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Back to Tokyo (via Matsumoto)

Japan day fourteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

A certain beauty

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When the skies cleared

It had rained for a day and a half. Kamikochi did have a certain beauty in the rain, but it had meant that the mountains we had come to see were hidden from view. But on the previous evening, our last here, we had been summoned outside by a member of the hotel staffto see ‘the white mountain’. There we found that at last the skies had cleared and we could indeed see the nearest mountain glowing palely in the light of the moon. It was bitterly cold, so we didn’t linger long, but that tantalising glimpse made us eager for the next morning.

And when we awoke it was to crisp, still, cold air and to a deep blue sky; to bright white mountains standing majestically around the basin that is Kamikochi; and to a heavy frost. We hurried breakfast and grabbed our cameras and warm jackets, rushing outside to make the most of our final hour or so here. The scene was transformed and wherever we looked there were beautiful views to be marvelled at and captured in our photos. We were so glad we had been granted a short time at least in which to experience this very different side to Kamikochi.

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Clouds rolling away

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Yakedake visible at last

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The Azusa River with backdrop of mountains revealed

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Mountain views

But all too soon it was time to leave, crossing a very different-looking Kappa-bashi to that on the day of our arrival - a little slippery with frost and surrounded by stunning mountain views. At last we could see why they call this the 'Japanese Alps'.

Leaving Kamikochi

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Kappa-bashi, early morning

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Sue and Jim on Kappa-bashi

We left Kamikochi as we had arrived, by bus, but this time bound for Shinshimashima. The journey took about an hour and the scenery was wonderful throughout. Unlike the day of our arrival, the sun was shining, the snowy peaks were visible and the views at almost every turn magnificent (apart from in the many tunnels).

But these tantalising glimpses of Kamikochi in sunlight left several of us yearning to stay, myself included. And my new friend Sue was so captivated by this place that when we left she wrote a beautiful song inspired by our time here:
'Kamikochi Mountains’ performed by Jim and Sue - lyrics and music by Sue Lee-Newman.

The bus took us past Taisho-Ike where we had been the previous day. How different it looked! Yesterday’s low cloud and the atmospheric mist that had shrouded the dead trees had lifted, and in its place we saw the glory of the surrounding mountains, Yakedake and Mount Hotaka, reflected in still waters. I was very pleased that I had a seat on the right-hand side of the bus and was able to grab a photo of a very different Taisho-Ike.

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Looking back at Taisho-Ike

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Train from Shinshimashima to Matsumoto

The bus took us directly to the station in Shinshimashima. There we had a 20 minute wait - just time to buy a drink and some fruit (wonderful Hida apples!) from the stall outside the station.

Then it was on to the small local train bound for Matsumoto, a journey of just 30 minutes. Matsumoto has a direct connection to Tokyo's Shinbuka Station, but we dropped our bags in the coin lockers at the station and took a few hours to explore the town before continuing our journey.

A few hours in Matsumoto

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Manhole cover, Matsumoto

Matsumoto lies in the heart of the island of Honshu and can be seen as a gateway to the Japanese Alps which surround the long valley in which it lies. For us however, it was more of an exit point.

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Monument in the town

And with only a few hours to spend here, the main sight we focused on was naturally the castle, which is one of the ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and one of relatively few original castles in the country, most having been lost to fire. It’s an impressive sight, surrounded by a wide moat and with a striking black and white colour scheme.

We also spent a bit of time browsing the quaint shops on Nawate-dori, visiting its tranquil shrine and grabbing lunch at a Western-style café that originates from Seattle USA. But there was no time for the well-regarded Museum of Art or any of the other museums in this culturally-minded city.

I left with fleeting impressions of a city that is well looked-after, with attractive street art, wide clean pavements and a laid-back air compared to the bustle of the large cities such as Tokyo and Osaka. It seems Matsumoto would make a good base for touring in this region at the heart of the country.

Matsumoto Castle

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle lies about 10/15 minutes’ walk from the station and we all walked there as a group, before splitting up to explore at our own pace.

This is one of relatively few original castles in Japan; as they were built mostly of wood they often burned down and were rebuilt, some many times. This though is one of just four castles designated as ‘National Treasures of Japan’ and is the oldest castle donjon still standing in the country.

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Matsumoto Castle

The castle was built at the end of the 16th century on the site of an earlier fort by the Ishikawa family. It has a striking black and white colour scheme, and three turrets. It is sometimes called 'Crow Castle' because of the black walls. Both the wooden interiors and external stonework are original. It is known as a flatland castle or hirajiro because it is built not on a hilltop or amid rivers, but on a plain. It is surrounded by a wide moat which makes for lovely photos, although some of the best I think would be from the far side of the castle (as you approach it from the ticket office) where a red bridge crosses the moat – an area of the park that was closed when we visited for construction work. So for us the best views were probably those from the park that surrounds it, as seen in my three photos above.

You can get these outside views of the castle for free but to get closer or to go inside you must pay the admission fee of 600¥, which we decided to do. We were given an informative leaflet in English and if you want can also get a free English language guided tour from a volunteer guide. We didn't do this as we only wanted a quick look round, but we did chat briefly to one of the guides whose English seemed OK and who was interested to chat about the differences between Japanese and English castles.

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Roof details

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Warning sign inside

Once inside the castle's precincts you can see some displays about its history and of course go inside. To do the latter you must remove your shoes and carry them in a plastic bag provided. Note that the stairs are all very steep and of polished wood - I found it tricky going in just socks! Various artefacts are displayed (swords, costumes, building materials etc) but very few signs are in English. At the top (six floors up) you get good views of Matsumoto and on a clear day, of the Japanese Alps in the distance – or so I understand. We gave up part way, deciding that the slippery steps weren't worth the trouble for relatively little reward when we had such limited time in the town.

But even if you don't want to go inside I reckon it's worth paying the admission to get a closer look at the castle and see the historical displays, and the guy dressed up as a samurai who I gather is usually there.

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Japanese tourist with 'samurai'

We also visited the gift shop as I had been advised by Andrew that this was one of relatively few places to buy wasabi chocolate. Yes, you read that correctly! It’s a white chocolate flavoured with the hot Japanese condiment. I rather liked it – but it won't appeal to everyone I suspect!

When we had seen enough of the castle we retraced our steps to an interesting street we had passed on our way here.

Nawate-dori

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Sign on Nawate-dori

This is a quaint, if slightly (but only slightly) touristy street not far from the castle. This street once formed the border between the Samurai residences and the commoners’ homes in the Edo era (1603 – 1868).

The name means ‘Frog’ street. It acquired this name at a time when the nearby river became so polluted that even the frogs died. The city managed to clean up the river, and named the street nearby after the frogs that returned to its waters. The name is also related to a pun on the Japanese word for ‘return’ kaeru. The mountains that surround Matsumoto could be treacherous, so frogs were given as a charm so that travellers would return safely.

