Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Nikko Sightseeing (part 2)

The post on Nikko was becoming too long, so I am breaking it up into two parts: Japanese Immersion and Nikko Sightseeing. Also check out the post on Edo Wonderland (which used to be called Edo Village), as that, too, is in Nikko.

The day started at 5 AM when we woke up way too early to catch a train to Tokyo Station (the busiest station in the world), to then catch another train to go to the other side of Tokyo (Shinjuko Station, near our Tokyo hotel), to then catch a 2 hour train north to Nikko. Nikko is a small town in Japan that is steeped in history dating back over 1200 years ago. Even as a history major, I just can't fathom history dating back to 9th century.

Masumi’s friend Tom met us at the train station with a mini-van. Masumi and her friend, Hiroko, met up with us in Tokyo. Either this station, or the other one, was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915. Neither one seemed to be what I consider his style.

Our first stop was the Tosho-Gu Shrine. Masumi arranged for us to have a very special tour of the place. Unfortunately for us, it was all in Japanese. We were taken to parts of the shrine that are normally closed to the public. The shrine’s two claims to fame is an image of the three monkeys (speak no evil, see no evil, hear no evil) and an image of a sleeping cat. The importance of the sleeping cat is that normally cats are depicted as hunters, but this shrine is so peaceful that the cat can rest. The images of the cat and the monkeys are on tourist trinkets throughout the town. The biggest building on the property (there are over 50) was almost done being renovated. There were other buildings about to be renovated in anticipation of the shrine’s 400th anniversary in 2017. The difference is stunning.

This shrine is also famous for the famed "sugi-namiki," Japanese cedar avenue leading up to it. Wishing we'd brought our guidebook along for the tour.


The tour led us to a special room where we participated in a Buddhist ceremony of some kind. Ashley was chosen to help lead it. Masumi helped her. Other than saying we bowed twice, clapped twice and bowed again, I don’t really know what was taking place since it was all in Japanese. From a visual perspective, it reminded me of a Catholic mass with the priest spreading incense, only in this case it was a paper hanging shaken over us. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take pictures in this room.

Almost in tandem to our tour was a group of American high school students. We tried to eavesdrop on their tour in order to learn more. Masumi tried hard to translate for us, but the tour guide had a very soft voice and didn’t pause to let Masumi translate. There were tons of grade school children on field trips. They were much better behaved than American kids would be on a similar trip, but they were still noisy.

Another highlight of this shrine is a 5-story pagoda. Yes, there are lots of pagodas in Japan. What makes this one unique is that it has a pillar suspended in the center that nearly reaches the top, but not quite. This makes it strong enough to withstand earthquakes. The same technology was used in the Tokyo Tower, a much newer building.

At the end of the tour we had a special ceremony in a room where they honor dignitaries – presidents, famous people, and us. Looked like a giant banquet hall where they probably also host weddings. We were given a present of Japanese food utensils. I drake sake for the first time. I also had Ashley’s drink.

After visiting the shrine we drove down to town to take a picture of the famous Shinkyo Bridge. It was closed, so we could not take a picture on it. 

Exploring Nikko National Park

Nikko National Park is huge, but we hit the highlights. We stopped off at Dragonhead Falls. It is two waterfalls that merge together. Here we saw the first of many tourist souvenir shops. We only bought ice cream (Ashley was such a good sport about lunch). 

Then we drove to the Senjogahar Moor (marshlands). You could literally watch the mountains disappear and reappear. Quite the natural magic trick. We also stopped off at a lake, but I was too chicken to get out of the car (driving on the wrong side of the road with tight switchbacks was making me a bit carsick). 

On the way down the mountain we stopped off at Kegon Falls. The claim to fame of Kegon is that we took an elevator down 100 meters (about 275 feet) to view the falls from its mid-point. It really was more impressive from down there than it is from above it.

Both the road up and the road down the mountain are one way streets filled with hairpin switchback turns. The driving challenge for us was that the Japanese drive on the other side of the road. Whereas we are taught to “stay right,” they are taught to “stay left.” This also confuses me on escalators as I am constantly in someone’s way. Tom did a great drive navigating the switchbacks while we took pictures out the window.

By the time we made it to our hotel, I was ready for a nap.

More pictures from Nikko

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