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A river runs through it

Japan day eleven


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Heron by the Miyagawa

Takayama is a mountain town, and the river that runs through it, the Miyagawa, is a clear mountain one. Trout and carp flourish here, ducks bob on the water, and we also saw a heron waiting patiently for the chance to catch a fish, no doubt. The heron, because of its habit of staying motionless like this, is regarded as a symbol of Buddhist meditation, so how special and appropriate it was to see one so clearly in what was one of my favourite Japanese places.

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Children feeding the fish and ducks

Morning market

As well as being a pleasant place to walk at any time of day, the river bank is the location for one of Takayama’s famous morning markets. After breakfast at our hotel (which offered a choice of Japanese or Western style – we copped out and opted for Western, having had very traditional Japanese ones the previous two mornings in Kyoto) we joined Andrew and some others from the group for a visit to the market.

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Stallholder at the market

There are in fact two markets held every morning in Takayama – the one we went is held on the banks of the Miyagawa in the old town. I have seen this reviewed as a ‘tourist trap’ but I have to disagree. Yes, tourists come, but it was also clear to me that locals were here too, shopping for (mostly) fruit and vegetables and enjoying a gossip with friends whom they met along the way. I loved our time here!

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Candle-maker

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Stall-holders

I always enjoy visiting a good colourful market anywhere I travel, as it is usually a great place to take photos and mix with the local people. This one was especially enjoyable because of the Japanese willingness to be photographed. I took so many photos of characterful faces, interesting food products and local crafts – several that I took here were among the best of the whole trip, I felt.

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Produce on sale

Of course, being a market, it’s also good place to shop! I bought some delicious sesame crunch sweets at one stall which modestly advertised its wares as being nothing much to look at but worth tasting with a sign that read:
‘Also the wife, the husband and confectionery which are NOT chosen by appearance.’

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Sign at a sweet stall

This is also a great place for snacking. Lots of the stalls sell little treats such as soy bean dumplings and sweets of all kinds. There’s a tea stall if you need warming up on what might be a chilly morning (remember, this is a mountain town) and the local Hida apples are huge and justifiably famous for their flavour.

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A bite to eat

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Tea stall

The morning market is a long-held tradition here, and there has been one on this spot for sixty years, although records show that the morning market was originally held close to the Takayama Betsuin Shourenji temple and started in the Edo Period. At its peak it is said to have had over 300 stalls but today it is usually between 50 and 70 – still plenty to keep any visitor interested.

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Calligraphy

After spending some time in the market Chris and I met up again with some of our group and Andrew proposed a visit to a nearby museum, dedicated to Takayama’s Festival Floats.

Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

Takayama is famous throughout Japan for its two annual festivals, in the spring and autumn, known as matsuri – the first celebrating the planting season, and the second the harvest. Unfortunately we missed the harvest matsuri by just a day (accounting in part for the large crowds milling around the old town on the day of our arrival) but at least we were able to get a good sense of what is involved by visiting this excellent museum.

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Main exhibit hall, Matsuri Yatai Kaikan

The focal point of both festivals is a parade of richly decorated floats known as yatai, 23 in total (12 for the spring festival, 11 for the autumn), some of which are 500 years old. Each is the responsibility, and pride, of one of the city’s communities. Originally they would have been carried on many shoulders, but today they have wheels. Nevertheless, manoeuvring these tall, unwieldy floats through Takayama’s narrow streets must be quite a challenge. On the first evening of the festival, they are illuminated with hundreds of paper lanterns and are hauled through the town by ropes, accompanied by wailing flutes and thundering drums. For the remainder of the festival they stand proudly at their allotted spot, attended by costumed locals.

For the rest of the year the yatai are kept hidden away, each in its own tall storehouse in the old town, and we saw several of these while walking around today. They are very tall, narrow and plain, and painted white in contrast to the dark wood of the old houses that surround them. Only during the four days of festival (two in the spring, two in the autumn) are the yatai wheeled out to be paraded around the town and exhibited in all their glory. If the festival is hit by bad weather they will remain in these storehouses instead, but with the large doors flung open so all can see them. At any other time visitors must be content with examining the photo that is displayed outside alongside some information about the float within.

