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SOLO JAPAN 3.-16.11.2002.
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Thursday, 14th of November 2002
Tokyo <-> Nikko

Day Twelve :
Nikko shrines

Time to look at another "must" attraction

All the travel guides say that if you stay in Tokyo, taking a day excursion to Nikko is a must, as it's one of Japan's most historical places just 128km north from the capital.

Nikko is the mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who died in 1616. His grandson Iemitsu began the construction of the Toshugu Shrine by putting 15,000 artisans to work. To get an idea how extraordinary the project was, 2,5 million sheets of gold leaves were used to decorate the buildings. So it sounds like I won't be looking at concrete houses for a moment!

I headed for the Asakusa station early in the morning, which was only a few minutes walk away from the hotel. Since my Japan Rail Pass had already expired, I had to buy a train ticket from the ticket machine. I would have preferred the slightly slower train which would have cost 1000 yen less, but I wasn't in the mood to find out how the ticket machine would have given me that option. So I settled for a 2900 yen ticket (one way).

Arriving at Nikko

The train trip didn't take more than two hours, which contained an exchange of trains at the very last stop before Nikko station. Nikko was easily the smallest town I've visited in Japan and it wasn't a bad thing at all. The mountain landscape was nice and the air was clean, though I have say that the air in Tokyo for instance wasn't as bad as one might fear. It isn't clean, but it could have been worse.

I grabbed the essential maps from the tourist information center and walked through the small town towards the main attractions of Nikko. As Nikko was about 640 meters above sea level, the weather was clearly colder than in Tokyo or Kyoto, but the brisk mountain air was refreshing.

A shrine near perfection

After a 20 minute walk, I reached the famous Shin-kyo bridge that crosses the Daiya-gawa river. However, I was disappointed to notice that it was wrapped under blankets for repairs. Not worth photographing even though it had a large picture of the bridge over the blankets.

I continued walking through a small forest park before I made it to the Toshogu shrine . The shrine itself was decoration galore. It really differed from the temples back in Kyoto or any other place I've visited in Japan. Simple, plain zen isn't really the description for these buildings. The shrine's colours of red, black and gold fit perfectly with the forest's green and brown and the sky's blue and white. At places it felt like I was caught in a fantasy world.

The Toshogu shrine had many interesting details and quirks, such as having one of the pillar's pattern upside down to avoid perfection. The reason is said to be that perfection would only attract evil! Probably the most known image of the shrine is the wooden carving of three monkeys: "children should hear, see and speak no evil, learning only that which is good".

Buying a new instant camera

The film of my instant camera was full, so I had to buy another one as my digital camera's two 128mb memory cards were already packed with photos I would find hard to delete.

There was an old Japanese guy selling film and instant cameras. At this point of my journey I had given up hope that a Japanese shopkeeper would speak English, so I skipped the talking and just pointed at the camera I wanted. He looked at me like he was offended and asked clearly, "Do you speak English!?". He totally surprised me and I muttered something in approval and said what I wanted. Kind of embarrassing I fell into assumptions just at the wrong moment.

Close to the Toshogu shrine was the smaller Futarasan shrine, which continued the same insane trend of overdecorated buildings in perfect harmony with the surrounding mountain forests.

Wandering around Nikko

Once I decided to leave the shrine area, the day continued by visiting small shops and viewing the mountain landscapes of Nikko.

At some point I entered a souvenir shop, where the elderly shop keepers were just taking it nice and quiet and it felt like business was running pretty slow for them. But when a Japanese tourist group leaded by a tourist guide entered the shop, the shop keepers jumped up like they had just taken a vitamin shot and took their battle stations, announcing what great sales they have today (one of them even grabbed a microphone to make sure her voice would be heard). The noisy tourists systematically bought their souvenirs and returned to the tour bus as fast as they came. Then it was dead quiet again. Very efficient tourism.

Friendly station staff

I returned to the train station and bought the cheaper ticket back to Tokyo. Since there was some time before the train would leave, I visited some souvenir shops next to the station and bought a yokan bar (sweet bean-paste jelly) as a souvenir.

