Shrines, Kayaks and Edo in Nikko 日光

20th – 22nd August

Day 1

After getting back from Hokkaido we were keen to fit in one more little trip before Maddy had to return to work on Sunday. We decided on Nikko as it’s only 2 hours drive from Tokyo and is a must-visit historical spot in Japan. Maddy had visited Nikko in high school briefly but was excited to see it again. So we booked a cabin, a rental car and set off on Thursday morning.

We drove straight to the Nikko shrines and spent the day wandering through the many temples, shrines and pagodas in the area. And my oh my are there a LOT of temples there! The whole area is called Toshogu shrine and was built for and dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the great unifier of Japan.

Five-storied pagoda

Before Tokugawa Ieyasu unified Japan they were in a long-lasting civil war. He led Eastern Japan into the battle of Sekigahara and won, thereby unifying the country under the rule of the Tokugawa clan. The Tokugawans ruled over Japan for the next 268 years, until the Meiji period began.

The reason that Toshogu shrine is so salient is that it is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu. He is enshrined at the top of 207 stairs, accessed from within the walls of the main shrine area. The Sakashitamon Gate at the entrance to the stairs bears a carving of a sleeping cat and 2 sparrows, signifying the peace of a unified Japan.

Sleeping cat and 2 sparrows guarding Tokugawa’s tomb.

Before reaching Tokugawa’s grave, you must walk past a number of buildings including the sacred horse stable that houses the shrine’s sacred horse, currently a horse from New Zealand, gifted to Japan by Jacinda Ardern. It is the only shrine in the country with a sacred horse from overseas. Unfortunately (probably due to the heat), the sacred horse was not out for viewing on the day that we were there. The stable however, also carries the carvings of the three wise monkeys, the embodiment of a Japanese proverb to show you how to live a good life (hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil).

Further on from the stable lies the Yomeimon Gate, which has been deemed a national treasure. The intricate carvings on the gate depict scenes of people’s lives, while one of the posts holding up the gate has been purposely placed upside down (the carvings don’t match the direction of the other posts). This is because it is bad luck to have a perfect structure as it will anger the gods. Therefore, you will often find structures in Japan that are imperfect.

Yomeimon Gate

Inside the Yomeimon Gate are a number of other buildings including the Portable Shrine House, that houses the portable shrines that carry the gods during festivals as well as the Honjido Hall, home of the ‘crying dragon’. The dragon painted on the ceiling of Honjido Hall ‘speaks’ when two blocks are clapped together beneath its head and no where else in the hall.

After we’d taken in the grandeur of the Toshogu Shrine, we wandered briefly to the shrine next door, the Futarasan Shrine. This shrine is dedicated to the 3 sacred mountains of Nikko: Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho and Mt. Taro. By this point we were very hungry and looking to escape the muggy heat so we headed down towards town to see what we could find. We chose a Japanese restaurant that served cold soba noodles and had air-conditioning to cool down in before our next stint outside.

Georgia at the back-up shrine where the gods are moved to when renovations are being done on the main shrine.

After lunch we headed to the Treasure House that displays portable shrines and the personal effects of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Some of these included swords (lots of them), scrolls, artwork and clothing (helmets and armour).

Our last stop in the shrine area of Nikko was the Shinkyo Bridge, a sacred, red bridge, considered to be one of the three most beautiful bridges in Japan. Shinkyo 神橋 Bridge is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site and is beautifully situated over the Daiya River.

Shinkyo 神橋 Bridge

Finally, we made our way to our accomodation for the next 2 nights and we were so excited to see it in person. We had opted to stay in a cabin, instead of our usual hostel because it was just about equal in price and was easy to access. We stayed at ‘Sweden Village’, a collection of adorable little red cabins off a wooded road on the edge of Nikko. With a simple, but comfortable set up inside, we were able to cook ourselves dinner in the kitchen and had very comfortable futons to sleep on (the eggshell mattress definitely helped).

Sweden Village, Nikko

Day 2

Wanting to fit in something water related, as it is summer after all, we did some research on the drive to Nikko as to what water-based activities we could do on Lake Chuzenji, a large lake in the mountains near Nikko. During said research we came across a company (Tochigi Kayak Centre) that do kayaking on the lake, as well as in the Kinugawa river. We decided on Kinugawa River kayaking as we’ve already visited Lake Chuzenji before and the river tour included more activities.

