Ah, Nikko. A place I’ve been wanting to visit since the first time I came to Japan, but have had neither the time nor the money to do so. Neither of those limitations have changed, but I figured that I’m not up in Tokyo all that often and it’s OK to splurge every now and then 🙂
Unfortunately the weather was far too cold for us to hit the area as hard as we’d initially planned. The rain and remaining patches of snow certainly ruled out our plans of checking out Nikko’s famous outdoor Onsen. But we weren’t sure if they’d let us in with Ron’s tattoos anyways.
Nikko itself was exactly what I expected – an overwhelmingly tourist-oriented town with an overwhealming amount of natural beauty and history. It was first established as a sacred site by a traveling priest in the eighth century, but didn’t achieve fame until it was chosen as the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the most powerful warlord in the history of Japan. In 1603, Ieyasu established the shogunate which would rule Japan for 250 years right up until the Meiji Restoration, when the country finally opened its borders up for international trade.
The most notable difference between the Tosho-gu shrine (the actual site of Tokugawa’s mausoleum in Nikko) and virtually every other Japanese shrine is the level of detail. Many of the shrines, magnificent as they are, really are rather simplistic – it’s often the sheer size that draws the attention. But this place was as detailed and intricate as any of the palaces I saw in Spain, with carved statues, giant golden Buddhas, and dragons perched on every corner of every roof. Really quite spectacular.
The first thing you’ll see after entering the shrine complex is a five storied pagoda containing the Five Wisdom Buddha. Nearby are the sacred stables which include the famous carvings of the “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys (picture below). The Honji-do temple, the largest building in the complex, is the final resting place of the Yakushi Buddha, the physician of souls. Inside this temple is a huge ceiling drawing of the “roaring dragon,” the Japanese explanation of which I couldn’t really understand – what I could understand was why they chose to call it the “roaring dragon.” Standing beneath it and hitting two pieces of wood together yields a strange, vibrating echo that lasts for several seconds.
Further up in the temple complex is the Yomeimon Gate, which was believed to be so beautiful and flawless that the architect had the final supporting column installed upside down as a deliberate error, for fear of offending the Gods with its perfection.
Passing through the gate you’ll find a temple with a carving of a sleeping cat, one of Japan’s national treasures, along with Ieyasu’s tomb itself.
After exploring this major shrine complex, we spent some time hiking around in the surrounding mountains in search of one of the many natural waterfalls in the area. Along the way we stumbled on a number of small shrines up in the hills, and while I would’ve preferred for it to be a bit warmer, there’s something really “zen” about emerging from a forest into a snow-covered clearing containing a single isolated shinto shrine.
Man, I love this place.
But soon it was once again time to return for our last day in Tokyo. And while all three of us had sore throats by this time (I almost completely lost my voice after the three nights out of partying), the next day Jason woke up so sick that he could barely get out of bed, so Ron and I packed up and headed over to an area called Odaiba on our own.
Odaiba is another area of Tokyo I’ve never been to, and I have to say for a fairly unknown area (it wasn’t even mentioned in any of the guide books I looked in) I thought it was really, REALLY cool. It reminded me a bit of Kobe in terms of its ultra-futuristic look and feel. Odaiba is actually an island near Tokyo harbor, seemingly existing for the sole purpose of entertainment. On the island you can find everything from a small “beach” to a huge Toyota showroom to an entire indoor themepark, complete with rides and roller-coasters. Ron and I spent a few hours just exploring the area before we went into the Toyota showroom (free to enter, free rides, you can even test-drive cars on a little indoor course if you have a license!). Many of the cars were pretty plain, but they did have some pretty unique vehicles in there as well, and even a “history of cars” museum with a DeLorean!
After the car museum we met up with Jason and headed back to our hostel so that I could pack up and prepare for the following loooong day. In the next 24 hours I would have to wake up at 4am, ride local trains for 11 hours to get back to Kyoto, and then move everything I own across the city to the Ritsumeikan dorm by bus. And even though it nearly killed me, I DID IT!
So, I guess that just about wraps up (finally!) the story of Ron and Jason’s visit. The two of them are continuing on to Thailand in another day, and I’ll be preparing for class at Ritsumeikan and Sakura!