Tag Archives: Nikko

Brits in Japan

On the Lake Chuzenji area map I saw there was a former British embassy and a former Italian embassy on the opposite side of the lake.  I had already hiked for an hour and climbed 212 steps.  It looked like the embassies were about a half hour hike.  Should I go?

Of course!

So I did, and I was glad.  This was the view from the other side of the lake.

There was a sign about the 29-kilometer (18-mile) hike you could take around the lake.  Wouldn’t that be cool?  Once in a while I daydream of hiking the Pacific Crest Trail or the Superior Hiking Trail.  Then I remember that my scoliosis makes sleeping on the ground a bad idea.  If there were inns along the route I would consider it—someday.

The former British embassy is now a memorial park.  I paid the trivial entry fee and wandered through.  There was a tearoom offering formal British-style teas but I had had my fill of ramen.

This was the former ambassador’s office.  Not a bad view.

There was a photo display about Ernest Satow, a British diplomat who represented England in Japan at the end of the Edo Period and start of the Meiji Period.  He “went out to Japan,” as the British say, when he was still a teenager.  Edited from Wikipedia:

Satow is better known in Japan than in Britain or the other countries in which he served. He was an exceptional linguist, an energetic traveler, a writer of travel guidebooks, a dictionary compiler, a mountaineer, a keen botanist, and a major collector of Japanese books and manuscripts.

He also served in China, Siam, Uruguay and Morocco, and represented Britain at the Second Hague Peace Conference in 1907. In his retirement he wrote A Guide to Diplomatic Practice, now known as ‘Satow’s Guide to Diplomatic Practice’ – which is widely used today.

Satow was never able, as a diplomat serving in Japan, to marry his Japanese common-law wife, Takeda Kane. They had an unnamed daughter who was born and died in infancy, and two sons, Eitaro and Hisayoshi. Eitaro was diagnosed with TB in 1900, and was advised to go and live in the United States, where he died before his father. His second son, Takeda, became a noted botanist, founder of the Japan Natural History Society and president of the Japan Alpine Club.

What a full and fulfilling life, with quite a burden of sadness, too.

There was this little tribute to QEII and Japanese-British relations.

It made me wonder.  I hadn’t seen any glossy mags with princesses on the covers or heard about scandals by members of the Japanese royal family.  Were they just very low profile and non-scandalous, or did the media not report on them?

I had had enough walking and passed on a visit to the Italian embassy memorial park.  Besides, it was getting late.  I hopped a bus back to the Lake Chuzenji bus station, then caught the bus back into Nikko.  The road down the mountain was one way.  I have taken some vertiginous rides through mountains—in Jamaica, Ethiopia, Belize, Arizona—but this was the scariest ever.

I fell asleep to the sound of rain pattering on my window, and slept through the night with only a few RLS twitches.  Maybe that’s the cure—hike for hours and climb hundreds of steps every day in clean mountain air!

The next day I headed back to Tokyo.  On the train, I again meditated on how most visitors “do” Nikko in one day as I gazed out at the rice paddies.

It was an easy return trip; the local train was beautiful, with wood paneling and classic Japanese paintings adorning the luggage racks.

I bought a to-go bento box in Utsonimiya.  It was beautifully wrapped but not good food.  Still, I ate it as I watched the usual assortment of train officials walk up and down the aisles wearing their caps and white gloves and badges, bowing to us passengers at the end of each car before walking through to the next.

At Ueno Station, all I had to do now was follow the easy directions printed off from my next hotel’s website.

Chuzenjiko

The next morning I sat down to another breakfast of Texas toast, fruit, and soft-boiled egg.  But then the hostess approached me and said gingerly, “This is not your breakfast.  You did not pay for it.”

“Oops!” I said.  “I thought I pre-paid for all three mornings?” But I had not, and with some relief (because I don’t really like soft-boiled eggs or Texas toast) I got up from the untouched meal which was meant for another guest and happily ate a Cup-o-Noodles before leaving on my day trip.

