The golden age of Nikko
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.
Autumn in the mountains