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Yatai storehouse on the banks of the Miyagawa

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Another storehouse

But a few yatai are exhibited here in the Yatai Kaikan, on a rotating basis. The museum consists mainly of a single large hall, big enough to take these impressive constructions. They are displayed with mannequins modelling the various historical costumes worn in the parades etc., and a walkway winds round the central area, ascending gently, so that by the time you are on the fourth side you are almost level with the top of the floats. Which ones you will see depends on the cycle of rotation, but I believe the oldest one, which still has the old yokes (rather than wheels) and is no longer used, remains here all the time. All are beautifully carved, painted and lacquered. Many carry karakuri ningyo, mechanical dolls that can move and dance – more about those later in this entry.

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Float detail

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Float details

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A karakuri ningyo on a float

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Historical costume

A small room off this walkway is marked as a study room; I was glad I bothered to check this out as it shows an interesting ten minute video on a loop that gives a good idea of how the floats look in action at the festivals. If ever I get to come back to Takayama I will try very hard to ensure my visit coincides with one of these.

Sakurayama Nikko Kan

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Model of Toshugo at Sakurayama Nikko Kan

The admission fee to the Yatai Kaikan museum also includes the smaller one next door, Sakurayama-Nikko-kan, which holds a model of a World Heritage Site, the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko. It may seem odd (well, it did to me!) that one city should devote a museum to the wonders of another fairly distant city, but the reason became clear later when I read that this exhibit is both demonstration of, and tribute to, the wood-working skills of Takayama's craftsmen, who are famed throughout Japan for their carpentry. These 28 models of temple buildings contain 100,000 individual miniature pieces and took 33 sculptors 15 years to complete. What an achievement!

As you stroll around and peer at the 1/10 scale models the light in the hall will dim and you get to see how Toshogu looks by night as well as by day. As we were to visit Nikko later in our trip we didn’t spend as long here as we might otherwise have done, but the detail on the carvings is exquisite and you could be here for an hour or more and still be marvelling at the workmanship.

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Model of the temple buildings by day ...

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... and by night

Once we had seen all we wanted to here, we said goodbye to the rest of the group, who were going to the Hida Folk Museum. I would have liked to have seen this too, but we had decided it was more of a priority for us to see more of this lovely small city. So we set off to explore further by ourselves, and our next destination was a nearby shrine.

Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Sakurayama Hachimangu

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Lion dog

This Shinto shrine is in a lovely setting on the northern edge of the town, just beyond the Yatai Kaikan. It is the focal point for Takayama’s autumn festival. There are thousands of these Hachiman Shrines in Japan; they are dedicated to Hachiman, the kami (god or spirit) of war, who used to be popular among the leading military clans of the past. The origins of this particular shrine date back to the time of the Emperor Nintoku (313-399) who sent Prince Takefurukuma-no-mikoto to subjugate the monster Sukuna, a beast with two heads, four arms and four legs. Before undertaking this task, the warrior enshrined his father, the Emperor Ohjin, as the deity of this shrine and prayed for the success of his mission.

The shrine was enlarged in 1683 and established as the official protective shrine of the town. It has a pair of stone Komainu or ‘lion dogs’ guarding the entrance to the inner shrine, a large purification trough with dragons’ head fountains, a pool with large carp and a number of smaller buildings dotted around the grounds either side of the shrine. Among these (on the left as you face the main shrine) is an auxiliary shrine, an Inari Shrine, dedicated to the kami of the harvest and of industry. This shrine is guarded by a pair of foxes, regarded as the messengers of this god.

