Yamanashi Prefecture: History, Culture and Nature Close to Tokyo
Located southwest of Tokyo in the Chūbu region of Honshu Island lies Yamanashi Prefecture, a picturesque destination packed with plenty of activities, ancient shrines, and natural beauty. Mt. Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain, is shared between Yamanishi and Shizuoka Prefecture, straddling the border of both.
Spreading to the north of Mt Fuji, Yamanashi Prefecture boasts more than a beautiful landscape, a quarter of which is covered by National Parks. During your visit, spend time walking the many hiking trails, go fishing in one of the Fuji five lakes or sip some locally produced wine. Those looking to relax will enjoy soaking in the natural hot springs whereas thrill-seekers will get a kick from the many roller-coaster rides of the Fuji Q amusement park, all in just a few hours from Tokyo.
The Tokugawa Shogunate, Edo Period, Meiji Restoration & WWII
From hunting, fishing and gathering through to the period of rice growing, Yamanishi prefecture followed a similar development path to the rest of Japan.
Wealthy families arose in the fertile plain that is surrounded on all sides by mountains. Leaders emerged who attempted to ‘unify’ the different clans. One large and particularly successful grouping during the Edo Period (1582) was known as the Tokugawa Shogunate. By 1724 much of this area had come under the direct control of the Shogunate. Highways and river transport flowed and the region became prosperous.
But by the mid-1800s the clan systems were being eroded by the strength of the military government. The Tokugawa Shogunate fought the Imperial Forces. The Imperial Forces were victorious against the Shogunate and went on to take Edo Castle. Kofu Castle fell to Emperor Meiji. This period is known as the Meiji Restoration (1868).
The province was named Kofu prefecture in 1869 but then two years later it was renamed Yamanashi prefecture. The city of Kofu sustained major damage from bombing during the Second World War. Since that time it has recovered and agriculture and trade have been rebuilt and expanded in the region.
Especially in the post-war period when Japan became a very prosperous nation, service and other industries flourished in Yamanashi prefecture until new infrastructure and the growth of Tokyo caused the prefecture to fall behind. Tourism and agriculture remain important parts of this picturesque province and its Fuji five lakes are a major international tourist attraction.
So, now that you know what happened here, it’s time to make some plans to explore its incredible scenery.
Take in the natural beauty of the Fuji Five Lakes
The best place to start is with the Fuji five lakes.
The Fuji five lakes are made up of Kawaguchiko, Saiko, Yamanakako, Shojiko and Motosuko, all situated around the base of Mt Fuji. The lakes were formed hundreds of years ago by previous eruptions of Mt Fuji and vary greatly in size, length and depth.
Lake Kawaguchiko is the most visited of the five lakes due to its ease of accessibility from Tokyo, as well as its long shoreline, allowing for breathtaking views. Despite being the second largest lake, it’s certainly the most developed of the five. It’s also a hot destination for tourists interested in adventurous activities such as windsurfing, fishing and boat rides.
But it’s not all about action in this part of Japan, here you can also find plenty of museums, shrines, parks, caves, hot springs and many great restaurants. Lake Kawaguchiko is also home to the Fuji Q amusement park should you wish to make your trip here even more thrilling. It’s also a starting base for those who wish to climb Mt Fuji, more on that later.
From Kawaguchiko Station, you can take a 25-minute ride to the unique Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum. The Omni Bus Red Line stops at Ukai Orugoruno Mori Bijutsukan and you can explore the gardens, theme park and get great views of Mt Fuji. The point of coming here, however, is the Kawaguchiko Music Forest Museum which houses a collection of the world’s mechanical (automatic) musical instruments. Like many of the museums you will see in Yamanashi Prefecture, there is a heavy emphasis on European art, inventions, and music.
Lake Yamanaka is the largest of the five lakes situated east of Mt Fuji. It’s the highest at 982m above sea level and the shallowest, with a depth of only 13.5 meters. The lake is one of Yamanashi Prefecture’s most popular destinations for many water activities, such as fishing, water-skiing, and windsurfing, as well as camping, with cabins dotted along the shoreline. Being the second most developed, it has small towns located at each end of the lake.
The Saiko, Shojiko and Motosuko lakes are less developed and much smaller in scale. That’s not to say they’re less impressive to see, just that they’re less likely to have the ultimate view of Mt Fuji or have as many services and attractions for visitors. It’s recommended you hire a car to visit these lesser-visited lakes, where you will be sure to escape the hustle and bustle of the crowds.
Challenge yourself by hiking Mt. Fuji
While this 3,776m high mountain is breathtaking to admire from afar, it’s even more rewarding to take in the World Heritage Site on foot. To reach the starting point of the Yoshida Trail, the most popular hiking route, you’ll first need to reach the Mt Fuji 5th Station.
Whether you’re an avid hiker or simply want to tick this activity off your bucket list, the trail can take between five and seven hours to reach the summit and approximately two to six hours to descend. Read my post above to learn all the options for day and overnight trips, either on your own or with a guided walk.
If you’re not interested in reaching the summit, but would still appreciate the views, why not take a more relaxing walk in the forest at 5th Station? You can easily take the shuttle bus from Kawaguchiko to 5th station, which departs on the hour during the climbing season (July – September) and takes an hour.
Minobusan Kuonji Temple
Walking along the road with a tall bamboo forest on either side, listening to the chanting of the monks is a magical experience. The beautiful Minobusan Kuonji Temple is almost 750 years but it is only one of the scores of temples on Mount Minobu, west of Mt Fuji. Climb the 287 Steps of Enlightenment staircase, wander through the forest and stay in one of the Temple Inns.
