Lake Kawaguchi, Pesticide-Free Strawberry Picking [3-Day Trip] 河口湖・無農薬いちご狩り

It’s been quite a few years since we last went strawberry picking. But this was our first time visiting a pesticide-free strawberry farm, which is extremely rare in Japan. While this alone is worthwhile for a trip, driving there from our current home in Chiba City (千葉市) would take more than 3 hours, so it would be a bit tiring as a day or overnight trip. It turned out the Lake Kawaguchi (河口湖) resort area is just over half an hour away, so we decided to do a short stay there beforehand.

Day 1

We set out fairly late after noon, stopping by the Dangozaka highway service area (談合坂 SA) for lunch. While we would’ve liked to have a more local lunch after arriving at the destination, it would be too late by then. Dangozaka SA is one of the bigger service areas along Central Expressway E20 (中央道) and there are a good number of choices in the food court. The one to go for is the Houtou noodles (ほうとう), which is a local Yamanashi dish and the quality was just as good as restaurants we tried elsewhere that specialise in Houtou. It’s a large hot pot filled with veg, chewy noddles and tangy miso soup. The only thing we were worried about was we’d be too full to have dinner!

The good thing about a late start heading away from Tokyo is that the traffic is generally much lighter. Changing to Route E68 towards Lake Kawaguchi (河口湖), we almost had the whole stretch of road to ourselves (being on a weekday also helped for sure). The majestic Mount Fuji soon made its appearance in front of us.

We were planning to have an afternoon snack before arriving at the accommodation, but it was already 4 pm by the time we arrived at Kawaguchiko so we could only get a take-away and save it for later. We went to a cafe named Troisieme Marche, it only has limited seating and we could buy some cakes to take-away. This place has lots of reviews on Google, and just when I was waiting for my order another group of travellers from Hong Kong came in. The cakes all look pretty tempting but not cheap at around 700 yen a slice.

Pension Peynet (ペンシオン ペイネ) was our accommodation for the first night. We were impressed on first sight on how beautiful the garden and the exterior was.

The interior didn’t disappoint either – the family bath has a great view of Mount Fuji. The overcast sky that day didn’t do it justice, but you’ll see on the following day.

The dinner course was excellent as well, both in terms of quality and quantity. There were salad, soup, gratin to start with; two main dishes, one was grilled seafood of white fish and scallop, and the other was beef steak with blueberry sauce. The dessert was not the usual fare of yoghurt or a slice of fruit – but a full, nicely arranged dessert plate. The ice-cream drizzled with the local black syrup was the most remarkable.

This is a kids friendly pension, but the only slight disappointment is how small the kids playroom is. It’s well-stocked with books and toys, but it’d be hard to fit more than 3 kids inside. Fortunately, during our visit there was only one other family, so the room was mostly free.

Day 2

We woke up to a bright morning and our room also had a clear view of Mount Fuji.

Taking a peek in the family bath again – this was much better than yesterday!

Travelling with small kids, we no longer pack our itinerary full like our earlier travels. Today the plan was just letting the kids play in a park or two around the lake. The weather couldn’t be better. We spent a good part of the morning in Oishi Park (大石公園), while the kids occupied themselves with throwing pebbles into the water.

The playground items were basic, but the view was fantastic.

From the visitor leaflet, we found there’s a “ice trees” exhibition near Lake Saiko (西湖), which is a short drive away. Saiko is on the highest altitude among the Fuji Five Lakes, and despite the weather hadn’t been too cold recently, it was supposed to be cold enough earlier to “grow” these ice trees. Admittedly it wasn’t anything spectacular, but the kids had fun throwing bits of ice around. (Yeah, throwing stuff seems to keep them entertained)

We had Houtou noodles again for lunch, at the Kotobuki (ことぶき) Restaurant. Their Houtou is cooked with oriental medicinal ingredients (薬膳ほうとう), something we hadn’t found anywhere else.

The restaurant was right next to Lake Shojin (精進湖), so we took a look there after lunch. There was still a thin layer of ice over much of the surface. A large swan also came by to greet us.

Headed back to Kawaguchiko for an afternoon snack. We had been to Kawaguchiko Sweets Garden (河口湖スイーツガーデン) before and it’s a great place, plenty of seats and free coffee. Of course the cheese cake was nice, but the chocolate cakes were even better!

Accommodation for the second night was at Pension Zozan. The room was spacious and clean, but overall the place was much less polished than Pension Peynet. The dinner was very much average, and the pork chop made from local Fuji Sakura brand pork, which I had high expectation for, was pretty bland. The one redeeming point would be its kids playroom, which was quite large and the kids had a good time playing with Legos and train tracks.

Firework events are held on several weekends during the winter season in the area. The scale is not as big as the typical summer fireworks in Japan, but the backdrop of Mount Fuji and the lake reflection still made a beautiful picture.

Day 3

Last day on our trip, we made our way to the main and final destination – Gourmet Strawberry Farm Maeda (グルメいちご館前田). It’s located in south of the Kofu basin (甲府盆地), which is just north of the Lake Kawaguchi area, with the Mount Kurodake (黒岳) (1800m) range in between. A number of tunnels through the mountain connect the two areas, so it’s quite accessible.

From our accommodation, we took the nearest Prefecture Route 719, and then winding down a series of hairpins to Route 36, back on lower altitude. There were still a few remaining patches of snow, but it was clear most of the way as the temperature had been warm recently. Otherwise, this might’ve been a tricky route to take as our rental car did not come with snow tires.

Along Prefecture Route 36, one could see the snow capped mountains of the Southern Alps in the distance.

While we used to go strawberry picking quite often before, now with kids, and being more conscious on health matters, this had been off our activity list for a while. Strawberry is actually one of the worst fruits for residual pesticides, and, in Japan, use of pesticides is also among the highest in the world. “Organic produce” is only recently starting to catch on in Japan, which would be a surprise for some. The general sentiment is that “Japan produce” alone is enough to convey safety, and in Japan, appearance is usually of utmost importance (as organic produce usually “look” worse than their conventionally grown counterparts).

It’s not surprising then, while there are countless strawberry picking farms, only a minority have vague claims of “reduced pesticide use” or “using organic fertilisers”, and hardly any are organic or pesticide-free. Maeda Farm is one of rarities – it’s not shy making this claim, with a big banner outside stating it is “zero pesticide” (農薬ゼロ).

Delicious like the normal ones!

You could find information displayed about how the farm is unique and the certification for no residual pesticide.

I actually read through the farm owner’s blog before, where he put in details the challenges he faced. One point to note though is that the strawberries do not meet the organic certification (the JAS label in Japan), as he does use chemical fertilisers. But in his view, this isn’t a concern as fertilisers are not toxic; pesticides and herbicides are.

With the disappointing Fuji Sakura Pork dish from last night’s dinner still fresh in mind, I was certain we could get something better. Restaurant Silk (シルク), located within Michi No Eki Toyotomi (道の駅とよとみ) just 5 mins away, seems to fit the bill as they serve a few dishes with this local pork.

Saute and deep fried Fuji Sakura brand pork (富士桜ポーク) – this is the kind of flavour we were expecting!

After a satisfying lunch, I got ready for the 3-hour drive home…