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Nawate-dori, with giant frog

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Frog shop

We certainly would have found it hard to miss this street, as there is this very large fibreglass statue of a samurai frog by the entrance on Daimyocho Street. This was created by students from the Tokyo University for the Arts. The street is pedestrianised and not long – if you don’t stop to shop or browse you can walk it in about five minutes.

But there are plenty of interesting shops selling antiques and bric-a-brac, and others with gift items (one of which has only frog-related items!) I was very tempted by some antique sake cups but persuaded (probably rightly!) by Chris that we had already bought more than enough souvenirs.

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Shop window, Nawate-dori

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Nawate-dori book shop

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Garden on Nawate-dori

There are also some quaint corners likely to catch your eye if you’re a keen photographer, and several places to eat, both stalls selling local snacks such as soy bean dumplings, and more substantial sit-down places. We decided to have lunch in one of these.

Sweet Bakery

We had mostly eaten (and for the most part enjoyed) Japanese food on our travels, but there are times when you really crave the food of home - or at least of another country! So when we spotted this cosy bakery/café, with a menu of pizza, toasted sandwiches and soup, we thought it looked a promising spot for a more Western lunch for a change. And so it proved to be.

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Sweet Bakery on Nawate-dori

Sweet appears to be a Matsumoto offshoot of a Seattle bakery, and has been on this spot since 1924. It claims to have been the first shop to sell French-style baguettes in the region, a claim I find easy to believe!

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Cosy interior of Sweet Bakery

Inside we found a pleasant space, with old photos on the walls reflecting the bakery's establishment in 1924. There are also a few seats and tables outside, where smoking and dogs are permitted (neither is allowed inside, and after finding some Japanese cafės too smoky for my liking, I was pleased about this). Looking at the clientele, this place seems popular with local young mums. Chris found one of his favourites on the menu, a Reuben sandwich, and I had a bowl of clam chowder. We both enjoyed these dishes and they were just the right size for lunch.

Yohashira Shrine

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Carving detail, Yohashira Shrine

The main sight we found on Nawate-dori (in addition to the appeal of browsing the small shops) was this tranquil Shinto shrine. I haven’t been able to find out much about it, as the only website I could find was entirely Japanese, but if Google Translate was doing its job properly, the shrine was built in 1924 to replace an earlier one (1874?) that was destroyed by fire in 1888.

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Lion dog guardian, Yohashira Shrine

It seems to be something of a haven in the city for locals, several of whom stopped briefly to pray while we were here – I enjoyed seeing the little boy who was being shown by his mother how to ring the bell that draws the attention of the spirits or kami to the presence of the would-be petitioner.

It also seems to be a popular spot for pigeons – one man was feeding them here when we came, and there are several references to them among the brief descriptions of the shrine that I’ve been able to track down.

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Yohashira Shrine - feeding the pigeons and ringing the temple bell

We took a few photos here and enjoyed the tranquillity for a while but moved on when a small group arrived, armed with a set of metal steps, to set up a group photo in front of the main shrine. In any case, it was time to head back to the station to continue our journey to Tokyo.

Return to a very different Tokyo

We left Matsumoto on a limited express train service to Tokyo's Shinjuku Station. This journey took about two and a half hours, making Matsumoto just about do-able as a day trip from the capital. I learned that this train service is called the ‘Azusa’ or ‘Super Azusa’ limited express, named after the river we had enjoyed walking and staying beside in Kamikochi!

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Arriving in Shinjuku at night

We emerged from Shinjuku Station to a rather different Tokyo from the one we had experienced when staying in Asakusa at the start of our trip. There we had found relatively tranquillity in the almost suburban streets that surround its atmospheric shrine, Senso-ji. Here everything was modern and frenetic, constantly on the move. This is the Tokyo we so often see – a truly 24 hour city.

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Ibis Hotel, Shinjuku

Our base here for the night was the Ibis Hotel, just a few minutes’ walk from the station. We found the bedroom small, as they seemed to be in all the standard hotels in Japan - and, again as everywhere, we had everything we might need to make our stay comfortable: tea-making, TV (with, rare here, BBC World News channel), hair dryer, toiletries, robes and slippers, good free wifi.

We settled in but didn’t bother unpacking, as we would be leaving again the next morning. The bright lights of Shinjuku awaited!

Udon noodles galore!

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Outside Mentsudan restaurant - Andrew explaining the menu

This was the final night of our group tour and everyone was keen to have dinner together. Andrew proposed a visit to one of his favourite restaurants in Tokyo, Mentsudan, an unpretentious and great value udon joint. There are no frills here, but you can get a filling bowl of udon noodles in a wide range of styles for less than 1,000¥, and they are tasty!

It is self-service, but with the noodles cooked to order, and according to Time Out Tokyo ‘are handmade in-house by expert noodle makers from Kagawa, where the dish originates’. The first thing we saw on entering was the cooking area on the left, with the chefs hard at work and a small counter where we placed our orders. I didn't see an English menu but there were pictures to help us make our choice, and of course we had Andrew along to advise. On his recommendation we all chose a large portion, which for dinner I think is probably good advice.

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Place your order

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Rolling the noodles

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Udon noodles with tempura side

Once we’d ordered we sat on a bench opposite the counter to wait for our noodles to be prepared. I enjoyed watching the chefs in action as they rolled and cut the dough and cooked the noodles before topping them with our chosen sauces. Both Chris and I opted for cheese, again on Andrew's recommendation, and it was very good (a bit like macaroni cheese!)

Once we had our bowl of noodles we took our trays and proceeded along the counter choosing any additional dishes we fancied, all of which were priced at around 50-200¥. I chose a vegetable tempura dish, and Chris some potato salad. Others in our group had rice, other salads and different tempura including octopus and even a tempura bacon rasher! You can also get drinks - beer, sake, soft drinks. A few items are priced at 0¥ and can be added for free - I sprinkled some sliced spring onion onto my bowl of noodles and had some ginger paste on the side with my tempura. At the end of the counter we paid, took our trays to some available seats at one end of a long wooden table in the centre of the room, and tucked in. Yummy!

Oh, and also very cheap – for our two large cheese udon bowls, a couple of side dishes and two large beers we paid just 2,400¥ (about £15).

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Farewell group shot

After dinner we went back to the hotel and most of us had a drink together in the bar before taking a final group photo and saying our farewells. The next day most would be leaving Japan, but we still had a few more days to explore on our own while another couple were staying on in Tokyo. Some had to get up early the next day for flights home, but our train to Nikko wasn’t until mid morning. The night was young and the bright lights of Shinjuku were calling! So we went out to explore and take some photos.

