misty mountain hop (Nikko)

Nikko is about 2 hours outside of Tokyo by train, but might as well be in another country. Nestled in mist-covered mountains and home to a series of ancient imperial shines that are a UNESCO world heritage site, Nikko is almost relentlessly picturesque. It’s also about 10 degrees cooler than Tokyo, which was a welcome relief.

Our hotel was a little place called the Nikko Park Lodge, a few miles uphill from the train station, so we took our first taxi ride in Japan to get to it. The lodge was really our first unequivocal hotel success in Japan: the Sakura in Tokyo was simply functional, the Cerulean would be an experience best enjoyed on someone else’s expense account, but the lodge was both affordable and delightful. It’s a small inn tucked away in the hills far away enough from the town center to seem semi-rural, and is run by a small group of Buddhists who also give yoga lessons. Business has apparently picked up a lot for them since they landed a Lonely Planet writeup, and as a result they’re dealing with an influx of western backpackers, such as ourselves. Nonetheless they were unflaggingly polite and helpful, and our room was actually large enough to have a bed and a couch, plus windows that opened up onto a lovely view of forest and farmland.

After sloughing off our bags, we got a map from the front desk and headed off towards Nikko’s shrines. Along the way, we passed what appeared to be a largely abandoned playground in the fields, which had a suspended roller slide that ran what appeared to be several hundred yards across a small creek and into the next field over. (In fact, it wasn’t until we talked to the people back at the hotel that we ascertained for sure that it was meant as a childrens’ slide and not perhaps some way of delivering firewood from one end of a farm to another.) Since the slide was dripping water and had not a few rust spots, we elected not to sacrifice our pants and bags to it, and walked on toward the shrine area.

Even along the main highway, Nikko is like something out of a painting or maybe a Miyazaki movie: mist hanging over mountains, impossibly green forests, lush plant life everywhere that wasn’t paved over. There had been signs at both the train station and the hotel proclaiming the local tourism slogan: “Nikko is Nippon”, and it’s an interesting parallel to the U.S. Both countries are, by the numbers, largely urban and cosmopolitan (there are more World of Warcraft players than there are farmers in the USA), but their self-conceptions are still conspicuously rural: the heartland is still what people think of as the country’s center, even if increasingly few people live there any more.

After about half an hour’s walk, over a dramatically rock-strewn riverbed, we reached the shrine complex. Once again, I took more pictures than any sane human should: about 200. I’ll be posting them all eventually, but here’s a small sample:

At the Rinno-Ji temple, there was a structure that I can only describe as a Buddhist Rocket Ship: a pillar with four supports that is apparently filled with a thousand scrolls of Buddhist sutras. The pillar is called Sorinto:

Inside the Rinno-ji temple (and predictably off-limits for photos) were three of the largest gold buddhas I have ever seen in my life. They were an Amida Buddha flanked by two Kannon (Guanyin) Buddhas: the left one a Bato (“horse-head”) Kannon, and the thousand-armed Senju-Kannon on the right. Each Buddha was about 20 feet tall and 10 feet wide, covered in gold leaf and sitting on a gold lotus flower. The statues were not at all far away: the dais they were on was about a foot in front of you, and the Buddhas towered above you. “Imposing” doesn’t even begin to cover the effect. (Some less respectful soul than me appears to have snuck a picture of the Amida Buddha statue here.)

One other thing that we were not able to take pictures of: in one of the outer temples of the Rinno-ji shine, we walked into a service in progress. A single monk in yellow robes was sitting on a dais in the middle of the temple, in front of a small brazier. While chanting and occasionally rapping on the dais with a metal hammer, he kept the fire fed by stacking on the wooden votive prayer boards that at various parts of the different shines had been offered with a brush for people to inscribe their prayers on. It was beautiful and hypnotizing to watch, and also was the answer to a small mystery: I’d been wondering over the course of the day what happened to all of the boards, which were hung by the thousands on stations at each shine. It was also impressive to watch the monk’s movements, since at no point did his long flowing robe sleeves burst into flame, which seemed like a distinct danger.

