Earth Embassy/Solar Cafe, Mt. Fuji
Sustainable living on the slopes of Japan's famous mountain
Thanks to an eco-organisation called Earth Embassy you don't have to be a wealthy holiday maker to visit Fuji-san. By volunteering at the Solar Cafe organic farm and kitchen you can stay rent-free with meals included - making a day, week, or a month's holiday in Tokyo cheaper by far.
The minute I got off the bus I froze to the spot, realising that it had deserted me in the middle of a dirty Japanese highway with a huge beast of a dog staring at me - he howled, I trembled in my well-worn walking boots.
But as he trotted off up the road I felt compelled to follow him. After a while he dropped me off at the Solar Cafe at the foot of Mount Fuji and then bounded back into the forest.
Hitomi told me how Montana, half-wolf, half-mutt, had guided her here too but unlike me, she had not been expected and Montana had found her lost in the forest. The amazing tale was that she was just roaming the Fuji area after leaving a group of travelling jugglers whom she had joined at the age of 15 - Montana brought her to the Solar Cafe where she had been ever since.
The brainchild behind EE/SC is Jacob Reiner who describes himself as an eco-architect, organic educator and spokesman for the forest. An architecture graduate, educated around the world, he has worked on eco projects in Japan since 1994 - he's a natural born hippy who was brought up in a teepee along the banks of the Mohawk River in Canada and is now just as at home in the Japanese countryside.
Minutes from Lake Seiko, one of the five glacial lakes skirting the base of Mt. Fuji, EE/SC was created as a place to rejuvenate and relax. Not a health farm or new age retreat but as a: "Commitment to environmentally sustainable lifestyles and businesses through participation in the creation and operation of a self sufficient education centre, organic farm, restaurant, fair trade shop and eco-technology development and demonstration centre." Reiner told me.
Totte-tabete are words which bounce around the wonderful smelling SC kitchen, literally meaning "to pick and eat". All the food eaten at SC is grown on the EE organic farm: "no processing, no packaging and no shippingthe most environmentally sound way to eat. It also makes the health benefits of a non-chemical lifestyle affordable.
"Our organic farm grows basil, asparagus, mint, lemon balm, lettuce, strawberries, thyme, spinach, coriander, onions, carrots and more using homemade pesticides made from ginger, garlic or tobacco.
Our chickens and eggs are all free range and our ostrich meat comes from our next-door neighbour - local farmers in the village provide the other vegetables.
Our Mulberries, cherries and rosehips are from wild trees in the area and all imported goods such as tea, coffee and grain are organic and bought through fair trade groups," Reiner continued.
The EE/SC also holds weekly readings and discussions, live music sessions and basic Japanese lessons - plus the famous monthly Fuji raves.
Other activities include paragliding, meditation, massage, canoeing - the list goes on - You can go horse camping, surfing, take the Yamanashi wine tour, or just rent a bike for 00 and explore.
In fact whatever you want to do, it can probably be organised by Reiner himself with enough warning.
Short-term volunteers assist in the EE vision by getting involved in organic and sustainable farming, eco-education workshops, running the organic cafe eco-technology, environmental consulting, building projects - the list is endless as anything you feel would be of benefit to EE can be suggested.
The volunteers I spoke to were all there for different reasons. Some were there for a holiday with a difference, some were using the experience to learn how to run similar projects elsewhere. You can also stay for three months as a volunteer intern, which also includes bed and board.
One thing which is noticeable about EE/SC is its relaxed and laid back feel. People who have been there for a day, a week, a month or even a year treat each other with the familiarity of old friends. So with views of Fuji-San in my eyes, eco-visions in my mind, yummy organic food in my belly and EE/SC in my heart I said goodbye to my new friends and followed Montana up the road and away, feeling inspired.
Guest rooms 500 Yen, tree house or camp 500-1500 Yen per person per night (meals not included)
Work from 10am-5pm, 1,000 Yen per person per night including all meals.
Minimum stay 3 days.
See www.earthembassy.org for more information
How to get there?
The EE/SC is easy to get to. Take the Keio Highway bus to Kawaguchiko from Shinjuku station, West Exit next to Iidebashi Camera. Buses leave every twenty minutes and take around two hours (700 Yen).
Take a local bus from Kawaguchi-ko station towards Motosuko (00) and alight in Narusawa Village in Yamanashi as soon as you see the Koyodai Iriguchi entrance sign.
If Montana isn't waiting for you then walk around 400m up the highway - you can't miss the bright and colourful Solar Cafe signs on the opposite side of the road.
Text & images by Sarah Puntan-Galea