Shinjuku at night

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Shinjuku at night

This is one of the most vibrant night-life areas of the city, and was a real contrast to Asakusa where we had stayed at the start of our trip – and even more to beautiful Kamikochi where we had been for the previous two nights. We wandered through the streets near our hotel and took lots of photos of the neon lights and all the activity. In some ways we could have been in any major city; in others, it was uniquely Japan.

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Shinjuku at night

I was especially intrigued by the narrow alleyways north of the station, known variously as Omoide Yokocho (which means ‘memory lane’), Yakitori Alley or more crudely, Piss Alley. They are lined with a myriad of the tiniest restaurants I think I have ever seen, most with just a counter and a handful of stools. Big bowls of noodles (ramen, soba, udon) bubble on the stoves and yakitori skewers are lined up on the grills. Fragrant steam rises on the air to tempt diners. Unfortunately we had already eaten so we just strolled through and took in all the sights.

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On Omoide Yokocho

A less appealing area for many will be Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red light district, which lies to the north east of the station. When we passed here I spotted several men obviously out to tout for business so we gave it a miss! It’s probably safe enough with so many other people around, but there were plenty of other streets to explore and bright lights to photograph.

82 Ale House

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Entrance to the pub

After we’d spent some time wandering around the brightly lit streets we decided it was time for another drink. We had spotted the narrow frontage of this bar and thought it looked welcoming so decided to give it a try. It was quite an interesting experience! The aim here is to recreate a British pub in the heart of Tokyo and I imagine for Japanese visitors it could feel very exotic and foreign. Certainly there were plenty of them there – the small space was almost full and mostly with Japanese drinkers though there were a few Westerners too. In appearance it has managed to create a fair impression of a UK pub (we were chuffed to see old pictures of Northumberland on the walls) and they have also replicated the custom of ordering and paying for your drinks at the bar. But it was very odd to be greeted at the door, after descending the short flight of steps to the basement, and seated as if we were in a restaurant – ‘Table for two? Over here please’!

Once settled at our table (which we were lucky to get) we found that there was a decent selection of drinks including some British ales, naturally, but also local ones. Chris had a Kirin while I was persuaded by the pub’s Jack Daniels promotion to try a cocktail based on their Tennessee Honey whiskey which was rather nice. We also shared a bowl of mixed nuts and rather enjoyed our experience of a Japanese take on a British night out!

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Japanese take on a British pub

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In the pub - note the Alnwick Castle poster!

Posted by ToonSarah 04:45 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes mountains night trains tokyo castles food streets architecture japan temple hotel restaurants pubs city shrine national_park matsumoto customs kamikochi Comments (4)

Magnificent!

Japan day fifteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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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

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Train to Shimo Imaichi

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.

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From the train to Nikko

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

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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.

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Two views of our room

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.

Lunchtime

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.

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Dumplings cooking

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The finished dumplings

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Cute table decor

Fortified, we set off to explore the nearby Kanmangafuchi Abyss.

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.

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Kanmangafuchi Abyss

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.

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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

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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!

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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.

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The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

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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.

Reihi-Kaku

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.

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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

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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.

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Jizō-Do

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.

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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.

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Stone cup

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

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Cosy interior, Bell Coffeehouse

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Soba and yuba at 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.

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Shrimp and yuba gratin

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 …

Posted by ToonSarah 08:13 Archived in Japan Tagged landscapes waterfalls food water monument japan culture temple statue hotel restaurants shrine customs Comments (2)

The wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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At Toshogu Shrine - monk and novice

As always, we slept comfortably on our futons at the Turtle Inn Annexe. Breakfast was included in our stay here, and we enjoyed coffee, fruit, an egg, and toast (including a delicious raisin bread) in the cosy dining area – simple but adequate.

We then set out to explore the main sights of Nikko, walking from the ryokan the 15 minutes or so on what was a grey but (for now) a thankfully dry day. Before entering the shrines we detoured to the nearby Shinkyo Bridge.

Shinkyo Bridge

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Shinkyo Bridge

This distinctive red bridge is something of a symbol for Nikko. It belongs to the Futarasan Shrine (not, as may seem more likely, the slightly nearer Tosho-gu) and is the oldest bridge built over a gorge in Japan. It dates originally (in this form) from 1636. In 1902, during restoration works it was destroyed by the river and it was reconstructed in 1904. The most recent restoration was in 2005.

It is 28 metres long and 7.4 metres wide and spans the river at a height of 10.6 metres above the water. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural property in December 1999.

This was the first bridge to be built over the Daiya river in Nikko, and its construction is linked to an interesting legend:

It is said that around the year 766, the Priest Shodo Shonin together with ten disciples tried to cross the Daiya river, at the place where today this bridge stands. They were unable to cross the river because of the strong currents, so the priest fell on his knees and prayed. Suddenly, the God of the River, Jinja-Daio appeared before him and said that he would help him to cross. The god released two snakes over the river, one red and one blue; their bodies transformed into a bridge and sedge sprouted on their back, allowing the party to cross. After they had crossed the river they looked back; Jinja-daiou and the bridge had already disappeared.

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Shinkyo Bridge

That’s why when it was rebuilt in the form we know today, during the time of Empress Meishō, it was considered sacred, and ordinary people were allowed only to look at the bridge, but had to cross the river on a different one nearby. Only the Empress, a few generals and Imperial messengers were allowed to use Shinko. This interdiction remained in place until modern times when, 40 years ago, the bridge was transformed into an open-air museum. And now everyone can cross it, for a fee of 500¥.

We didn’t do this ourselves but watched as a succession of proud Japanese tourists (some of them in traditional costume) solemnly strolled from the town end of the bridge to the shrine end, paused to pose for photos, and then strolled back again. You see, while you can nowadays walk across the bridge, you can’t actually use it as a means of crossing the river because the far end is closed (I assume to ensure that everyone pays their 500¥). So to cross the river you do still need to do as ordinary people did for centuries and use the parallel bridge that now carries the road traffic too.

Toshogu Shrine

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By the entrance to Toshogu


There is one sight that every visitor to Nikko comes to see, and that is the Toshogu Shrine. And rightly so. This flamboyantly ornamented, intricately carved, riotously coloured collection of buildings will blow your mind!

The shrine is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was Ieyasu who established Tokyo as the seat of government of a (more or less) unified Japan. A perhaps surprising choice for deification, he was brutal and bloodthirsty in pursuit of power; even members of his own family died at his hands. It was he too who established the trade monopolies that resulted in the almost total isolation of Japan from the rest of the world for over two centuries.