Lake Chuzenji is about a half hour from Nikko via steep winding mountain roads.  The bus stop was easy to find, and the bus fare system was brilliant.  I haven’t seen anything like it elsewhere. You take a ticket with a number on it when you board.  Then, a screen at the front tells you how much you’ll owe when you alight, refreshing at each stop.  Some guides had made it sound like it would be possible to walk to the lake, but that would have taken a couple hours, all uphill, with almost no space between passing vehicles and a sheer drop on one side or cliffs on the other.  The ride cost about $10.

At the station, signs pointed to Kegon Waterfall, so I dutifully walked over to have a look.

I searched for a way to get to the lake, but there were no signs except these:

Thankfully I never saw any attack monkeys.

I walked this way for 10 minutes, then that way, then another.  I finally returned to the station and consulted a map.  The lake was in the fourth direction I hadn’t yet tried, and it was an easy five minute, downhill stroll.  This is the lake.  It is spectacular.

“This reminds me of Wolfgangsee,” I thought.  Lake Wolfgang is in the Austrian Alps, where I had visited two years earlier. There was even Lupin about; probably the climate and soil in the two places are similar.

I guess it is human nature to compare things to other things, but I tried to put thoughts of comparison out of my mind and enjoy where I was right then.

Lake Chuzenji is a resort area, deserted on the day I was there.  Number one travel tip: research when the school holidays are in your destination country, and avoid those times.  Unless you like heaving crowds, long lines, and paying double for everything. This was the empty shelter where crowds would queue for boat rides during the high season.

The duck boats were very picturesque.

I was hungry and wanted to buy trout on a stick but the vendor had no change for my 5000 yen note.  I settled for a hot potato croquette filled with yuba, which was super tasty.

I walked along the edge of the lake for half an hour and “discovered” a Shinto shrine which turned out to be one of three called Futarasan in the Nikko area.  There were piles of little clay plates which visitors had smashed in a ravine. There was nothing about it in English. I didn’t smash any so I may have missed my big chance at …something.

It was 212 steps to the shrine.

I spent a quiet half hour with this guy and his deer (?) at the top.  I don’t know who he was.

This was the simple shrine nearby.

I sat on a bench; there were no other visitors.  Butterflies fluttered by and birds whistled up a storm.  I found myself resisting urges to “do” something—eat a snack, write some notes, keep climbing.  After 20 minutes I walked back down, where I noticed this lovely lion.

Here’s the view back toward the mountain where the shrine sat.

This was parked in the lot.  I would love to rent one.

I was hungry again—can’t imagine why—so I was happy to spy restaurant curtains through the glass doors of a little mall.

The place had Japanese and western style tables.

It was just me and a group of Japanese ladies who lunch.  This was my view.

I had a big bowl of ramen and a beer.  What a beautiful day, and it wasn’t over yet.

In the Hall of the Weeping Dragon

Your reward for hiking hundreds of steps at Toshogu Shrine is complex of about six gilded buildings.  Every guide says to look for the “famous sleeping cat and sparrows” carved above a doorway.  All you have to do is look for the crowd of tourists blocking a doorway and snapping photos and selfies.

They weren’t very thrilling.  There are varying accounts of what they represent, mostly to do with the fact that the cat isn’t eating the sparrows, which means peace has arrived.

Another highly-hyped feature of the shrine was the hall of the weeping dragon.  No photos were allowed.  Throngs of tourists were let into the shrine like blobs of toothpaste being squeezed out of a tube.  A guide talked in rapid-fire Japanese and gesticulated around the hall to each group, regardless of what language they spoke or could comprehend.  I tagged on to a group of Asian Americans, probably Filipino Americans.  One guy was wearing a Chicago Bears sweatshirt and kept rolling his eyes at me and snickering at the circus.

The guide pointed up at an enormous dragon painted on the ceiling.  He did something I couldn’t see with some kind of musical instrument, then gestured for silence by putting a finger to his mouth.  He cupped his ear to indicate we should listen.  I didn’t hear anything but some people apparently did hear a crying noise.