Minobusan Kuonji Temple is a revered site of the Nichiren Buddhist sect of Mahayana Buddhism. Chanting of the Lotus Sutra and Buddhist words known as the Nam Myoho Renge Kyo is a key practice for Nichiren Buddhists. This sound adds to the magic of this experience. It is a place of calm and traditional practices and staying in a Temple Inn is a quintessentially Japanese experience.
Try Japan’s best wine and locally grown stone fruit
Located north of Mount Fuji, Kofu is the largest city and capital of the Yamanashi Prefecture. The city is located in a large natural basin surrounded by mountains on four sides, despite that, it receives an enormous amount of sunshine which contributes to Yamanashi’s success wine making businesses. There are various wineries open to the public for tastings and vineyard tours. Kofu and the surrounding areas are also known for their production of stone fruit, including plums and peaches. Kofu has multiple hot springs (also called onsens), some of which offer great views of Mt Fuji while bathing.
Shosenkyo Gorge and Sengataki Waterfall
Shosenkyo Gorge has beautiful walking trails and its scenery is spectacular during all seasons, even when it is capped with snow. Just north of Kofu city, the trails are appropriate for all ages. The following map shows the trails and their lengths.
A real highlight of the Gorge is the Sengataki waterfall, a picturesque and instagrammable plunge of water into a green natural rock pool. If you begin at the Nagatoro Bridge, it’s about 4 km or 2 and a half miles to Sangataki waterfall.
Above the waterfall is a restaurant area and it is from here that you can take the Shosenkyo Ropeway.
Museum of Shadowgraph
The Museum of Shadowgraph is a very Japanese experience – it is a five-minute walk from the Shosenyko Ropeway at end of Shosenkyo Gorge. It displays the Japanese expertise in displaying cut-out objects against a screen that is backlit.
Shadowgrams have been used in science and engineering and Walk Disney used them in animation in the Three Blind Musketeers in 1936. This is the first museum of its kind in the world. Shadowgraph storytelling is a cultural art in Japan and is used by Japanese monks to tell stories of the Buddha.
The Museum of Shadowgraph is open every day of the year, from 9 am to 5 pm.
Other Kofu attractions
There is a significant number of museums in this city. The Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art is a mouthful, but it’s definitely worth a trip! It’s sometimes just called the “Millet museum” because it houses an extensive collection of work by the French landscape painter, Jean-Francois Millet.
The museum is not open on Mondays, some public holidays and the New Year but is otherwise open from 9 am to 5 pm daily.
From Kofu, it is also possible to get a train to the southern alps where there are 13 mountains and endless walking and hiking opportunities. The southern alps encompass Minami Alps National Park which spans Yamanashi, Nagano, and Shizuoka prefectures.
Explore Yamanashi Prefecture’s most serene and scenic shrines
Fujiyoshida Sengen Shrine is based at the foothills of Mt Fuji and is dedicated to the Princess Blossom of the Trees. The shrine is set at the original starting point of Fuji’s Yoshida hiking trail, which goes all the way up to the mountain’s summit. The compound is set back from the main road and dates back to 1615. Expect to find an ornate main hall after passing under the red torii gate, which is decorated with lanterns, paintings, and two massive wooden masks that gaze down at worshippers. Hikers may not begin their summit here anymore, but many do still visit the shrine to pray for a safe climb.
Chureito Pagoda is the most popular shrine with tourists and locals as it offers the most beautiful and completely unobstructed view of Mt Fuji. With its traditional architecture and 398 steps (an ode to Konohana Sakuya, the goddess of Mt Fuji) to reach the top, the pagoda was originally built as a peace memorial in 1958.
Located in Kofu city, the Takeda shrine was built in 1919 as a deity for the famous warrior Takeda Shingen. Here there are many remnants of the buildings from ancient times, including a moat, stone walls, and an old well still preserved from the original design. In the spring the shrine is particularly beautiful as all the cherry blossoms are in bloom.
There is an ancient tree on the ground of Jisso-ji Temple located in Mukawacho Yamataka. The tree is around 2000 years old and was the first dedicated National Monument in Japan. In early April this venerable tree is covered in cherry blossoms. If you find yourself in Mukawacho Yamataka in April, you simply must seek out this amazing ancient Yamataka Jindai Cherry Blossom Tree.
Getting to Yamanashi Prefecture from Tokyo
Yamanashi Prefecture is situated west from Tokyo, and you have a few options for getting there. If you intend to spend a few days exploring the area, the most efficient way to get to Yamanashi is to take the Chuo express train line. Departing every 30 minutes from Shinjuku station, within 1.5 hours you can arrive in the capital of Yamanashi Prefecture, Kofu city. From here you can hire a car to explore the area at your own pace.
Alternatively, if you’re planning to visit Yamanashi Prefecture for a quick trip from Tokyo, consider basing yourself in Kawaguchiko town. From here you have easy access to the main bus routes and nearby attractions. To get to Kawaguchiko from Tokyo by train, take the Limited Express train from Shinjuku Station to Otsuki, then hop on the Fujikyu Railway to Kawaguchiko – this takes just over two hours.
For the same amount of time and without the hassle of changing lines, taking a highway bus is an easy option. Departing from either Shinjuku, Shibuya or Tokyo stations you can travel directly to Kawaguchiko station, plus you can even jump off at Fuji Q Highland for a thrilling ride on the way.
Links and Further Information
The ultimate guide to climbing Mt. Fuji – learn all about its cultural and historical significance, how to get there and do it yourself, and all the best-guided walks and tours.
Get Your Guide Mt. Fuji travel activities are here
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