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The Asian ApertureBack in Japan 2012: Day 3: Nikko is Nippon
POSTED BY JASON FETTERS, April 1, 2012    Share

At the suggestion of my friend’s wife, Kaori, who told me that you can’t visit Tochigi without seeing Nikko, I decided to go. She was absolutely right. Tried, I woke up and found myself hungry for breakfast. Kaori told me how much her father liked the breakfast at the restaurant next to my hotel. I decided to try it out. I went in and asked for a Japanese breakfast, the waitress took me outside and told me many restaurants have Japanese style near Utsunomiya Station. Determined to try this place, I changed my mind and said that an American breakfast would be fine. To me that means scrambled eggs, toast, biscuits with sausage and sausage gravy, and grits. What I had in Japan was very different but have a lot more nutritional value than the above mentioned gastronomic beatdown. This American breakfast was beautiful with yellows and reds and greens that please the eyes as well as the palate. First I tried the delicate omelet with lots of vegetables and a small dash of ketchup. Next was a savory vegetable soup that went so well with the omelet. When I return home I made a mental note to try an egg white omelet with vegetable soup for breakfast. There was also a salad with raw vegetables, a small piece of bacon, a small serving of potato salad, and a dinner roll with a sweet apple sauce for dipping. I finished off my meal with an excellent cup of coffee. Then I thanked my waitress and paid my bill and opened the door and left.

I walked quickly to the second floor of the massive Utsunomiya Station. I went inside the ticket booth, wisely avoiding the ticket machines that contain kanji that I cannot read. I bought my ticket for Nikko and politely asked which platform. Then I left and waited. Going up the escalator I saw several signs in English that said, “Nikko is Nippon.”

Settling down on the seat, I was back inside a Japanese train. I love the trains in Japan and I love taking short riding trips to see nearby places. I wish Tampa had a train system set up so I wouldn’t have to rely on my car so much.

The train stopped at Nikko Station. It seemed deserted at 8am. I went in to talk to someone and I had a little bit of difficulty explaining what I wanted to see in Nikko. Finally I spotted a map and saw tourist information center and pointed to it. He finally caught on and directed me to another station.

I walked outside and went to a station that had tourist information. I went inside and the person behind the booth didn’t acknowledge me. I think people were hoping I would just walk away. Communication with the foreigner can be so difficult. The intelligent tourist will do better in Japan to accept this type of treatment and patiently wait. Getting angry and demanding service is not accepted. So I waited and waited and a young guy appeared, probably the one who studied English in school. I pointed to the map behind me and he sold me a bus pass that was for the World Heritage Sightseeing Bus Tour. That means I would keep my ticket and that allowed me to travel to different historical places in Nikko to see the ancient world.

Holding onto my bus pass, I walked around outside Tobu Nikko Station and found the circular area where the bus would arrive. I saw the small water fountain in front. The buildings were quaint and looked like old Japan must look like with the beautiful mountains looming so grand in the background. This is the postcard view that most Western tourists in Japan like. I really wanted to buy a drink from the vending machine so I walked over and found one and bought Koiwai Coffee with milk in the can. I down it in seconds and tossed the can into the correct recycle bin located just inside the station.
I went back out to the bus stop and waited. I met a fellow American tourist who told me that she went on the World Heritage trip and how much she liked it. I told her that I lived in Osaka for 3-years and that my Japanese was good enough to get by with for traveling. She asked me if learning Japanese was important. I replied that it is not needed as much in the big cities like Tokyo but if you went to see charming rural areas off the beaten path then speaking Japanese is essential. She went away and I continued to wait. Soon giggling schoolgirls were waiting next to me. They always bring joy to every trip with their youthful enthusiasm and boundless energy.

The bus arrived and I got on. Inside I stared out the window in amazement at the mountains. Trees were growing high up. Life was great right now. I didn’t get off at the first stop and waited until I got to Rinnoji Temple because it looked so big and impressive when our bus stopped. I got off and bought a series of tickets. Just outside I saw snow on some rocks. Then I walked up a flight of steps and was inside Rinnoji Temple. I followed the schoolgirls because they acted like they knew where they were going and I was clueless. I maintained a safe distance because I didn’t want to bother them. Inside I saw various Buddha Statues and a brief history of the temple and some of the treasures, written in Japanese and English. Finally I made it out of that building and into the shrine area for Toshogu Shrine. There was a lot of snow on the ground that created a pleasing balance to the reds of the buildings. Walking around I tried to take in as much of the rich culture as I could. I was really enjoying this because I like traditional Japan and historical areas.

I walked inside the Nikko Toshogu Treasure Exhibit to marvel at Buddha statues and gold chains and ornate woodwork inside.
Before taking this trip back to Japan, I had read a book called Yokai Attack! by Hiroko Yoda and Matt Alt. I never knew how that book would help me and I found myself referring back to what I read when I saw the many red skinned Tengu statues. Yokai are traditional Japanese monsters. The Tengu are something like red goblins with long noses that inhabit mountains and forests.
I also saw the relief of the three wise monkeys above the Toshogu Shrine. The represent the old proverb of “see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil,” the three monkeys are Mizaru who covers his eyes, Kikazaru who covers his ears, and Iwazaru who covers his mouth.

