Japan day fifteen
18.10.2013 - 18.10.2013
Detail, Toshogu Shrine
A famous Japanese saying proclaims:
‘Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na’
‘Don't say "magnificent" until you've seen Nikko’
And with some good reason. Its shrines are a wonder to behold, especially perhaps Toshogu, arguably the most flamboyant building in Japan. We had only a day and a half here, but this was enough to give us a great insight into the best of Nikko’s glories which shone despite some gloomy drizzly weather.
Getting to Nikko
We started the day with breakfast at our hotel in Tokyo, the Ibis Shinjuku. The buffet breakfast was included in our rate there, with both Western and Japanese options available. I have to confess that after several days of very traditional Japanese breakfasts in our ryokan in Kamikochi we both fell on the cereal, croissants and bacon and eggs with some relief! The coffee was good and there was also fresh orange juice, so we breakfasted well.
It was then a short walk to the huge Shinjuku Station. Our journey to Nikko from here involved two trains (although there a very few direct services if you prefer not to have to change). Firstly, we took a Limited Express service to Shimo Imaichi, which took an hour and 45 minutes. There we had just a couple of minutes to transfer to the local Tōbu Nikko line for the short (eight minute) ride to Tōbu Nikko, one of two stations in the town. Luckily we only had to cross the platform so the short transfer time here was no problem.
If you too are planning a visit to Nikko it’s worth knowing that you can also travel between Asakusa in Tokyo and Nikko on the direct Tōbu line, but as we were staying in Shinjuku before and after this side trip, that was less convenient for us. It does however make a day trip to Nikko more practical if that is all you can manage (but you really should try to fit in an overnight stay if possible!)
Also there are, confusingly, two stations in Nikko just a few minutes’ walk apart. We used Tōbu Nikko for both our arrival and departure. The other is the JR station just down the road, which is served by JR trains from Tokyo and Ueno stations, changing at Utsunomiya. This costs more than the Tōbu line but is worth considering if you have a JR Pass (ours had expired by this point in our travels).
Arriving in Nikko
The Turtle Inn Annexe
Arriving in Nikko we decided to take a taxi to our accommodation as we knew it was about 40 minutes’ walk away – a bit far with luggage even though we had left some in storage back at the Ibis, where we would be returning in a couple of days.
We had booked two nights at the Turtle Inn Annexe - Hotari An, a traditional ryokan on the western edge of town which had been recommended by Inside Japan. It was an excellent choice – one of my favourites of the many places we stayed on this trip. It has a pleasant location right beside the river. Our Japanese style room overlooked this river and we could hear its waters clearly as we lay on our cosy futons.
The room was en suite but the guesthouse also has an onsen (indoors but overlooking the river) which can be used privately for a 20 minute spell – ample time for a soak in the hot waters. There’s no booking system; you simply wait for it to be free and then hang an ‘occupied’ sign on the door. After a day spent seeing the sights in the rather chilly weather we experienced here, this was a great treat.
The only drawback to staying here was the distance from the main part of town. I’ve already mentioned how far it was from the station, and although nearer to the shrines these were still about 15 minutes’ walk, and the top end of the main street about 20 minutes. But on the plus side it’s very handy for the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, as we were about to discover. For us the quiet and pleasant location, and the pleasure of walking Nikko’s residential streets, more than made up for the distance from town but it’s something to consider before booking.
We had arrived late morning and our room wasn’t to be ready until 2.00 PM, so we left our bags and went out in search of lunch which we found just a short walk away. Just by the start of the path to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the Bake-Jizō is a small wooden building housing a café, the Kanman Teahouse, named for the small park opposite. There was no English menu but there were pictures to help us choose, and we both decided on the dumplings. These were cooked to order by the friendly owner (I assume) and served three to a skewer, three skewers per person. I believe having done some research since our return that we were eating mitarashi dango – dumplings made with rice flour and served with a sort of sweet and sour sauce with a soy base. This sauce was really tasty! Our meal cost just 500¥ each, washed down with a shared bottle of a local soda.
