My alarm woke me at 6:00am, 45 minutes before the sunrise. We had made a last minute decision to caravan to Lake Yamanaka with our neighbors, who had rented a cabin a cabin on the lake from Christmas until the new year. They had generously offered to let us stay a day or two with them and not having a better time available, we decided we’d better go up and spend our first Christmas Day in Japan there.
Grabbing my camera gear, I made my way out the door into the chill of the morning air. -4 degrees Celsius, 25 degrees Fahrenheit, biting at my face and my fingertips through my gloves. Crossing the road, I stood on the gravel shore of Lake Yamanaka. A fishing boat idled at a nearby pier, waiting for fishermen to arrive and board. Giant swans were waking from their slumber, stretching out their graceful necks and taking gulps of icy lake water.
45 minutes later, the reddish-orange rays of the sunrise reached the peak of Fuji-san, igniting the snow like a faintly lit candle. With every passing minute, more and more of the peak was brought to colorful life by the rising sun. What a glorious way to usher in the birth of Jesus! I was reminded of the scripture from Isaiah 52,
How beautiful on the mountains
are the feet of those who bring good news,
who proclaim peace,
who bring good tidings,
who proclaim salvation,
who say to Zion,
“Your God reigns!”
Later in the morning, we visited Oshino Hakkai, a set of 8 ponds fed by springs originating from Mt. Fuji which are now a tourist attraction. We shared the location with a couple bus loads of Chinese tourists and admired the crystal clear ponds full of beautiful huge fish that looked like trout. Fuji-san looked on from the distance, sometimes hiding in a shroud of clouds of its own making.
For lunch, our friends took us out for a local Yamanashi dish, houtou udon. Made with super thick noodles, sliced pork and a host of winter veggies, this dish is closer to a stew than a soup. With tummies full, we felt a food-induced drowsiness coming on.
After a refreshing afternoon nap, my neighbor and I made another trip down to the lakeside to photograph the sun setting on Mt. Fuji. Jumping in the car, we visited a few places, chasing the setting sun. One of those places was Mt. Fuji Hotel, set up on a hill overlooking the lake and the great mountain. The hotel had set up its own amazing little illumination, complete with a replica of Mt. Fuji itself.
After dinner, we drove over to Hananomiyako Park to view what was likely our last Winter illumination of the season. We were not disappointed by the quality of the displays or the surprise firework show as we were leaving. There was even a man who looked a lot like a Japanese Santa performing Christmas music on saxaphone while we thawed out in a room heated with kerosene heaters. Such a bizarre situation, yet made perfect when he casually mentioned between songs that “Christmas is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.” Wow. You don’t hear that every day in Japan. Let alone from Japanese Santa.
We said our goodbyes to our friends back at the cabin and made the quick 2 hour drive back home under a sky full of stars and an empty expressway. It’s amazing how less than 50 miles from the largest metropolis in the world, you can feel like you’re a million miles from anywhere.
Funny how you can come to Japan with certain expectations or no expectations at all, and somehow God just amazes you with His goodness. We don’t expect every Christmas to be as amazing as this one, but we’ll take them, one year at a time.