Saturday, 8 December 2012

On the Slow Train to Nikko

If you ever look at tourist brochures or coffee table books about Japan, chances are that you have seen images of Nikko. Second to Mt.Fuji, it must be one of the most photographed areas of Japan, as it provides the setting for one of the country’s most significant shrines and some of its most scenic mountain ranges, forming the Nikko National Park. Not surprisingly it has developed into a very popular attraction for both local and overseas visitors, who flock there throughout the year and in particular during the all important seasonal changes. Such was the case at the peak of Autumn; with the leaves in full colour, we decided to take the 140km journey north of Tokyo to visit this popular attraction. Although we knew it would be packed with tourists, we were determined to see it.

For such a trip, most foreigners tend to book a coach tour, but we decided that we would travel the way that most Japanese tend to get there … by rail. Since we have been in Japan, Jules has become so proficient in her mastery of what must be the world’s complicated rail system that these days I just sit back and relax in the knowledge that she will always get us there. So early on a bright and sunny Sunday morning, I blindly followed her to Asukusa station to board what we knew would be a long slow trip to Nikko … around two and a half hours. Not that we particularly minded as we much prefer traveling by rail than road, plus there was the added bonus of being able to see the tallest tower in the world, the ‘Tokyo Skytree’, which looms close by. We had been reliably told that this marvel of engineering stands twice as tall as the Eiffel Tower and while providing a great view of the city, also acts as a giant aerial for broadcasters, whose signals have been increasingly blocked by the plethora of high-rise buildings.

As we headed out of Tokyo and its suburbs, we looked back to see Mt. Fuji majestically rising from the distant horizon. This was the cloudless, sky blue day we had hoped for when we had visited the day before and we were grateful to have such good weather to see Nikko in all its glory. By mid-way through the trip we were also thankful we actually had a seat, as the train was becoming increasingly crowded, which was exacerbated even further when several carriages were removed from our convoy making the last leg of the journey quite a squeeze. Yet with the usual Japanese efficiency we eventually rolled into Nikko right on time and by that stage were more than happy to stretch our legs over the two kilometre walk that would take us to its most famous shrine.

Toshogu Shrine (dedicated to the Tokugawa shogunate) is possibly the most lavishly decorated mausoleum in all of Japan. It is set at the foot of the mountains amongst a forest of giant Cedar and Cyprus trees with each structure adorned with wonderfully opulent carvings that date back to the 15th century. However it’s most famous carving surrounds the eaves of one it’s smaller and less grand 17th century buildings and depicts ‘The Three Wise Monkeys’ whose moral ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ has become universally recognised. This whimsical carving also has personal significance to Jules who recounts that as a child, the saying was regularly bandied around the dinner table as the ultimate ode to live by. Years later the saying still rings in her ears! Of course she had to join the many other tourists to have her photograph taken below the famous carving for old times sake, although she sensibly resisted recreating one of the famous gestures as many just had to do … groups of three were particularly popular!

We continued to wander around the grounds to study the detail of the architecture, admire colourful leaves and to generally soak up the atmosphere of this UNESCO World Heritage site. However, tourism and the commercial aspects of Nikko has to a certain extent taken its toll over the years. The highly photographed sacred Shinkyo Bridge was not quite what we expected. Images of the elegant red lacquered arched bridge that spans the Daiya River can be seen on a myriad of postcards, but what they conveniently fail to show is the traffic filled road complete with traffic lights that infringes right along side … an unfortunate sign of the times! Likewise, the ticket booth where you can pay 300 yen to walk to the end of the 28 metre long dead-end bridge is, not surprisingly, also out of shot.

While there were many more temples and natural attractions to be seen further a field, we had seen what we had come to see within the precinct of the town and by three o’clock were quite happy to board the slow train for the trip back to Tokyo. Following Jules’ impeccable knowledge of train timetables we managed to get on board at just the right time to secure seats once again. It seemed that many of the same crowd we had previously arrived with were also heading back, so it wasn’t too long before the carriage was again full to capacity. As we slowly pulled away from the platform, the excitement of the passengers who had frantically made the last minute sprint in order to squeeze on board began to subside and everyone settled in for the long ride ahead. It would be well after dark when we arrived back to the bright lights of bustling Tokyo and at that point, Nikko seemed like a million miles away … not exactly, but it was quite a journey!

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