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.
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...