Saturday, December 4, 2010

Nikko: Hellooooooooo Nurse!

A two-hour train ride north from Tokyo will get you to a little place called Nikko. It's situated in the beautiful, idyllic landscapes of Tochigi, and is a common travel spot for tourists and native Japanese alike due to its many religious and astounding natural offerings. Nikko’s National Park contains many notable sites such as the Shinkyō (God Bridge), the Tōshō-gū (most-famous Shinto shrine containing spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu),  Rinnō-ji (gorgeous Buddhist temple complex), and the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, which is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu's remains.

Shinkyō (God Bridge)
The Shinkyō (God Bridge) is truly a magnificent landmark; its vibrant, red color shines in the picturesque nature surrounding it. It was once only accessible by Japanese royalty, however, now for a meager few hundred yen, even stupid American tourists (myself included) may set foot on it.

Sanzaru (Three Wise Monkeys)

The Three Wise Monkeys (Sanzaru) are carvings decorating the hallowed stable on the grounds of the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, and they represent the maxim "see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil". They were unfortunately much smaller than I believed they would be, but nonetheless, the condition the stable remains in was more than enough to reverse my initial let-down.

The Sleeping Cat (Nemuri-neko) is another famous carving in the Tōshō-gū Shrine, which is supposed to symbolize Nikko as the nourishment of body, mind, and spirit. It happened to be even smaller than the monkeys, and I never would’ve even seen the little carving had it not been for the thousands of photographers crawling around it.

Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, which reigned in Japan from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, and his burial shrine is everything you would expect. It sleeps, hidden at the top of scores of steps in the heart of a massive forest. The silence is deafening. Napoleon and all other grand, one-time dictators would certainly be jealous of its grandeur.

Aside from the shrine searching, I also managed to check out Lake Chūzenji and Kegon Falls, which sit at the top of Mt. Nantai. My eyes have never seen anything quite as beautiful as a sunset on Chūzenji. Had I been struck blind immediately after, I think I’d be able to understand it as some form of punishment for the Gods allowing me to briefly glimpse Heaven while on earth. Just standing on that shore sparked a deep, deep desire to retire near it…a feeling I have never before experienced in my slight twenty years of life. Kegon Falls did not disappoint either, and the many eateries situated at the summit surrounding it further proved why I love Japanese cuisine. Flame-broiled squid on a skewer with an ear of grilled corn combined the pleasures of the eyes with the pleasures of the stomach. However, even within all of Kegon’s beauty, there’s a definite sadness inherent in the crashing water because it remains one of Japan’s most popular suicide spots and once housed the fateful suicide note carved into a tree by Misao Fujimura before his own unfortunate jump.

Lake Chuzenji
Kegon Falls

Nikko proved to be an interesting foil to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. Upon leaving Nikko Station for the first time, the slower pace and friendlier atmosphere was already present. We puttered about a bit, in search of our hostel, and several different people approached us, elderly Japanese with warm faces and kind eyes, trying to get us to where we needed to go…after understanding a bit about us first, of course. The residents of Nikko seemed to have a much stronger human element; what mattered to them was the happiness of each day, one at a time, and that we had the best experience during our short visit to their homeland. We understood that their survival depended on our tourism; however, it was clearer to us that they cared more about who we were as people and where we were from than what sat in our fat, foreigner wallets. We were recommended fantastic eateries; one such izakaya treated us like kings when we told them which one of their friends had sent us. A round of Kirin on the house, and that was enough to relax our bodies and let the spending spree commence.

I plan on making it back to Japan, possibly to teach English for a few years if I can’t capture a solid enough writing job in New York City after graduation. Nikko is at the top of my list for a place to revisit, and if I ever have a family someday, I plan on scraping together every last nickel and dime together so that they too may experience the sun setting over Lake Chūzenji.


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  2. I love your blog. I visited Japan a couple of years ago and I agree with everything you said from Okonomiyaki, Harajuku girls, fashion, Yen, Onsen to trains, politeness and more... It's nice to reminisce those days I spent in Japan.:) I hope Japan would recover completely after the tragedy in Miyagi/Fukushima. Is it still safe to travel to Tokyo now? I wonder if everything's back to normal.