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Dragon fountain

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Inari Shrine, and prayers for good fortune

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Fox guarding the Inari Shrine

While we were here we were fortunate to witness a local celebration. On arrival we found the steps up to the shrine blocked by a family posing for formal photos. We stopped to see what was happening and a passing guide escorting another couple around (local and with excellent English) kindly stopped to explain to us that it is traditional here in Takayama to bring your new-born baby to this shrine to be blessed around the 40th day after the birth. This first visit to a shrine is known as Hatsu Miyamairi or more commonly Omiyamairi. In the past, this would be scheduled very precisely, and according to the baby’s gender, e.g. 31 days old for a baby boy and 32 days for a baby girl. The exact timing depends on the region – here in Takayama our informant indicated that 40 days is traditional. But nowadays it has become a common practice for babies (regardless of gender) to have their Omiyamairi at any time between 30 to 100 days after their birth. Many parents choose to go after their baby’s first month health check, and it may also depend on the availability of a priest and of family members.

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Family group at Sakurayama Hachimangu
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A baby's blessing

Traditionally, the mother and grandmother wear formal kimono, and their babies will be adorned in colourful robes or wraps. But the family we saw were in smart Western-style clothing. The purpose of the Omiyamairi is to show gratitude to the gods for the safe delivery and ask the local deity of the shrine to bless the baby, purify him/her and to accept the baby as part of the local worshipping community. The baby is introduced to the local deity by calling out his/her name and birth information, and the god is asked to purify, protect and bless the baby with happiness and health. No photos can be taken during the ceremony itself, but afterwards of course the proud new parents like to pose before the shrine with their offspring and other relatives, just as we saw here. To me it was very reminiscent of wedding photography, with the photographer arranging different combinations of the party in turn – the parents and baby, all the women, the whole group and so on. It was a lovely thing to witness and added to our appreciation of the shrine and its pretty setting.

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Torii gate at Sakuramaya Hachimangu

After taking our own photos and exploring the various buildings here we were in need of refreshment. As we strolled south from the shrine we kept our eyes open for somewhere we might find something to tempt us, and when we spotted a café in a traditional old building on Shimo-Ninomachi advertising cappuccinos, we knew we had found our place!

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Exterior of the café

Stepping inside we found ourselves in a fascinating old building with antiques and knickknacks around the walls and a few large wooden tables. We sat at one end of one of these and were handed menus by the friendly lady who was serving but explained we would just like coffees – a cappuccino for Chris and a mocha for me. She passed our order to the man making the drinks and we waited a while, thinking that he seemed to be taking extra care over them. When Chris’s, the first to arrive, was brought we saw why – an image of two little bears carefully ‘drawn’ in the foam. My mocha was equally decorative but very different, with lovely feathering. A Canadian guy sitting at the same table heard our exclamations and came over to look. When he saw the designs he asked permission to take a photo (of course we were already snapping away!) and explained that a friend of his, a professional photographer, was working on a book of ‘coffee art’ and would be jealous that he had come across such great examples! Oh, and fortunately the coffee was as good as it looked, and we thoroughly enjoyed our drinks.

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Cappuccino

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Mocha

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The 'artist' at work

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Inside the café, with our Canadian companion

Once we had finished our coffee and our chat, we were ready to carry on sightseeing.

Shishi-Kaikan: the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall

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Sign in the Shishi-Kaikan

As the name suggests, the Lion Dance Ceremony Exhibition Hall has a collection of artefacts related to the famous lion dance performed at Japanese festivals. There are over 200 lion masks, as well as Edo-Period screens, ceramics, scrolls, coins, samurai armour, and swords. But although interesting, it was not these that had drawn us here, but the regular (every half hour) 15 minute demonstrations of the karakuri (automated dolls) which decorate many of the floats in Takayama's spring and autumn festivals.

We arrived just as one of these demonstrations was starting and were hurried inside to take our seats so we didn’t miss anything. Several karakuri ningyo, to give them their full name, were put through their paces as a woman gave explanations, a small part of which she translated into English (but enough only to give us a fairly vague idea of what was happening and how).

These karakuri ningyo are often described as the ancestors of Japanese robot technology. But their main purpose was not to show off technological possibilities but to conceal them and to create a sense of wonder and magic. The word karakuri means a ‘mechanical device to tease, trick, or take a person by surprise’. The aim in creating them was that the doll should be as lifelike as possible and not look like the machine it was.

