The morning of my 24th birthday began with a headlong sprint for the train station. I’d woken up early for the 1.5 hour commute across Tokyo to Asakusa Station, but it wasn’t early enough. If I was late, I’d miss my 8:10 am train bound for Nikko.
Thankfully my birthday wasn’t spoiled, and I even had time to buy snacks before boarding. A few days prior, I’d purchased the “2-day Nikko Pass,” which included roundtrip train fare between Tokyo and the cozy mountain town of Nikko, just over two hours north of the city by rail.
Though the temperature had been rising in Tokyo as the spring bloom approached, the air here was brisk, warmed only by morning sunshine. After stepping off the train, I immediately boarded a bus; my 2-day pass also included unlimited rides between Nikko Station, the nearby UNESCO World Heritage Sites, and the more remote mountain outposts. My first stop was Toshogu Shrine.
2015 marks the 400th anniversary of Toshogu Shrine, a beautiful complex of decorative buildings covered in detailed wood carvings and gold leaf embellishments. The outer gate is sentineled with statues. At the entrance, a pagoda has five floors representing the elements: earth, water, fire, air, and aether. One of the first carvings inside the shrine is instantly recognizable.
The iconic three wise monkeys embody the proverb “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.” This particular panel is the most famous of eight, which in sequence depict the life cycle. I interpret this one as a precursor to a child’s loss of innocence; the following panels give visual representation to independence, looking to the sky with ambition, and honourably protecting friends.
Next, I crossed under a gate bearing another famous carving – the sleeping cat – and made an ascent up stone pathways and staircases through the forest to the Tokugawa Ieyasu Mausoleum.
This is the tomb of Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan under a feudal system from 1603-1868. The sleeping cat is a symbol of protection, to ward off evil. Visitors scribe messages of hope onto the back of wooden tablets and hang them in front of the mausoleum. A nearby Cryptomeria trunk has a prayer station in front of it with a sign that reads, “It is said that your dream will be realized if you pray to the tree.” Sounds like a pretty good deal.
My next stop was the lavishly decorated main building of Toshogu Shrine.
I had to take off my shoes and stow my camera in order to enter the prayer hall of the richly adorned inner shrine. You’ll have to take my word for it when I tell you she was a beauty.
Then I came to Honjido Hall, where the “crying dragon” resides. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures here either, so instead I took one of the pamphlet I was given, depicting the dragon painted on the ceiling of the hall. Inside, a priest clapped two blocks of wood together while standing in various locations, but in only one spot did the sound echo such that it seemed the dragon was emitting a shrill cry.
Also inside Honjido Hall were 12 statues representing the Zodiac signs, and a man selling omamori dedicated to each of the statues. Omamori are Japanese amulets, charms, or talismans that are typically sold at Shinto or Buddhist religious sites (Toshogu Shrine has elements of both religions) as a donation to the temple or shrine. They are kept on a person for various kinds of luck and protection, ranging from traffic safety to good fortune in childbirth.
As 2015 is the year of the sheep, and I was born in the year of the sheep, and it was my birthday, I figured I basically had to buy the sheep talisman; it would probably bless me with divine protection for all of eternity. I tried to explain this to the man that sold it to me, but I don’t think he understood what I was saying, because he just kept smiling and nodding. I’m not sure what specific kind of luck the sheep talisman will bring me (according to a cartoon I used to watch called Jackie Chan Adventures, it should gift me with the ability to eject my soul from my body, though I’m pretty sure I haven’t experienced this yet) so I’m assuming it will just generally ward off evil spirits.
It’s extremely disrespectful and detrimental to remove the amulet from inside the bag it’s wrapped in, as the power must be encased within so that it doesn’t leak into a world full of evils. As you can see, I also bought three monkeys for my keychain for an added layer of protection.
Next, I exited the shrine and followed a long path lined with stone lanterns, which were donated by Daimyo (feudal lords) from across Japan as symbolic offerings to Buddha. People had stacked stones on top of all the lanterns – whether this had some deeper meaning beyond stacking stones for fun, I couldn’t be sure.
Then I came to Taiyuin Mausoleum, a complex of structures commemorating Tokugawa Iyemitsu, the third shogun. The purification fountain was fed with fresh water from the mountains. I climbed many broad staircases through the forested hills, where I found some of the most colourfully and intricately decorated buildings of any in the World Heritage Site.
I finally decided to give my eyes a rest and caught a bus back into town. For lunch I had Tonkatsu (pork cutlet), one of my favourite Japanese dishes.
In the afternoon, I boarded a bus bound for the mountains. Chuzenji Onsen is a tiny town with an elevation of over 1200 metres, a comfortable tsunami buffer. It took almost an hour to reach from the Nikko valley, up steep winding roads. My bus driver, who I rode shotgun next to, took the 180 degree turns at an aggressive, dare I say frightening speed.
Yet I trusted he wouldn’t send us hurtling off the side of the cliff. As we ascended the mountain, the snow drifts became more frequent, until eventually most of the ground was covered.
I was not dressed appropriately for the cold, biting wind that I faced when I stepped off the bus, but I pressed onward. My first stop was Kegon Falls. The observation platform can only be accessed via an elevator that descends 100 metres through bedrock, but it offers a perfect view of the waterfall.
