Kyoto to Mount Fuji: The long way round through Arashiyama Bamboo Grove, Nachi Falls, and Hamamatsu Gardens

I know that title is a doozy, but we really packed a punch into 8 days. After crossing eating toxic fugu off our bucket list, the next items were seeing Mount Fuji and getting some thrills at Fuji Q Highland. We were killing time trying to time the Kawazu Cherry Blossom Festival just right and thought an iconic volcano and thrilling roller coasters were just the ticket.

Sadly, a few days before we arrived at Fuji Q Highland, they shut down the park due to Covid…. but only for the exact days we had booked our tickets for. They were re-opening as we were to head to the cherry blossom festival, but since the whole reason we extended our stay in Japan was to see the blossoms we thought we better count our losses and enjoy the trip getting to the festival.

Arashiyama Sagano Bamboo Grove

Heading out of Kyoto, we decided a stop at the quintessential bamboo forest was in order. Nestled at the foot of Arashiyama Mountain, or Storm Mountain. Breathtakingly beautiful and almost ethereal, I can understand why it is a must-see on any Japan trip. Standing beneath towering rows of bamboo made me feel small and simultaneously a part of something bigger.

Managing to snag a couple photos of just us to show the magnitude of the grove, and though it paints a peaceful picture, we were anything but alone. The illusion we created in our photos does capture how you feel wandering the mazes through the grove, even though we were among crowds. Selfie-sticks and insta poses were in no short supply, yet somehow the magic remained. I imagine a sunrise walk of these paths might be the best option for actually being alone among the bamboo, but any stop here is worth it.

Nachi Falls & Kumano Nachi Taisha, the Seigantoji Temple

With a drop of 133 meters, Nachi Falls is the country’s tallest water fall with single uninterrupted drop. Home to a sacred Shinto Shrines and situated along the sanctified Kumano Kodo Pilgrimage, this site is also a UNESCO World Heritage site. Atop the falls there are two rocks said to be the guardian kami spirit of the falls and temple, Hiryū Gongen. For many centuries Shinto priests have worshipped here and ancient gifts to the spirit can be found in the nearby pagoda.

Before arriving at the trailhead, we had a bit of a surprise when Oli slammed on the breaks on the highway to take an exit that would be better described as a dirt road… because he saw some cherry blossom trees he wanted to smell. He’s adorable and I love him and the trees felt like a tiny blessing on our way to an incredible holy site.

Hiking to the falls begins with the Daimonzaka walk, a part of the sacred 4-day Kumano Kodo pilgrimage that Japanese monks walk as part of religious ritual. At the base of the slope is the impressive Meitosugi – “husband and wife cedar trees,” whose roots are poetically entwined beneath the path. Following along the cobblestone staircase, weaving our way through ancient cedars made me feel like we were walking back in time and I couldn’t shake the feeling that spirits definitely lived among the trees.

30 minutes later, our efforts were rewarded with a greeting from a smiling Buddha and an incredible view of Kumano Nachi Taisha and Nachi Falls. We wandered around the shrine, stopped to sip holy water out of a spring, and meandered as close as we could to the waterfall. I managed to snap a photo of Oli looking like such a tiny spec compared to the monumental waterfall that you can’t even see him. After watching the cascading water and the many different characters who came to worship at her base, we bode goodbye to Buudha and asked for his protection as we carried on our adventure.

Hamamatsu Gardens & Kanzanji Park

Desperate to stretch our legs, we happened upon the gardens by happy accident. In no rush on this day, we spent hours wandering around the different estates and garden plots. Hunting for cherry blossoms was a fruitful endeavor, as we found rows filled with flowers and wax eyes. Oli had bought me a nice bird lens to capture bird shots for his dad when we were in Tokyo. I used to think bird people were nerds, including my husband and his dad, and I am now one of the those nerds.

Learning to love birds opened up a whole new world of wildlife for me to be inspired by. Living in Washington I had never paid much attention to birds, except when I spotted an eagle. It might be due to the fact that they have so much space to wander, so the density of birds is less than on an island, but it might also be due to me not paying close enough attention to the beauty of birds. I now find them very exciting and can often be found camera in hand, quietly chasing them through nature. Just look at these beauts.

Mount Fuji & The Narusawa Ice Cave

Finally arriving at one of my most anticipated locations, Mount Fuji, was anticlimactic. Murphy’s Law had been a prominent theme in our travels, so much so we had nicknamed ourselves the Joli Murphy’s (Jess + Oli = Joli).

Mount Fuji was encased in cloud coverage for the first few days we were in town, and due to covid or the weather almost all the attractions were shut down. We did what we always did – rent bikes, get some good food, a couple drinks and made the best of the situation at hand.

A long bike explore lead us to some exquisite spots, even though the Mountain hid all day. We wandered upon Torriko, a unique chicken focused restaurant with “rare” chicken parts. Curious and adventurous with our eating, we opted for a little bit of everything from chicken feet to hearts to skin, we tried it all.

Our last morning in Yamanashi we finally awoke to sunshine and quite the unexpected view out of our living room window. Mount Fuji in all her glory beamed happily while I sipped my coffee. After a quick breakfast we headed out on a mission to the Mount Fuji Panoramic Ropeway. Viewing the mountain and lake from the top is like stepping right into a postcard of Japan. As much as we would have loved to summit her, we were of course in the wrong season and added that to our next time list.

We spent a couple hours taking in the view we came for and then got on the road with a pitstop at the Narusawa Ice Cave. The ice caves were basically just to say with did more than just bike around town and stare at the mountain once, but Oli did get to feed some birds by hand, which is always a magical experience. Yamanashi was a very chill time, albeit a bit uneventful, so we had our sights set on the Kawazu coast and the cherry blossom festival.