Toshogu is a fascinating place to visit because it contains the urn that has the burial remains of the greatest Shogun of all time, Tokugawa Ieyasu. It was Tokugawa who unified Japan into one country from several separate warring fiefs. He also moved the capital from Osaka to Edo, (modern Tokyo.) He successfully closed off Japan from the outside world that lasted over 200 years.
I also saw several Kirin Sake barrels all lined up and neatly in order.

Then I paid some money to see the top of the shrine. I thought the view would be spectacular for photos. I climbed up what seemed like thousands of small stone steps, with no hand rails anywhere, that led up and up higher and higher. I didn’t think much about the steps. Exhausted I saw a small rest area with a wooden picnic table with benches and vending machines for drinks. Determined to keep going I pressed up. One should experience the climb to the top of a Japanese shrine tired and exhausted. It is all part of the real experience.

Finally I reached the top and walked around a crane statue. At the top I bought a few souvenirs for friends.

Now it was time to go back down. With my camera hanging from my neck and wearing my bookbag I started my descent. At first it wasn’t so bad. Then I saw schoolgirls struggling to walk down. Then I saw all the thousands of steps that I had climbed up. That is when it got to me. I kept thinking I would fall at any moment and crush my camera. To make it worse, snow was falling and melting on the stone steps causing them to become slippery. I did lose my balance a few times but managed to regain it just in time. Some elderly women walked past me going up and I said “Kowaii wa,” (this is scary.) It seemed like hours but it was only a few minutes and I was back down on solid ground with the awful small steps just behind me. Now it was time to relax and reflect on nature after my shrine journey.

I found an area called Shoyo-en, which is an old style Japanese garden. I love the traditional gardens and was eagerly awaiting more photo opportunities. Walking along the quiet and quaint koi pond the flowers and trees were elegantly maintained to give an aesthetically pleasing view of how gardens must have looked hundreds of years ago. There is nothing to compare this view to in the United States, which is a new country and lacks this ancient heritage. The pond had nice fat and healthy koi lazily slowly swimming in peace. Leaving the garden I was sad because I wanted to come back and see it again.

I wanted to see more of Nikko so I got back on the bus. The bus traveled past several restaurants and all that step climbing was really making me hungry. So at my next stop I found a traditional Japanese restaurant and went inside. I asked the owner for Katsu don. She served me hot green tea that helped take off the chill from the outside cold. Katsu don is fried pork strips cooked in eggs and onions and served over a bowl of rice. It is great food for cold weather. I always eat good Katsu near shrines for some reason. Finally the owner returned and I told her that America just doesn’t have good Japanese cuisine at all. I took the lid off my miso soup bowl and drank it all down. Then I attacked the Katsudon and finally felt good again. That was really good katsudon. I don’t recommend ordering it anywhere outside Japan.

Next was Taiyuuin Futarasan Shrine. This place was a lot more tourist friendly with big signs in English saying, “This way please,” and “the route continues this way.” I was never lost here. I saw more colorful Yokai. Along with the fiery red Tengu, I also saw blue and white creatures. I made it to the top after once again climbing so many short stone steps. Taking off my shoes I entered the shrine to see the historical treasures. Walking around in my socks I was at peace just taking in all the beautiful artwork inside. Then I walked back down and met a Japanese couple who wanted their photo taken. I did such a good job that they took a photo of me by some old tree with white ropes and papers containing prayers hanging off ropes. I thanked them and went on my way. They thanked me for speaking to them in Japanese and being understanding.

I saw a huge Torii, wooden gateway shaped like a lowercase n, with a big sturdy rope hanging just under the top support.

Now I was getting shrined out. I can take so much traditional culture. Then it is time to move on and do something else.

I got back on the bus. I spoke briefly to a young woman who wanted to practice English with me.

Then I was back at the station waiting for my train. I was finally at peace with myself. No more worries and no more cares and far from the confines of the Western world.

That night I met my friends for dinner. They took me to a real sushi restaurant. Tampa really is behind with sushi. There are no sushi restaurants worth going to when compared to a real sushi restaurant in Japan. I had sake to drink with a cut off fish tail for flavoring. I asked Kaori if I should eat the fish tail and she replied that no one does, so neither would I.

Raw Japanese oysters were served because I’m from Tampa and that what Tampa has raw oysters. I never liked them so I passed. The chef brought out the sushi and it was a sight to behold. Nice red fish with the head and tail and pieces of rich pink and white pieces of sashimi inside. It was like eating right off the fish. It was so good. Words cannot describe how great real Japanese sashimi is. You have to try it for yourself in Japan. Don’t just go to an American sushi bar and dine on third rate junk, you need a trip to Japan to really try it the right way. My friend entertained his children by moving the fish mouth and making noises to make the fish sound like he was talking. Next, I had real sushi that was the perfect follow up to sashimi. We had so much fun and the children were energetic and great. They even posed for a picture that was so cute and showed off how well Japanese kids ham it up for the camera.

Now that I had the historical and traditional out of my system, tomorrow would be all about the ultra-modern world of Tokyo and the always awesome fun of Japanese pop culture.

Stay tuned for Day 4.

"The Asian Aperture" is ©2012 by Jason Fetters. All contents of Crazed Fanboy are ©2012 by Nolan B. Canova and Terence Nuzum.

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