The finished dumplings
Cute table decor
Fortified, we set off to explore the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss.
Most day trippers to Nikko come, rightly, to see its magnificent shrines, but if you’re here for any longer you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the so-called Kanmangafuchi Abyss. While ‘abyss’ is rather a grand term for what is essentially a small gorge, it’s a scenic spot and one which you’ll probably share with only a handful of other tourists rather than the hordes who visit Toshogu etc. Certainly we passed only a handful of others on our walk here.
The gorge was formed about 7,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Since then the river Daiya has been carving these huge boulders into dramatic shapes as it tumbles over them. This area has been considered a sacred place since ancient times, because Fudo-Myo-O (a manifestation of the Cosmic Buddha) once appeared to people from the deep waters of the river. The name of the abyss, ‘Kanman’, comes from the murmuring sound of the river, which the Priest Kokai likened to an incantation chanted by Fudo-Myo-O of which the last word was ‘kanman’.
A riverside path (easy walking but with some steps) follows the water upstream. On your left as you walk are the famous Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi and on your right this tumbling stream. When we were here (third week in October) the leaves were turning and despite the dull weather there were some glowing colours that contrasted nicely with the rushing white waters. It really is a very photogenic spot.
In Kanmangafuchi Abyss
But scenic as it is, the main reason to walk the Kanmangafuchi Abyss are the Bake-Jizō.
The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi
The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi
As soon as I saw photos of these haunting statues while researching our trip, I knew I had to see them for myself. Commonly referred to as Hyaku Jizō, meaning the ‘100 Jizō’, there are in fact around 70 or 80 here as some were washed away in the 1902 flood. I say ‘around 70 or 80’ because it is said that no one knows the exact number. A legend says that each time they are counted, the result is different – hence their other name, Bake-Jizō, meaning ‘Ghost Jizō ‘. Of course the more rational visitor may conclude that the reason for all the discrepancies when counting is that so many have been badly damaged that they are now little more than a pedestal or pile of stones, and therefore no one can be sure whether or not to count them. But the legend is more captivating!
The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi
Another name sometimes used is Narabi Jizō, meaning ‘Jizō in a line’, which is self-evident. They line one side of the path, facing the river, as if standing guard over the abyss. And in fact, standing guard is exactly what they are doing. Jizō is a Buddhist divinity, the guardian of children, and in particular, children who die before their parents. He is sometimes worshipped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted foetuses, in the ritual of mizuko kuyō, as I wrote about in my Tokyo blog about the Chingodo shrine in Asakusa. The unfortunate parents of these children make offerings to the deity to enlist his help in helping the children escape hell, since they are considered not to have had the chance to lead the moral life that would have ensured good karma.
According to one folk tale, the dead children must pile stones into towers to achieve karma and be released. But demons scatter the stones, and the towers can never be completed. Jizo hides children in his robes to protect them from these demons and save them.
The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi
I have read several explanations for the practice of putting red bibs and caps on these statues. One suggests that this custom is primarily associated with a child’s recovery from sickness (or preserving them from falling sick) and the red colour was originally associated particularly with smallpox. But also, putting bibs and hats on these statues is a way of nurturing the spirits with whom they are believed to be imbued. Expectant or worried parents knit these hats and bibs for the statues and leave offerings of money for their children's wellbeing.
We spent quite a lot of time taking photos of the statues, though had to wait a while to get the best ones as a man with a tripod had set up right in the middle and was in no rush to move on.
Part way along the abyss is a small building, Reihi-Kaku, formerly a Buddhist Gomadan (Alter of Holy Fire) which a priest, Kokai, built at the time of the foundation of the nearby Jiunji Temple. It was used to burn a holy fire facing a stone image of Fudo-Myo-O, located on the opposite bank. The Reihi-kaku was washed away by floods in 1902, and today's building is a 1971 reconstruction. The fire no longer burns here however.