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Stone lantern

Ieyasu had expressed the wish to be deified after his death in order to protect his descendants from evil. He died in 1616 and his remains were originally buried at the Gongens' mausoleum at Kunōzan, but a year later were reburied here at Tosho-gu. It was his grandson Iemitsu who, in 1834, ordered the construction of the complex of 55 buildings we see today in order to fulfil Ieyasu’s dying wish:
‘Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan.’

He chose Nikko because of its location north of Edo. The north was considered the taboo direction, inhabited by demons. By placing himself there, Ieyasu hoped to protect Japan from evil and ensure long life for the Tokugawa government and eternal peace for the nation.

Whether these 55 buildings can be considered a ‘small shrine’ is another matter! It took 15,000 workers to build them, but they did so in an impressive one year, five months! The shrine complex was registered as a World Heritage site in December 1999, and most of the individual buildings are designated as either ‘an Important Cultural Property’ or ‘a National Treasure’ by the Japanese government. Almost all are covered with an explosion of colour and every surface is carved – there are 5,173 carvings in total!

As we approached the shrine we saw a small procession. I have no idea of the purpose of this – there must have been a special event happening somewhere, but we never saw anything more of it.

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Procession at Toshogu Shrine

Also near here is a dragon fountain with a wonderfully expressive dragon!

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Dragon fountain, Toshogu

One thing to be prepared for when visiting Toshogu is the sheer number of other people doing the same! We arrived here first thing in the morning, hoping to beat the crowds who make the day trip from Tokyo, but already there were some bus trips there and by 10.00 AM it was heaving.

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Crowds at Toshogu

This is not to say you shouldn't go – it is magnificent and a ‘must see’ if in this part of Japan (and indeed worth journeying to from any other part of the country). But it's helpful to be prepared mentally for the crowds you will encounter; to accept that you will have to wait to enter the inner shrine and other significant buildings; to recognise that other people will get into your photos, tread on your toes and probably push past you in their eagerness to see certain things. Accept all that, wait your turn patiently, and you will be rewarded.

Toshogu Shrine: Ishidorii

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Approaching the shrine -
not too crowded, yet!

You enter the complex through a massive torii gate, Ishidorii. This pre-dates Toshogu, having been dedicated in 1618 by Kuroda Nagamasa, the feudal lord of Kyushu Chikuzen (nowadays Fukuoka Prefecture).

The torii is made out of 15 blocks of stone, instead of wood, which is more usually used for torii. This stone was transported by ship from Kyushu to Koyama and then manually hauled overland to Nikko. The cross rails are hollow to minimise their weight and help withstand the impact of earthquakes. Despite this, an earthquake in 1949 caused a joint of the crossbars to slip widely, but it was shifted back to its original position by an aftershock. The inscription at the top reads: ‘Tosho-daigongen’ (‘Divine designation of Ieyasu Tokugawa’).

The stone steps leading up to the Ishidorii are cunningly designed. Although there are only ten of them, an impressive false perspective effect is created by the fact that the staircase narrows toward the top, and the height of the steps also decreases as they ascend. Despite the fact that the Tokugawa Shogunate had officially closed its doors to the rest of the world, in practice they had some secret channels that were used to bring in information and ideas from other countries. This included importing the concept of perspective from European art, and the designer Kobori Enshu put this to good use here at Toshogu – not only in the design of these steps but also on the path between the big cedar trees. In the past, the further you went the shorter the cedars were cut, creating the impression of a long, narrow path.

Toshogu Shrine: the Five-storied Pagoda

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Five-storied Pagoda

Inside the Ishidorii the first building we came to, on the left, was the Five-storied Pagoda or Gojunoto. This is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government of Japan. The Gojunoto Pagoda was dedicated in 1648 by Sakai Tadakatsu, the feudal lord of Obama in Wakasa Province (present day Fukui Prefecture). But the one that stands here today was built in 1818 to replace that earlier one which was destroyed by fire in 1815.

The pagoda stands 35 metres high. It is carefully constructed to withstand earthquakes and strong winds. It has no internal floors and a central column is suspended by a chain from the fourth storey to support the ones below. This doesn’t rest on any foundations but instead is free to sway, thus functioning as a dynamic counterweight and also allowing for the wood to shrink or expand.

The pagoda’s five stories, from top to bottom, represent sky, fire, earth, water and wind, as well as the five Buddhas of wisdom. It is decorated with the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac on the first storey. You can go inside on payment of a small additional fee, but we opted not to, wanting to press on and see the main shrine complex before it got too crowded.

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Pagoda details

Beyond the pagoda you come to the ticket office, and to the official entrance to the shrine, the Omotemon Gate. We bought our tickets which, when we visited in October 2013, cost 1,300¥. I had seen references to a combination ticket for this and the other shrines but at the time of our visit that was suspended as the various sites hadn’t been able to agree a price. I’d also read that there was a supplementary payment to see some parts of Toshogu (such as Ieyasu’s mausoleum and the famous ‘sleeping cat’) but our tickets covered the whole complex.

Toshogu Shrine: Omotemon

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Omotemon - one of the guardian deities

This is the first of a series of impressive gates that mark the route through the Toshogu complex to its most sacred spots. It is also known as Niomon, a reference to the two guardian deity statues, Deva Kings, positioned on the left and right – Nioh means a guardian of Buddha. These were removed to the Taiyuin Mausoleum (part of Rinnoji Temple) by order of the Meiji government. At this time the gate took the name of Omotemon, meaning simply ‘front gate’. The Nioh, which are each four metres tall, were restored to their positions here in 1897 but the newer name stuck, for the most part.

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Omotemon - gilded elephant

On the far (inner) side of the gate the equivalent niches are occupied by statues – a lion and a kirin (a mythological creature, usually paired with the lion), while golden elephant-like creatures adorn the passage-way on that side. There are many other animal carvings too, including giraffes, tigers and leopards. The whole is a riot of colour and a wonderful foretaste of what is to come.

Proceeding through the gate (where our tickets were checked) we arrived in an open area with a number of buildings around the perimeter.

Toshogu Shrine: Sanjinko

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Shimojinko, the Lower Sacred Storehouse

Three of the buildings in the open area beyond the Omotemon are known as the Sanjinko or Three Sacred Storehouses. To our right was Shimojinko (Lower Sacred Storehouse), in front of us Nakajinko (Middle Sacred Storehouse) and to the left of that Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Storehouse). These are used to store the various harnesses and 1,200 costumes used in the Procession of a Thousand Samurai (Sennin Musha Gyoretsu), held each year in May and October. They also store the equipment for Yabusame contests (archery on horseback) which take place at the same time. The Sanjinko are open for viewing for one week each before the Spring and Autumn Festivals – I think we had unfortunately just missed the latter.

