Go north! Nikko National Park Day 2
A nature walk and some sledding
I woke up early to the sound of the rushing river below and the view of the snow covered mountain, had some Japanese tea while enjoying the scenery for awhile and then went down for breakfast. I arrived at a spacious big dining hall, and the staff escorted me to a private dining room where my friends were waiting. The breakfast was lighter but still very diverse. After choosing my a type of rice I tucked in. There was miso soup, rice, fish, tofu, sweeten egg, salad and a variety of small dishes and a choice of drinks. They also had natto, a traditional Japanese fermented bean dish sometimes eaten on rice. It's sort of sticky and some people say it smells feet. I don't like it but when in Rome, so I tried it. I still don't like it.
We packed our bags and boarded the Nature Planet van for a short drive for a nature walk and some sledding. I was worried I wasn't properly dressed and I was preparing my mind and body for the worst case scenario of getting lost in 10 feet of snow, but the staff had us sorted out and prepared boots and snow shoes. Once we arrived at the foot of the mountain we were given some instruction on how to put on snowshoes. It was my first time wearing them even though I grew up in New England. The guide showed us all the ways people trip themselves up. We were blessed by beautiful sunny weather. The Japanese winters can be very dry, sunny and warm. Once we suited up we were off. We headed toward the woods quickly got the hang of walking in the snowshoes. We soon ran into some rabbit and fox footprints and the guide was explaining the different walking styles of the two. There was little chance we would see any animals I think, since our group was making so much noise in the crunchy snow. We meandered around in the woods looking at animal feces, a wild wild boar trap and evidence of woodpeckers but the most interesting thing for me was the old abandoned Nissan bus rotting in the snow. I really have a nostalgic attachment to abandoned objects.
I was finally feeling detached from the pressures of work and congested thinking of city life and even felt a little closer to the team I was traveling with. It's amazing how traveling and especially nature can bring people together. After trekking for awhile we headed back to the van and prepared for a bit of sledding Japanese style. They had these little seats with a handle attached. Everything in Japan is so small. They were pretty cool. The snow was packed so we could get some intense speeds down the hill. We even got the drone out for some aerial footage but the sleds were too fast! I thought I was getting the hang of this tiny sled by the last run until the last bit I started turning left and couldn't recover. No injuries I actually enjoyed a bit of a controlled crash and just layed there looking up at the clear blue sky for a bit.
Nikko Edo Wonderland, a historical theme park
We needed to get going to our next stop, Nikko Edo Wonderland, a historical theme park where the staff is dressed in traditional clothing of the Edo era and act according to their societal status. As I walked down the main road into the park I was greeted by townspeople and felt like I was slowly slipping back into the past. I immediately headed to put on a traditional kimono outfit. You can choose which character you want to be and the towns people will treat you differently accordingly. I chose the Ronin character which is like a samurai without a master. Why a ronin? I'm a bit of a lone wolf so it fits my personality, and besides I get to carry a sword. After being dressed by all the chatty grandma's praising me for how cool I looked I immediately felt different, a bit of pride swept over me as I walked down the streets of the town and was greeted by the townspeople with respect. I decided to get some soba and tempura at a local shop then take a stroll. I did run into a bit of a scuffle with another samurai. He knew I didn't have a master and was showing me a bit of disrespect so I had to remind him of his manners. A crowd soon gathered to watch. It was pretty exciting! There really is too much to see here. There are museums, samurai and geisha shows and little traditional gift and restaurants. We could have spent a few days here but we had too much planned for the rest of the day.
We took a drive up a long and winding road to see the Kegon waterfall (bring some motions sickness meds if you need it). It’s at an elevation of about 1200 meters. There are many falls in the Nikko area but this one is quite accessible by walking from the parking lot and you can even go down to the base by elevator. The main waterfall is 97 meters high and a pretty spectacular scene! It is also close to the scenic Chuzenji Lake region. I have actually camped along this lake before. We had to stop by the lake for a quick photo. Then we were back down the mountain to check out the historic Nikko Futarasan Shrine founded in 767, part of the Nikko UNESCO World Heritage Site. Then a quick stop at the gorgeous lacquered Shinkyo bridge that crosses the Daiya River, one of the 3 most beautiful bridges in Japan. It's a scenic and romantic photo spot close by.
Our last stop was a bit of serendipity. We weren't scheduled to go to the Kanaya Hotel but we had a little time to kill before our train back to Tokyo. As we were sitting in the small cafe looking at the lovely Japanese garden and looking at the many historical photos of the hotels visitors, we were invited to tour the hotel by a famous charismatic local guide. This is Japan's oldest hotel for foreign guests, but not just any guests. As we walked these hallowed halls that housed such guests as Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, Frank Lloyd Wright, Eisenhower and even Heisenberg, I realized the significance of the hotel’s connection with Western culture. I can't imagine the conversations that went on here and the influence both the Japanese and their guests had on each other and the world. Even the architectural significance is enough to spend a night here. A particular stone local to Tochigi that I love, was used in many decorative features. It is easily carved and very strong and Frank Lloyd Wright used this in many of the buildings he built in Japan.
After leaving the hotel we took a stroll toward our departing station along the final segment of the Japan Romantic Road. The road was lined with many shops to get some last minute souvenirs and a quick bite to eat. It was a great way to transition back to modern Japan. I finally boarded my train back to Tokyo tired physically but refreshed and my mind filled with memories of my trip and ideas about where I want to visit on when I return.
Written by Mark James Hill