JA­PAN: IN THE NIKKO OF TIME

ONLY TWO HOURS NORTH OF TOKYO, NIKKO IS A POP­U­LAR DAY-TRIP AND MINI-BREAK DES­TI­NA­TION FOR FORESTS, SHRINES, TEM­PLES, WA­TER­FALLS, LAKES AND HOT SPRING AC­TION.

Vacations & Travel - - Contents - BY ROB DUN­LOP

Two hours' north of Tokyo, Nikko is a pop­u­lar short-break des­ti­na­tion for forests, shrines, tem­ples, wa­ter­falls and hot springs.

For most peo­ple, the jour­ney to Nikko be­gins and ends in Tokyo. For me, hav­ing wo­ken to the pink hues of the city’s sun­rise, it’s a train jour­ney through the world’s largest me­trop­o­lis – even­tu­ally re­veal­ing farms, rice pad­dies and trees – that de­liv­ers me to Nikko Na­tional Park.

This is no or­di­nary na­tional park. While the park in­deed pro­tects the UNESCO World Her­itage-listed shrines and tem­ples in a for­est set­ting, it also houses the city of Nikko, Ja­pan’s third largest city by area. Go fig­ure.

But what re­ally sets Nikko apart is its his­tor­i­cal com­pounds: more than 100 Bud­dhist and Shinto struc­tures dat­ing from the 8th to the 17th cen­tury shrouded by tow­er­ing cedar trees, and ex­plored by mossy paths.

You can eas­ily spend hours ad­mir­ing the dif­fer­ent dec­o­ra­tive styles, ar­chi­tec­ture and cul­ture that en­twines Bud­dhist and Shinto el­e­ments.

Shin­to­ism, the an­cient Ja­panese faith, wor­ships ob­jects of na­ture and ances­tors. The grand Toshogu Shrine is a mon­u­ment and mau­soleum of shogun Lord Toku­gawa

Ieyasu (1542-1616), a leader who united Ja­pan. Sur­rounded by trees, it gleams with multi-coloured carv­ings, red lac­quer and gold leaf de­tail.

Fu­turasan Shrine is a ded­i­ca­tion to Mount Nan­tai, the nearby vol­canic moun­tain that rises about 2500 m. Else­where, white pa­per gar­lands adorn rocks and trees con­sid­ered sa­cred.

Some shrines are known as power spots where you can re­ceive en­ergy from na­ture – a re­ju­ve­na­tion of sorts. But it re­quires some know-how. I toss a lucky coin (5 yen) into the do­na­tion box, bow twice, clap twice, make a wish, then bow again. Too easy.

Gods are ev­ery­where. For good mea­sure I gather more bless­ings, stop­ping by the shrines for good health and good busi­ness. And for the lucky last one, I head to Kan­man­ga­fuchi Abyss, about a 30-minute walk from Toshogu Shrine, where lo­cals have dressed about 70 Bud­dhist stat­ues in red bean­ies and pink bibs. The prayer here is per­ti­nent: “May trav­els be safe.”

For more Bud­dhist de­lights, you can sam­ple the tra­di­tional veg­e­tar­ian food eaten by monks. Gyoshin-tei restau­rant fea­tures the menu of tofu and tofu skin, along with sea­sonal vegeta­bles. This time it’s daikon radish, del­i­cate Ja­panese basil flower, Ja­panese egg­plant, taro, shi­itake mush­rooms, tem­pura yam potato, miso soup mi­nus an­i­mal prod­ucts and roasted green tea. Dessert is sweet red bean paste and sweet po­ta­toes – all served up with large win­dowed views of a gor­geous Ja­panese gar­den.

Like the rest of Ja­pan, the cre­ation and pre­sen­ta­tion of food is a del­i­cate, in­tri­cate form of art.

You’d be hard pressed to find a Toky­oite who hasn’t been dragged up to Nikko for a school ex­cur­sion. As grown-ups though, they’re more likely to re­turn with a greater ap­pre­ci­a­tion of the his­tory and beauty of this small city.

BE­YOND SHRINES AND TEM­PLES

Al­though it’s tempt­ing to take the train back to Tokyo, there’s so much more to ex­plore. Nikko has more than 30 wa­ter­falls, many un­named. The most dra­matic is Ke­gon Falls, which plunges more than 97 m from Lake Chuzenji and nudges 1270 m, mak­ing it Ja­pan’s high­est lake.

Ja­pan has more than 100 ac­tive vol­canos and Lake Chu-zenji is ac­tu­ally a caldera, cre­ated from an erup­tion of Mount Nan­tai (the holy moun­tain ded­i­cated by Fu­turasan Shrine). The last erup­tion here was more than 7000 years ago.

A boat cruise takes in the awe of Mount Nan­tai and passes the for­mer sum­mer houses of Euro­pean em­bassies, no­tably Ital­ian and Bri­tish. For­eign­ers were well-served in Nikko with the open­ing of Ja­pan’s first Western-style ho­tel, Nikko Kanaya, which to­day still fea­tures a cock­tail bar and stone fire­place and oozes 19th cen­tury charm.

For lake­side views and to sam­ple the fa­mous lo­cal beef, head to Maple Restau­rant, which also serves cof­fee and cake.

A ride in Akechidaira Rope­way ties in the en­tire land­scape. From a plat­form, you can see the con­nec­tion: the moun­tain, the lake be­low it, and the wa­ter­fall that spills from the lake. Stun­ning.

GET YOUR SPA ON

With plenty of subter­ranean vol­canic ac­tiv­ity in the re­gion, hot spring re­sorts are plen­ti­ful and pop­u­lar with Toykoites want­ing to re­lax.

The pop­u­lar hot spring re­sort town of Kin­u­gawa has Ja­panese and Western-style ho­tels with a va­ri­ety of on­sen of­fer­ings. The modern Kin­u­gawa Grand Ho­tel pro­vides mul­ti­ple choice: indoor on­sens over­look­ing beau­ti­ful gar­dens; out­door on­sens sur­rounded by na­ture; or to­tally pri­vate on­sens with ex­clu­sive use. For free foot­baths with views of Kinu River, head to Kinuko-no-Yu, plonk your­self down and breathe it all out.

Open­ing im­age: Gar­dens at Kin­u­gawa Grand Ho­tel. Clock­wise from be­low: Bud­dhist stat­ues, dressed by lo­cals, at Kan­man­ga­fuchi Abyss; For­est path­ways link tem­ples and shrines; Friendly, help­ful and dap­per rail­way staff; Tem­ples and shrines at peace in...

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