As much as we love Tokyo, there is no disputing that sane living in the big city requires an escape to greener pastures at least once a month.
But that can be tough to do. Expressways out of the city are often nightmarishly crowded - turning a two-hour spin into an eight-hour ordeal. Try it with a car full of little girls!
There is the train of course - but that usually leaves you stranded in eki-mae land, the monotonous collection of noodle and souvenir shops that surrounds train stations in resort areas.
And where do you stay when you get there? Japan does have many beautiful hot spring resorts and inns that shouldn't be missed. For sheer delight, few experiences can compare with sipping sake under the stars in the outdoor bath of an ancient ryokan (Japanese inn). But after a while the allure begins to fade, particularly with kids. All seem to serve the same meal and have the same annoying habit of waking you up at seven on Sunday morning. "Why would anyone want to sleep later?"
Secrets of stress-free living
Is there a better way? Well, we've found one that suits us just fine. Several years ago, to cope with a growing flock of daughters, Noriko and I acquired our own cottage. Perched on a hillside above Lake Yamanaka, its windows look straight across at Mt. Fuji.
Without a doubt, it's changed our lives for the better. No more planning a weekend months ahead. No more packing half a ton of toys each time. No more raw eggs for breakfast. No more 7am wake-up calls. And no more six-hour expressway ordeals.
How do we get around the last one? Get ready for the secret of stress-free Tokyo living: we do everything wrong. It may scandalize the neighbors, but we don't leave for the weekend on Saturday morning like everyone else.
We leave Friday at five when - believe it or not - the Chuo Expressway flows relatively smoothly. In less than two hours we're opening the shutters, just in time to catch the last rays of sun on Fuji-san.
Next morning, we relax over breakfast while the kids play in the sandbox. Later, we might cycle around the lake, play some tennis or go hiking along the hilltops.
In winter we skate at Fujikyu Highland; in summer there's a pool nearby. And whatever the season, it's a short drive to the nearest hot spring.
As I'm from Canada, where the summer cottage is almost a religion, and as we're here for the duration, buying was the best bet for us. Although a purchase probably wouldn't make sense for someone who plans to stay less than five years, there are alternatives.
Decide for yourself
If you want a place for the summer or year-round, rentals are available from local agents in popular resort areas. And, in many cases, expatriates band together to share. Form your own consortium, or look for shares in existing ones in the Tokyo Weekender and on the notice board at the Tokyo American Club.
Which area is best? My bias is to Fuji for convenience. Many veterans will recommend Izu for coastal beauty and hot springs - but the drive can be hellish. The Kobuchizawa area of Nagano has its proponents, but that's too far for me. Others swear by the Boso Peninsula or the Nikko area - but I'd say, only if you live on the north side of the city.
Even though we're not in the cottage business, feel free to phone me for advice. And do visit all the areas before you decide. As you narrow the field give serious consideration to your route to and from home and viable departure times. Twelve hours a weekend in the car will not leave you refreshed on Monday morning.
Above all, enjoy!