Asia | Japan | Tokyo | Nikko – Nikko
Nikko. Nikko, Nikko, Nikko! Nikko is the home of LOTS of temples, and my first real destination site of my trip. Lots and lots and lots of temples. I arrived in Nikko and I had no trouble figuring out where the temples were, they were all conveniently grouped together. I had a lot more difficulty finding a hotel. Maybe that was because I didnt have a reservation.
The guide books said that every train station had an information booth for tourists. I got off the train here and there was no sign of an information booth. I simply started wandering the streets of Nikko, dragging my luggage behind me, in hopes to see a sign that said Hotel. After a while of dragging, I discovered that one end of town quickly progressed uphill. It had all been flat land up to this point. Seeing this huge hill in front of me, I turned and went back into the heart of town where I found another train station! The guide books didnt say anything about multiple train stations in one town! THIS station had the tourist info booth, but it seemed everyone was out on a break or something. It was well stocked enough that I picked up a map of town in English, so I would know where I was going, and a map of town in Japanese, so I could point to the drivers about where I wanted to go to. With the map, and the guide book, I picked out a Japanese style inn named Turtle Inn for my stay. I just hoped the staff of Turtle Inn would agree with my plans.
I could figure out, in a general sense, where I needed to go next, and that it involved the bus. This bus was literally a Greyhound with red plush interior! Lots of steps, and definitely not made for dragging luggage on. But up I went, and off to the stop. When you get on a bus in Japan (most places) you take a small ticket from a box. When you get off the bus, the digital sign at the front (and sometimes the back) of the bus tells you how much you owe for your trip. So when I reached by bus stop, I paid my 230 Yen, and traveled on.
OK, so I didnt EXACTLY know where the hotel was, but I figured it couldnt be so had to find now that I was in the right area of town. I started towing my bag (Im so glad it has wheels!) up hill, sticking to the things that look like streets, and not like alleys. Finally, just about when I feel like I have missed it and I dont know which way to turn next, I find the next best thing the Post Office! I journey inside to ask if they know where the Turtle Inn Nikko is. She says yes, and turns to her partner. He says yes, and turns to their boss. He says yes, and turns, but no one is left to turn to. He comes over and begins to draw me a map, and all three of them discuss how many hundred of meters (two hundred or three hundred to that street?) between points. Finally they decide, and I leave with my newest map.
Well, I found the Turtle Inn. And much to my delight, she spoke English and had a room for me for the evening. The room is Japanese style with a tatami map floor and a futon bed on the floor. The room is on the second floor, and there are sinks and toilets on my floor. There are two bathrooms downstairs, but it is too early in the day for bath time. So with another map, I am off to see some Temples.
Temples and Shrines are two different things. Temples are associated with Buddhism and Shrines are associated with the Shinto religion. Yet Buddhism and Shinto are intertwined. The word Shinto did not even exist in the language until after the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in 552. The word was introduced to put a name on the native beliefs. The two religions have melded together in the belief that the Shinto deities are temporary manifestations of Buddhist deities who have chosen to be on earth to help others instead of breaking the cycle of reincarnation through nirvana.
Confused? I am. So at any point when I say Temple or Shrine it is because I am reading it off a label, and not that I can actually tell the difference.
My first destination was to be the Toshogu-Shrine. Remember Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil? They live here. They are actually wooden carved monkeys on the lintels of a stable. A lot smaller and a lot goofier looking than I expected them to be. This Shrine also has a famous carving of a Sleeping Cat. The story there is that the cat is said to have completed all of its work, so the shrine is free of mice and rats, and now it can comfortably sleep. The whole Shrine complex is filled with wooden buildings that have been ornately carved and brightly painted.
The grounds are teeming with bodies, but it doesnt feel crowded. There are tons and tons of school groups here today. All wearing little uniforms that favor black, dark blue and grey, with white shirts. The teachers hold up a pennant fluttering on a stick, and they follow right behind, holding hands. It is mostly elementary school kids, and some middle school kids. Once Asians get to adulthood, I have a really hard time guessing their ages, but while they are still kids, it is easier to guess the ages by height.
I progressed on to the Yakushi0do Temple, than to the Nio-mon Gate, the Kaminari-mon Gate, the Peony Gate, Rin-no-ji Taiyuin (Mausoleum) and finally down hill to the Nikko Museum and the Sanbutudo where there are three huge golden Buddhas. Everywhere you turned there was another temple, or shrine, or gate, or lantern to notice, and the only way to know when you had passed from one complex to the next was when you were stopped to pay another entrance fee. Everywhere there were flocks of small school children traveling around or posing for pictures of their whole group. The nice thing about playing tourist with a lot of small children is that they dont obstruct the view.
