Nikko Part 1: Uphill Always

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Today I awoke to a pristine mountain morning – far earlier than I intended. It turns out that when in completely unknown circumstances my imagination really lets loose. I woke up twice thinking there were hunter spiders in the room, and really all it takes is twice to ruin a night’s rest. So I awoke at dawn tired, but filled with a sense of purpose. I was going to see some temples before the tourist buses arrived.

The 5 million kilometer walk downhill was much easier, as anticipated. I took a back way that cut off 15 minutes of walking time, since I did not need to go back to the train station. It also unexpectedly cut out all food options. I arrived at the Inari-gawa bridge, just off my destination, without finding a single café. Luckily, my rental came stocked with welcome snacks – dried dates stuffed with walnuts. They wouldn’t last me long if I didn’t find anything within the temple complex. But then, in my experience where there are tourists, there are food vendors.

Nikko’s most famous attraction, apart from its rugged natural beauty, is Toshogu shrine. While there are many famous sights in the area, Toshogu Shrine is what earned Nikko a place on the World Heritage Site list. My plan was to see Toshogu and all the heavily trafficked places early in the morning, and then hike up to find Takino’o Shrine, as I had read that it was largely not crowded but also beautiful. My second reason for wanting to beat the crowds concerned the season. Fall is a big tourist season in Japan, especially out in the mountains when the leaves start changing. Much like the hanami parties in the spring, flocks of tourists come out to look at the flaming and golden Japanese maples. I had no desire to be shuffling along in that mess.

I made it to the sites just as they opened (8am). The parking lot already had cars in it, and there was one tour group already passing up into Toshogu when I arrived. I got some good photos, and took all the “required” tourist pictures. Chief among them? The “see no, hear no, speak no evil” monkey engraving. The original monkeys are somewhere on the site, but as the whole shrine is under construction they could not be seen. There is a lot of gold leaf, and some really beautiful painted engravings all along the walls of the shrine.

Note: Entering Toshogu costs 1300 yen (about $13.00). You get to see some beautiful architecture, but there is a lot of scaffolding and restoration going on.

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Oh! I finally started filling my calligraphy/seal book (shuinchō). The monks/priests in two of the Nikko shrines put in their markings – one for the Toshogu shrine, the other for the Roaring Dragon Shrine. And because I have my own book, the on site cost is considerably less – only 300 yen each!

Another note: You can buy calligraphy books at temples, or at tourist shops. They vary in price. I bought mine at a religious store in Minatomirai (Yokohama) for 1900 yen. I saw them at Toshogu for 2100 yen.

I wandered around, fighting hunger. I listened to the “roaring dragon,” a trick involving the acoustics of the roaring dragon temple. Standing under the dragon and banging two sticks together reverberates, making the dragon appear to “roar.” I can’t tell if it’s a gimmick for tourists or something that was believed at one point. I mean, the ceiling has the dragon painted on its length, so perhaps it was always a point of reverence. It felt a little more like a tourist grab when I saw it. I wonder how faith and ceremony alter when you begin to incorporate tourism into the mix.

In any case, when I finally left Toshogu, there were vendors at the exit selling hot vegetable soup and mochi balls. I lack the space here to wax poetic about the vegetable soup, but I will try. It’s chilly. I’ve been walking for about two hours, and I’ve eaten two dried dates with walnuts. For a mere 300 yen, a man gives me a bowl filled with hot broth, carrots, potatoes, mushrooms, tofu, and probably radish or turnip. I sprinkle some chili flakes on top. Let me tell you – it was Heavenly. Or Nirvana-esque, or…I’m not sure what the Shinto version of paradise is *Google check* Takama-ga-Hara.

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Sated and saving the mochi for later, I walk over to Futarasan shrine. According to my map, I should be able to walk around behind it and eventually wind up on the path the Takino’o. Futarasan is less crowded than Toshogu, but also far simpler in terms of architecture and grandeur. It also seems far more functional. Is that intentional? And I found the path, wandering up the side of Futarasan.

In a way, it reminds me of being in Sequoia National Park, or Kings Canyon National Park. The ancient towering cedar trees glow in the morning light with the moss on their trunks. Old dark stone steps climb higher and higher up, and the air is crisp and clean. I may not be a climber, but I appreciate a good hike, and this path does not disappoint. Not too strenuous, plenty of gorgeous scenery – this is exactly why I came to Nikko.

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And then I had to walk back down.  This surprised me, as reviews suggested the shrine was at the top of the mountain. Nooope.

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It occurred to me, rounding a bend to reach Takino’o, that I had just walked the entire hill in vain. There are two paths to Takino’o – the more arduous up and down of the hill, or the relative flatness of the service road/main path leading from the parking lot near Toshogu. I was mildly put out, but then I consoled myself with how my harder won victory would make me all the more appreciative of my final destination.

I was right on that point – Takino’o was removed enough from the temple complex that there were very few people there. I stopped and spoke with a Frenchwoman, who was waiting for the path to clear of the couple in front of us so she could take some more atmospheric pictures.

“Do you know the story of the stones?” She asked me.
“Yes,” I respond. “You throw a stone through the hole in the gate, and your wish will come true.”
“I did it,” she said. “And I missed.”
“You could always try again,” I said. “No one would know.”
“It’s alright,” she replied stoically. “I’m ok with missing.”

I felt that was a very French way of handling the situation.

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As this post has gotten quite lengthy, I’ll wrap it up here and continue on from Tokino’o (including my walk back to my house…uphill. Always uphill.)

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