But then I goofed things badly. I suddenly noticed that I had spent more time in the shops than I imagined. I ran back to the station, only to see the train I was supposed to get on was already leaving.

However, the station assistant who sold me the ticket earlier saw this and gave me a ticket for the next train for free! What a friendly gesture from the Japanese again! I then killed more time at the same souvenir shops, but this time I returned to the station way in advance.

The die hard cueing system

Like I've mentioned earlier, the Japanese always form a waiting line at a train or bus stop, but at the Nikko station I thought this custom was taken a bit too far.

When I arrived at the platform where my train would leave for Tokyo, where was another train taking passengers in. The train's doors were open and people were entering it as normal, but right in front of these doorways some people had already formed a line for the next train!

Once the train left and the train for Tokyo came to the platform, I got a seat despite being in the other end of the line. With the train rocking the seat gently, I finally resisted temptation and did what most of the other Japanese did in the train: sleep, since it was pretty safe to do so.

Back at Asakusa

The train arrived at Asakusa station. I entered an apartment store above it and searched for a photo shop where I could develop my instant camera film. I did find one, which also had a self service photograph developing machine. You slot in your memory card containing digital photos and choose from a colour display the desired images to be printed. Then insert the money required and the machine prints them for you right away!

I took one test print from the machine and didn't leave the instant camera's film to be developed there when it turned out it wouldn't be ready to pick up before I leave Japan.

The department store was closing and as I was leaving the building, I noticed that all the shop assistants had lined up along the walkway of each floor level and bowed as I passed! Yet again a good example of the politeness level in their culture!

In fact, I forgot to mention that no matter what shop I have entered in Japan, every employee in the shop has always welcomed me by saying "Irrashaimase!". Certainly something different than what I'm used to back in Finland.

Passing four maikos and not reacting

As I was walking through an ordinary looking market street, I came across again one of those magic moments where modern and traditional Japan meet.

First I didn't quite understand what was going past me. In front of some shop there were four laughing young women wearing kimonos with full face make ups. For some reason I tried to reject the conclusion they were maiko, apprentice geishas. But when a Japanese salaryman stopped close to me, turned towards the women and muttered in a surprised tone "maiko...", I had to believe what I just saw, but I kept on walking.

When I realized I had to get a photograph of them, I picked up my camera and turned around, but I couldn't see them anywhere! Argh. Picturing four maikos with neon lights in the background would have really been something. >_<

I had a go at McDonald's, just to check is there any difference between a BigMac in Finland and Japan. Nope, a BigMac is a BigMac, even in Japan. The price was about the same too.

Other than that, the day was pretty much wrapped up. Nikko's shrines where absolutely worth visiting and I can imagine it must also be a great place for hiking too. Worth checking out if you are hanging around Tokyo, unless you are a hardcore urban explorer or party animal. Asakusa being the "old" part of Tokyo is probably the best place in the metropolis to spot maikos and geishas. That said, don't expect to see one in every corner (if any!).

Update: Though at the time I suspected the women beign maikos, these days I think they actually were just ordinary Japanese tourists dressed up as them, as they are a much more common site these days than the real thing.

back to top | proceed to day thirteen

 

Photo copyright Ude
We're not in Tokyo anymore, Toto.

Photo copyright Ude
An entrance to the Toshogu shrine (not the main gate however).

Photo copyright Ude
The Gojuu-no-too pagoda next to the main entrance to the Toshogu shrine.

Photo copyright Ude
The famous carving of three monkeys.

Photo copyright Ude
A part of the Toshogu shrine with details that made me go ga-ga.

Photo copyright Ude
Kami-Shinmichi avenue that takes to Futarasan-jinja (I know it doesn't say much, sorry).

Photo copyright Ude
Ceiling decorations.

LINKS TO SERVICES, PLACES, ETC. MENTIONED TODAY:
Nikko - For more information of Nikko's valuable shrines, visit this website.
McDonalds - Heck, I had a BicMac, so I might as well throw in a link as well. :-)

 

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