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Kamijinko

All three storehouses are designated Important Cultural Properties and all are ornately carved, but the most striking and consequently most photographed is Kamijinko. Large carvings of elephant adorn its gable. They are known as the ‘Imaginary Elephants’ because the artist, Kano Tanyu, would never have seen the real thing. He drew them from his imagination having heard accounts and descriptions, and really didn’t do a bad job under those circumstances – just think how hard it would be to conceive of an animal that looked like an elephant if you had never come across any, or any picture of one! OK the ears and tails are weird, but apart from that it’s pretty close.

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'Imaginary elephant', Kamijinko

Facing the middle and upper storehouses across this space is one of the best known of Toshogu’s 55 buildings, the Sacred Stable.

Toshogu Shrine: Shinkyu

In contrast to the other buildings in this part of the complex, such as the storehouses described in my previous tip, the Shinkyu or Sacred Stable is relatively plain – probably the least adorned building in Tosho-gu. Yet it contains its most famous single carving, that of the Three Wise Monkeys:
‘See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’.

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Sansaru: the three monkeys

In fact, there is a frieze of eight monkey carvings. This frieze is known as a Sansaru and its panels function something like a picture book, telling the story of a monkey’s upbringing and way of life. Other images show scenes such as a mother caring for a youngster; a young monkey on his own, newly independent; a pair of monkeys; and a pregnant monkey. But everyone wants to see and to photograph this one, and you will have to wait your turn. Remember my warning about the crowds that flock to Toshogu? Well, most of them are here to see this!

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Sacred horse

The monkey has been treated as a guardian of horses since early times and at one time there would have been a monkey actually kept in the stable. Today there is no live monkey, but the stable is home to two sacred white horses. Or rather, a temporary home, as the horses live ‘off site’ and merely visit each day, for two and a half hours, taking it in turns to serve the shrine in this way. We were here as one arrived so had a good chance to take photos before he settled into the stable for the day.

Different horses have served the shrine over the years but they must always be white. A notice outside the stable explained more about the current horses and their role:

‘Toshogu Shrine owns two sacred horses. One is ‘Kotuku’ meaning ‘White Heron’ in the New Zealand native Maori language. He is the third sacred horse donated by the New Zealand Government as a token of goodwill and friendship between the two countries. He is the only horse donated from overseas serving at a shrine in Japan at present.

The other horse is ‘Fukuisami’, meaning ‘good luck and bravery’ in Japanese. He is the second sacred horse donated by the Japanese Racing Association to the Toshogu Shrine.

Each of these sacred horses takes turns serving the Shrine in this sacred stable for only two and a half hours a day. They spend the rest of the time, attended by a dedicated stablemaster and master horseman, at a nearby modern stable which is attached to an outdoor practice ground.’

Toshogu Shrine: Omizuya

Beyond the Shinkyu we came to the Omizuya or Cistern / Water Purification Building (‘mizu’ means water). Here the faithful purify the body and mind by washing their hands and rinsing out their mouth before worshiping the enshrined deity. The basin was dedicated in 1618 by Nabeshima Katsushige, feudal lord of Kyushu-Saga. It has been maintained in its original form without alteration since its construction in 1636 except for a few small structural changes.

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Omizuya

Today, there is an Omizuya, or Chozuya as they are also known, in most of the shrines in Japan. But originally worshippers would simply wash their hands and mouths in a natural river or spring. The Omizuya here at Toshogu was the first to be built specifically as the place of purification for worshippers. The significant techniques introduced for the first time in its construction include the installation of an aqueduct from the water source near the Takino-o-jinja to its water basin. In addition, a siphon mechanism was implemented as part of the water-supply system, which was an innovative approach at that time in Japan. Today however the water is supplied through contemporary metal piping.

The basin is 1.2 metres wide, 2.6 metres deep, and 1 metre high. The ornate roof is decorated with sculptures of flying dragons. The dragon has wings to control the water. The roof is shaped like waves, echoing the water below. You can see from the richness of the ornamentation that it has fairly recently been restored. This was part of a 15 year project undertaken by a Mr. Yoshihara Hokusai, who rediscovered the ancient Kano school technique of Mitsuda-e, a paint mixing and application technique resistant to UV light and water, which had been lost in the Meiji era. Unfortunately Mr. Hokusai died in 1988 having failed to teach his 35-step process using 7 colours to any apprentice, though he did teach craftsmen how to apply the paint.

Toshogu Shrine: Kyozo

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Kyozo

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Kyozo details

One more building stands in this vicinity. The Kyozo or Rinzo is a revolving library holding 7,000 sutra or sacred texts. Revolving sutra libraries were invented in China and were later brought to Japan. They offer several advantages. Firstly, they allow priests and monks to select the required more quickly. Secondly, the act of walking around or turning something is important in Buddhism because the wheel is the international sign of that faith. And finally, it was believed that simply by rotating the shelves around the central pillar the faithful would benefit from the learning contained in the texts of the sutras without actually reading them. Unfortunately we found that it isn’t possible to go inside this kyozo to see the mechanism or the sutras.

Toshogu Shrine: Yomeimon

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Crowds at Toshogu, with the Karadō-torii in the background

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The shrouded Yomeimon

After exploring the various buildings that lie just beyond the Omotemon, among increasing crowds (the day-trippers from Tokyo had clearly started to arrive), we proceeded through the Karadō-torii, the first bronze torii in Japan, to what many consider to be Toshogu’s greatest glory, Yomeimon.

The flamboyantly carved, riotously coloured Yomeimon is also known as Higurashino-mon, ‘the gate, where people spend all day long to look’, or the ‘Gate of the Setting Sun’ because one could gaze upon it all day and never tire. Unfortunately for us, when we visited (October 2013) there was very little to look at, as Yomeimon was under restoration, and under wraps. Its more than 500 carvings of animals (real and mythical), people (children playing, sages and wise men), flowers and leaves were all hidden from our view, and we certainly had no reason to spend all day looking at it, even if we had had the time to do so!

This also of course meant I could take no photos of the carvings, but a quick image search online will show you, as it has me, what we missed out on.

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The Kairo

Either side of Yomeimon is the Kairo or corridor, which extends to the right and left. It is decorated with flower and bird carvings that are considered among the best in Japan. All the carvings are single-panel openwork painted in vivid colours.

Toshogu Shrine: Shinyosha

Once I had seen my fill of the Kairo we passed quickly through shrouded Yomeimon to reach the upper level of the complex and one of my favourite buildings here, the Shinyosha. I liked it, I think, because of its more intimate scale and its exquisite animal carvings.

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Shinyosha details

Known in English as the Portable Shrine House, and designated an Important Cultural Property, the Shinyosha houses the three portable shrines used in the Sacred Processions which take place in the spring and autumn (May 18th and October 17th).