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Dashi karakuri

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Another dashi karakuri, and the tea-serving doll

There are several types of karakuri. Most of those demonstrated here are dashi karakuri, which is the name given to those used on festival floats to re-enact scenes from plays, usually myths and legends. But we also saw a typical zashiki karakuri – the type of karakuri developed for amusement at home, a luxury item in the Edo period in Japan. One of the most popular of these, and the type that we saw, was the tea-serving doll. Like most of the dashi karakuri, it works by clockwork. When a cup is placed in its hands the robot moves forwards; when the cup is lifted it stops; and when the cup is again placed in its hands it turns and goes back where it started. You can imagine what a novelty that would have been in a rich Edo household – and indeed what a novelty it seemed to us! We also saw one that could write which went down especially well with the children in the audience, one of whom was given the finished paper.

If I’ve got you intrigued by these devices, there’s an excellent website about them, Karakuri Info, which is worth digging around in. Once we’d watched the demonstration we walked around the rest of the exhibits. There was no restriction on photography so as well as taking some photos of the karakuri and lion masks I was also able to make a short video of a couple of the former in action during the demonstration.

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Lion masks

By now it was lunch time and we retraced our steps towards a restaurant we had spotted earlier. Rakuda proved to be a great lunch stop. We loved the quirky decor which had rather a kitsch feel, with old 1970s posters and an odd assortment of objects displayed (which continued into the toilet, by the way – do check it out if you come here!) The music played was mostly from the same era, so it’s evidently a passion of the owners. The service was friendly and there was a helpful English-language menu.

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In Rakuda

I had a really tasty sandwich - thick slices of toast with an omelette filling, loads of vegetables (courgette, tomatoes, edame beans, aubergine etc.) and salad in a delicious dressing. Chris had the white pizza which had a very thin base (more like a quesadilla) but a delicious topping of two types of cheese with walnuts. Our drinks were equally as good – mine a home-made ginger ale and Chris's a soda with fresh fruits. And the prices were low - my huge sandwich was just 600¥ and our total bill not much over 2,000¥. What’s not to like?!!

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Rakuda exterior, and soda with fresh fruit

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My sandwich

Refreshed and very happy with our lunch break we headed to our next sight.

Yoshijima-ke

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In Yoshijima-ke

During the Edo period Takayama was largely a merchant, rather than a samurai, town, and its architecture reflects that fact. The streets of the old town are lined with houses of a style that accommodated both family and business life, and on Ninomachi in the northern part of the town are two of the finest examples, side by side, and both open to the public. The northernmost is Yoshijima-ke, built in 1907 to be both home and factory for the Yoshijima family, well-to-do brewers of sake. It is considered one of finest examples of rural Japanese buildings, and I absolutely loved it! The light inside was beautiful, and the contrast of the heavy dark beams, the lighter lacquered wood used for door frames, pillars etc., and the translucent paper screens was captivating – I couldn’t stop taking photos!

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In Yoshijima-ke

The house has two floors and two inner gardens which some of the rooms overlook. We paid 500¥ for admission and were given a small information leaflet (available in English). We were then free to wander at will, having of course removed our shoes before stepping on to the tatami matting that covers the floor of all the more formal rooms. There is minimal decoration, apart from some beautiful screens, carved wood panels and a few paintings by Japanese artist Shinoda Toko. The beauty is all in the arrangement of the spaces and the contrast of light and dark.

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In Yoshijima-ke

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If you’re interested there’s a plan of the house on this website about Oriental architecture, and also lots of photos, which together give a really comprehensive feel for this lovely building.

The sign outside had a lovely quotation which I think could apply to any old and well-loved home:
‘The completion of the house was only the beginning of its beautiful history. The activity inside the house brought it to life and added to the finishing touches. I think that this kind of beauty could only be created and ensue because of the loving hearts that supported it and lived in it. This struck when gazing through the high window on a moonlit night as white clouds drifted by.’
Teiji Ito (architectural historian)

After spending some time here, we moved to the house next door.