I think you could see temples in Nikko for days and days, and still have more left to see. Five Oclock, and closing time came, so I walked back down to downtown to see the city without my luggage and look for dinner. The town of Nikko seems to have two major areas. One grouping down by the train stations, and one grouping up by the temples. The road between them is steep, and filled with shops. I enjoyed the walk, and the view of the river that winds between the two sections, cutting them apart except for the one bridge that crosses it.
The whole town, upper and lower, is alive with the sound of water as you walk along the streets. Where we would have a gutter in America, they have a flat surface with large concrete tiles laid over the waterways. The water is constantly flowing down hill, down every street you walk. Nikko is said to be filled with springs, and by the amount of water flowing under the streets, I believe it.
When I returned to the ryokan, it was time for a bath. I gathered my things and ventured downstairs. This is a wonderful place for a Westerner to learn about Japanese bathing. There is a Japanese style bath, with the privacy of turning the door sign to occupied so that you dont have any company. I turned the sign, and set in to learn about Japanese bathing.
There are two rooms, an inner and an outer room. The first room you enter has a sink, and a basket for putting your clothes in. The two rooms are divided by a sliding glass door. Beyond that door is a larger room, about 8 feet by 8 feet, with two shower stations and a large bath in-between them. Each shower station has a shower head that is moveable. You are to take a small stool, sit on the stool, and bath yourself with the supplied soap, shampoo and conditioner. All of this is outside the bath. The cardinal rule is to never get soap in the bath. So you bathe yourself outside the bath, while sitting on the stool, and using the shower.
After you are clean, you get into the bath. This bath is fan shaped in the corner. At the longest point, I can lie completely stretched out on my back if I wanted to. The water is about two to three feet deep, I would guess. Deep enough so that when you are sitting down in the bath, you are covered in water up to your neck. I could get used to relaxing like this. At the point in the fan is a flow of water about a foot wide, constantly flowing into the bath providing fresh water, and fresh heat. Ahhhhh, I understand. How anybody has any sense of time while in here, or why anyone would get out, I do not understand. I will sleep well tonight.
My second day in Nikko began with a western breakfast. Hard boiled egg, slice of watermelon, a third of a banana, five cherries, and three slices of toast. The toast is more like thick slices of a bread loaf, two inches thick. One is white bread, one is wheat, and one is cinnamon. All are absolutely soaked in butter! There is orange marmalade and strawberry preserves on the side, which I end up using just to cover up the flavor of the butter. All the tea or coffee you can drink rounds off the meal.
At breakfast I meet another traveler, Melinda Hume from Australia. She has been traveling the world since February, and she is in Nikko for two weeks. It is comforting to see another tall, red-headed strong female traveling alone. It makes me think Im not crazy for doing this trip; maybe stuff like this is genetic.
After breakfast I catch a bus to go to Chuzen-ji, to see Kegon-no-taki, Japans tallest waterfall. It is a winding scenic ride up the mountain to a stop at a rope-way (sky-tram or gondola) that goes up to the top of a neighboring mountain to a commanding view of the waterfall, and the surrounding area. You can hike from there to the waterfall, but I decide that that is probably not the best decision on the list of things I could do alone.
Back down to the gift shop and bus stop and Whoosh! There goes the bus! If you are not AT the bus stop, the bus does not necessarily stop. Lesson learned. The road between me and the waterfall 1. Is long and 2. Has tunnels, so I decide to wait for the next bus. I had not waited two minutes before an employee of the gift shop stopped to ask if I would like a ride up to Chuzen-ji and the bus stop there. The area around the rope-way was ONLY the rope-way and a gift shop. Chuzen-ji is a town with spas and museums and more waterfalls at the top of the next mountain.
I quickly find out that my driver does not speak English, which is fine with me, so I got to practice some Japanese. We exchanged names, and talked about where we were from and what we do. This trip is great fun!
In Chuzen-ji, I go seeing another view of the waterfall. On my way, I run into Melinda, from breakfast at the Inn! We found the waterfall, and we also found another two residents of the Inn. Them, and lots and lots of school children. The streets of Chuzen-ji are empty, but the school children will still appear. Next I went into the Nikko Science Museum. First step, purchasing a ticket from an automated ticket vending machine. That accomplished, I gave it to one of the two workers at the front desk, just sitting and waiting. Here I got to watch an informational and beautiful film about the area and how it was formed. They are used to tourists in so much that they had headphones for the movie that would supply the dialogue in English. My favorite exhibit in the museum was a room in which you would stand, and a picture of a waterfall would flash before you. Around you and under the suspended wooded floor were well concealed speakers, big well concealed speakers. You would look at the video of the waterfall, and hear, and FEEL the thunder of the water crashing down to the base of the falls!
It is amazing to find out how much you can learn through hands on, light up, thundering and animated exhibits without speaking a word of the language. After an invigorating hour in the science museum, I went back to Nikko, and back to the trains, to journey on to my next adventure.