Here, like in every shrine, there were little wooden plaques on which you could write a supplication to the gods.  Or take home as a souvenir.  These ones were really cool dragon drawings.  They were more expensive than any I’d seen so far—around $10 a piece compared with the usual $2-5.  I picked out two from the boxes packed with hundreds of them and threw my money in the offering box.

Upon exiting I discovered there was a cashier just outside, and I stopped there to ask for a bag.  The cashier put the plaques into a bag, then said, “That will be twenty thousand yen.”

“I already paid for them,” I replied.

Confusion ensued as I tried to explain where I had paid for the plaques.  I probably should have known that I couldn’t just throw 20,000 yen in an offering box and say I was done.  But I didn’t know.  There had been no signs indicating where to pay.  The cashier obviously believed my story, but she had to check with her manager.

He was a tall, severe-looking man who looked down at me and shook his head slowly.  I assumed he was expressing his disapproval of a stupid foreigner’s inability to understand procedures.

“So I’m good?” I asked naively.

“No, I’m sorry,” the cashier said as she withdrew the bag in her hand from my reach.  “He say no.”

I was shocked.  I felt like I was being accused of being a thief.  No, not a thief—if I’d wanted to steal them it would have been easy to slip them inside my backpack.  But I had walked up to the cashier and requested a bag.

So I was being accused of being a liar, I guess, or an idiot.

“Well I guess I just made a nice donation to the temple!” That was all I could come up with as I walked off, steaming mad.

I hope karma gets that Buddhist jerk, and good!

I trod the stone steps back down to the entrance, mad as a hornet.  I really wanted those particular plaques, dammit.  Then I laughed at myself.  Buddhism is all about renunciation of worldly things, right?  It would be in the spirit of things to let this go.

I stopped at the torii again to try to find giraffes or whatever animal had been interpreted as such, but could not.  I did learn that the peony is the King of Flowers.

I was tired from physical and emotional exertion, so I walked along Nikko’s main street in search of Yuba ramen.  Yuba—the local specialty tofu.

I may have already posted this photo but the ramen was so delicious and comforting it’s worth posting again.

Then I sat outside and drank a craft beer, toasting the shrine sales manager in my head.

Villa-fied

In contrast to the ornate shogun tombs, the Imperial Villa in Nikko was Spartan.  I removed my shoes at the entrance, donned the slippers provided, and paid the Y510 admission fee—about $4.75.

This was the emperor’s office.  There weren’t a lot of visitors, and there wasn’t a lot of oohing and ahhing going on around me.

There was a video at the beginning.  I got the idea after five minutes but I couldn’t skip the rest of it because an elderly lady kept looking over at me with a smile as if to say, “You, foreigner!  Isn’t this impressive?”  I smiled and made sure I got well ahead of them once we started walking through.

There were some lovely embellishments, like this window built to frame a 300-year-old weeping cherry tree.  In America we would have chopped down the tree to make way for construction.

A few painted panels were all the art there was.

I went to make a pit stop and stopped short.  Bathroom slippers. Keiko had mentioned these.  There was no one around.  Should I just say “screw it,” and walk in with my regular slippers?  I decided to behave as I would if people were around, out of respect.

There was a clearly-defined path through the building marked with ropes.  Was I going to have to look at all 106 rooms, most of which were empty and contained no art?  I was relieved when after about 30 rooms I reached the exit.

The villa was used mostly by the current emperor’s grandfather, if I’ve got it right. If you have nothing better to do sometime, watch the old US military propaganda film, “Know Your Enemy: Japan.”  It’s on Netflix.  I watched it before I left and if even half of it is true, the Japanese were every bit as vicious as the Germans in WWII.

Like the Germans, they believed they were a master race, and even had a blueprint to take over the world, akin to Mein Kampf, called The Tanaka Plan.