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Portable shrine

These shrines are also sometimes called sacred sedan chairs, because it is believed the deified spirits ride in them. The spirit of Ieyasu rides in the central shrine. It carries the crest of the Tokugawa family which you see all over Toshogu (either side at the top). This is known as Mitsuba-aoi (three hollyhocks in a circle). The right hand shrine is for the spirit of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, while the left hand one is for Yoritomo Minamotono.

Each shrine weighs 800 kilograms and is carried in the procession by 55 people. In the past they weighed much more – 1120 kilos – but this became too much for people to carry. The old shrines are displayed in the Treasure House of Toshogu Shrine which we didn’t manage to fit into our itinerary (it lies just outside the complex and a small additional fee is payable if you’d like to visit).

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Roof of Shinyosha with outer wall beyond

Toshogu Shrine: Karamon

There was one more gate for us to pass through before reaching the inner shrine, and thankfully this one, the Karamon or Chinese Gate, was fully visible.

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Karamon

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Above the gate

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Pillar detail

In contrast to the flamboyant colours of most of Toshogu’s carvings, this is predominately, and exquisitely, finished in white and gold. On either side are pillars painted with dragons and above the gate are 27 figures – characters from the Chinese legend ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’. The man in the centre, sitting on the chair, is the Emperor Shun. The crane logo once used by Japan Airlines was derived from one of the carvings on this gate. It also features over 400 carvings of small flowers.

Above the portal are two bronze figures known as tsutsuga, a mystical animal that protects all buildings. The tsutsuga is a ferocious creature, much stronger than a tiger. His legs are fastened with gold rings to prevent him escaping and thus withdrawing his protection from the shrine.

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Tsutsuga, Karamon

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Karamon detail

The Karamon may be small compared with Toshogu’s other gates (just three metres wide and two metres deep) but it is perhaps the most important, leading as it does to the inner shrine. During the Edo period, only feudal lords and aristocrats were admitted through it to worship at the shrine, and even today, only guests of the nation can enter during important festivals. The rest of us must go in by an entrance on the right-hand side of it to visit the Honsha or inner shrine.

Toshogu Shrine: Honsha

The main shrine or Honsha is not one but a connected series of buildings. It is permitted to enter these, but not through the Karamon. Instead there is an area on the right where you remove your shoes and place them in a cubby hole before proceeding to follow the line of worshippers and visitors down five copper steps and into a small chamber, the Ishinoma or Stone Passageway. This connects the Honden (main hall of the shrine) with the Haiden (place of prayer). Today its floor is covered with tatami but in the past it was stone, hence the name. This space is important because it links the world of the gods (in the Honden) and the human world (the Haiden).

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Entrance to the Honsha

From here you are directed by the attendant nuns or monks up a further five copper steps to enter the main hall or Honden. This is considered the most sacred place in Toshogu. It consists of three rooms: the Gejin (outer room), the Naijin (inner room) and the Nainaijin (inner room of the Naijin, therefore the innermost room). The divine spirit of Ieyasu is enshrined in the Nainaijin in the golden shrine Gokuden. This building is said to be a perfect realisation of the Gongen-zukuri style of Japanese religious architecture. (Gongen=incarnation, Zukuri=construction). Built in 1636, it has not undergone any alteration apart from the replacement of the roofing materials in 1654 and of the stone foundations of the Honden in 1690. Of course, photography is not allowed inside so you must be content, as I was, with a few shots taken from outside.

Toshogu Shrine: Nemuri-Neko

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The sleeping cat

To the east of the Honsha is the Kuguri-mon, the entrance to the inner shrine or Okumiya. And above this entrance is the second of Toshogu’s famous little carvings, although unlike the Three Wise Monkeys this one, the sleeping cat or Nemuri Neko, is perhaps mostly famous only in Japan rather than worldwide. Attributed to Hidari Jingorou, this carving of a cat dozing while surrounded by peonies is supposed to be a personification of peace – peace for Ieyasu and for the nation. On the far side of the panel are carved a couple of sparrows (sorry, I forgot to get a photo of these) and the fact that they play so happily and so close to the sleeping cat is seen as a sign that Japan is at peace. Also, the cat is bathed in sunlight which is said to be a depiction of Nikko (nikko means sunlight in Japanese).

Next we walked under the sleeping cat, being careful not to disturb him, to visit the inner shrine.

Toshogu Shrine: Ieyasu's tomb

At the Kuguri-mon (the gate with the sleeping cat) our tickets were checked again, but there is no additional charge to visit Ieyasu's tomb – unless you count the penance of climbing the 200 stone steps to be a charge! These ascend through the forest (so there would be plenty of shade on a hot day, I imagine) to a small complex of structures that surround the actual burial place of the Shogun. At its heart is the small pagoda-like tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa. You pass through a torii gate guarded by two bronze Komainu (dog and lion-like creatures) and circle the tomb.

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Torii guarding Ieyasu's tomb

At one side is a sacred cedar tree, Kano Sugi, which has stood here protecting the shrine area for many years. It is said that if you pray facing a hole in its trunk your prayers will be answered, and a small stall sells Kano Suze, small bell-like charms in the shape of a cedar seed.

The tomb itself, Okusha-houtou, is of bronze – a replacement for an earlier stone one that was damaged by earthquake in 1683 (and which itself replaced the original wooden structure). Ieyasu’s coffin is within, but while he is buried here his deified spirit resides in the inner sanctuary of the main shrine below, in the golden shrine Gokuden in the Nainaijin or innermost room of the Honden.

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Ieyasu's tomb

In front of the tomb are a vase, incense burner and candlestick in shape of a crane, gifts of Korea. The atmosphere is more restrained and more tranquil than in the main shrine far below. Here among the trees you understand that Ieyasu Tokugawa’s wish for a ‘small shrine’ has indeed been fulfilled, and his grandson’s exuberant designs have not intruded totally on his longed-for peace.

Descending from here we stopped for a rest and a hot coffee from a vending machine in a small shelter (one of the few places on the site where eating and drinking are permitted) before taking a few final photos and then bidding farewell to Toshogu.

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Young tourists at Toshogu

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Novice nun

Many of the day trippers only have time to visit Toshogu, which is so huge that it can easily occupy the best part of their limited time in Nikko, but starting early meant that we left here by late morning, with plenty of time to take in some more of Nikko’s sights.

But as this entry is already very long I will save what we did during the rest of this busy day for my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 05:57 Archived in Japan Tagged bridges shrines nikko architecture japan temple tomb toshogu Comments (8)

More wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen continued


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Futarasan

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Torii gate at entrance to Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone, leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

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Futarasan

Several local families with small children, some of them dressed up in traditional costume, were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself and one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name the first and most prominent of these.

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Torii gate at Futarasan

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Futarasan

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Nun at Futarasan

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Carving detail, Futarasan

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Torii gate detail, Futurasan

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Entrance to paid area

You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there was a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display.

