Day trip to the cold North23 March, 2011 by Chad
Today we would take a break from the city life to travel to nature and culture rich Nikko. We were pretty sure we wanted to visit somewhere north this trip, after our plans to go skiing fell through last year and Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture was the only scenic spot that was still accessible as a day trip. So this morning we headed over to Asakusa to catch a Tobu train that runs directly to Nikko.
The Tobu Railway tourist center that sold our tickets was outside of the station. Like most train companies, they sell a bunch of different discount passes for travelers both local and alien that provide 2-way transport between Nikko and Asakusa, as well as free transport within Nikko for up to 3 days.
Each of these passes cover different routes and we had to get the more expensive All Nikko Pass since we wanted to visit Chuzenji Onsen. It only comes as a 3 day pass. 4400 yen. Purchasing a regular one way ticket would already cost about 2600 yen so most people would just choose a pass.
You actually have to decide which train we wanted since the train tickets were given separately. The woman at the counter spoke decent English, asking us if the next train was fine. It left in 5 minutes time. Sure why not. We grabbed out passes and rushed down to the other Tobu station around the block.
It’s been a while since we last had breakfast on a long train ride. The train we were sitting today was a normal old Limited Express kind. Interestingly, only the last two carriages actually goes to Nikko. The rest of the carriages detach from the train mid-journey.
Nikko itself already rests on high ground about 600 meters above sea level while Mount Nantei, the region’s most prominent landmark stands at 2,486 meters tall, a similar height to Taiwan’s Alishan.
The train dropped us off at Tobu Nikko station and from there we would have to take a bus to get anywhere else. There are only a couple of buses to take here from the bus stop opposite the station. Both follow similar, if not identical routes.
It was another hour’s ride by bus to Chuzenji Onsen. The road up the mountain was full of twist and turns, which the skilled bus driver tackled without effort. Amusingly, the highway up is called Irohazaka or “48 Slope” in English. For the first half hour, it was popularity like any other rural suburban town but it was back to nature at the steeper parts of the mountain.
Chuzenji Onsen is a hot springs town beside the volcanic Mount Nantei. There is something unreal about seeing a fully functioning town much less a highway when we were 1,200 meters in the mountains. But apparently the traffic here is crazy during the fall when people flock to see the autumn leaves.
There were two main sights at Chuzenji, Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Waterfall. Turns out that the waterfall was just 100 meters away and the lake was just opposite the road from the bus stop. Travel spots without any walking. We were starting to like Nikko already.
Kegon Falls is actually the outlet of Chuzenji Lake. Despite being only 100 meters high, Kegon beats many of the taller waterfalls in the country to be noted as one of Japan’s three most beautiful falls. It’s surrounded in the autumn fall during the October months and by frost in winter as seen here. On a grimmer note, it’s also a popular spot for star-crossed lovers to commit suicide at.
Looking at the waterfall from up above is free though for 500 yen you could take an elevator down to the bottom for a different view. There’s a large car park here to accommodate the holiday traffic as well as a couple of souvenir shops. Unique to Tochigi Prefecture were these Kanto Tochigi Lemon’s “Lemon Milk” products. It might seem like a potentially disastrous combination but Yan and I ended up getting some Lemon Milk snacks anyways. We tried finding for actual Lemon Milk but alas it was no where to be seen.
It was a short walk back to the terminal for Lake Chuzenji. The sheer magnitude was impressive, particularly when combined with the knowledge that we were over 1,200 meters above sea level. Lake Chuzenji spans a 25 kilometer circumference. It could had been the effects of the thinner atmosphere but there was also something surreal about seeing cars drive by the highway beside the lake as if it was any other normal coast.
It was pretty cold up here and strong winds blew from the lake. Had it been still raining, there might had been a good chance of snow. Lake activities were closed for the winter and huge piles of snow were shoveled along the lake’s edge. Yan advised us not to follow after he tripped in a gap while tracking through the snow in an attempt to get closer to the lake.
Our motives for Chuzenji ended on time, despite us sleeping in and reaching Nikko pretty late. The plan was to head back down the mountain where Wilson and I were to visit the Nikko Toshogu Shrine. The next bus only arrived half an hour later, so in the meantime we would have our lunch up here instead.
Nikko has had a long history of Buddhist activity. Originally introduced as part of a vegetarian diet, Yuba (Tofu Skin) has since become Nikko’s specialty food. We visited the largest preserved vegetable store along the street that also had a section serving vegetarian yuba dishes.
I got some much needed hot udon. The most decent udon in a while.
Wilson went with the cold version and Yan ordered some yuba curry. Unlike in Singapore where you have to resort to oil drenched carbs and deep fried self-righteousness, being vegetarian is a perfectly viable option in Japan. Sure you might be missing out on a country full of great foods, but I’d give up all of Singapore’s food any day for just this sort of meal.
Between the home made silky smooth tofu and the crispy mountain picked veges, lunch this afternoon was pretty awesome. Unlike the disintegrating mess that takes weeks to arrive Singapore, the experience was like eating freshness.
The three of us caught the next bus down to Nikko. Wilson and I dropped off at Shinkyo to visit the most famous Toshogu Shrine, while Yan returned to Tokyo to attend to some matters.
