The Japanese have a saying: "Nikko wo minakereba 'kekko' to iu na." This translates best: "Don't say magnificent until you've seen Nikko."
Sacred Bridge crossing the Daiya River
Nikko, Japan is a cozy mountain town visited by people from all around the world who share one thing in common: experiencing its many low hanging fruits. It's located approximately 140 km north of Tokyo in the Tochigi Prefecture, which is home to Nikko National Park. The high season for tourism in Nikko occurs during the cherry blossom season in the spring, a couple months in summer and then a short time in September/October during leaf senescence. Ana and I were visiting in the off season, which meant no lines for tourist attractions but lots walking in winter weather.
The Narusawa Lodge had been in Yuji's family since the 1930's. When he greeted us at the front door wearing a black hooded sweatshirt that said “One Love” over the profile of Bob Marley, I took him to be a peaceful guy. Yuji offered to take us to the Onsen our first evening in Nikko. Like most good tour guides, Yuji had a little passion for his job and was knowledgable about the area. So when I asked a simple question like, “What’s that building over there?” he told us EVERYTHING. In this case it was smaller hockey stadium. He went on about the semi pro hockey team (the Ice Bucks) that plays there, the Women’s World Hockey Division 1 Championships that took place in 2007, when it was built, who built it and so on. As we rolled into the parking lot of the onsen Yuji accelerated towards the front door and pulled the E-brake, cutting the wheel just in time to make a 90 degree turn and park in front of the main entrance. He turned around with casual smile that read, “I still got it.” He rolled down his window, “I’ll pick you up 9:30pm.” He threw it in reverse and locked up the tires for full effect, then cruised back to the hostel.
With nothing but the stars and the cool smell of the snow to keep me company, it was easy to melt into the winter landscape and enjoy the hot springs. A couple hours later Ana and I met in the lounge. The warm tones on the wall and good company made for a toasty atmosphere. Even the friendly staff and Miles Davis on the stereo managed to drown out my objection of paying $6 for a 10oz glass of Heartland beer. Shortly after the last sip Yuji spun into the parking lot to pick us up, right on time. After a few pulls of the E-brake and a couple close calls we were back in the hostel and ready for a good night's sleep.
Friday morning our bus started in the foot hills of the mountains and within minutes had carried us to just below the cloud line. From this altitude (about 1000 meters above sea level) the view of the city was pretty impressive; until we realized we had missed our stop. The next bus stop was no more than 3 minutes up the hill which didn’t feel like a long way, but it was far enough to carry us into an entirely different micro climate that required an oxygen tank and sherpa for support. I knew we were in trouble when the bus came to a rolling stop and the majority of the stores in town were closed…including the bus station (with the exception of the lobby area, Hallelujah!). We hopped off the bus and right into a face piercing wind and snow flying left to right. "Perfect" I thought. Now we had to put all our faith in was my trendy Nikkon camera (Thanks Ashton!), a thermos of hot water and half a bag of trail mix. After a brief ration check we walked a half block down the road to check out the only tourist attraction within walking distance: the 97 meter high Kegon Waterfall.
I was pretty sure I could handle the change in temperature, but I wondered if Ana would want to turn around and wait for the next bus. I was thinking “Costa Rican, 10 degrees, snow, wind…no chance,” Not only did she thrive in the cold, she even picked up her pace a few times just to do a fancy foot slide on the ice. While Ana was flying high with the spirit of the mountain and fresh snow, my toes were starting to wimp out and beg for mercy. It turns out last year’s model of Mizuno running shoes weren’t designed to protect against 10 degree weather and snow drifts 6-12’’ deep. I’d hoped the power of my beard and inner grizzly man would get me through times like these, but by the time we got to the waterfall I was one unhappy camper:
After a quick pep talk about 'when the going gets tough', I snapped a couple more photos of the water fall and headed towards the souvenir shop. On my way I saw a furry little creature chilling out on a tree stump:
This is a Japanese macaque, or more commonly known as a snow monkey. In Japan they are called Nihonzaru(Nihon=Japan + saru=monkey). It turns out these primates are from the old world, which would explain their wisdom and cunningness in jumping over the rail and ripping off a box of chocolates from the souvenir shop. They carried it to a remote location on the mountainside completely out of reach from any brave store owner or tourist. Judging by the color of his face I’m pretty sure he was colder than I was:
We later found out they’re a rare sighting this time of year since they typically spend winter months in their caves. At this point I figured missing our bus stop was less of an error and more of divine intervention. Apparently when snow monkeys are not hanging around in their cave (pun intended) they enjoy bathing in hot springs...
Later that day we visited a few other main attractions in central Nikko: the Futarasan Shrine, Toshogu Shrine, Ryukoin Temple and Rinnoji Temple. All of them circa the 8th century. Fortunately for us, they were located within walking distance from one another. 1,300 yen ($16) bought us an all access pass to go inside, walk around and do the proper prayer in each of the temples. That's one ring of the bell, two claps, two bows, and one final clap with your blessing in mind. Unless you're looking for bad juju, make sure to throw a coin in the offering box before you begin.
Between the 120’ Cedars, stone streets and the ancient structures it’s easy to understand why the Shrines and Temples of Nikko are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. In addition to these main attractions, being in the presence of so much history had a calming effect. It was peaceful to think that for centuries people had admired Nikko's beauty in perhaps the same way I was. After seeing several Shrines and Temples they started to blend together in my mind, but one aspect never got old; the feeling of transendance when out of no where, between towering green canopies emerges a five story pagoda:
It took about two and a half hours for the cold weather to get on my nerves. I was hanging tough until we got to the last building. As Ana was snapping the last few photos I was doing damage control making sure I had all 10 fingers and toes. So when we approached the doors of the Toshogu Shrine and a member of the staff asked me to remove my shoes before entering I almost had a conniption fit. I wanted to say, “You want me to offer my toes, is that it!?” Instead I dug deep, harnessed my inner Zen and placed my shoes on the rack. I passed the staff member standing there in his wooden sandals, did a quick lap just so I could check it off the list and retreated to the shoe rack.
Main Entrance to the Toshogu Shrine:
Our last morning in Nikko we decided to revisit the Shrines and Temples while accompanying a free walking tour with an English speaking guide. Once again, each member of the group was from a different country adding an even thicker layer to the already enlightening experience of being abroad. As our trip came to a close, we surveyed the train station for one last snack before our 3 hour ride home. That's when we found the holy grail of street foods:
The Yuba Manju
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