There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee.

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Portable shrine

Modern Buddha statue

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Stone lanterns at Futarasan

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path between here and Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents and stopping at intervals for more photos, both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman nearby during one of these sessions, who I think may have been a family member, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

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With the proud parents

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated, and each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains.

It seems that this family must have one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven year old was very solemn, like a little lady – clearly after two previous such celebrations she must have considered herself an old hand and responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

Lunch time

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Kishino

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My soup at Kishino

At the far end of this path the rickshaw turned back to Futarasan and we turned our attention to lunch. After a long morning exploring Toshogu and Futarasan we were ready for something to eat, and in the grey and chilly weather, preferably something warming. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance to Toshogu that had looked promising so we headed over there to explore.

Kishino is part gift shop, part restaurant. You enter the latter through the former, so it was a good job they had those signs outside or we would never have realised we could eat here! It’s not very big and we were lucky to get one of only two free tables. We were promptly brought glasses of water and an English language menu which included various noodle dishes and a few other options. From this Chris chose the curry rice while I opted for soba noodles with yuba – the local delicacy made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. The yuba in my photo is the coiled omelette-looking stuff floating on the top of the soup.

The dishes were nothing special but they were filling and warming on a chilly day. The service was brisk, understandably since they want to turn tables in such a popular location, but friendly, and we were able to use the spotless toilets here too.

Fortified, we were ready to carry on to our final sight in this part of town, Rinnoji.

Rinnoji Temple

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Protective structure at Rinnoji Temple

It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh.

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Model Sanbutsu on display at Rinnoji Temple

In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

We were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) the one below which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or ‘Kannon with a horse’s head’ (so I probably should not have photographed it!).

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Bato Kannon(?) at Rinnoji Temple

As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

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View of Nikko from the top of Rinnoji Temple

There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (‘short excursion around the pond’). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too, but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

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In the grounds of Rinnoji Temple

Exploring the town

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Statue near the Shinkyo Bridge

After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town. As we started to walk along the main street of the town we were in search of somewhere we could get a drink and a short rest after climbing the ten storeys of the Rinnoji restoration structure. We found what we wanted at Hippari Dako, a tiny place on the west side of the main street at the Shinkyo Bridge end. There are only three tables inside and a fairly limited menu (in English at least) but that wasn’t a problem for us as we only wanted a drink. I had an orange juice, Chris a coffee, and both were fine.

The most distinctive feature of Hippari Dako is its décor. The interior walls are covered with business cards, notes from happy customers, photos, banknotes etc etc. I added a VT card with my details to their collection! The owner was very happy for us to take photos of all of this, but declined Chris’s request to be in a photo herself.

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In Hippari Dako

Refreshed, we wandered on down the main street. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

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Shops in Nikko

Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

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Above a door

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Shop keeper

After enjoying all the shops etc along the street we reached the bottom, by Tobu Nikko Station. We went inside to make some enquiries at the ticket office. Our return ticket to Tokyo tomorrow specified an afternoon train. But we saw that bad weather (worse than today’s occasional drizzle) was forecast and thought that it would be better to spend our last day in Japan in the city, where there were more options for indoor activities, than here in Nikko. So we enquired in the ticket office about taking a morning train instead, and were able to change our tickets and seat reservations without any problem – apparently you are allowed one free alteration, which is very helpful.

We then continued on to see Nikko’s other station.

JR Nikko Station

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JR Station, Nikko

Which station you arrive at in Nikko depends on the route you take from Tokyo. We had travelled yesterday from Shinjuku to Tobu Nikko Station, but other routes bring you to the other one, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station.

In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here. But this station doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful ‘guest room’ used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside of the station, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

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Nikkoji beer

Heading back up the main street we stopped for an early evening drink in the Little Wing café and were pleased to find that they served the local pilsner style beer, Nikkoji, as we'd been keen to try it. We found it pleasant enough though not really any different to other Japanese lagers, all of which are very palatable but unremarkable. It was maybe a little less fizzy than some of the others however, so depending on how you like your lager (personally I like a bit of a head) you may want to give this a try. The ones we tried were bottled and I’ve read that the draught is better so that’s something to look out for. You should also look out for the same brewery’s Premium Ale as I’ve read good reviews of that (it wasn’t available in the Little Wing), and I gather that they also sometimes have seasonal brews, such as dark, amber and special ales.

We had a very pleasant half hour or so here, enjoying the beer and a chat with a local guy at the next table, who had lived and worked for some years in California and thus spoke very good English. He was killing time over a coffee while waiting to pick his son up from football practice and was glad of the chance to refresh his English skills in a conversation with us.

But after a while we decided to move on in search of dinner as I’d read that restaurants in Nikko close early, as they cater mainly to the day trippers I assume. This is very true, and we were lucky to find a meal!

Kanaya Hotel Restaurant

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In the Kanaya Hotel

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Carving detail, Kanaya Hotel

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Crab croquettes

The guidebook I was using said that this restaurant was open till 20.00, unlike many in town, so we headed there for an early (for us) dinner at about 18.30, only to be told on arrival that they were about to close. I asked the waitress if she knew of any other restaurant nearby that would still be open, explaining that we were hungry and wanted dinner. She immediately offered to let us eat there after all! But perhaps for this reason, the service was probably the speediest we have ever experienced, with the waitress positively scurrying to take our order and bring us our drinks and food.

We had a table to one side of the attractive old room, which is ornamented with colourful woodcarvings, although the old world atmosphere is somewhat marred by the harsh fluorescent lighting. The menus we were given were in English and offered a choice of set dinners, with the cuisine a blend of Japanese and Western. I had the crab croquettes in a tomato sauce with rice, Chris had the hamburger in ‘Japanese style’ (which proved to be with grated radish on top). The croquettes were quite tasty and Chris’s burger was OK too. The set meal price included a cup of soup (quite nice, with strips of yuba) and a small salad, and we also had a large beer each. But we didn’t try our waitress’s good nature or patience by attempting to order dessert, so after paying the bill we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe, as Nikko had clearly shut down for the night (at about 19.30).

There we made sure of another session in the lovely onsen, listening to the river flow past outside – a great way to relax after a very busy day of sightseeing in Nikko.

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Shinkyo Bridge at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:06 Archived in Japan Tagged people children food nikko architecture beer japan culture temple shopping restaurants shrine customs Comments (6)

Coming full circle

Japan day seventeen


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Trains at Tobu Nikko Station

We were up quite early to enjoy another simple breakfast at the Turtle Inn Annexe. We then finished packing our small bags (having left most of our luggage in storage at the Ibis Hotel in Shinjuku) and our hostess kindly called a taxi for our drive to the Tobu Nikko Station.

