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Red Fuji at Dawn

By Monica Poling

Upon occasion, Mount Fuji appears to turn a vivid red as the rising sun glints off the snow-capped mountainside. In Japan, I've been told, it is considered to be a symbol of good luck for the fortunate few who are able to catch a glimpse of this rare occurrence.

My own quest to catch up with "Red Fuji" brought me to the shores of Awashima Island, located in Shizuoka Prefecture's Izu Peninsula.

Once a deserted island, today Awashima is home to a number of attractions, including the luxurious Awashima Hotel, which has been cleverly designed so that every room offers a waterfront view of Mt. Fuji. The surreal experience of listening to waves roll in below my balcony as I stood in the pre-dawn light waiting for Mount Fuji to wake up is probably the closest I've ever come to having a truly "Zen" experience.

Eventually the land of the rising sun demonstrated her early morning splendor, and while what I saw was probably closer to "Pink Fuji" than true red, I was still feeling pretty lucky. Especially since part of my ritual that morning involved basking in one of the hotel's onsen (hot spring) tubs, while watching the sun complete her upward trajectory over the mountain.

And while my morning at the Awashima Hotel was certainly icing on the cake, it was by no means the only time I saw Mount Fuji during my trip.

Like the thousands of visitors who flock to Japan eager to see its favorite icon, I had no idea of just what treasures could be found within Shizuoka. Located south of Mount Fuji, and just 35 minutes by Shinkansen from Tokyo at its closest point, Shizuoka serves up countless places to view Mount Fuji, often in settings that are prettier, less touristy and often less expensive than those found along the main tourist pathways.

During my visit, there was no limit to the ways I saw Mount Fuji. I saw her from "scenic turn outs" along the peninsular highway, as well as from public gardens, museum rooftops, rest areas, the top of a Ferris wheel, even while taking a spin around the aptly named Fuji Raceway. And no matter how many times I saw her, every time she'd appear in a new form, my gut would once again clench in excitement. I became somewhat infatuated, taking hundreds of photos, and developing a deeper understanding for the artist Katsushika Hokusai, who created the famous woodblock print "Red Fuji," and who was known for his obsession with the mountain.

Despite my enchantment with Mt. Fuji, however, in reality it was the setting of Shizuoka Prefecture that really made my trip to special. Because the region, with its population of just less than 4 million people, has had relatively little influence from Western visitors, it is a charming getaway that gave me the opportunity to dive into a truly authentic Japanese experience.

I was particularly taken with the Izu Peninsula, one of the four main areas that make up Shizuoka. Izu's volcanic history equates to some of the most dramatic coastal settings in Japan, while also offering some of the country's best mineral waters and natural hot springs.

The area is dotted with ancient homes, many of which have been owned by the same families for centuries. Often these homes serve as ryokan (traditional inns), and the ability to actually stay in a home that had been built some 400 years ago, made me feel like I'd stepped into a time machine. More importantly, no matter how much (or little) English was spoken at each inn, I was always treated like a valued member of the family. One of my favorite inns was the riverside Ikona Ryokan, which dates back nearly 400 years. Located just adjacent to a massive cherry blossom field, the gorgeous inn was once a retreat for noblemen who'd been ejected from the political seat in Kyoto. When I first arrived, the gracious hostess gave me a huge smile, and said something in Japanese, which felt very much like "oh my goodness, it's been such a long time since I've seen you." Of course, since I'd never been there before, the true translation was probably closer to "welcome to my home." I was particularly enchanted with Ikona's 140,000 square foot gardens, filled with 80 types of camellias, and numerous gorgeous onsen.

My second "Zen" experience in Shizuoka came at the nearby Osawa Onsen Yoda No Sho Ryokan, which also traces its family history back more than three centuries. Osawa's "luxury suite" is two-story room that once served as a storage unit for the main house. Now, the room's entire ground floor is a living museum, and afraid to touch any of the tools that quite possibly predated Shogun Tokugawa, I spent most of my time upstairs in the sleeping area.

That in a former time only the truly elite and wealthy could afford a two-story home was particularly impressed upon me when I opened my second-story window early one morning, and found myself looking out over the inn's rooftops and wooded scenery beyond. In that moment I could feel my spirit merging with someone from a past life, as I (nearly) felt compelled to call for my servants to start the day. I have never felt as wealthy in my life as I did that morning, and while the concept of wealth may not exactly mesh with Buddhist principles, certainly the idea of appreciating all I have in my life struck close to home.

For all the country charm Shizuoka offers, sometimes a girl just has to have her Dotour (a Japanese coffee shop, somewhat similar to Starbucks). Fortunately the area has plenty of city options, including my favorite, Atami City. Atami is a stop on the Shinkansen line, so is fairly well visited by Japanese travelers. Still, with a population of just 40,000 people, Atami still offers a great getaway from the larger city destinations.

Here, a ryokan with a more modern bent, the Atami Taikanso sits high atop the city, and provides an excellent overview of the happenings below. Although there are city views throughout the inn, the rooftop bath was so stunning, with the twinkling city lights below, that even after my skin had shriveled I had a hard time tearing myself away.

Again, the staff here treated me more like a family member than a guest. One young staff member and I got into a rather involved conversation about our mutual love of Hello Kitty, and as I was leaving for the train station, she sent me off with a brand new Hello Kitty cell phone charm.

When did that ever happen in the big city?

Getting to the Izu Peninsula from Tokyo is an easy train ride. Atami City, in the north, is just 35 minutes by high-speed rail, and Shimoda City in the south takes less than three hours on specially designed sightseeing trains known as the Super View Odoriko. The area is also serviced by the new Mount Fuji Shizuoka Airport.