After the sensory overload of Tokyo, we were all looking forward to a little nature and a slower pace. The charming town of Nikko was recommended both by friends and guidebooks. It is located a little more than two hours north of Tokyo and offers both the UNESCO World Heritage that includes 103 buildings or structures belonging to two Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple and the natural setting surrounding them and the 443 square mile Nikko National Park. Most tourists sign up for day trips from Tokyo, but our two nights in Nikko WAS NOT enough time to enjoy this beautiful and mystical area.
We arrived early afternoon to rain and a quiet town.
I paused for a cup of coffee from the ever present Japanese vending machines while we waited for the local bus to arrive. It would (hopefully) take us closer to our hotel (more on that later) where we could drop off our luggage and then spend the afternoon touring Tôshôgû Shrine, the “must see” Shinto shrine according to the very helpful man at the information desk in the train station. He told us to spend time there and then walk through the grounds of the others.
I was surprised to learn that the famous, “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys live at Tôshôgû Shrine. There are actually eight scenes carved along the top of this building depicting a man’s life. This infamous scene is advice to a child to basically avoid evil. (Yes, my babies are both TALLER than me.)
This building has some very interesting art carved under the eaves…can you see the elephants?
These are the Sozonozo Elephants and are also called the “imagined elephants” because they were carved by an artist who had never seen elephants.
The Tôshôgû shrine was particularly captivating because it was set in the forest among beautiful pine trees. It is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate. In case you are wondering as I was, a shogunate is a hereditary military dictatorship and the shogun is the actual dictator.
The Tokugawa bloodline ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868, when the last shogun in the family, Tokugawa Yoshinobu, became frustrated with resisting Western influence and the resulting political unrest that was growing in Japan. He resigned and power was given to Emperor Meiji (remember the beloved emperor from Tokyo?).
It was raining most of the time we wandered the grounds and as the rain increased and the dinner hour approached, the crowds cleared out.
We decided to look for dinner too…
We stopped to admire the Sacred Bridge bridge which crosses the Daiya River along the way. It is known as one of the most beautiful bridges in Japan and is part of the Futarasan Shrine, another Shinto shrine which is included in the UNESCO crowd of shrines and temples in Nikko.
It was now dinner time and we were hungry. We had picked a restaurant off of the tourist map that looked very tasty and we walked a long way to get there after walking most of the day. We had skipped lunch and were all very much excited about our impending dinner but heartbreakingly, the restaurant was dark. Luckily we happened upon a little place with an intriguing looking menu on the door on the long walk back towards our hotel. Opening time was in five minutes and low and behold a man walked up and unlocked the door. I expected a restaurant, but it was literally a hole in the wall with one tiny table for two and a bar with six chairs. Since we had practically pushed the man down to get in the door, we felt that we should stay and filed docilely in behind him.
I expected the worst, but there was spaghetti for the kids as the special and sake for the adults to temper the imminent ( I thought) food disappointment. The inviting sign on the door promised tapas and so while the kids snacked on mini hot dogs and waited impatiently for spaghetti, Scott and I ordered this and that off of the handwritten menu. Now, I love to eat and I will try most anything, but there was one dish (maybe two…) that I had no intention of sampling. I’ll let you browse the menu and see what you think. The chef/bartender/owner worked steadily in his small cooking space and created, as promised by the chalkboard on the door, delicious tapas.
It was a fun and unexpected adventure. The sake wasn’t too bad either as evidenced by our inspired table art.
Another little unexpected adventure in Nikko was our hotel or actually our ryokan, which is a traditional Japanese inn. One of the “must do’s” in Japan according to guide books and a good friend of mine is staying in a ryokan. That was in the back of my mind, but not necessarily my goal when I booked this place in Nikko. I was searching villas.com for a family room and this highly rated and reasonably priced hotel popped up. The fact that somewhere on the page was the word “ryokan” was fine with me as that item would get checked off of the list. It was a fun and funny adventure because there was so much we didn’t understand and no one who could explain any of it.