We got to the station early so had plenty of time to shop for the obligatory bento boxes for the journey. Then I started to think about a missed opportunity from the previous day. As I mentioned, I was quite taken with several of the items we saw for sale in various shops in Nikko, as the quality of the workmanship here seemed high, but we already had several souvenirs by this point (a secret box from Hakone, a sake dish from Kyoto, our lovely wood-block painting from Takayama so I was persuaded yesterday not to buy anything else. One item though had stuck with me, and it was my turn to do the persuading, convincing Chris that it would be light and easy to carry and was easily worth the price asked.

So I left him guarding our luggage and walked up the main street to one of the shops we had visited the previous afternoon.

Nikkobori

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My souvenir of Nikko

In a small shop on Nikko's main street a local woodcarver makes and sells his beautiful work - small bowls, hand mirrors, boxes and larger items, all carved with intricate flowers and stained red with a dye made from cashew nuts. This style of carving, known as Nikkobori, is typical of the Nikko region, employing a unique v-shaped gouge known as a hikkake (meaning ‘scratcher’). This was originally developed during the restoration of Toshogu Shrine, as the triangular shape of the end made it the ideal tool for scraping off the difficult to remove varnish. Later, at the end of the Edo period, this tool began to be used in carving, using it to gouge out the design by pulling towards the carver. You can see being used in this YouTube video I found. Another characteristic of Nikko carving is the use of plant life as the main theme, influenced by the carvings at Toshogu - tree peony, chrysanthemum, Japanese apricot and cherry trees are all common.

I had fallen for one of the shallow bowls, which cost me 4,000¥. Each one is unique so that isn't a bad price at all, and the items are all so light and easy to carry (and of course, as this is Japan, beautifully wrapped on purchase) that they make great souvenirs of your trip or gifts for someone back home. This one was very definitely a souvenir for me (it still sits on a table in our front room). I only wished, however, that I had taken my camera when I went back to buy it (I’d left my heavy bag with Chris, taking only my purse), as I would have loved to have captured a picture of the artist at work and of some at least of the many other beautiful items he has created.

Returning to the station in good time for the train I rejoined Chris for the ride back to Tokyo. As on the outward journey we travelled via Shimo Imaichi to Shinjuku. There we headed for the Ibis to check in and retrieve the luggage we had stored.

Exploring Shinjuku

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Street art in the Shinjuku skyscraper district

The bad weather that had been forecast had arrived, with driving rain and strong winds. but we were determined not to waste the last afternoon of our trip to Japan. So we grabbed our umbrellas and ventured out of the hotel to see more of Shinjuku. The area to the west of its massive station (the busiest in the world!) consists mainly of skyscrapers, some of them very distinctive in design – I loved the so-called Cocoon Tower! But in the pouring rain it was hard to get decent photos.

Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

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Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

At the western edge of Shinjuku’s skyscraper district is this, its tallest. Indeed, when it was built in 1991 it was the tallest in the city, an honour it held until 2006 when it was overtaken by the Midtown Tower. It was designed by architect Kenzo Tange and intended to resemble a computer chip (no, I can’t see it myself!), while the twin towers are said also to echo the design of a Gothic cathedral. It is 48 stories high with three further levels below ground, and splits into its two towers at the 33rd storey height. Both towers have an observatory on their 45th floor which is open to the public and free of charge.

On a good day you can see Mount Fuji from here; on a bad day you can’t see much further than the next skyscraper. Unfortunately this was a very bad day! Of course we knew how bad the weather was before ascending and had no illusions that we might get much of a view, but it was free and promised time in the warm and dry, so we headed up. I had reckoned on poor visibility but, rather stupidly, had not considered that the glass windows would also be streaming with rain, which made it even worse. So – no great photos even of the surrounding streets, but it was fun to be so high for a while and peer down at the traffic (light as it was a Sunday), although frustrating to be told by informative plaques at every window about the great sights we weren’t seeing!

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Looking down from the Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building

Sompo Japan Museum of Art

As well as checking out the architecture in this part of the city, we visited the small but interesting Sompo Japan Museum of Art which as well as showcasing the work of Japanese Cubist-influenced artist Seiji Togo, has several notable Impressionist works including Van Gogh’s Sunflowers (bought at the height of the 1980s bubble economy by the insurance company which owns the building for a then unprecedented five billion yen) and others by Gauguin and Cezanne. It’s not a large collection by any means, but a visit here is worthwhile if you are interested in art of this period, and especially in poor weather.

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Umbrella lockers at the Sompo Japan Museum of Art

On our way back to the hotel my umbrella finally gave up its fight with the wind (we learned the next day that we were on the edge of a typhoon). But there was a trusty Lawsons nearby, the chain we had come to love when staying in Hakone, and they had the ubiquitous Japanese style of large transparent umbrella for sale, which coped much better with these conditions than my flimsy telescopic one brought from home.

Our last evening in Japan

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In 82 Ale House again

We decided that given the weather we would eat in the hotel restaurant that evening (an OK pasta dish, salad and garlic bread) but the rained eased a bit later so we went back to the nearby pub we had spent an enjoyable hour or so in a few evenings previously, the 82 Ale House. It was a Sunday evening and the place was as busy as before but luckily not totally packed, and again we were welcomed and shown to a table.

I had developed a taste for Japanese whisky so sampled two of the four on the menu, deciding that the Yoichi was my preferred one. Chris again had local beer (Kirin) and we had a lovely last evening in Japan in this cosy spot.

Postscript

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The Cocoon

Of course the next day was fine and bright, just as we had to leave! To return to Narita Airport for our flight home we travelled not on the subway but using the so-called Friendly Airport Limousine service, which was more convenient leaving from Shinjuku. I say ‘so-called’ not because it isn't friendly but because it isn't really a limousine but merely a bus. However, it is a good and useful service nevertheless - and probably far far cheaper than any limousine would be!

We had pre-booked the bus we wanted a couple of days beforehand, on arriving back in Tokyo from Nikko. It's always best to do this to be sure of a seat, although as it happened when we arrived at the stop early we were able to get on the bus before the one we'd booked.

The buses run very frequently throughout the day and the journey is advertised as taking 90 minutes although we did it in about 75 (and that in the morning rush hour). We were dropped off right in front of the main entrance to departures, so it couldn't have been more convenient. And as a bonus, we got some great views of Tokyo on the first part of the ride as the route follows an elevated stretch of road that loops around some of the high-rise business districts. I was glad I had my camera at the ready to capture a few last shots of this amazing country.

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Seen from the bus to the airport

Posted by ToonSarah 11:42 Archived in Japan Tagged art buildings tokyo rain architecture japan pubs city weather street_art skyscrapers crafts Comments (6)

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