30 Hours (Give or Take) in Nikko, Japan

 

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Looking west across Lake Chuzenji. Kegon waterfall is behind and to the left about half a kilometer.

Translating literally as ‘sunlight’ or ‘sunshine’ Nikko, Japan greeted us with a slushy downpour, the alternating mix of drizzle and wet, heavy snow giving up its wintry pretenses and converting entirely to a sodden, pitilessly chilly rain after about 10 minutes. We’d been in Tokyo two hours earlier, where we hopped onto the Tobu Nikko line and headed up to this small city in the mountains about a hundred and forty kilometers north of the capital. It was a pretty ride, through the surrealistically enormous urban expanse of Tokyo and its environs before breaking free and winding through increasingly mountainous terrain towards Nikko, which is tucked into the bends and curves of a small river valley in Tochigi Prefecture.

Our first order of business was hostel location, our place of choice being the Nikkorisou Backpackers, a cozy, exceedingly quiet place located literally across the street from the bus stop and about a 2.5 minute stroll from the entrance to Nikko’s legendary Toshogu shrine complex. After dropping off the bags we made a break through the rain for Hippari Dako, a local noodle and yakitori (a Japanese chicken skewer) eatery that has been elevated to a kind of institution by Lonely Planet and numerous other travel authorities for the years and years of foreign currency and business cards scrawled with messages and left by visitors tacked to the walls. It was good, it was cheap, and warm food hit the spot after wandering around in the cold and the damp.

Nikko, Japan, travel, photography

Shinkyo Bridge, linking Nikko with the shrine complex.

Full, we wandered off to the shrine complex, past the Shinkyo bridge – a picturesque feudal remnant that connects the town to the shrines, and up towards a forest of ancient Japanese cedars that are staggering in size and age. Conventional wisdom predicts that it is easy to burn oneself out on shrines and temples in Japan, which is true, there are thousands upon thousands of them – many beautiful, of historical and cultural importance, and lauded in travel literature – but, Nikko is particularly beautiful due to the lavishly constructed mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns and the world famous cedar forest which was planted over 400 years ago by a feudal lord serving the first Tokugawa Shogun. The complexities of Japanese political history aside, the cedars in Nikko are awe inspiring, enormous pieces of the living past and the shady, peaceful hush that hangs over the entire complex is due largely to their sweeping needle covered boughs. Also be sure to check out the ‘Sacred Stable’ with its carving of the three wise monkeys – ‘hear no, see no, speak no evil’.

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A cedar lined road in Nikko.

After walking around the various shrines and struggling to maintain footing on slush and ice encrusted sidewalks, we headed back into town and grabbed a cup of coffee, some cheesecake, and hunkered down to wait out the last hour before check in. By this time the rain had been reduced to light, infrequent drizzles so our walk back to Nikkorisou Backpacker’s was at least semi-dry. We got checked in, stowed our things, then relaxed for a while. Nikkorisou is an adorable place, quaint, unique, with a traditional wood stove and Japanese living room, and the bunks were, like, the absolute perfect level of snug and warmth. We made a break for dinner around 6 or 7, getting into downtown right as the sky decided to let go again. So, forced by weather and desperation (there was almost nothing open), we ducked into a non-descript local joint run by a most excellent gentleman named Akira Asai who plied us with beers, spicy shrimp, noodles and polite questions about our lives and travels. A brisk walk back to the hostel through the rain and that it was it for our first 12 hours in town.

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Kegon Waterfall pouring down just below Lake Chuzenji

Day two brought sun and blue skies and we headed up into the surrounding mountains towards Nikko National Park to check out famous waterfalls, hopefully spot some wandering Japanese Macaques, and generally just enjoy snow and trees and gorgeous winter scenery. We stopped first at Kegon Waterfall, a 100 meter tall cataract at the outlet of Lake Chuzenji. It was much colder at higher altitudes, and my hoodie/rain jacket combo was a bit light for the fierce winds careening eastward over the lake, but out into the weather we went. Kegon is accessed by an elevator tunneled straight through the rock connected to an underground bunker style visitors’ area that in turn leads out to an observation deck built right into the walls of the gorge. We huddled for a bit, snapped some pictures, then made a quick café stop for coffee and pastry before catching a bus further up into Nikko National Park on Route 120.