Kusakabe mingei-kan

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Daidokoro with irori, Kusakabe mingei-kan

This house belonged to the Kusakabe family, successful Takayama merchants who thrived in the late Edo and early Meiji periods. It was built in 1879 to replace an earlier home and business lost in a fire. It is generally more solid feeling than the neighbouring Yoshijima house, with darker wood. I have seen this described as the more masculine house and Yoshijima as more feminine, which sort of makes sense when you see them.

Like Yoshijima, this is a two storey structure. Its foot-square cypress timbers are as perfectly fitted as cabinet work, as might be expected from builders of this Hida region (famous throughout the country for their skills in woodwork and carpentry). Its most noticeable feature is perhaps the fireplace – a sunken hearth made of iron known as an irori and above it a huge adjustable hook for hanging a pot or kettle, known as a jizai-kagi. This is the heart of the daidokoro or family room, a large room but one which is even taller than it is wide.

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The jizai-kagi

Unlike Yoshijima, the Kusakabe house is furnished with some antiques – dark wood cabinets, low tables, a few ornaments. And in its storerooms (on the upper floor and to the rear of the building) are various exhibits of household items (cabinets, pots etc) that would have been traded by this merchant family.

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An inner garden

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Silk kimono on display

As with the Yoshijima, there’s a plan of the house on the Oriental architecture website, and again lots of photos. The official website also has some good photos and an interesting detailed history of the house.

Admission here too was 500¥. This included a cup of green tea and rice cake which was served in the rear courtyard between house and warehouse.

Tatami

As we left I spotted a tatami mat workshop on the opposite side of the road. I had already become intrigued with the tatami mats I had encountered on our travels in Japan, so I wandered over to check it out. Unfortunately there was no one here actually making the mats, but nevertheless it was interesting to see the weaving frames and tools used for this process.

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Tatami in the making

Tatami is the traditional Japanese floor covering and its distinctive appearance, texture and scent will linger long in my memories of the country. The scent in particular, because when you sleep in a tatami room you do so on futons, lying very close to the floor and fall asleep with that straw smell as a perfumed ‘lullaby’.

Tatami is still used a lot in Japan, and not only in traditional houses, as many modern homes and flats have at least one tatami-floored traditional room. The tatami mats are always made in standard sizes, which varies a bit with the region, but is usually around 1.80 metres long by 90 centimetres wide, and always with a ratio of 2:1. Because of this, rooms in Japan are also made in standard sizes and are measured and described as multiples of tatami mats (for example, a tea room is often 4½ mats and a shop usually 5½ mats).

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Tools of the tatami-making trade

Traditional tatami mats are made with an inner core of rice straw and a covering of woven rushes, bound at the edges with decorative cloth or brocade. The covering is known as the tatami omote; it is made of a soft reed and each mat needs about 4,000 to 5,000 rushes, which are woven together with hemp or cotton string. To make the tatami goto, as the straw core is known, 40 centimetres of straw is crushed to just five centimetres deep. Finally the edging or tatami beri is bound over the long edges.

There are some rules (this is Japan, there are always rules!) about the most auspicious arrangement for tatami mats. You will never see a room with tatami arranged in a simple grid pattern; the borders should not create a cross shape, because that would mean that you had joined four mats in that spot and the number four is considered unlucky in Japan because it is pronounced like the word used for death: shi. It is also considered unlucky to step on the cloth-bound border of a tatami mat, although avoiding them is easier said than done and I’m sure I stepped on many during our stay!

We strolled along the nearby streets some more and found ourselves back near the small gallery we had visited the previous day. Somehow we found ourselves popping back in for another look at that limited edition woodblock print, and before we knew it, we had bought it! We took the risk of buying it framed as the price was reasonable compared with what we would have paid to have it framed back home and, luckily, we liked the simple frame. The picture, by an artist called Ken Mozumi, cost us 13,700¥ or about £80 ($130) which for such a lovely and relatively unique souvenir seemed well worth paying. It is now hanging in our hall to be admired daily and remind us of our holiday.

