Exploring the beauty, history of Nikko, Japan

Photo by Sarah B. Hodge
Photo by Sarah B. Hodge

Exploring the beauty, history of Nikko, Japan

by Sarah B. Hodge
Stripes Japan

A sacred site for both Shinto and Buddhists since the 8th century, Nikko is home to a number of UNESCO World Heritage temples and shrines and gorgeous nature. To arrive in Nikko, the two main railways are Tobu Nikko (which departs from Tobu Asakusa Station), and JR. The JR Nikko Station is popularly attributed to a young Frank Lloyd Wright (the architect was actually Akashi Torao). The current station building dates to 1912 and is the oldest JR East wooden train station in operation. After his first visit to Japan in 1905, Wright and his disciples built 14 buildings around Japan including schools and residences, although only a few have survived, notably the façade and lobby of the 1922 Imperial Hotel now located at Meiji Mura in Inuyama. (https://www.meijimura.com/english).

Nikko’s shrines and temples consist of 103 structures spread over three complexes. Both Futarasan Shrine and Rinnoji Temple date to the 8th century and are dedicated to Nikko’s three sacred mountains, Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho, and Mt. Taro. Nature worship, or shugendo, dates back to ancient times and is still practiced today. Nikko Toshogu is an ornate Shinto shrine established in 1617 to enshrine Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. Sculptor Hidari Jingoro was responsible (literally singlehandedly so) for many of the shrine’s intricate carvings, including the nemurineko (sleeping cat), the three monkeys depicting see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil (iwazaru, kikazaru and minazaru), as well as the two dragon carvings at the karamon in Ueno Tōshō-gu, Tokyo.

Nearby Shinkyo Bridge is said to be the spot where the river god created a snake bridge across the Daiya River so the first priest could ascend Mt. Nantai. For many centuries, only Futarasan Shrine parishioners and the imperial court could make the crossing. It’s highly recommended to get the temple seal (goshuin) and temple seal book (goshuincho) at Shinkyo and Futarasan Shrine; the book features a beautiful gold-embroidered image of Shinkyo Bridge and Mt. Nantai in the background.

Nikko has been a popular tourist destination since the 19th century, and one of these Meiji-era resort hotels still proudly carries on the tradition. The Kanaya Hotel, Japan’s oldest resort hotel opened in 1873, retains the charm of yesteryear and is a Registered Tangible Cultural Property. Its notable guests have included multiple heads of state as well as Frank Lloyd Wright, Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, and Albert Einstein. The hotel is a stone’s throw from Shinkyo Bridge and makes an ideal starting point for exploring Nikko’s World Heritage sights. The Kanaya restaurant and café serve dishes steeped in history like the “Hundred-year Curry,” based on a Taisho Era recipe, and the wood-paneled Bar Dacite has over 200 kinds of single malt whiskey.

Another great lodging choice is Nikko Akarinoyado Villa Revage (https://nikkoakarinoyadovillarevage.book.direct/) run by friendly Kono-san and his son. There are eight basic Western-style twin rooms and one Japanese-style room that sleeps 2 – 4 (all guest rooms are on the second floor). The fantastic breakfasts and dinners (make sure to reserve at time of booking) and three unique private onsens, plus the fact that the owners will be happy to give you recommendations or a ride (limited parking is available if you will be driving), make this a great choice.

Tamozawa Imperial Villa was the summer resort of the Imperial Family and blends traditional Edo and early modern Meiji Period architecture. The 106-room wooden villa was constructed for Prince Yoshihito (later Emperor Taisho) as a retreat in 1899 using parts of a Tokugawa family residence that originally stood in Tokyo. The current building is only one-third of its original size, but remains one of the largest original wooden structures in Japan. The furnishings reflect a blend of Japanese and Western design, including parquet floors, carpeting and chandeliers.

While in Nikko, why not rent a yukata (summer only) or kimono and have a commemorative photo taken in front of the Shinkyo Bridge or historic shrines? In addition to kimono rental and dressing, Cocon Nikko (https://www.kimono-cocon.com/) provides a photography service to help you commemorate your trip to Nikko.