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More views of the mountainous Nikko National Park

Our next stop was Yudaki falls, right below Lake Yunoko. From the falls we trekked maybe half a kilometer up a trail covered in about two and half feet of snow. Not the easiest climb, but not the longest either, and twenty odd minutes later we were at the lakeshore on a wooden bridge watching an early morning snow shower drop enormous flakes lazily across the water and mountains. Watched for a few minutes, headed back down the hill, and saw a wandering troupe of Japanese Macaques, or Snow Monkeys. Making their way along a hillside far from the road, the animals weren’t exactly close, but still cool, and curious to see a creature so often associated with jungles and tropical environments wandering around in a snow covered mountain forest.

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Hugging a 400-500 year old cedar.

After the monkeys we caught another bus back into town and checked out, returning to Tokyo around two or three in the afternoon. With only one night and less than 36 hours to explore, was Nikko worth the trip? I’d say absolutely. Nikko is actually probably perfect for one or two day trips, especially on an All Nikko Pass which provides unlimited access to buses and trains over a four day time period. Far from the frenetic pace of urban Japan and with no real night life to speak of the town is not the most exciting place to be after 7pm, but it is set in an absolutely gorgeous area filled with hiking and other outdoor opportunities. Nikko also perfectly illustrates one of the most impressive things about Japan: the near-perfect combination of ultra-modern mega-city living, small town life, and untouched natural beauty; all three seem to be in Zen like proportion, a harmony that is obvious after a day trip to Nikko.

Full gallery below:

 

Chops’ Tips: TOKYO

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View of Tokyo Skytree

We only had the pleasure of visiting Japan for 4 days over New Years, and as fleeting as our time was, I have to say, I’m in loooooooove! Since living in China, I’ve gotten a little jaded by all the pollution, loogie ridden sidewalks, and the daily regime of riding my bike in and out of crazy traffic like I’m in a game of Frogger. So it was nice to escape to a place where there are blue skies for days, people who adhere to traffic laws, and cutting in line could get you a swift kick in the face (see photo below)

Subway Sign

Subway Sign

Tokyo DO’s:

1.) As I overhead a girl in a bathroom say, “I have a love affair with Japanese toilets.”

Enjoy the allure of the Japanese toilet with all its bells and whistles

2.) Meander through the narrow streets, parks and temples of Old Tokyo

3.) Eat sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market

4.) Catch a view of the never ending city up in the Tokyo Skytree

5.) Spot the array of fashion subcultures over in Harajuku

6.) Catch a sumo wrestling tournament (which btw are only held during odd months)

7.) Hop a fast train and get out of the city to a neighboring town

 

Tokyo TIPS:

1.) Make sure your socks match –  a lot of places, including the two hostels we stayed with, required you to remove your shoes once entering.

2.) The streets don’t have names – Its quite confusing at first but how it’s designed is major streets have names and the rest are defined by numbered blocks. Within the blocks, houses and buildings are assigned numbers but not necessarily in numerical order. They are assigned numbers based on when the building was built. So building 3 might be beside building 8 (happy hunting!). Typically street addresses are posted on telephone poles, which you can look for at the end of the street. In case you get lost, there are usually detailed street maps by subway exits.

3.) Make sure you don’t go broke – I am sure we just ran into some bad luck, but the night before we departed we were low on cash and not sure we would have enough to get back through the subway and onto the Narita Express. We tried every ATM in all the convenience stores but they only serviced Japanese debit cards. Luckily we had enough but it would have been a real bummer had we not!

4.) Get your subway on!  For 1000 yen (roughly $12 USD) you can get an unlimited subway pass good for one day on all Tokyo Metro Lines. This is nice if you have planned a day of sightseeing all over the city.

Konnichiwa friends!!

View from Tokyo Skytree  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA DSCN6898  OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA  IMG_4111 
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Chops’ Tips: JAPANESE CUISINE

What foods to try?

                                                                   Okonomiyaki 

Japanese Pancake

Okonomiyaki

This is a Japanese style pancake made from sliced cabbage, and a flour/egg based pancake mix. Some additional ingredients you can add are mushrooms, pork, onions, squid, shrimp, scallops, etc. Its served to you raw and it’s up to you to cook it – which is part of the fun!

