Who the hell needs earmuffs in Okinawa? If you ask me, the winter clothing line sold by Uniqlo in Okinawa is quite ridiculous. I can only image that the reasons compelling someone to purchase thermal underpants here would be for the same reasons I found myself in the aisles of this discount clothing store. I was preparing for a short visit to Nikko, in mainland Japan, where it could potentially be snowing and was definitely going to be colder to what I was used to living on a tropical island. I don’t do cold. Earmuffs in the shopping cart.
As soon as I landed in Narita I made the long train ride to Asakusa station where I picked up a Tobu Nikko four day pass at the visitors centre. This pass allows for unlimited travel on the local buses of Nikko and Kinugawa, as well as securing a return ticket from Tokyo to Nikko at a discounted price. I watched the lady prepare my documents in true Japanese fashion. She counted the brochures and tickets before lightly tapping them on the table to make sure they were correctly aligned before handing them to me. She doubled checked my change and handed it back bowing. Then she gently opened the train time table and circled the next departing train; “the next train leaves in two minutes and the next one will be in two hours”. Jesus Christ dude! Is this a game to you?!? I flew up the stairs in a mad rush in complete contrast to her poised and calm transaction. Maybe I shouldn’t have spent two minutes trying to take a photo in gloves at the intersection. I dropped my phone twice.
The sun set at 4.30 so I arrived in Nikko in the dark. I called my accommodation to ask for directions and the owner of the lodge said he would come pick me up and that he would be wearing sunglasses- a wonderful thing to wear when driving at night. My host arrived a few minutes later. He asked if he should drop me at an onsen or if we should go to the super market and buy ingredients for sukiyaki that he would make. I opted for sukiyaki, because that definitely beat my prior plan of finding the closest Family Mart. A word of warning to those travelling to Nikko in the winter months- nothing stays open late.
Whatever you like!
The next morning I did what I can only do when I’m travelling. I woke up really early. I took out my map and traced out a walking route. Even though I had an unlimited bus pass, most of Nikko’s attractions are accessible on foot and I can’t think of a better way to see a town than by walking it. Plus I get fidgety waiting at bus stops because I have no patience. Unlike Okinawa, Nikko is not plagued my the garish souvenir shops and their pushy salesmen so I was able to walk through the town peacefully. I reached the iconic Shinkyo bridge early in the morning. This bridge is famous because it was only available for the Imperial court to use. However on my visit, the only person to be seen on the bridge was a lone janitor. Also, for 300yen, you too can also stand on a bridge.
The red bridge
Some of the sights were undergoing repair so I skipped Rinnoji temple completely and made my way to Toshugu Shrine, the resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, which also was undergoing some maintenance. Admittedly, I was not too disappointed in missing out on some attractions because I’ve seen plenty of shrines in Japan and after a while they get boring (real talk). However as I entered the Toshugu, my heart panged because I realised that this shrine was actually kind of cool. I shouldn’t have doubted the sensationalist travel guides. One part of the shrine was covered in tarp but the rest was quite spectacular.
I was one of the first visitors to the shrine but as I left I noticed that a crowd had gathered to take photos of the famous “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys. Their enthusiasm was only surpassed by the small crowd of women who had lined up to take a zoomed in shot of the sleeping cat motif carved in the upper east wing of the Shrine. Admittedly I was too impatient to wait for the girls to disperse and try to take a snap of the cat for myself. I see plenty of sleeping cats in Okinawa. I did take a picture of the monkeys because I knew someone back home would ask for proof of my journey.
One of thousands of photos that exist of these monkeys
As I made my way down from the Toshugu I went in search of lunch to refuel. An anman from the convenience store for breakfast can only get you so far. Nikko’s local delicacy is yuba. You can find it all over the joint. It’s tofu skin so it has a very similar texture and taste to inari. I found a small soba shop to order some yuba udon. While I waited I took out my map to locate my next destination, the neglected Takino shrine, which I had heard about from hiking blogs. I notice that in Japan, places are generally famous for being famous. Although Toshugu is undoubtedly deserving of its reputation, I can’t quite understand why so many other great places are over looked.