One of Nikko’s most famous local products is its soymilk skin, yuba, which is a staple in Buddhist devotional cuisine (shojin ryori). Many local restaurants feature yuba, including the excellent yuba-don at scenic Gyoshintei. Tucked away from the bustle of Toshogu Shrine, the beautiful wooded setting seems straight from a fairytale. Website: https://www.meiji-yakata.com/en/gyoshin/   You can also try your hand at making your own fresh yuba at the Nikko Yuba Manufacturing Company (E-mail niizuma@nikkoyuba.net).  Instruction is Japanese-only and a 30-minute guided tour / hands-on experience is available from 10:00 am to 3:00 pm. Reservations must be made one week in advance.

Into the abyss:

Kanmangafuchi Abyss features around 70 stone statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who is a protector of travelers, pilgrims, and children. The jizo lining Kanmangafuchi Abyss are called "Bake Jizo" (Ghost Jizo), "Narabi Jizo" (Jizo in a line) or "Hyaku Jizo" (100 Jizo). Legend has it that if you count the jizo in one direction, the number will change on your walk back; you will never count the same number twice!

Lake Chuzenji area:

Lake Chuzenji was created by an eruption of Mt. Nantai around 20,000 years ago and its forested shores are mostly undeveloped with the exception of Chuzenjiko Onsen. Two gems that I finally got to explore were the British and Italian Embassy villas on the shores of Lake Chuzenji. Ernest Satow, a British diplomat active in Japan’s Meiji Restoration, built a private villa on the south bank of the Lake Chuzenji in 1896. The villa was used as the British Embassy summer residence until 2008 before being donated to Tochigi prefecture in 2010, when it was opened to the general public. The British Embassy Villa Memorial Park presents exhibitions on British culture and Oku-Nikko’s summer resort history. Visitors can enjoy an afternoon tea and scone set approved by the current British ambassador to Japan while enjoying the breathtaking views of Lake Chuzenji.

The nearby Italian embassy villa was built in 1928, and its unique cedar bark exterior looks like it would be equally at home in the forests of Northern Michigan. The first floor of the main residence, mainly used by ambassadors and their families, is a single room incorporating a dining space and a study, each furnished with stove, and a living area in the middle. Period furnishings and tableware have been preserved, and you can enjoy Italian coffee at the small first-floor café.

Home to 48 waterfalls, Kegon is the best-known. With an impressive 97-meter drop, the falls are fed by water from Lake Chuzenji. You can view the falls from a free observation deck at the top, or ride a special elevator to a lower vantage point. The falls freeze over in winter and are a popular fall color destination as well. Nearby Ryuzu (Dragon’s Head) Falls, located on Yukawa River, is particularly beautiful flanked by autumn foliage from late October to early November. Yudaki (alternately spelled Yutaki) Falls on Lake Yunoko features a spectacular 70m branched waterfall.

Hangetsuyama and Akechidaira Ropeway offer superb views over Lake Chuzenji, particularly in autumn, while Yumoto Onsen is a hot spring resort located in the national park. Tendai-sect Chuzenji Temple offers superb views over the lake as well as several important artworks.

To access the Lake Chuzenji area, purchase a Tobu Chuzenji Onsen free pass for 2100 yen (children 1050 yen) which will give you two days of unlimited bus travel from JR Nikko to popular spots like Kegon Falls, Ryuzu Falls, and several onsen towns (http://www.tobu-bus.com/en/nikko). Note: if you or your family are prone to motion sickness, it’s a very good idea to take Dramamine before the ride as there are two dozen hairpin curves to reach the top of road and another 24 going down. The road (Iroha-zaka) is named after a poem that contains the 48 syllables of the Japanese alphabet, with each curve representing one syllable.

Nikko Goodwill Guides

Nikko Goodwill Guides: http://u-sgg.com/  Outstanding local guides will take you around Nikko and Oku-Nikko free of charge (you are expected to pay for the guide’s transportation costs and lunch).

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