According to this film—which is obviously biased—the Japanese believe their emperor is a God—literally.  If they died in the service to the emperor, they would go straight to heaven—thus the ferociousness of their fighting and willingness to commit suicide via kamikaze attacks.

Here’s what I don’t get.  If the emperor really was a God, why couldn’t he have stayed in Tokyo? Surely, God could survive bombing attacks, and protect his people from them, too.  Why did he come to Nikko and hide out in this villa, complete with bomb shelters in the woods?

The woods and gardens were lovely.  Here’s that 300-year-old tree, propped up with giant wooden poles.

There was a pond and a moss-covered path.

It was still only noon.  I returned to the Turtle Inn and had a cup of cheapo instant noodles they had available for guests to purchase, and Skyped with Keiko about our plans.

Then I headed back out to visit the main shrine, Toshogu.  This time I entered where the tour buses did, hoping it might be a bit less climbing.  It was not.  I don’t know what this sign said but it was cute.

The first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu, united Japan and ushered in 260 years of peace.  I’m sure that peace was won at the point of a sword, but that was not mentioned.  This was one of about 25 buildings in the complex.

This detail depicts monkeys supporting one of their friends who is feeling discouraged.

I had rented an audio guide which informed me that giraffes are featured on this torii (gate) because they are considered spiritual animals. I like giraffes, and I couldn’t see any and wondered how 17th Century Japanese would know about them.

Climbing the hundreds of stairs, I passed people bent over, gasping and clutching their chests.  Go to places like this while your knees and heart are good.

The tomb at the top had so many golden gewgaws the Trumps would have loved it.  The guide said to note the “hundreds of painted tapirs which are symbolic of peace.”  There were no tapirs, but hundreds of dragons.

What had they mistakenly translated into giraffe?

Wandering Nikko

I had paid for breakfast at the Turtle Inn and it was my only disappointment with the place.  It consisted of fruit, a soft-boiled egg, and several pieces of Texas toast.  I don’t think of myself as a fussy eater but I don’t like runny eggs.  I ate the fruit and toast then had the last protein bar I’d brought along.

The sign for the Abyss was close by the inn.  I followed it, and more signs, along the river. The morning was clear and cool and there was dew on the grass.  I was greeted by this welcoming committee.

And this warning sign about bears.  I know bears from Minnesota.  You throw them some potato chips, then run like hell.  But I didn’t have any potato chips so my only hope was to not cross paths with any bears today.

There were more jizos along the way.

I had seen these little red-capped statues in Tokyo, where the signage explained they were in memory of children who had died.  A sign here said much the same.  It also told of a great flood that swept through the gorge in 1902.  Ah ha! The “abyss” was a gorge.  How disappointing.  I was expecting something so deep and dark that when you dropped a rock into it you never heard it hit the bottom.

Anyway, many of the jizos were swept away in the flood, but visitors have since noticed that the number of jizos changes every time they count them.  “Therefore they are called bakejizo, or phantom jizos.”  So there was something spooky here after all.

As for the Kanman Gorge itself, there was more signage which explained that many visitors have dreams of the deity Fudo Myoo, the greatest of the five wisdom kings of Buddhism.  “He protects ascetics by cutting away worldly desires with a flaming sword.”  I liked that image.  I think I may need a flaming sword intervention to separate myself from my duplex full of old furniture and knick knacks.

I kept walking, passing more jizos and stone lanterns.

The path kept going through wild woods along the river.  I passed an occasional fisherman. The jizos turned into abandoned storage sheds and weirs guarded by rusty wire fences. I saw a large deer a few yards off the path.  She stared at me and twitched her tail, then bounded off.  I love this kind of walk—when you have no idea where you’ll end up and you can imagine it’s slightly dangerous but it’s not.

I emerged on the edge of town, where a sign pointed to a botanical garden—another place tourists never visit.

I pondered over this sign.  Subsequently I showed this photo to my sister-in-law, who puzzled over it for some minutes before explaining that it warns of sudden floods and landslides.  So even if you could read Japanese, you’d be swept away before you could suss out the sign.

