This fascinating area at the foot of Japan’s iconic Mount Fuji will provide endless subjects for your camera…
A view of Mount Fuji from the northern shore of Lake Yamanakako. Sailing dinghies on the lake give a sense of scale. (28mm focal length 1/400 second at f/11.)
We’re taking you to Japan for this Locations feature, partly because it’s one of the easiest places for Australian photographers to visit but also because you’ll find subjects for your camera just about anywhere you look. There are plenty of things that set Japan apart from its Asian neighbours.
It’s safe and clean; it has excellent public transport, delicious and healthy food and even if you don’t speak the language, the people are friendly and many of them can understand English, even if they are reluctant to speak it. It’s also relatively affordable.
Concentrating on a single area is the best strategy in our opinion because it enables you to get a real feel for Japanese life and customs. If your itinerary takes you from place to place you won’t have time to look more closely at a culture that is radically different from our own and has a lot to offer to thoughtful visitors.
Mount Fuji as seen from the northern shore of Lake Shojiko, just below the Panorama-dai-shita bus stop. (20mm focal length 1/500 second at f/11.)
About Fuji Five Lakes
The five lakes in the system are Lake Kawaguchiko, Lake Yamanakako, Lake Saiko, Lake Shojiko and Lake Motosuko, all located at the northern base of Mount Fuji. All were formed hundreds of years ago by lava flows which dammed up rivers during Mount Fuji’s multiple eruptions.
Lake Yamanakako is the largest of the Fuji Five Lakes but Lake Kawaguchiko is the most easily accessible and best set up for tourism. The smaller lakes, Saiko, Shojiko and Motosuko are connected via underground waterways and maintain the same surface level of 900 meters above sea level.
Mount Fuji from the northern shore of Lake Yamanakako with the swans for which the lake is famous in the foreground. (17mm focal length 1/320 second at f/11.)
The best views of Mount Fuji are from the northern shores of lakes Kawaguchiko and Yamanakako. Lake Saiko is surrounded by wooded mountains, although good views of the volcano can be obtained from the lake’s western end.
Clouds gather around Mount Fuji in this morning view taken from the Kodaki Fuji View Point bus stop on the northern shore of Lake Shojiko. (24mm focal length 1/2500 second at f/9.)
Sandwiched between Lake Motosuko and Lake Saiko, Lake Shojiko is the smallest of the Fuji Five Lakes and relatively undeveloped. The best views of Mount Fuji are obtained from its northern shore and there is a walking trail near the Panorama-dai-shita bus stop that takes you up to the Panorama-dai lookout, which can provide great views of Mount Fuji and the surrounding landscape. It takes 60-90 minutes to make the climb.
Lake Motosuko is the westernmost of the five lakes and largely undeveloped. It is famous for the view of the mountain from the lake’s north-western shore that appears on Japan’s 1000 yen bill. Sadly, it is difficult to reach this point by public transport.
A view of Mount Fuji framed by maple trees the entrance to the Saiko Iyashi-no-sato Nenba village. (24mm focal length 1/500 second at f/11.)
When to go
Most Westerners see spring as the ideal time to visit Japan, although it’s actually wiser to visit in the autumn when the deciduous trees are in full colour. The cherry blossoms of spring may only be present for a week to 10 days, usually between the end of March and the beginning of April; whereas the autumn colours start to appear in mid-September in Hokkaido (the northern island) and range through from mid-October to early December as you travel south. You can check the forecast times for the year at Kyuhoshi.com.
Summers in most of central Japan can be very hot and humid and much of the country experiences a three to four-week rainy season between early June and mid-July, when Mount Fuji can be obscured for days on end. Spring ranges from March to May but, with plenty of festivals to enjoy, many people take holidays so crowds can be a problem.
A view of Mount Fuji taken from the traditional village of Saiko Iyashi-no-sato Nenba in June on one of the ‘lucky’ days when the mountain wasn’t totally obscured by the cloud. (21mm focal length 1/320 second at f/9.)
Winter officially extends from December to February and while the south of Japan usually has mild conditions, snow usually falls in the north and in alpine areas, making these places popular for winter sports. Hokkaido can be very cold in winter, the time of its famous Ice Festival.
For Australians, Japan is easy to visit, with direct flights to Tokyo from Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane and Cairns on most days. Most flights from Sydney and Melbourne land at Tokyo’s Haneda airport, although the direct flights from Brisbane and Cairns land at Narita.
Highway buses run from both Haneda and Narita at roughly 60 to 90 minute intervals taking you to Kawaguchiko, the best place to base yourself when exploring the area. There are also buses to Kawaguchiko from the Shinjuku Station bus terminal as well as from Shibuya Station.
Kawaguchiko railway station is the main departure point for all the local bus and train services as well as the terminus for the highway buses from Tokyo. The summit of Mount Fuji can be seen clearly behind the station building.
One or two buses a day, operated by Fujikyu and JR Kanto, leave the Yaesu Exit of Tokyo Station for Kawaguchiko Station. You can also travel by train, taking the JR Chuo Line train from Shinjuku Station to Otsuki and changing to the Fujikyu Railway Line to Kawaguchiko Station. The Japan Rail Pass is valid for the Shinjuku Station to Otsuki leg only.
A number of tour companies offer day trips between Tokyo and the Fuji Five Lakes area, many of them including a stop at the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station, located at the 2,305 metre point on the 3,773 metre mountain. This is the highest point vehicular traffic can reach and a popular starting point for climbers during the brief summer climbing season.