We were shown to our room, given all kinds of different shoes to wear and a choice of yukata (a summer, cotton kimono) and that’s about it as far as instruction was concerned except for a binder full of information (see Scott and the binder above and our attempt at figuring out onsen etiquette) that was in English, but even that was vague. This and the previous pic is our “family room.” In the evenings when we returned from the onsen, the room would magically be rearranged with four beds on the floor. They were mostly comfortable, a thick cushion called a futon and fluffy blankets and pillows, but I did feel like I was camping a bit.
These are the yukata or kimonos we were given to wear to the onsen, another “must do” item on our list and another reason that I was excited about this hotel…it had an onsen! Onsen means “hot springs” and usually refers to the public bathing facilities around the hot springs. Hanging out in an onsen is a popular pastime in Japan as the experience is supposedly good for the mind and body. Japan has over 3,000 onsens and they come in all different shapes and sizes. We really had no idea what to do except for the little snippet in Lonely Planet that advised, “the only real mistake you can make is to not rinse off before you get into the bath.” That instruction may sound simple but when you are faced with the reality of a dressing room with compartments for shoes and baskets for clothes and pictures of towels and posters of instructions, you feel a little intimidated.
On our first night Ashley and I put on our kimonos and our special shoes and walked to the onsen on the first floor. This particular onsen separated the boy bathers from the girl bathers, but there are mixed onsens where you’re all one big naked, happy, clean family. We entered the changing room and put our shoes in one compartment first and then later after we had checked out the “getting ready” area and tried to decipher more instructions on a poster, we placed our robes in a basket in another cubby. The changing room was just like one you would find in a gym or spa but with more products and it was interesting to read all of the different kinds of lotions and what they would do to you. Would you like to be lightened, tightened, peeled or moisturized? There were mirrors and stools and lotions of all kinds, hairbrushes, and blow dryers. There were also a couple of massage chairs just in case the baths didn’t get you relaxed enough. We wandered around in the dressing room and then decided to go for it and walked into the “inside” bathing area. To the left of the entrance were probably twenty individual cleaning “stations” (that’s what I’m calling them) and to the right was a shallow pool for bathing (No swimming! I read that on a sign). Each station had a mirror, a low stool and a shower nozzle and also a bucket in case you want to dump water over yourself instead of using the hand held nozzle. Again, there was a plethora of bathing products in Costco sized containers: shampoo, conditioner, body wash, scrubs and peels and skin whiteners.
So, you get clean and then you bathe in the onsen. There was one large indoor pool, a small ice cold tub connected to that and then outside in a pretty garden area, there was a rock pool, an over-sized wooden bathtub shaped container holding opaque water for soft skin and another tub with water jets. There were also wooden deck chairs scattered about for relaxing. Ashley and I had the onsen to ourselves on the first night (thankfully, I think) so I had no idea if we were bathing correctly, but on the second night there were a few customers and it seemed that we were doing okay. I did learn that the hand towels in pretty purple plastic bags in our room, the ones that our host pointed to and said “onsen,” were modestly towels that you can carry in front of you as you walk from tub to tub. Although the whole onsen experience was a bit intimidating, it was an adventure and soaking in the hot water after a long day of walking was a nice way to relax.
We decided to spend our one full day in Nikko hiking as there are oodles of trail options, good maps and a handy fleet of buses running all day to different trail heads in the area. And what does one do before hitting the trail? You start the day with a hearty breakfast, Japanese style because when in Rome…(that’s really not always so easy, just look at the expression on Ashley’s face…she has grown leaps and bounds this year in her tolerance for everything from vegetables to truly adventurous food like pig’s ears).
Upon checking in the day before, we were given the choice of a Japanese or Western style breakfast and we, the adventurous, chose the Japanese style breakfast for our first morning. We definitely got what we asked for and it was an adventure with all kinds of interesting food items and most of them good, if not a little challenging (fermented soybeans and no coffee), first thing in the morning. We did request the Western breakfast for our second morning.