The botanical garden cost about $2 and I could have spent all day there.  The paths wound round and round; I kept getting lost and coming back to this same enormous tangle of tree and vine.

From the giant to the tiny—I stumbled into a field of forget-me-nots.

I sat for a few minutes, watching dragon flies hovering in the sunshine.

The sound of rushing water was ever present from the numerous streams that crisscrossed the gardens.

I stooped down and marveled at a tiny vine and its springiness.

I never do this at home.  I stride quickly to whatever is my next destination, eyes front and center.

This sign caught my eye; several of the letters look like Hebrew.  Funny, I guess there are only so many shapes humans can imagine for our alphabets.

I exited the garden; it was only 10am.  My next stop was the 106-room imperial villa, a summer residence for emperors until Hirohito hid out there during WWII.  What a contrast to Queen Elizabeth II and her family.  They had a northern estate where they could have safely waited out the German bombings.  But they stayed in London, where Elizabeth trained as military mechanic and truck driver.

This was my intro to the mindset of the Japanese toward WWII.

Squats and Spritzes and Blow Dryers

Since I brought up the subject of toilets in the last post I may as well get that topic out of the way.  I’ve written in the past about the Dutch toilets with viewing platforms that magnify smell.  The cavernous English thrones that amplify sound.  The Ethiopian squat toilets and Turkish bidets and broken Cuban toilets that require a human to dump a bucket of water down after you’ve used one.  The silent Australian toilet rooms.

But no one beats the Japanese for toilets.  Here’s the control panel of a typical one.  Yes, I said “control panel.”

I am not one to linger on the toilet. I do my business and get on my way.  But I found myself fiddling around with buttons in Japan, just to see what would happen.

I have to say, I enjoyed the toilet seat warming function, although it was a bit alarming the first few times when I wasn’t expecting it.  Why don’t we have this in Minnesota, where toilet seats really are cold in the winter?

Note how the bidet and butt spray buttons are color-coded blue and pink.  And the figure sitting on a fountain of water inside the pink button has long hair, just in case some man doesn’t understand that a bidet is for females.  Hey, isn’t that sexist?

I just noticed there’s a “Stand By” button.  What the … shouldn’t it be “Sit By”?

This sleek silver control panel renamed the “bidet” and butt-spray buttons “front” and “rear.”  Not exactly accurate or, wait a minute!  Have I been doing it all wrong?

There were toilets with so many options you could spend all day trying to decide.

If I could read braille, maybe I would have known what this panel offered.

This toilet, which was on a train, had a dryer option.  The thought of hurtling along at 80 mph while having my bum blow dried did not appeal.

This toilet room reminded me of an operating room.  Scary.

I only used western-style toilets.  The traditional Japanese squats didn’t have any of the features above.  I know because I accidentally opened the wrong doors a few times.  I caught a vibe that the Japanese feel their toilets are superior to western-style toilets, so all the washing and whooshing isn’t needed.  Who knows, they may be right.

For those who had never used a western-style toilet, there were directions.  I like how the little figures on the right are clenching their fists, apparently toiling. Ha ha.

There were pleas to please be clean.  Thing was, there are no rubbish bins anywhere in public places in Japan, except occasionally in bathrooms.  Apparently this is part of everyone being responsible for his or her own trash.  You don’t make anyone else clean up after you—including emptying rubbish bins.  You carry a plastic bag with you everywhere, and save up your ice cream wrappers and used hand wipes and train tickets to dispose of when you get home.  There was no litter, anywhere. Also no graffiti, for that matter.

My favorite head shaker was the model that included a little fountain or faucet on the back of the toilet.  Was it a drinking fountain?  No.  This was for hand-washing.

I suppose the all-in-one toilet/sink was considered a convenience but psychologically I had to work to get over the idea of rinsing my hands on the back of a toilet.

Speaking of sinks, the public restrooms had sinks but no soap or towels or any way to dry one’s hands.  So you rinsed your hands with cold water, then shook them all over the place or rubbed them on your clothes.  That hardly seems sanitary.