At the Tosho-gu shrine (a shrine built in the honor of the first Tokugowa Shogun by his son), one of the buildings is the Shainyosha stables, which is covered with relief carvings of monkeys. One of the panels is the original “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys, which was carved as an illustration of the principles of Tendai Buddhism:

Slight further down in the same temple complex is the tomb of the third Tokugawa shogun (the one who actually commissioned the entire complex), the entrance to which has a carving of a sleeping cat, the nemuri-neko. For some reason that neither our guidebooks nor anyone around was ever able to really adequately explain, the nemuri-neko is possibly the most famous thing in the entire temple complex: you have to pay an additional ¥520 to see it, and it’s surrounded by photographers at all times. I will allow that it is a very cute carving of a sleeping cat, but I’m not sure I got the appeal.

Less restrained (to put it mildly) is the entrance gate to the Tosho-gu memorial. And by “less restrained” I mean “completely over the top.”

One last shot of many, this is the entrance to the Taiyuin-byo shrine:

After three hours wandering from temple to temple, we were about shrined out. (There were some other highlights, but my ability to assign names to locations is poor: go read , I’m sure she’ll have more, with better and probably more accurate details.) The only other thing on our agenda in town was the Jizo path, but we weren’t entirely sure how to get there, so we wandered in to town and after getting turned around a bit finally found the tourist information center, where we were given directions by bus to the path.

The walk from the bus stop to the path was pretty gorgeous itself: passing through the outskirts of town, it entered a nature preserve around the local hydroelectric power station, which was a verdant forest around a dramatic ravine called the Gamman-ga-fuchi Abyss. The river was clear-to-blue mountain runoff, occasionally turning white as it rushed through rock formations that had apparently been cut by a lava flow several thousand (million?) years ago.

After walking through a small park that had another Buddhist rocket ship in it, we came to the Jizo path. The Jizo bodhisattva is the protector of women, children and travelers, and you’ll often find tiny statues of him in any wooded area in Japan. He is especially said to look after the souls of children who died young or were stillborn, and most of the statues will have a red cloth cape tied around them, and some small offerings and/or stones placed in front of him. The path alongside the ravine in Nikko has hundreds of Jizos:

…some nearly new, some old enough that their heads or their entire bodies have worn away:

In the damp woods, with the only sound coming from the rushing river below, the effect was quieting and even a little creepy. This was amplified by what we found on the way back: an ancient cemetery, with most of the stones covered by luminous green moss. Later at the hotel, we found out that this is the monks’ cemetery:

Back at the beginning of the path, we followed the river back into town. The river remained gorgeous:

Early July appears to be low season in Nikko, as the vast majority of restaurants and shops that we passed on the way in were closed up tight. We ended up at a place that the LP guide recommended: a okono-miyaki restaurant, which is a sort of cook-your-own savory pancake on a griddle that’s part of the table. Typically for any place that’s in LP it was overrun with british and australian tourists (really a danger in small towns where LP might be the only guide that an anglophone can get), but there were also a smattering of locals there, and the pancakes were tasty and filling.

From the restaurant, we took a cab back to the hotel, where I made a vain attempt to get all of my photos sorted, and quickly crashed out.

In the morning, we had breakfast at the hotel, which as previously noted is under a bit of an anglophone backpacker onslaught due to getting a Lonely Planet writeup. Our breakfast companion was a genuine eccentric: an older African-American man named Carl, who split his time between San Diego and Osaka, with a Japanese wife who spoke very little English (Carl appeared to be fluent in Japanese). Carl was wearing a yarmulke, and claimed to be a convert to Orthodox Judaism. He apparently taught in a private school in San Diego (we never quite ascertained what), but spent most of his vacation time in Japan, and was hoping to move there permanently. Carl was a bit of a conversational monopolist, peppering us with questions about our opinions on various aspects of American politics, which we fielded as best we could: I got the impression that despite his professed love of Japan (and his relief at “not having to wear a .45 to walk outside”, which was a little puzzling given what I know of San Diego), that he was a bit homesick: certainly I can’t imagine that there’s much of a community of Black Jewish Nipponophiles for him to connect with, here or in the states.

After breakfast, we packed up and were efficiently delivered to the train station by the hotel’s minivan. Now we’re on the train to Matsumoto. To be continued.

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