I woke up at 2 am again, and since I had to get up at 5 am anyway I decided to just give up trying to go back to sleep at around 3 and instead planned my day out in Nikko. It was actually quite handy, I was able to plan my day, pack my bags and get all ready to go without rushing. I decided to walk to Asakusa, as I had a vague idea of how to get there after yesterday. Walking through Tokyo at dawn is an interesting experience. Tokyo is a full-on kind of city, and there are lots of people everywhere. But at dawn, it was just me winding my way through side streets and alleys and the Tokyo Skytree sometimes popping up in front of me with the sunrise behind lightly the sky aflame. The best way to explore anywhere is to walk around, and in some cities, you just feel good doing this. The last two days in Tokyo, just walking around taking it all in have been awesome. I managed to control the temptation to run into DonKihote, which is open 24 hours a day and made my way to the Tobu Nikko train on platform 4 of Asakusa. I was excited today because I would be able to get an ekiben for the ride to Nikko since it wasn’t a local train. There wasn’t much open though, and thus not a lot of choices so I ended up with 4 different kinds of tiny sandwich and a very large bottle of milk tea.
The train ride to Nikko is fascinating. You start to pull out into more suburban Tokyo and the high rise flats give way to houses, but these houses are still built back to back, a little like in SanFrancisco, and so there are no gardens. The lanes between them don’t feel claustrophobic though, I don’t know why. Perhaps because they are so clean, perhaps because people fill them with planters and hanging baskets. There is real pride in one’s space. Once we had left the Tokyo boundaries altogether we entered rural towns, where there were a lot more traditional house structures and a lot of farmland. The land began to change and we could see snow-capped mountains in the distance getting closer and closer with each chug of our train. They were soon towering over us as we rounded a corner and pulled into Tobu Nikko station. There are some things I need to investigate there tomorrow, the Hello Kitty tea shop and this cheesecake that is apparently a special delicacy of Nikko.
Once again transport wise things have been so simple. The trains are well signed and the bus schedule, once you get to Nikkon, is easy to follow. I was a little worried about getting lost in the more rural areas, but the bus schedule was great and Google Maps saves my day every day here. Soon we were winding up these dangerously bending roads to get to the first stop of the day. The cable car. I just love high up mountain views. There’s something about mountains, perhaps because they aren’t a common sight where I’m from. But once you see them you are struck with awe by how majestic they are. My favorites are capped with snow because that is how I would imagine mountains when I was a kid. We were in a valley and the views honestly rivaled the alps for absolute beauty. I would love to be here later in spring or in autumn where the leaves probably bring this whole mountainside alive, but winter has its own charm too. The shadows nearer the horizon cast dusky silhouettes against the sky. There was snow on the ground everywhere. The air was so clean as well. Have I mentioned I don’t use my inhaler here? Even in Tokyo! I am starting to believe I’m just massively allergic to London.
We continued on down another winding, scary road to Lake Chuzenji. These roads represent the water flow in Nikko, from the waterfalls in the mountains to the water that comes all the way down to the town. It’s all very clever. Lake Chuzenji was formed 20,000 years ago when Mount Natai erupted and blocked the river. It is a vast, blue lake surrounded by snow-capped mountain peaks, the biggest of which is Mount Natai. This is the lake I could see from the cable car trip. I immediately went to see Kegon Falls closer up and it was absolutely breathtaking. It’s a huge waterfall but then there are so many smaller ones around it. It falls into this huge rock basin and turns into this super blue fast running river. This being Japan, there is a lift that takes you all the way down to the bottom of the waterfall to a selection of viewing platforms. I was just in awe of this place. I love all water forms, the sound of water is calming to me you see. I love being in the water too, which is strange for someone who does not know how to swim. Waterfalls never fail to impress me, there is just something magical about them. This is one of the best waterfalls in Japan apparently and I definitely agree that it’s a sight to behold.
By the time I’d finished at Kegon falls I was tired and hungry and cold. It’s so much colder up by Lake Chuzenji, like probably just above freezing and the combination of that and my bag being heavy have made me a little grumpy. I decided I need food and I need it stat. After surveying the options of the small town I decide on this little restaurant run by an old couple. The man is super friendly and makes a delicious katsu chicken set meal, which consists of chicken katsu fried to perfection, salad, rice, miso soup and some orange segments that are SUPER DELICIOUS. The whole meal hits the spot and I manage not to embarrass myself too much with my dreadful chopstick skills. I can’t use a knife and fork very well either and honestly, I think I do better with the chopsticks than I do a knife and fork. The recharge is nice but I am still cold and tired, so get the 40 min bus ride back to Turtle Inn where I am staying. Nikko is such a quaint small town. There are shrines everywhere, which is expected for a place known for all it’s big world heritage shrines. What I love about Nikko is the sound of water everywhere. There is the Daiyagawa River that my hotel is on the banks of, which is runoff from the waterfall up in the mountains. But every street has designed channels that also carry waterfall water. Clay pots line streets and you can take water out of them, it’s super cold. I don’t know the purpose of these but it really gives the whole town a sense of calm, like when you have a water feature in your garden to add some serenity. I love walking around Nikko for this reason.
Turtle Inn is charming and my room is a cute little traditional Japanese room with tatami mat flooring, a futon already laid out with a heater to keep it warm and a low table and chair. It has sliding windows and I can see the river when I lookout. The owner tells me that I am the only person staying here, so I essentially have the whole place to myself. He’s super nice and I highly recommend this place if you come to stay. I dump my bag and have a renewed sense of energy so head out to look at Kanmangafuchi Abyss, which is a gorge formed by an eruption of Mount Nattai. When you walk along the banks of the river they are lined with Jizo statues. Jizō is one of Japan’s most beloved deities and is regarded as the Bodhisattva who cares for travelers and lost souls and is also the guardian of children. No-one knows how many there are because they apparently disappear a lot. I am the only person here and I see signs to beware of bears which immediately makes me want to see some bears. But alas, bears will always elude me.
A quick trip to Lawson for some chicken and snacks and I’m back in the Ryokan wearing a yukata and chilling out on my futon. I decide since I am the only person here, and since there is a private onsen, it would be silly to not use it. I know there are lots of customs when it comes to onsen baths, so I have a quick read up before I go in. It’s like a steam room, there’s a huge tiled tub filled with hot water that has a frog-shaped water feature that keeps adding water to the tub, continuing the theme of running water being so relaxing. The whole floor around the tub is tiled though, with two showers and taps mounted low on a wall. You crouch (or sit on a very low stool) and wash all over. Like seriously, you get down and dirty till you are squeaky clean. Once you’re clean you can go into the onsen. I had to tie up my hair into a high bun on my head because your hair can never touch the onsen water. When you get in it’s a shock at how hot it is, but as you sink it you soon adapt. It’s super deep, so when I sit at the bottom the water is up to my chin. I have my small towel on my forehead and I rest my head on the side of the tiled rim and just relax. The hot water feels so good on my left shoulder especially, where I have an injury remaining from November. I relax inside fully submerged for maybe 15 minutes and then I have to sit with just my feet in or with my torso out of the bath. It’s super hot and steamy and when I get out it’s nice to have snacks and tea awaiting me in my room.
The Japanese have a saying “Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikkō” and honestly it’s very true. I highly recommend staying up here at least one night if you’re in Tokyo. Tomorrow I’ll have a day exploring the shrines here before I head back to Tokyo for one last night at the Airbnb. Nikko is so beautiful though and just makes me want to travel only to rural Japan. I think next trip I want to spend more time in the Japanese Alps especially and just see all the beauty this wonderful place has to offer.