Reihi-Kaku in Kanmangafuchi Abyss
Beyond Reihi-Kaku and the Bake-Jizō the path ascends some steps past a small graveyard and through trees to emerge just below a main road. There are a couple of stone seats here but the views aren’t as good as from lower down, so we decided to turn back and retrace our steps for another chance to marvel at and photograph the Bake-Jizō. But eventually we got all the images we wanted and were ready to move on and explore the area around the Turtle Inn Annexe.
Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple
Dragon fountain at Higiri Jizoson Jokoji Temple
On the western side of Nikko, tucked away among the streets of small houses, we came across this small temple, Jokoji or as it is sometimes transcribed, Joukouji. A small gate, a dragon water fountain for purification, a row of small statues including a couple of contemplative Buddhas ... And beyond, a cemetery with ancient and more recent grave markers packed in on the hillside overlooking the Daiya River.
This temple has stood here since 1640. It has a bell that is even older, dating from 1459. The most famous of its many statues is the Jizō-Do which sits in front of the main hall of the temple. Unusually it is portrayed wearing a stone hat – a Suge-gasa (a Japanese hat made from sedge grass). But the stone hat has not prevented people from adding the customary red cap, as you can see. It is believed that if you pray to this Jizō for something to be fulfilled by a certain date, your wish will come true.
In 1902, the Daiya River overflowed its banks and two of the big Jizō statues that stand beside it were washed away in the floods. Later the head of one of these, the Oya-Jizō, was found in the riverbed and is now installed in the Jokoji Temple. Unfortunately we didn’t see this. But we found plenty of small Jizō in the atmospheric old cemetery behind the temple, as well as many interesting old gravestones.
At the Jokoji Temple
The stone cups
On leaving the Jokoji Temple we took a short stroll around the nearby streets, partly to get our bearings and plan where to eat later. These streets have channels on either side, filled with running fresh water making its way down to the Daiya River below. My attention was caught by some unusual looking stone structures that sat on the edge of these channels at intervals. A nearby information sign, in English as well as Japanese, helpfully shed some light on their purpose:
‘They are water pipes, built in the Taisho Era, to bring water from the nearby spring. Linking the pipes are bowls carved out of individual stones.
In summer the water is cold, in winter it is warm. Let the water run through your fingers and experience how it makes you feel.’
Well, I let it run through mine and on a chilly afternoon in October it felt pretty cold! But the sound of running water and the frequent sights of it make this part of Nikko a pleasure to walk through, giving the town a sense of freshness and reminding you that here you are among the mountains.
There are apparently eight of these cisterns, known locally as ‘stone cups’, still remaining in the town, although we only spotted a couple. They provided water not only for drinking but for many other purposes such as washing vegetables and splashing water on the road to settle the dust. The water is no longer considered safe for drinking however.
After exploring this area for a short while we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to warm up before coming out again to seek dinner. We settled into our traditional tatami room and enjoyed the sound of the river outside while sorting our many photos of the Bake-Jizō and writing up journals, before heading out again into the drizzly evening.
The Bell Coffeehouse
We had asked the friendly owner of our guesthouse about nearby places to eat and she made a couple of suggestions, of which this was one, about 10 minutes’ walk away. We sat in a cosy corner near the bar, with Japanese baseball on the TV, and were given an English menu to choose from. I wanted to try the local delicacy, yuba - made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. It sounds a bit odd but the result is not unlike pasta or noodles in consistency – maybe a little chewier.
Here at the Bell it is served in many ways, including a ‘yuba feast’ in which it appears in a number of dishes. But that looked like more than either of us wanted. So instead I chose a dish of yuba and soba noodles (my favourite Japanese noodles with the extra bite that the buckwheat gives) in a broth with vegetables, which was served with a side of inari sushi. This is usually a pouch of fried tofu filled with sushi rice, but here I think was made with more of the yuba in place of the more usual tofu (an improvement as far as I was concerned, not being a fan of tofu). Meanwhile Chris had a shrimp and yuba gratin dish that he really enjoyed. We both had a large beer with our meals and later found room for dessert – chocolate cake for Chris, cheesecake for me, coffee for both of us.
After dinner we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe to make use of their lovely onsen. The next day was to be a long one …