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In the gallery

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Our print

After buying this this we headed back to the hotel with our purchase, to freshen up for dinner.

Center4 Hamburgers

Chris and I had both loved the Hida beef that Andrew had introduced us to on the previous evening, so we decided to try one of the other restaurants he recommended here in Takayama, a place known as Center4 Hamburgers. It sounded like a great place to get a change from Japanese food while still making the most of the high quality local ingredients.

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Center4 Hamburgers

The restaurant is run by a local couple who are clearly enamoured of all things American, as the burgers are served to a background of Johnny Cash music and many of the antiques that spill into the restaurant from the shop in front of it are from the US (though many others are from countries all over the world, as well as from Japan itself). There are just a handful of tables but on the week night we visited there was never more than one other table occupied – surprising perhaps when you consider its reputation.

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In Center4 Hamburgers

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Antiques spill into the restaurant

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My Hida beef burger

Less surprising is the menu, which is dominated by burgers, though there are a few other options. The Hida beef burger comes unadorned, as is only right given the quality of the meat, but you can also get burgers made with regular beef and with all the usual toppings such as cheese, bacon, chilli, egg. You pay considerably more for the Hida beef burger of course, though that does include fries and a tasty salsa. I know the salsa is tasty because I chose to splash out on that dish, and I was so pleased I did – it was amazing, and well worth the extra cost. Chris wanted blue cheese on his burger however so opted for the regular beef, but that too was pretty great. We accompanied our burgers with a large draft beer each (Kirin Ichiban) and had a second beer each afterwards as we were enjoying the atmosphere too much to want to hurry away.

We left eventually of course, and had a pleasant walk back through Takayama’s quiet night time streets, stopping off at the convenience store next to the hotel for some sake to enjoy as a night cap in our room, as the hotel’s bar seemed to be permanently closed. A very nice way to end what had been far too brief a stay in this charming town.

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Old town at night

Posted by ToonSarah 03:58 Archived in Japan Tagged art food architecture japan culture temple history market shopping restaurants houses museum shrine customs takayama street_photography 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)

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)

Glamping in Rajasthan

India day eight


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Thar Desert stay

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Desert sunset

Rajasthan is in part a desert state, and a visit here, for a desert lover such as myself, would not be complete without spending a night in one of its desert camps. It was this that brought us to Dechu. The Thar Desert is the 17th largest in the world and home to 40% of Rajasthan’s people who for the most part eke out a living growing what crops they can in its arid soil or raising livestock. But in recent years eco-tourism has brought a much welcome boost to the region, and we were here to help!

We left our lovely Jaisalmer hotel, Fort Rajwanda, after breakfast and set off through the desert, at first retracing our steps eastwards from a few days previously but then branching off to the south towards Dechu. The drive took only three hours, mostly across flat scrubby desert.

Along the way we enjoyed seeing our first mongoose on the road, while I failed to photograph successfully, and a large herd of camels, some 400 strong, by which Mehar stopped for photos. One of the herders explained that one camel had fractured a leg and they were trying to separate it from the rest. This was a great photo opportunity and I also managed to shoot a video of the herd – I found their constant movement rather mesmerising.

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Another sight, well-spotted by Mehar, was a small antelope, I believe a Chinkara, resting under a bush in a lentil field. According to Wikipedia around 80,000 of India’s population of 100,000 of these live in the Thar Desert so it was perhaps not surprising that we saw several while there.

Near Dechu the scenery got more varied, with sand dunes dotted with stunted trees either side of the road. About seven kilometres beyond the town we turned off the road into Samsara Resort.

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Chinkara

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Scenery near Dechu

We didn't stay at Samara Resort itself but at the Desert Camp about eight kilometres away. However we arrived here around midday and were given the use of a room and the run of the facilities until our transfer to the camp some four hours later (in October when we visited it is far too hot in the desert during the middle part of the day so guests only spend the evening, night and first part of the morning at the camp).

