arriving at Onsen Paradise (Yorozuya)

After driving around Lake Nojiri in its entirety, we arrived to our ryokan, Yorozuya, around 15:30 and immediately went to the public outdoor hot springs since they are the largest and have the best scenery. We decided to use the smaller private ones at night after dinner. I had previously looked on Booking and other Japanese sites for ryokan deals, but could have never imagined staying somewhere so beautiful. My friend actually found this deal through a local travel agency in Nagano by going there in person. All of the rooms had their own custom design and were equipped with a kotatsu (which I slept under), yukata, amenities, and premium room service. It had been half a year since I had stayed in one of these room so I was beyond excited. I will be sure to consult with Japanese travel agencies in the future because this was for sure a better place than anywhere I looked at online. I felt fully relaxed and welcome during my stay so I would rate Yorozuya 5 stars.

Address: 〒381-0401 Nagano, Shimotakai District, Yamanochi, Hirao, 3137

Dinner with a Hint of Gold

After fully relaxing at the indoor and outdoor hot springs, we sat down for our dinner at around 18:30. This wasn’t my first time going to an onsen during winter, but seeing the snow fall from sky while the steam rises up from the water was definitely a sight to behold. Plus I already had a decent buzz going on from the sake and apple wine that I ordered for our room so I was in a really good mood!

An immaculate course dinner was served with an explanation before each dish by the kind waitress and I was amazed to find that there were real flakes of gold in my food! I think the seared fish, sashimi, and mushroom hot pot were my favorites but all of these dishes tasted out of this world. Dessert was light fruit and green tea-flavored pudding. Plus another round of nihonshu requested by yours truly! And there was a tiny serve-yourself bar in the basement of the ryokan. What more could you ask for in life? The view of the snowy mountain tops from the window topped it off.

Private Onsen

Since the outdoor bath in our room was frozen due to cold temperatures, the Yorozuya staff graciously offered us a free shuttle service to a nearby onsen where we could use private baths after dinner. There we found a steamy indoor bath filled with apples and an outdoor one decorated with bamboo and an umbrella. Since these baths were completely private, photography was allowed. This was the moment I had been waiting for!!

Final Thoughts

This trip is exactly what I needed to get 2021 off to the right start and set my mind free. I did not travel during the winter holiday because many places were affected by COVID-19 and I wanted to prioritize work and saving money. I have been bummed that I still haven’t been able to travel to the Philippines or Indonesia like I had planned to last year, but this trip reminded me that it’s really important to focus on self-care and that nature can be enjoyed in its simplicity. I graciously thank all of my friends here for taking care of me because I don’t know when it will be safe to visit America again. However, I am very happy with my life now and am also close to reaching one of my major financial goals this month so I plan to continue at this pace for now. I have faith that things will get better with time and that I will be able to meet my friends and family with a smiling face one day again. In the meantime, I’ll be playing FFXIV and giving my all to my current line of work.

What does this mean for the future of small Japanese businesses though? From my personal example I found it interesting that two ryokan were working together to ensure that all facilities were available to their customers. Perhaps these businesses can continue to rely on one another and also local travel agencies to keep their businesses alive. Though I definitely noticed less people here, I did not sense a complete loss of hope. Cuts and sacrifices will need to be made in order to survive these hard times, but as this culture has demonstrated many times, perseverance can go a long way.