FUJINOMI-YA, Japan — Mt. Fuji is the symbol of Japan as surely as the Statue of Liberty says "America."
Many Japanese and increasing numbers of Americans are making the pilgrimage to the mountain and the five lakes that rim its northern shoulder, where visitors can see its nearly perfect volcanic cone reflected in the lake waters.
Yet strangely, finding a decent restaurant in the area has been tougher than buying an American-made TV.
The Chuo Expressway from Tokyo has put Fuji's splendors within two hours' drive of the capital and most visitors come just for the day. And they seem to be satisfied with the fare served by American-style coffee shops that have sprung up around the two largest lakes, Yamanaka and Kawaguchi.
Several of the hotels, including the Mt. Fuji next to Lake Yamanaka and the Fuji View along the shores of Lake Kawaguchi, have good if not outstanding kitchens. But now two excellent and different restaurants have opened to delight the palate of visitors who are willing to seek them out.
Great Dining Experience
If you drive along the northeast shore of Lake Yamanaka, the easternmost of the five lakes, the road rises suddenly into a stand of maples that nearly obscures Tamura-tei, one of Japan's better country inns and, without exaggeration, a great dining experience.
Guests at lunch enjoy a perfect view of Fuji and its reflected image, framed in Japanese fashion by the branches of the maple trees that cover the hillside all the way down to the water's edge.
A Japanese house built more than 50 years ago, Tamura-tei has a working charcoal hearth for making tea and both modern tables and a tatami room for those who prefer to sit on the floor.
The owner, Toyosaku Tamura, is usually more interested in showing visitors his album of Fuji photographs than in serving the surprisingly sophisticated robata-yaki ("country food") cooked by his wife.
I especially like his pictures of Fuji in winter when the lake freezes over. Ice fishing for wasakagi replaces the fast motorboats of summer. The hotels are often lightly booked at that time of year (except for the mini-high season on New Year's Day), even though the cold air keeps the cantankerous Fuji-san free of clouds.
Tamura-san has some very fine pictures, but the food he serves is better. The full menu features seven expertly prepared and elegantly served courses (seven is considered lucky and proper by the Japanese), and they change, as all great Japanese cooking does, with the season, although you can count on at least one course of sashimi (raw fish).
Each dish employs an appropriate seasonal garnish as well, whether a plum blossom fashioned from radish slices in spring, an edible chrysanthemum flower in autumn or a sprig of pine needles made from uncooked spinach noodles in winter. The table d'hote I've described (served at lunch or dinner) costs 5,000 yen ($30.50) per person (cash only).
There's no point in giving you an exact address because the sign out front has only two Japanese characters and no number. The best thing is to call Tamura-san. He speaks English well and can give you directions over the phone (phone 62-0346).
On the other side of the mountain via Route 139 and the Fujinomi-ya Toll Road are the Shiraito Falls in the town of Fujinomi-ya. The falls aren't large but they live up to their name ( shiraito means "white threads), looking as if skeins of bleached silk had been tossed over a cliff.
They were fortuitously positioned by nature with Fuji-san for a crown. The falls are particularly lovely in the late afternoon when the sun has moved into the western sky, seemingly to accommodate the many amateur photographers who snap away from the crowded viewing platform.
But more inviting than the view of the falls or Fuji is the trout lunch at Masu-no-ie (House of Trout) a few minutes north of town. Be sure to take the local road and not the toll road. To avoid getting lost, ask for the Shizuoka Prefectural Trout Hatchery (the restaurant is on its grounds). The many trout tanks behind the restaurant hold up to 30,000 rainbow trout that were developed from a California species imported 100 years ago for study.
Yoshihiro Yabe and his son Tatsuo operate the restaurant with its traditional thatched roof that is positioned right beneath Fuji's crown as it pokes above a notch in the pine forests on all sides. In fact, it was so inviting that I couldn't help but stop in when I was driving by.
Inside, the decor is traditional: tatami rice mats cover the floors around the low tables grouped over charcoal pits for warmth in cool weather (they're great for Westerners like me not used to taking off their shoes each time they enter a Japanese restaurant).
Opening the View
Yet the Yabes have wisely used as much glass as possible in the back wall to open a view of Fuji-san in the near distance that threatens constantly to upstage their cooking.