Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Life on Mount Fuji

The town of Yamanaka is like a movie set—complete with interesting neighbors as its cast of characters

We have a weekend house at the foothills of Japan’s Mount Fuji that we don’t visit as often as we would like. However, when we are there, we are always reluctant to leave and we can’t imagine why we don’t go more frequently.

Only a 90-minute drive from Tokyo but a whole world away from the nonstop frenzy of Japan’s capital, the town of Yamanaka (which in Japanese means “in the middle of the mountain”) sprouted on the banks of a lake with the same name, 1000 meters above sea level. Because of its high altitude, it’s heaven-sent in the summer, when it’s a good 10 degrees cooler than sweltering Tokyo. But, in the winter, temperatures can drop as low as -18 degrees F. In February, we’ve often woken up to a completely pure and quiet white wonderland with thigh-high levels of snow we’ve had to literally stomp our way out of.

Mount Fuji, spiritual home of the Japanese

The allure of Lake Yamanaka is its proximity to Mount Fuji, spiritual home of the Japanese, and to all its related benefits: crisp and fresh mountain air, spring waters, and an intimacy with nature that is rare for the First World.

For my husband and I, however, it’s the people we meet in these backwoods of Japan that make our visits so enjoyable. The Mount Fuji area is full of interesting local and transplanted personalities, all drawn to a more relaxed lifestyle and a purer existence. Among our neighbors and fellow weekend residents are hedge-fund managers, ex-diplomats, company executives and even the owner of one of Japan’s largest retail businesses. The atmosphere is much more relaxed than in Tokyo, so people easily make friends and we often meet up for meals or for drinks.

The full-time “villagers” are equally fascinating.

Further up the hills from us, for instance, in an area known as the Tibet of Yamanaka, live a couple who escaped Tokyo’s rat-race about 20 years ago. The husband, an architect by profession, dreamt of building a house with his own hands. Each day, he can be found working on the shell of his three-storey wooden house with an amazing rooftop view of Mount Fuji. He’s been at it for two decades now and yet is nowhere near finishing his masterpiece – earning him the affectionate nickname of “Lake Yamanaka’s Gaudi.” The last time we passed his home, he was still working on it.

A mountain hermit who serves cold soba in his living room

On the other side of the mountain lives an old recluse who survives by serving cold soba noodles out of his small living room, among his photographs, stereo equipment and other personal memorabilia. He wakes up at dawn to knead and roll the noodles himself, and lunch here is a time-consuming four-course meal consisting solely of noodles in varying consistencies of buckwheat. Only soba purists come away not hungry. Nevertheless, it’s an enjoyable experience and certainly a lesson in patience.

Meanwhile, the town barber, a Harley Davidson fanatic whose relations practically form half the town, has lived here all his life. He drops in on us at any hour unannounced – people here don’t lock doors or make appointments -- with a bag of freshly-picked cucumbers from his fields and miso paste as relish, to discuss his latest motorcycle exploits.

A talented restaurateur

On the other hand, Amano-san is a talented young restaurateur with refined, eclectic tastes who serves original, multi-course Japanese kaiseki meals out of the ground floor of a home he designed himself. The best seats in the house are not in the main dining room but at his seven-place kitchen counter, where he dishes up both excellent food, wines (from a formidable underground cellar) and conversation. Word about his restaurant is passed around friends like a hot racing tip, and his diners literally come from all walks of life – from the governor of Tokyo and Japan’s top sumo wrestler to the town plumber who has been taking his wife here for years. Even renowned wine expert Robert Parker has found his way here for a meal.

Robert Parker in the little village of Oshino

I still remember how we found out Robert Parker had been to Amano-san's restaurant. We'd been talking with him about who'd been there recently and Amano-san was quite over the moon about having Japan's top sumo wrestler in as a customer. Meanwhile, this was something interesting to us but not exactly terribly impressive. I didn't particularly think that a restaurant was great or worth going to because some sumo wrestler -- who, for years, had probably eaten chanko nabe, the de rigeur sumo food of hodge-podge stew made out of everything in the refrigerator -- had decided to go there for a meal all the way from Tokyo.

"Oh, and Robert Parker was just here last week," he added, as if it was an after-thought.

This stopped our part of the conversation completely as we tried to imagine Robert Parker journeying to this end of the earth for a meal. And of course, we had a million questions -- like, what wine did Amano-san serve the world-famous wine critic?? Mind you, Amano-san has a fantastic cellar, made out of two rooms dug out of the earth under his restaurant. One room has pretty good wine, and the other room has simply fantastic wine.

"He brought his own," Amano-san replied with a grin.

Blind-tasting wines in the middle of nowhere

Several times now, we’ve joined Amano-san and his friends – many of them owners of cafes and other small businesses in the area – for a midnight chill-out session after the restaurant’s closing time. Their idea of relaxation is a blind-tasting of good wines: everyone brings a bottle or two to share, and goes to great pains to cover up their bottles -- to the point of even disguising the bottle's shape in case this gives it away as a Bordeaux or Burgundy wine. Then they take turns guessing each bottle’s provenance – down to the vintage year and winery. We’ve tasted some great wines at these gatherings, and – in spite of a dauntingly wide range to choose from -- we’ve constantly been amazed at how accurate and detailed many of the answers are.

The combination of wonderful company, great food and wines, and picture-perfect surroundings is the perfect antidote to the stress of fast-paced Tokyo.

This originally appeared in the March-April 2009 issue of Travelife Magazine. This issue, a special on Batanes, sold out at most bookstores. However we still have limited back issues available at our office. For more information, please contact 813-8400 or 892-2620.



  1. Wow, this must be a truly remarkable experience. This is one of my desired destinations! *sighs*

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