After breakfast, we caught the very packed shuttle bus and traveled a little more than an hour to the Lake Kirikomi/Lake Karikomi trail head. It was a relief after busy days of travel and the chaos (psychosis) of Tokyo to finally be out in nature (so relaxing) again. And to be totally honest, I love hiking and you will never ever guess what the probably number uber uno reason is that I love hiking…I will tell you. Hiking is Scott’s thing and so I feel totally…off…of…the…hook when we are in nature. We are hiking…it’s Scott’s thing…NO RESPONSIBILITY for people’s (Scott,Grant, and Ashley) level of satisfaction with the chosen activity. All I have to do is move my feet. Back to our hike…the trail was deserted and the day overcast, good conditions for a hike.
Only twenty minutes of hiking and we were rewarded with this view.
Soon we were wandering along pastures full of dairy cattle and surprisingly Ashley commented that these cows were responsible for some of the best ice cream in Japan. She had read (when did she start reading for travel information?) about the cows and the ice cream at some point and now she was on the look out for the spoils. The cattle looked like they had been working hard to me, they were very thin.
We found a trail map and not much farther on…
…the best ice cream I think I have ever tasted. Thank you skinny cows and Ashley.
As promised by the trail map, the path began to climb…
We finally reached Sanno Pass where the trail flattened into a type of boardwalk with benches for resting and taking in the view.
What goes up must come down and so down we hiked…
…down, down, down into this valley with so many different shades of green.
We walked along the shores of the hike’s namesakes, Lake Kirikomi and Lake Karikomi.
By this time we had been hiking for about four hours and it was getting to be (way past) lunchtime, but we had the option of taking another hike from this point and delaying food for a couple of hours. We gave the kids the map and let them decide. This is Scott’s idea of teaching them life skills…
Food won out (my dominant genes, thankfully) and the kids chose the trail that led into a nearby town near Lake Yunoko. The path led us across these hot springs which were interesting and obviously dangerous.
Surrounding the bubbling pools were many of these signs which although I could not read, I could certainly understand!
We made it safely across the bubbling pools of danger and Scott found this great vending machine restaurant perched on the beautiful shore of Lake Yunoko and we had fun watching him navigate the process of ordering our lunch. The steaming bowls of noodles and cold local beer (Kirin!) were perfect after miles and hours of hiking.
That is our noodle shop behind us and now that we were happily refueled, we decided to hike around the lake and find the Senjo-Ga-Hara hiking course, one of the most popular hikes in the area. We were shooting for a sub three hour hike in order to catch the last bus back to Nikko. The hike was estimated at two and half hours and that was after we found the trail-head on the other side of the lake.
This is Lake Yunoko and it is lovely. The yummy noodle shop is just down the trail to the right.
This sign was a favorite of mine and a good life lesson.
The trail around the lake is flat and more of a walk than a hike, but after the first part of our day, the easy path was a welcome treat even though we were power walking.
The trail we were looking for started out with a lot of steps down to this viewing area of the dramatic Yutaki Falls.
This part of the hike was my favorite. I loved the trees and grasses and the way the light filtered through the trees and lit the grass. The scenery even had the kids stopping to admire the view.
Next up along the trail was Kotaki Falls, a little less dramatic than Yutaki Falls, but stunning in its own way, more peaceful certainly.
The only other people we saw along the trail were fly fisher “people” either fishing or walking and the walkers jingled. I asked Scott why they wore bells and he told me it was so they did not surprise a bear. I didn’t even know there were bears…
…so when I saw this sign farther on down the trail, I had to take a picture.
The majority of this trail was on a boardwalk of sorts.
It was so pretty. The stream was on our right most of the time and the mountains on our left and we walked through the changing light of the early evening observing the waning light on different trees and grasses. Of course, I was now on the lookout for bears.
This day in the nature of Nikko was such a gift. It was a spectacular reminder that the four of us are happiest in the solace of the organic world. We hiked about ten miles up, down and along the peaceful and inspiring trails so close and yet worlds away from Tokyo. The contrast made me think that even when I feel miserably chaotic and temporarily out of control, opportunities for tranquility, composure and harmony are much closer than I think.
Early the next morning we enjoyed a Western breakfast (with coffee!) and bid a sad farewell to a very cool place to visit and one we could have easily spent more time hiking and exploring. Next stop, Kyoto.