I liked the name of this air freshening device.

There was always toilet paper, and to my relief it was not thin as I’d experienced in Australia.

This alarming configuration was in a restaurant.

This stack of TP was in the botanical garden in Nikko.  Really, Japan?  You have to feature cute little animals on TP?  I guess we do it too, in the US.

I didn’t spend all my time in bathrooms taking photos.

In Nikko, I spent my second day taking in the non-famous sites, including the mysterious Abyss.

Shoguns and Squats

I’ve already written a bit about Nikko, how I arrived there on my fourth day in Japan and it was there that the anxiety that had trailed me from the US ebbed away.  As I wrote in my last post I am feeling a lot of anxiety of late, but I know it comes … and goes.  I’ve never had a full-blown panic attack and ended up in the ER like some people I know.  I get out and do things despite feeling anxious about them.  Ninety-nine percent of the time everything turns out okay.

And sometimes, like in Nikko, physical exertion, attraction distraction, and serenity of a place help the anxiety disappear.

Nikko’s claim to fame is that it hosts tombs of the early shoguns.  The shoguns were hereditary military commanders who ruled Japan for nearly 700 years, until Emperor Meiji was given real powers during the Meiji Restoration in 1868.  “Shogun” is Japanese shorthand for “Commander-in-Chief of the Expeditionary Force against the Barbarians.”

Now here I came, a barbarian wandering among their tombs.

The structures are unique because they are Japanese interpretations of Chinese shrines.  This means that, unlike the simple, spare style seen elsewhere in Japan, the shrines in Nikko are over-the-top ornate.

Guidebooks and online advisories will say you can “do” Nikko in a day. Maybe that’s technically true—if you arrived by tour bus and had a guide barking, “hurry, hurry, on to the next shrine!”

But why would you want to hurry?  Nikko is so much more than the shrines, as I discovered.  I spent three nights there and could have easily spent a fourth.  Or the rest of my life.  Nikko is in the mountains and the soothing sound of water coursing along little streams and springs is ever present.

I found the pedestrian entrance to the shrine complex, which encompasses half a dozen shrines, each of which encompasses a dozen structures. Every shrine charges an admission fee of $2 to $12.

I climbed and climbed the irregular stone steps, in the rain, to the main square, then wandered around trying to decide which shrine to visit first.  I could just catch glimpses of golden rooftops.

I decided on the mausoleum of Iemitsu, grandson of the first shogun, Ieyasu. The shoguns often have a birth name, a warrior name, and military titles that makes keeping them straight challenging.  So I didn’t try.

I figured I should use the toilet before entering, where I encountered my first Japanese-style toilet.  No, not the ones with lots of electronic features, but a squat.

Pivot: Iemitsu designed his own mausoleum to be “subtle” so as not to outshine his grandpa’s.  This is just the hand washing station at the entrance.

Ladle up some water, wash your left hand, then your right, then have a drink out of your cupped palm.

I remember this as “the quiet shrine.”  It is set in ancient woods and the only sound was birds calling back and forth.  I was one of only three people there that day.

Near the handwashing station there was a jumble of mountain scenery, with two stone statues that I only noticed because I stopped to contemplate the forest.

More steps, and through an ornate gate with fabulous protectors on either side, borrowed from Hinduism.

This structure was basically a storage unit for giant bells and drums used during special events.

There were a thousand stone lanterns, all “donated” by feudal lords to the shogun. I liked the moss and fern hat on this one.

I stopped at each landing to look out over the tree tops and listen to the birds.  At last I arrived at the top and the inner shrine, where photos were not allowed.  There wasn’t really anything to do there, so I slowly walked back down.

I guess most of the lanterns can be lighted, and I would see this later in my trip.

From somewhere, I heard the music from the Waltz of the Sugar Plum Fairies wafting through the forest.  What it signified, I had no idea, but I chose to take it as my dinner bell.

There—just writing this remembrance has brought me a sense of calm.