Very hot yuba udon
As I started walking to Takino I noticed something sticking out of the trees in my peripheral vision. The blogs had mentioned little stations to see along the way and I wondered if this was one of them so I jumped off the path and got a little dirty trying stomping around in the leaves to get a closer look. As I jumped up and down (I am very short) trying to find a point of entry to whatever I was looking at, I noticed that a moss covered Buddha was sitting guardian to two pillars in a small opening. Unfortunately my Japanese is not good enough for me to have figured out exactly what it was in front of me, but the sight got me excited for my little walk up the mountain.
Looking very calm
On the way were more moss covered Shrines and Buddhas. Again I wondered why everyone else was back at Toshogu taking pictures of the cat when they could be walking along the same path as I. However, I didn’t complain because it felt like I was on a private adventure and the complete lack of people made it feel like I was the first one to ever look at this neglected shrines. Time to live out the my tomb raider fantasy. I had time to try and land some stones on the top of Tori gates without being watched and failed miserably each time. I also decided to set myself a task of finding my new laptop background for the year because that is what millennials do when travelling. A particular favourite shot was of the small forms of Buddha standing beneath a cutout in the mountain. If you didn’t explore the Shrine they were hidden behind properly, you would miss them.
Well suited to their surroundings
When I finally made it to Takino, I again was surprised that no one else was walking about. I took out my map and saw that I had actually walked a significant distance away from the centre of town and that Takino was free of the markings and symbols that designated other Shrines as places of interest. I was even more surprised that it was quite a large Shrine with a few different sections to walk through. After some enthusiastic photo taking seeing as I had the place all to myself, I decided to set of for my final destination of Kanmangafuchi abyss before it got too dark. Tip- the sun sets early in winter so you need to start the day early.
A hidden gem
I’m not particularly interested in royal family life. However the Tamozawa Imperial Villa was on route to the abyss so I thought I might as well pop in. It was worth the extra time for a curious brain. I remember one of the displays explaining how the different linings of tatami mats would mark the importance of the room and its inhabitant. The gaudy western carpets on the floor looked out of place in contrast to the Japanese woodwork as did the pool table in the entertainment room. I imaged bored members of the royal party sitting on the chairs pretending to be entertained. I also felt a little superior when I discovered that the Emperors room did not have an adjoining toilet so he would have to walk down the stairs to go pee. My apartment might be small but I only have to walk a few metres to go to the bathroom. One of the guards enthusiastically told me that this building has the largest roof in Japan so I stuck my head out the window and confirmed that it was indeed a wide roof.
I can imagine ninja spies on these quite easily
Finally I set out for Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This was the reason I had chosen to visit Nikko. Lining the abyss is a number of old Jizo statues facing the river. There is something about Jizo that I like. I think its because I like the way he is depicted as a calm smiling man with his eyes closed. It also helps that he is the guardian of travelers and children too. I also like how people stack pile rocks in front of him. This is because of the belief that in purgatory people are forced to stack rocks beside the river of souls. Children who die before their parents are banished to purgatory as punishment for the grief that they inflict upon their parents. So they too are forced to pile stones before Jizo hides them in his cloak and helps them cross the river. People pile stones in front of Jizo to help lighten the burden of children who have not yet escaped purgatory. It is an interesting manifestation of Japanese spirituality.
Jizo watching over the river
The search for the entrance of the Kanmangafuchi abyss took me through some housing streets and I took some time to soak in how ‘Japanese’ everything looked. This didn’t look like my neighborhood. I live in one of the areas that was heavily raided during World War Two so whatever buildings used to exist in my area were certainly destroyed. The result is an urban sprawl with architecture with very little nod to the past. I could hear the river as I approached and since I was quite excited I walked faster until the smiling Jizo statues were in sight. Maybe I thought I would miss out if I didn’t hurry. Apparently there used to be 100 Jizo, but the raging river managed to wash some away so there are now about 70 which you are supposed to count them as you walk along and then again as you walk back. The local legend is that a cheeky Jizo will sneak into your count total as you walk back, or that the Jizo statues will rearrange their order as you have your back turned.
The rapids of the river
As I walked along I tried to fulfill another little tradition and find a Jizo that looked like me. I reasoned that I would never look like a smiling bald man so I just posed next to a random Jizo, which I was later told did in fact resemble me. Maybe I should have closed my eyes.
Are we twins?
I left the abyss and headed back to the lodge. I went to the outdoor onsen as recommended by my host and as I sat in the water I made a mental note to pick up a Jizo statue before I left Nikko. I think I will start to collect Jizo statues when I find them; he must get to some nice places being the protector of travelers.