The Nikko Toshogu Shrine is the main attraction here, though its surrounded by other shrines and temples. Despite references elsewhere, the shrine here is named the Nikko Toshogu Shrine because it’s not the only of its kind. A Toshogu Shrine basically refers to any Shinto shrine honoring Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of Japan and undeniable one of Japan’s most important figures. The Nikko Toshogu is notable though as it houses Tokugawa’s actual tomb.
We probably dropped off a stop too early as we found ourselves some distance from the main attraction. Here we passed by the Futarasan Shrine. This shrine was dedicated to Nikko’s mountains and had the nicest charms we’d seen so far. I got an intricate paper mache one for good studies and Wilson got this colorful omamori.
There weren’t too many other people around this afternoon and the few that were mostly got to Toshogu via the main road. We decided to take a short cut through a side road. The muddy path was coated with a combination of ice and slush, which explained why hardly anyone else took this path.
That and the fact that we were pretty late. By the time we reached the shrine, it was scheduled to close in about 45 minutes. We’d forgotten how early these places close.
Entrance to the shrine cost 1300 yen (SGD$20). I must admit we were a little surprised and deterred by the steep entrance fees but we had already come all the way and it was for the greater good. At the ticketing booth, the staff informed us that the inner shrine areas were already about to close and asked us if we were ok with it. We could still make it if we hurried.
The Nikko Toshogu Shrine is probably one of the most intricately decorated Shinto shrines. Its current state is the work of Ieyasu’s grandson. Despite the former shogun’s request to be buried simply, 4.6 million people were recruited for the new shrine in 1636, in a project that cost the modern equivalent of about 600 million dollars. The twenty or more buildings that make up the shrine are adorned with wooden carvings of different animals significant to Shinto and painted in a spectrum of gaudy colors. All made by human hands.
The most internationally recognizable carving would be that of the three wise monkeys at one of the smaller buildings in the outer courtyard. The Nikko depiction popularized the famous “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” concept to the western world.
For some reason, this sleeping cat carving above the gate to the Tokugawa’s tomb was of the greatest interest to locals. You actually would have to pay an additional 500 yen to enter the inner area if you had visited the shrine via a combination ticket. The locals excitedly hung around the gate to snap photos of the wooden cat. Apparently during the peak autumn season, there are actually queues to see the statue.
I guess I too was kind of amused by the fact that the sleeping cat looked kind of similar to my own cat back home. Ironically, he would pass away one week after this visit to the shrine.
The area closed half an hour earlier so we made it a point to visit it first. It was a flight of stairs, a stony path along the side of the mountain and another long flight of stairs up to the inner sanctum where Tokugawa was entombed.
The shrine here was simpler and more solemn compared to the large halls and intricate buildings down below. There’s a general aura of peacefulness about that tomb that was surrounded by a tall cedar forest. In ancient times, entry into this area was restricted.
Exclusive to the inner shrine were charms that consisted of a metal bell attached to the likeness of the sleeping cat. It made for a sweet memento.
The main hall back below was undergoing some restoration works. Approved artisans were invited in to paint on a new coat of lacquer but otherwise, the Toshogu Shrine’s buildings have been unaltered by modern hands. The staff here urged us along as we among the last people still within the shrine.
Since it was actually past closing time, the guard escorted us through the main hall and the nearby Yakushidoh Hall for a final look before leading us outside.
It was a good thing he did, since we had quite forgotten about how early the buses stopped running in Nikko. Fortunately, we made it in time to catch the last bus to the station for our train back to Tokyo.
On the way back Wilson and I had a discussion about some topic I can no longer remember. Occasionally we stopped to marvel at just about how much free land there was out here. Back in Tokyo (or Singapore) parking costs something like $5 an hour in the city areas while the people here parked at empty plots of mud or grass that popped up everywhere. It was maybe 6 PM but the entire city was already pitch dark. Could it be that no one stayed up past that hour?
Wilson unloaded some Pocky. He could be seen munching on a pack at almost every long journey. A couple of Chinese girls sitting opposite of us were trying out a pack of the Lemon Milk. Wilson remarked that he saw it selling at the station but wasn’t aware that I was looking for some. The pair squirmed in disgust after trying the milk. I later tried some of the Lemon Milk snacks and I didn’t find it too bad. Kind of like lemon chiffon cake.
We dropped by Akihabara to pick up Yan on our way over to the fringe of Ochanomizu. It was time for revenge with El Chateo del Puente.
As before, we had a number of sides. Some of which were better than the others. The Potato Omelet that we ate before and the Garlic Mushrooms that came as a recommendation by the waiter were the successes.
The main aim in visiting the restaurant though was for their especially tasty Paella. We ordered two normal sized ones today, a mushroom and cheese paella, as well as a seafood one.
The mushroom paella was nice but relied primarily on the cheese for most of its flavor. The more savory seafood paella won hands down. I still prefer the chicken and chorizo one that we had previously though. Not that I was complaining, any of the three were still good.
It was definitely nice to end the evening with a good meal for a change.Planning your holiday? We recommend visiting Agoda for a full list of hotels with early bird specials.