The Fuji Hakone Pass (8000 yen) is designed for foreign tourists and provides access from Tokyo and transportation within the Fuji Five Lakes region and the neighbouring Hakone area. It is available at the Odakyu Sightseeing Service Centres at Shinjuku Station in central Tokyo and at Odawara Station. Details can be found at Odakyu.jp.
Japanican offers various guided tours from Tokyo to the Fuji Five Lakes and Hakone, including a popular guided day trip by bus and a guided two day trip with hotel.
A classic view of Mount Fuji taken from the northern shore of Lake Kawaguchiko at Oishi Park, the second-to-last stop on the ‘red’ retro bus route. (13mm focal length 1/1000 second at f/9.)
There are plenty of buses that leave at regular intervals from the forecourt of Kawaguchiko railway station to take you to all of the lakes in the system and the main vantage points for taking photos. Together, two ‘retro’ buses cover most of the lakes and stop at the main tourist attractions including Kachikachiyama Ropeway, Lake Kawaguchi Museum, Lake Kawaguchi Sightseeing Boat, Saiko Iyashi-no-sato Nenba reconstructed traditional village and the Music Box Forest.
The ‘red’ line goes along the north and east of Lake Kawaguchiko with about four buses an hour. The slightly less frequent ‘green’ line operates along the southern side of Kawaguchiko and circles around Saiko, taking in the Aokigahara forest and Wind Cave. You can purchase two-day passes for 1200 yen, which allow unlimited travel on both buses from Kawaguchiko station.
If you want to visit Lake Shojiko and Lake Motosuko you must take the ‘blue’ line bus, which terminates at the Motosuko Tourist Information Centre. A two-day ticket costs 1500 yen and covers all three bus lines.
To visit Lake Yamanakako from Kawaguchiko you must take the Kawaguchiko-Gotemba-Mishima Line. The one-way ride takes about 30 minutes and costs around 630 yen. There are also Fujikko tourist buses which depart from Fujisan Station and make an entire circle around Lake Yamanakako. A two-day pass is available for 1340 yen.
Between Fujisan Station and Lake Yamanakako is Oshino Hakkai, a village centred on eight ponds, which are fed by snow melt from the slopes of Mount Fuji. The clear spring water is revered by the locals and the area becomes crowded with visitors on most weekends. There are many restaurants, souvenir shops and food vendors around the ponds which sell vegetables, sweets, pickles, crafts and other local products. There’s also a small open-air museum with a traditional thatched roof farmhouse. Good views of Mount Fuji can be obtained on a clear day.
The Fujisan Fujigoko Passport is available at the Kawaguchiko and Fujisan and several other stations and the Asashigaoka/Yamanakako bus stop. It provides unlimited use of Fujikyu buses around the Fuji Five Lakeson two consecutive calendar days and includes the retro buses and the Fujikko bus. Two versions are available: one that also includes the entire Fujikyu Railway Line and one that includes Fujikyu trains only between Kawaguchiko and Shimoyoshida Station.
Clouds develop and swirl around the summit of mount Fuji, seen from the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station. (17mm focal length 1/1250 second at f/9.)
What gear to take
Travel light for maximum mobility and flexibility, particularly if your time is limited. We’d recommend taking one camera plus a lens with a moderate zoom range. The illustrations for this feature were captured with an Olympus OM-D E-M1 II camera fitted with the M.Zuiko ED 12-100mm f/4.0 IS PRO lens, which we consider the ideal travel kit.
An alternative option would be a fixed-lens camera with a similar zoom range. While it might be tempting to choose an ultra-zoom model, unless you’re a keen birder (and there aren’t many birds to photograph in the area) the compromises you must make in lens speed and portability simply aren’t worth making.
What to photograph
Most visitors will want great shots of Mount Fuji and, while there are plenty of places that provide excellent views, the mountain may not co-operate. Although autumn usually provides the most stable and predictable weather conditions, Fuji-san is notoriously shy. In spring and summer it can remain hidden by clouds for days on end.
A view of Mount Fuji framed by the red leaves of the Japanese maple trees on the shore of Lake Kawaguchiko at Nagasaki Park. (34mm focal length 1/400 second at f/10.)
On a clear day you can secure wonderful shots of the mountain seen across one of the lakes. Look for creative ways to frame the peak with leaves and/or interesting foregrounds. Vary your focal length settings to change the relative size of the peak within the shot; there’s not much you can do to change your angle of view of the mountain without taking the Kachikachiyama Ropeway or visiting the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station.
Tourists pose on the balcony of one of the restaurant and souvenir shop buildings at the Fuji Subaru Line 5th Station. The height above sea level can be seen on the building behind them. (100mm focal length 1/80 second at f/11.)
A visit to the Saiko Iyashi-no-sato Nenba village will provide some interesting subjects for your camera. Even though it is quite touristy, the traditional buildings provide some nice foregrounds to Mount Fuji in the distance. There are also some nice walks in the nearby Aokigahara forest, particularly at the Saiko Wildbird Forest Park, which is one stop further on from the Nenba village.
Traditional thatched roofs on a picnic shelter at the Saiko Wildbird Forest Park. A small shrine can be seen in the foreground, while Mount Fuji is visible in the distance. (21mm focal length 1/400 second at f/9.)
You’ll also find plenty of opportunities for shooting close-ups. Subjects can be as diverse as autumn leaves on the trees or on the ground, late-flowering chrysanthemums, the dish of noodles you have for lunch, plastic replicas of dishes in the restaurant windows or the souvenirs you find in the local shops. The area has a reputation for attractively-packaged sweets, many of which are even more interesting when you unpack them.
Article by Margaret Brown – see Margaret’s photography pocket guides