The room we were given was really lovely (we dubbed it "the nicest room we never stayed in"!) and we enjoyed a good lunch in the restaurant and a few pleasant hours swimming in, and relaxing by, the pool. I am pretty sure this would be a great place to stay if you'd like to sleep in a proper bedroom and see the desert on excursions rather than spend a night in a tent, however luxurious.

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The nicest room we never stayed in, and hotel pool

But that was not for us – we were headed for a night under canvas …

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Our stay at the desert camp was one of the highlights of our trip to India. The whole experience was wonderful, starting with our late afternoon jeep transfer to the camp from the resort, which, although a distance of just eight kilometres as the crow flies, is lengthened into a mini safari through the surrounding countryside. The return journey the next morning was to take just 15 minutes, but this outward ride was more like 90.

Our luggage was transferred separately (the next morning it was to travel with us) and we had the jeep to ourselves. After a short ride along the main road we turned off on to a sandy track that wound among some scattered houses. We passed the government-run school and the all-important water tank. We made a wide loop through this area, at one point spotting some more Indian antelopes, Chinkara, like the one we had seen earlier on our journey to Dechu.

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Chinkara antelopes

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The grandmother

We stopped at one house to visit a local family. Obviously this was a bit set-up compared to the visit we had made with Mehar a few days previously (see my earlier blog entry), but it was nevertheless interesting and the family were very welcoming. Mum and Dad were away working in the fields, so we met the grandmother and children. All were very happy to pose for photos. Unlike that previous visit with Mehar, we were able to go inside the various buildings which included a kitchen, living/sleeping house and storage room.

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Family possessions

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With our hostess and her oldest grandchild

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The home

Leaving the village area we returned to the main road, only to leave it again after just a short distance. Now we were among the dunes proper, although in this desert you find scrubby growth on the dunes rather than the empty wide sweep of sand you see elsewhere. Our driver took us on a roundabout route that involved at least three very steep descents – the sort where you get something of the sensation of being on a roller coaster (although much more fun to my mind). We stopped for photos at the top of one dune, and at another the guide got out and borrowed my camera to take pictures of our descent from below – although I was surprised when I looked at the photos later to see that the steepness wasn’t that apparent. Much more effective was my own photo taken looking down on him just as we started down from the top of the dune.

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Jeep ride in the dunes

Eventually we topped one particular dune to find ourselves looking down on the camp. We dropped down into it and pulled up at the edge of the circle of tents.

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Samsara Desert Camp, late afternoon

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We were greeted with the news that our luggage was already in our tent, number three, and our camel was waiting for us, ready for the next part of the experience as soon as we had freshened up. So we hurried to our tent to leave our day bags, taking only our cameras with us on the next experience, a camel ride on the dunes. We have ridden camels in the past and it is something I always enjoy (although after an unfortunate encounter in Uzbekistan, which I will no doubt share here some time in the future, Chris is slightly less enthusiastic!)

On this occasion, we both rode on the same camel. I was up front and could hold on to part of the harness, but Chris, behind, had only me to clutch. If I had fallen, so would he! This was quite a short ride compared to the one we had in the Uzbek desert – just up and over the nearest dune, a short stop for photos and then up to the highest point from where we would be able to watch the sunset.

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Our camel gets a well-deserved rest, after carrying us both up the dunes!

Desert sunset

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We arrived by camel at the top of the dunes, to find that the camp staff had set out some cushions to sit on and laid on a musician playing the traditional Rajasthani double flutes. A few other tourists from the camp were already here, having come by jeep. There were drinks available (tea, coffee and water at no charge, plus soft and alcoholic drinks to buy). It was all very low-key – we all stood around or sat and listened to the music, drinking a beer or a G&T and chatting, as the sun got lower over the dunes.

It was quite hazy, so the sky was pretty rather than dramatic, but the photo opportunities were greatly enhanced when a local happened to drive his flock of sheep along the ridge of the dune right in front of the setting sun. The sand kicked up by their hooves filtered the rays and created a timeless scene that made a pleasant experience into a totally memorable one.

