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Nikko: Part One of Two

Even if you are to visit the Tokyo region for a short time, Nikko is a worthwhile destination. For me, the city of just 93,000 sprinkled over 900 square miles has been the trip I had most wanted to take since I learned of it months ago. Less than 100 miles north of Tokyo and accessible by just a three-hour train ride, after a couple exchanges.

Tucked in the center of the Tochigi Prefecture of the Kanto Region, Nikko is known for its World Heritage Sites and shrines that ar considered among Japan’s most visited. Still, my excitement was outside of Central Nikko, beyond the surrounding temples. I was excited to wander through the 540 square mile Nikko National Park, which is known for hosting Japan’s most beautiful and celebrated fall colors, at their tops during the first week of November.

I arrived at Tobu Nikko Station in the early afternoon, immediately able to breathe again, having been suffocated almost without fail in the smog of Tokyo for three months. I marched passed Shinkyo, the deep red Sacred Bridge. Originally built in 1636 and reconstructed in 1907 after being damaged in a flood, Shinkyo commemorates a legend that tells an eighth-century priest there crossed the Daiya-gawa River on the backs of two giant serpents.

Along a stone wall, seemingly held strong by its mossy cover, I watched two monks walk deliberately outside of the Rinno-ji Temple, home to the Sanbutsudo, the Hall of Three Buddhas, a heavily-lacquered representation of three forms of the Buddha.

Beyond Rinno-ji Temple, I came upon an enormous five-story pagoda. More than fifty feet tall, the pagoda was built in 1818 as a replacement to a mid-seventeenth century original that burned in a fire. This acts as an impressive welcome to the narrow concrete stairs that lead to the Tosho-gu Shrine.

Perhaps Nikko’s most well known attraction, and priced as such with an entrance fee of 1,300 yen ($11 USD), is the Toshu-gu Shrine. Built by 15,000 craftsmen on the behest of a shogun’s grandson in the early 1600s, the shrine used more than 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf and would cost hundreds of millions of U.S. dollars if built today, according to National Geographic.

Toshu-gu is surrounded by a handful of structures, notably including the Shinkyusha, or sacred stable, which is most famed for a carefully carved relief of three monkeys, the source of the phrase, “Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil, See No Evil,” as each of the three monkeys have their hands covering their ears, mouth and eyes respectively.

With that, after walking slowly through the mossy rock paths and autumn-color heavy trees, I returned to Central Nikko and its busy train station. In my truest style, I had made an arrangement to be picked up by a maintenance employee who would take me to what was described as a “cottage.” With it being the single most popular weekend of the year to visit Nikko and see its incredible foliage, every ryokan, hotel, resort, hostel, campground, cabin and train station bench had been reserved well in advance. I was headed well beyond where visitors of Nikko and its national park find themselves.

Well, the entire event was as ridiculous as it seems. I was approached by a scruffy, sniffling, humorless man of about forty, wearing a worn windbreaker and brandishing a silvery can of some energy drink. I piled into the front seat of his rusty, bluish two-door Volvo and stuttered through the extent of my Japanese small talk to this man, whose only response was an occasional, but always punctuated, sideways glance as he shifted gears and slurped from his can.

We drove twenty minutes out of Central Nikko, the streetlights and street traffic quickly lessening. He turned right, magi, onto what appeared to be a drive to a more secluded park campsite. We pulled onto a gravely road as we came to a series of sullen, yellow street lamps encircling a woodsy, brown structure appearing to be twenty by twenty feet in size, but he drove on. Another five minutes down the gravel road, with the sullen, yellow lights no longer recognizable, the quirky and silent man with ruffled black hair who, I realized, had entertained a consistent, yet all but inaudible conversation with himself throughout the drive, drove on. We finally came to a long metal gate and he stopped the car, flung open the door, and unlocked the gate. He returned to the car without a word, drove through and, after getting out again to relock the gate, we were back in motion, rocking and popping through and over the patchwork of a road.

Another few minutes down the road and suddenly the heavy canopy of tree and brush opened as we pulled up to a small collection of time-worn, wooden buildings, surrounded by a clutter of rusty machinery and forgotten projects of plant-cultivation, all lit by moonlight and a glow from inside one of the structures. I was welcomed by a tiny, cooing older man, perhaps sixty, but his waddle was active and exuberant as a waddle can be expected to be.

The two of them led me into a mess of a room, the floors and wall space jammed with what I can only describe as junk, forgotten tools, piles of yellowed periodicals, stacks of paper, pieces of machinery without homes, and too many items for which I had no explanation or name. They cleared off a table and, after a discussion with each other, proceeded to try their very best to explain a great deal of which I couldn’t understand. I think I explained to them I didn’t need a shower and wasn’t that hungry, somewhat in my broken Japanese. I paid them 1,500 yen ($13 USD), and after a series of bows exchanged between myself and this giggling, smiling old man, witnessed by the still disinterested man who drove me there, we walked back into the still and crisp November night.

With flashlights in hand, the three of us set foot down an indecipherable path of rock and uneven earth. The old man insisted on using his flashlight to light my every step, and he graciously and excitedly pointed out a brilliant full moon. We walked fifteen minutes in the dark, passed with a series of attempts by the old man and me to communicate, more often ending in a failure of laughter, funny bows and a flurry of apologetic Japanese.

In time, and after a few wrong turns, we came to an earthly cabin, appearing to be perhaps ten feet by eight feet in size. After prying open the door, which it seemed hadn’t been open in decades, we poured into the musty and cobwebbed space, eight tatami mats large, the old man needlessly, but kindly explained how to lay out a futon and litter myself with the chilly blankets.

After making a small fire, warming myself by it, and then retiring back to my “cottage,” I put on an extra sweatshirt, sweatpants, a winter hat and three pairs of socks and climbed underneath six, yes, six, fleece blankets and closed my eyes. I slept very well, save for the screeching of the macaque monkeys that populate the mountains of Nikko. I woke up once to walk onto the creaky cottage porch, to walk into the chilly night, ready to be hugged by the frigid air, dark night and long-fingered trees. I hugged myself and caught what appeared to be a monkey scamper away. How odd, I thought. I returned into my cabin, snuggled into a cocoon, underneath a seventh blanket and fell asleep, ready to wake up and explore Nikko National Park the next morning.

Jaa ne,

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