As you know, I’ve been back in Japan for a little over a week now. Since I’ve been back, I’ve managed to get to Tokyo to hang out with Taryn & Lindsey, visit some museums, do some shopping, clean my apartment (?!), fully recover from my jet-lag, and hang out with some new and familiar faces here in Ashikaga. On a whim, I decided to visit Nikko. It’s not a far trip at all from Ashikaga. It is possible to get to Nikko very quickly from where I live, but since I enjoy riding on trains, and had the entire day free, I decided to take the local trains, which take about an hour and a half and cost a mere 1110 yen. In Japanese, Nikko means “sunshine.” Unfortunately, it wasn’t a sunny day when I went, but I still had an awesome time!
When I arrived in Nikko and started orienting myself to the map, my sense of direction absolutely failed me. I felt hopelessly lost for some reason. I think it may have been jet-lag related, but maybe I’m just plain no good at reading maps. Instead of making the trek up to the entrance of the world heritage site myself, I decided to take the bus from the station.
The bus drops you off in front of a bronze dragon fountain and a statue of a wondering monk. Behind this, there is a parking lot, and in this parking lot is a small red building that sells entry tickets to all of the important shrines & temples in the world heritage site. You can purchase this strip of tickets (which are good for two days) for 1000 yen at this little booth. Unless you are only there to see the Toshogu shrine, and want to skip all of the seemingly extraneous temples and shrines, then by all means, go for that admission. However, I found that it was significantly cheaper to purchase this strip of tickets than to pay entry fees for each individual site. With the little book of tickets, you’ll get to visit the Three Buddha Hall in Rinnoji temple, the main grounds of the Toshogu shrine, the Honjido, Futarasan shrine, and the Taiyuin. Despite this, there is a separate entry fee to see the 眠り猫 (sleeping cat) and the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Whoever wrote the piece on Nikko in my Lonely Planet Guide wasn’t too keen on this, but I enjoyed the trek up the big stone steps to see Ieyasu’s grave. I liked the sleeping cat, too. So ha.
The architecture at the Toshogu shrine is super unique. You will not see anything this heavily embellished in the Chinese style anywhere else in Japan. Supposedly they hired thousands of artisans to decorate the buildings, and presently they’ve hired a small team of restorative artists to bring the shrine back to its original splendor. They’ve done a really good job restoring both Ieyasu’s shrine and his brother’s shrine. While I was there, the Toshogu shrine was under some pretty heavy restoration work. The whole outer corridor was covered in scaffolding, but they had clear panels of plastic hanging up so you could see the restoration in progress, which I thought was pretty cool.
Speaking of artisans. Apparently the guy they had to carve the elephants on the storehouse (and you can tell it’s a storehouse because of the tightly woven beams on the bottom half of the structure. That is a typical storehouse construction. Storehouses were pretty plain buildings save for this unique architecture, so it’s pretty cool to see this heavily decorated example.. I digress) had never seen an elephant in his life before.. so one elephant… kind of looks like an elephant, and the other one looks like he got a friend to help him out or maybe he went to a library or something.
Another cool building that you should NOT miss is the sacred stable. Besides the famous carving of the life cycle of the monkey (with the ultra-famous hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys) there is a horse inside of the stable!! A honest to goodness horse!! Horses have always been a symbol of wealth, so as a tradition, wealthy families would give horses to shrines as offerings. In order to keep this tradition, the Toshogu shrine keeps a horse in the sacred stable. They even post his daily schedule (walks, feeding time, when he’s absent, etc.). In keeping with the extravagance of the rest of the shrine, the horse in the stable is always a white one. I personally felt kind of bad for him in that wee little stable, but they do let him out for exercise, and I’m sure they feed him well, he is the sacred horse, after all. I’m not entirely sure when the custom of actually keeping horses at shrines ended, but instead of giving actual horses, wealthy families would have paintings of horses (or other animals, people or events) commissioned and would give them to the shrines as a symbol of their patronage. These paintings are called emma-do and you can see some really nice examples of them at the Futarasan shrine. The ones at the Futarasan shrine are gilt with images of deer and horses and are super pretty. At present, shrines in Japan just don’t keep horses on premises, mostly because of ... money, space, cleanliness, and laws concerning horse ownership.
After using up my strip of tickets, I was getting kind of hungry, so I stopped at this little set of buildings that was off to the right of the plaza that five-storied-pagoda is in. There’s a couple of little places to get noodles or ice cream or snack type items, but the place to go is the Kanaya hotel. They have these homemade curry pies that are absolutely incredible. Outside they are this amazing flaky, buttery, puff pastry, and then inside is hot beef curry. You can get one for 300 yen. So amazing. I could have eaten a million of them.
Then, while I was walking along Rt. 119 back to the Tobu-Nikko station, I stopped at a little Ochaya (tea shop) to have some matcha (green tea) and yakidango (grilled rice paste balls… believe me they taste much better than they sound). The woman who ran the place was absolutely adorable. She asked me if I really liked matcha (which OF course I do) and she also told me she makes her yakidango with black miso paste. So cute. I wish I could have taken a photo with her, but there were other people there and I just didn’t want to be that tourist, you know? It was a really good end to my day in Nikko.
The setting of these shrines is absolutely gorgeous; on mountains, surrounded by gigantic cedars that are hundreds of years old. Nikko is a gorgeous place, and I plan to go back soon, and I think you should go there, too!