I didn’t stay long because a vicious wind was tearing over the platform, threatening frostbite. After riding the elevator back up, I thawed in Kegon Cafe. Their coffee was vile and overpriced, but it did its job of warming me up.
Then I walked back to the bus station to check how much longer I had, and I stumbled upon this intriguing sign.
My heart began galloping in excitement. I really wanted to see wild monkeys, and getting attacked by one on my birthday would be especially thrilling. Full of adrenaline, I hurried toward Lake Chuzenji and its surrounding hills.
A frigid wind was whipping across the lake and cutting into all of my exposed skin, but I was determined. The town was eerily deserted; maybe the cold was keeping people indoors, but this was a Japan I hadn’t seen yet, as I was accustomed to packed streets and endless crowds. The only person I saw was a man holding a white bag, and I considered asking him to borrow it to attract monkeys.
Unfortunately I didn’t see any other life forms. Perhaps it was because the monkeys target women and young children and weren’t interested in me. I returned to the bus stop slightly dejected, but ready to move on.
After blasting back and forth along the snaking road down the mountain, our bus pulled into Nikko Station. I hopped on another train that took me twenty minutes further north. By this time the sun was setting, making the landscape outside my window even more elegant.
I disembarked at Kinugawa Onsen, a hot spring town full of resorts. Most of the hotel rooms in the area cost a limb per night, but I’d found a good deal on a cheap room at Sudomari Hotel Roman Tsutsuji, a modest hotel off the main strip.
I was almost in trouble because I’d been banking on visiting the English-equipped tourist information centre, but it was closed by the time I got there. Thankfully Google Maps exists and I used it to navigate to my hotel, where a nice lady was waiting to greet me. We had to communicate using hand motions and Google Translate (how did people travel before Google?) but she showed me to my Japanese-style room with traditional tatami mat floors. I told her it was my birthday, which she excitedly congratulated me for, and a few minutes later came back with a custard desert. So nice of her!
I was pretty exhausted from a day full of travelling and sightseeing, but I couldn’t go to bed without bathing in an onsen. Most of the private hot springs are attached to the high end resorts and require reservations, but I researched a public onsen that wouldn’t force me to spend a small fortune.
Unfortunately Google Maps couldn’t even help me this time, because the names were all in Japanese and English wasn’t registering. According to the website where I learned about the onsen, it was located near Kinugawa Koen Station, the next train stop, about a twenty minute walk up the river. I left on a nighttime stroll hoping to find it. Checking signs along the way, I eventually discovered a cartoon map with what looked to be an onsen depicted at the end of some trails. By some miracle (maybe the sheep amulet’s luck) I finally found it, a lone illuminated building at the edge of a park.
The man and woman behind the counter didn’t speak a lick of English (and why should they? I should be the one speaking Japanese), but they managed to dig up a few sheets of paper with translated information about the onsen. Had a foreigner ever shown up here before? There was no indication. After entering, the looks I received ranged from mild interest to pure shock. I just went about my business of soaking in the hot water.
When you hear the words “public bath” in North America, images of filthy water occupied by obnoxious individuals might come to mind. This is not the case in Japan. There are firm rules that govern cleanliness and tranquility. Hygiene and respect are paramount, and the facilities reflect that.
I lay in an outdoor bath with a lining of smooth stones. Steam rose into the path of soft blue fluorescent lights. I was far enough outside of the city that stars were actually visible.
Thoroughly revitalized and warmed to my bones, I stopped on my way home at a tiny restaurant that was essentially only a bar with a few chairs. I ordered gyoza, one of my other favourite dishes, and had broken conversation with some locals. The bartender and chefs sang me a choppy yet enthusiastic rendition of Happy Birthday.
Friends sometimes express confusion and concern when I discuss traveling solo, and I’m sure some would find it weird that I did so on my birthday. However, in a way it’s a refreshing change to spend time utterly alone, especially in a place with a language barrier where I can’t even understand the conversations around me. While solo travelling isn’t for everyone, I must say it was nice to have full control over my schedule without worrying about anyone else. I had an authentic Japanese experience, and although it wasn’t the most wild birthday, it was certainly memorable.
After a less-than-luxurious tatami mat sleep, I checked out of the hotel and wandered around Kinugawa Onsen so that I could see it in the light of day.
I’m sure it’s even prettier in the summer.
I ordered a Japanese-style pizza (with toppings that included corn, dark green vegetables, and seafood) for the nearly 3 hour train ride back to the city. I’m reading an interesting novel called A Tale for the Time Being by Ruth Ozeki, recommended to me by one of the teachers I worked with at ASIJ. It’s narrated by two characters: a troubled girl in Tokyo, whose diary crosses the Pacific in a Hello Kitty lunchbox following the 2011 tsunami, and the woman who retrieves it on a beach in British Columbia. Though it portrays a darker side of Japan, it’s been a great read so far.
The buildings got taller and the train stations busier as I entered the city. Straight ahead was the Tokyo Skytree, towering over everything in sight at an impressive 634 metres. Its observation platform was calling my name.
The trilogy will be completed in Part 3!
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