Follow these steps:

1. Rub oil over the griddle

2. Mix all the ingredients together and pour onto the griddle

3. Cook until golden brown on one side, then flip and cook on the other side

4. Its served with Okonomiyaki sauce, mayonnaise, nori-seaweed or fish flakes

Monjayaki 

This dish is very similar to Okonomiyaki except that consistency of the finished product is not solid. You eat it straight off the grill using a special tiny spatulas. This is another D.I.Y. meal.

Monjayaki

Monjayaki

Follow these steps:

1. Stir the ingredients in the bowl

2. Pour a small amount of batter onto the griddle and create a hole in the middle so that is looks like a donut

3. Pour some more batter into the middle of the hole and stir lightly

4. Pour the remaining batter over top and stir again. Let it cook for a few more minutes, then eat straight from the griddle!!

Mochi Ice Cream

This is a Japanese dessert made from mochi (pounded sticky rice) and filled with ice cream. They are quite tasty and can be found in various flavors. I was able to find them in the convenience store’s freezer section.Yummers!

Mochi Ice Cream

Mochi Ice Cream

First Impressions: Tokyo, Japan

Tokyo Japan Travel Photography

It’s easy to be overwhelmed by new surroundings. Stepping into a Tokyo subway station is like stumbling off an elevator onto a casino floor. A sudden flood of lights and sounds and signage. Mostly foreign, all insistent. Exposure to such an intense sensory environment also initiates a kind of flight or fight response: what do I do? where do I go? I’m already lost! And let the panic roll. This is of course due to unfamiliarity. With a bit of time and repetition, the station noises would fade out, relevant information would take center stage, and things would start making sense (although this fact does very little to help first time visitors in places as intimidating as Tokyo).

It’s also an understandable human tendency to draw conclusions and make potentially crude generalizations, a habit that most likely (see what I did?) has a biological explanation. But, generalize I must. As mentioned, Tokyo is well lit. It is a very bright place. It is also covered in signs of every conceivable type. Instructional, directional, advertorial, informational, prohibitional – Tokyo is probably the diagrammatic, public-posting capitol of the planet.

Tokyo is a procedural city, lacking any visible hint of the ad hoc atmosphere found in places like, say, Beijing¹. Traffic is organized, the sidewalk is conspicuously divided into pedestrian and bicycle halves. Trains and subway cars are clearly and redundantly marked with points of entry and egress – everyone observes this information and acts accordingly. Cellphone use is prohibited on the subway – everyone also observes this. Lines form and function smoothly. People do not jaywalk, or litter really, turning vehicles do not try and out maneuver pedestrians with right-of-way. I assume all of this is the result of both legal and cultural expectations.

Judging by the train ride from the airport and views from the 350m tall Tembo Deck of the Tokyo Skytree, the city appears almost infinite. A horizon to horizon sprawl ending only at the edge of Tokyo Bay. This is obviously hyperbole, but, the fact remains that Tokyo is a massive place (the largest metropolitan area in the world actually, with 31 million people) making it all the more strange that it isn’t actually very tall. Unlike Hong Kong or Singapore that stretch out vertically in breathtaking ways, it is a horizontal city. Its buildings do no blot out the sun and divide the streets and sidewalks into the shaded bottoms of concrete canyons. These two things: the lack of a coherent, high-rise “center” and the sheer vast expanse of it all lend Tokyo a kind of vagueness, a nondescript quality reminiscent of an urban version of the Siberian wilderness, and enhance the intimidation one feels upon first arrival.

These observations are obviously and admittedly based on a fleeting 24 hours of experience. Following some more sightseeing and rambling exploration some of this will most likely be rendered obsolete and at least partially incorrect. An opinion that will probably not change though: Tokyo is the most orderly, clean, polite city I’ve ever been in.

¹ Beijing can be a Kafkan nightmare of procedure and legal formality, but traffic law, sanitation, statutory law, vending – both food and merchandise, and a variety of other behaviors and activities conducted in the public realm are decidedly a-procedural, one of the many reasons I enjoy China so much.