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Was it serendipity that brought him here at this moment? Does the camp choose this spot because the locals also come here – or even, dare I say it, encourage him to do so to enhance our experience? Those thoughts occurred to me, but no, I think we were probably just lucky as, since neither shepherd nor hotel staff looked for a tip there would have been nothing for them to gain by arranging the scene.

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After he moved on there was time to take a few more photos of the post-sunset sky, and now our camel took centre stage in the photos.

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Dancer

Then it was back to the camp, this time by jeep, to settle into our tent before the evening’s cultural performance and dinner.

Evening in the camp

In the hour before dinner traditional musicians played in an area of the camp set aside for these performances. There was cushioned seating for the audience, drinks could be purchased and the first course of dinner was served, consisting of stuffed potato chunks, chicken tikka and vegetable patties. While we had seen similar shows in several hotels already (and were to see several more before the end of our trip, this was probably the most accomplished of those we saw, with the quality of the dancing especially notable. These dances are traditional among the Thar Desert tribes as are the elaborate costumes worn by both men and women. I hope you enjoy my little video of the performance.

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Musicians and dancer

Cultural performance

Our evening meal started with small appetisers handed round as we sat listening to the music - chicken tikka, stuffed potatoes and vegetable patties, and we ordered beers to wash these down. We then went up the slope, lit by hurricane lamps, to the dining tent where like all the other guests we chose to eat outside on the terrace. The meal was a buffet with lots of choice, and I found some dishes nicer than others (a potato curry and another with cauliflower among them). You pay for any drinks but otherwise all is included. When we had finished our meal we sat out on the terrace a little longer, enjoying the desert air and a final beer.

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Our tent at night

Desert sunrise

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We slept very well in our “luxury” tent, which was both gorgeous and comfortable. It had twin beds inside, with a properly plumbed en-suite with large walk-in shower behind, and a terrace with loungers in front. The tents are set in a circle nestled under a large dune, with another dune opposite. Part way up this one is the dining tent where both dinner and breakfast are served, and at the foot of this dune is a circular area where the evening entertainment takes place.

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The camp at dawn

The next morning we woke early to the sound of the camp coming to life. Some of the staff were walking around collecting the lanterns that had been hung in the bushes and outside each tent the previous evening, while others were up at the dining tent on the opposite dune, starting to prepare breakfast. When we emerged from our tent we found we were the only guests to have done so, somewhat to our surprise. Yes, it was still early, but it’s not every day you get to enjoy watching the sunrise in the desert. Armed with our cameras we climbed up the steep dune on the far side of the camp and were there in time to see the sun rise over the tents circled below us. Well worth the effort of getting up and clambering up the dune!

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Desert sunrise

By the way, when I first went out that morning I did so with bare feet and really enjoyed the sensation of the cool morning sand between my toes. But it’s not a good idea to walk around like that on the dunes as there are some very prickly burrs that attach themselves to shoes and socks and would certainly be painful if they were to attach themselves to you!

Once the sun was up it was time to descend for breakfast, which was a good one, with eggs cooked to order and other items, including fresh fruit, pastries and toast, served at the buffet. The musician who had played the previous evening when we watched the sun set from the dunes also played during breakfast which was lovely.

Music at breakfast

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Farewell to the camp

All too soon though we were leaving the camp behind us, very pleased to have had this chance to experience a taste of the Thar Desert and a stay so different from those that made up the bulk of our tour.

If you get the chance to do this I totally recommend it as it really shows you another side to Rajasthan. Yes, it is all laid on for tourists and is somewhat artificial, but at the same time you are out in the desert and getting closer to a harsh but beautiful environment that is home to many local people. And of course the camp also brings employment and a much-needed source of income to some of those people. I was pleased to learn, for example, that the guide who accompanied us on the jeep safari and looked after us during our stay was from a village just a few miles away.

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Our jeep driver

We met up with Mehar back at the Samsara resort. It was time to head further south ...

Posted by ToonSarah 21:53 Archived in India Tagged desert culture india music camp camel rajasthan Comments (14)

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