Maddy

Upon arriving at the centre carpark, we were given a checklist of things to bring with us and were all bundled into the shuttle bus that took us to the kayak centre. We were introduced to our English-speaking guide from Nepal, handed our gear (helmet, lifejacket, shoes, paddle) and given some instructions before walking down to the river.

Happy campers

At the river we had to test the water temperature (very cold!) and then had a paddling lesson on land. Thankfully, as we have kayaked many times before, the lesson in full Japanese was not vital to be able to understand. Our English speaking guide translated the important points for us and we jumped in our kayaks and set off down the river.

Chasing waterfalls

It was a very leisurely paddle as we had some beginner kayakers in the group who drifted off course a few times. We practiced kayaking skills by paddling under trees and turning in circles on the spot.

Don’t let the smiles fool you, it was SO COLD!

A little further down the river we pulled up at a sand bank and jumped in for an icy swim and a duck under the small waterfall. Then, it was onto the terrifying part of the tour, cliff jumping. Five of us from the group decided to jump, while everyone else watched on from the sand bank. We paddled around and climbed up onto the cliff. The guide gave us some instructions in Japanese while our English guide was at the bottom taking pictures. Judging from the gestures it was along the lines of, hold onto your lifejacket as you jump, don’t hold your nose or you could poke your eyeballs and don’t put your hands up as you could dislocate your shoulder.

Let us tell you now that from below, a 5 metre cliff doesn’t look that high, but my word when you step up to the edge it looks incredibly high. We both thought that we wouldn’t jump when we stepped up to the edge but the pressure of the ‘san, ni, ichi’ (3, 2, 1) countdown pushed us over the edge. The drop was terrifying, never have we fallen for so long, but finally reaching the water was a relief and the cheers from everyone afterwards were very welcome.

Georgia

After our death-defying antics, we got back in the boats and paddled to another waterfall before making our way back to shore. Despite the need to conquer our fears, it was an absolutely awesome experience!

More waterfalls

After kayaking we headed back to our cabin for a little r&r before setting off to Lake Chuzenji for the afternoon.

Kegon Waterfall

At Chuzenji we visited the Kegon Waterfall, the third largest waterfall in Japan before pulling into a carpark by the lake to watch the sun set over the mountains. We then tried and failed to find an open restaurant at which to have dinner. But on the bright side, driving around to find a restaurant saw us visit a lot of the lake’s shoreline and some of the beautiful camping spots and chalets by the lake.

Mt. Nantai, Lake Chuzenji

After our fruitless efforts to find an open restaurant we headed back into Nikko to have dinner and retired to our cabin for the night.

Day 3

Having done almost everything in Nikko that we wanted to do, we decided to visit Edo Wonderland, an Edo-period theme park.

Edo Wonderland is located in Nikko, incredibly close to the kayaking centre. There’s heaps of parking (800円/day) and the parking guides are all dressed in Edo period uniforms. Alternatively there are buses that can take you there from the station. We bought our tickets for entry (4800円) and headed on through to the village.

Edo Wonderland showcases arts, crafts, design, architecture, food and fashion of the Edo period with actors and staff in traditional dress to set the aesthetic.

The crooked ninja training house

One of the villages in Edo Wonderland is the ‘Ninja Village’ where you can watch a ninja play about the history of ninjas, find your way out of a ninja maze, try to make it through a crooked ninja training house (very difficult to stay upright!) and watch the junior ninjas be trained (kids ninja training).

Inside the ninja training house
Ninja maze – to be clear, we didn’t surrender, we made it out the honourable way.

There are a number of other shows on during the day and one of the kind staff members who could speak English recommended the magic water show. It was hilarious, unusual and puzzling, but I would highly recommend giving it a watch.

Magic water show

Besides the shows, there are a number of activities that you can get involved in at Edo Wonderland including cooking, playing instruments and partaking in traditional crafts. Unfortunately the shamisen lessons were cancelled due to corona, but we had a nice chat to the lady who was playing the shamisen as a display. We did however, get to paint our own daruma and do a workshop on woodblock painting. Finally, we popped into the ‘toast your own senbei’ workshop where the instructor busily instructed us to turn it every three seconds, ‘one, two, three, change’.

The senbei we toasted
Daruma painting
Wood block painting

The concluding event was the ‘Oiran procession’ through the streets where the incredibly dressed oiran (Japanese courtesan) and her entourage performed a very slow procession in enormously high geta (wooden sandals). It was a marvel to witness.

Oiran procession

And that marked the end of our summer vacation, so after the experiences of the day we jumped in the car and headed back to Tokyo.


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