Go north! Nikko National Park Day 1
There are two directions to go from tokyo for a few days of meaningful escape.
One is to take the so called “Golden Route” south-west toward Hakone and Kyoto. But Japanese people often go north instead. Fit for couples, families and even a solitary getaway from the constant drone of societal pressures, it only takes about two hours on the new Tobu Revaty to get to the Nikko area. Once you arrive you will be in a haven of history, culture, nature, food and adventure, that can be experienced on many different levels.
Our first stop was Shimoimaichi station to experience a local delicacy called Yuba. Yuba is a fat and protein filmy by-product found on soy milk when it is boiled. It was first mentioned in Japan over 1,200 years ago. Like everything else, the Japanese make an art form out of something most would likely miss. We visited a Yuba factory to get a behind the scenes look, have a tasting and buy some of the many types of products made with this substance that the Chinese reported looks like an old woman's skin. Despite its appearance, the texture has a smooth and delicate mouth feel and it has a creamy subtle cheese like flavor. I wanted to explore deeper so I went for a full course Yuba lunch. I was amazed at how many different ways Yuba could be prepared. There was rolled, boiled, crepe style, a dumpling with pork and chicken, a crunchy almost candy like Yuba, a thin layered sashimi Yuba, and a fondue like version where you could dip vegetables! Everyone one of them had a slightly different flavor.
Next we boarded the Taiju steam Locomotive to go to Kinugawa Onsen. Taiju is the other name for the Shogun. From here to Tokyo was once called the “Kingdom of Steam Locomotives”. Boarding the train starts your journey back in time, as the male staff are in period dress and the women in kimonos and to make this a more family fun tour there is a ninja skulking around entertaining passengers young and old. Along the route locals will wave from homes, shops, and fields. I really started to feel the hospitality of the Japanese countryside.
The area is famous for the Kinugawa Onsen
When we arrived at Kinugawa station I watched the Ninja show and was cut down by the evil Ninja*, and had a chance to watch the SL train turn around while listening to the cheers of children. There is also a free foot bath but since the area is famous for the Kinugawa Onsen, I headed to Kinugawa Hotel for a much needed soak. You can bath in the Hinoki or Cypress bath, Oodaru-buro which is the one that looks like a giant wine barrel cut in half, and a short and cold walk outdoors gets you too a rotenburo or outdoor bath, which is surrounded by the Kinu river gorge. I took a little tour of the private baths for families, couples, or those wanting more privacy (good for tattoo clad bathers as well) and I was able to enjoy the nice hotel gardens. Last I wanted to get a better view of the gorge so I took a walk over to the Kinu-Tateiwa Otsuri suspension bridge. It was a pretty amazing view of the emerald Waters of the Kinu river.
*The attraction that the ninja appears in the SL ended on February 25, 2019.
The Kamakura Matsuri at the Heike Folk Village
We had one last stop before we went to the hotel, The Kamakura Matsuri at the Heike Folk Village. The village is devoted to preserving the lifestyle of the Heike clans, but I was there to see the Kamakura all lit up during this winter festival. You can actually dine inside them! So cool! It reminded me of my childhood building igloos in front of my home after the plows went by to clean the streets.
We were pretty tired, cold and hungry so we headed to the Hana To Hana hotel. As you enter down the long beautiful hallway, your path is gradually lit up as you walk. At the end of the hallway are 2 sets of gorgeously decorated doors that slide open one after the other and you arrive in the luxurious lobby area. I went up to my room to settle in. The rooms were amazingly spacious with a view of the snow covered mountain side and river below.
We all met in the lobby for dinner and were escorted to a private dining room where we could experience Irori style open hearth dining. It was like sitting around a campfire as we pondered our day. The meal was a full course experience. The meal was explained in detail and included sashimi, grilled beef and vegetables, tempura, a boiled pot dish and the Irori items on sticks stuck in the ash of the open hearth. But the stand out for me was the Hoba Ryori, a fish steamed in a large leaf. Along with the meal we drank beer, plum wine, and hot sake is served in a bamboo cup. If you only had one meal to try a variety of Japanese delicacies, this would be it. After the meal all I wanted to do is take a long soak in the outdoor bath. When I arrived back at my room, the calming atmosphere and surrounding natural beauty, made it hard to keep my eyes open, and I was quickly asleep.
Written by Mark James Hill