The golden age of Nikko

The Weekend Australian - Travel - - Destination Japan - SU­SAN KUROSAWA

I WAS a univer­sity stu­dent the first time I headed to Nikko, clutch­ing two il­lus­trated vol­umes of Aus­tralian poet Harold Ste­wart’s trans­la­tions of haiku by all the great masters of the form, from Basho to Bu­son.

The lit­tle verses in the boxed set of books — A Chime of Wind­bells and A Net of Fire­flies — were ar­ranged by the sea­sons and I was at Nikko in the full­ness of au­tumn, which is when my Tokyo friends said I had to go, with the cor­rect chap­ters pressed open for that cool, bright-sky time of year.

‘‘Don’t say kekko [mag­nif­i­cent] till you’ve seen Nikko’’ has been the time­honoured ex­pres­sion since the days of the first pil­grim tourists.

And you need to see this moun­tain city in Tochigi pre­fec­ture, about 140km north of Tokyo, when mul­ti­tudes of leaves are turn­ing to a blaze of but­tery yel­low, ver­mil­ion and the most il­lu­mi­nat­ing or­ange. I have learnt much about botany since those long-ago times, but back then I could barely iden­tify a star-shaped maple leaf or a cedar tree, the species for which the city is fa­mous and which (lit­er­ally) can­not be missed — along the so-called Cedar Av­enue of about 35km, more than 12,000 cen­turies-old Cryp­tome­ria japon­ica form a tall and woody reg­i­ment stand­ing per­ma­nently to at­ten­tion.

If you’ve never seen Nikko in colour, then you are for­tu­nate be­cause your first glimpse is yet to come. Make the most of that an­tic­i­pa­tion as there is noth­ing in na­ture quite like it.

The cen­tre­piece of Nikko and its un­de­ni­able tourism mag­net is the Toshogu shrine com­plex, one of the grand­est in Ja­pan; it’s the burial place of the founders of the Toku­gawa shogu­nate that ruled the na­tion for more than 250 years from the start of the 17th cen­tury. Look be­yond the UNESCO-listed com­plex’s colon­nades of red torii gates and stone lan­terns to the med­i­ta­tion gar­dens of per­fect sym­me­try and carved tem­ple friezes, in­clud­ing three jaunty mon­keys in poses of hear, speak and see no evil.

I left A Chime of Wind­bells on a bench at Nikko Sta­tion that glit­ter­ing Oc­to­ber and didn’t re­alise it was miss­ing un­til about 20 min­utes into my re­turn jour­ney to Tokyo.

The train was a limited ex­press, so I hopped off at the next stop and waited more than hour to catch an­other train back to Nikko, where I found the sta­tion­mas­ter and ex­plained my loss. He took me to his of­fice, smiled, bowed and pre­sented the book to me. It had been handed in, he said.

Days later, I re­alised he had marked a page with a slight stain, the ring of a damp teacup, per­haps. The mark has faded, but I still know the ex­act page and the place.

My fa­ther, a news­pa­per edi­tor with lit­er­ary con­nec­tions, had the book signed for me in Syd­ney by Ste­wart in the 1970s. Many years later I ac­quired an­other copy,which was given to me by Rus­sell Drys­dale’s widow Maisie, who had also known Ste­wart. She had been a li­brar­ian and kept her book­shelves im­mac­u­lately, ac­cord­ing to the Dewey dec­i­mal sys­tem; Maisie would never have let a pre­cious book go astray at a rail­way sta­tion.

I still re-read Ste­wart’s trans­la­tions of­ten and think of Dad, of Maisie and the tea-tak­ing Nikko sta­tion­mas­ter and his quiet con­cern and courtesy.

Not to have those vol­umes be­side my bed would feel as if a part of my soul were miss­ing, like a leaf lifted with­out cer­e­mony on the win­ter’s wind.

ALAMY

Au­tumn in the moun­tains

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