It is somewhat ironic that I’ve been waking up at the crack of dawn for the last week, and on the day I actually need to get up at 6 am, it is rather painful. But nevertheless, I was up and out the door early, but not before the front desk took a couple photos for their website as well as printing one on the spot for me as a keepsake. Thankfully, the train station was only a couple stop away (naturally, after the plethora of escalators in every station I’ve been to, this is the one where I need to haul all my crap up several flights of stairs). I was soon on the train and hoisting my luggage, with a little help, into the overhead storage area. How did that tiny piece of luggage get so heavy? At 7:10 am on the dot, we were trundling away from Tokyo towards Nikko. A few stops later, I was joined by a rather garrulous group of older Japanese ladies who proceeded to gab for the rest of the journey. I vainly attempted to get in a little GRE studying, and ultimately just gave up and listened to music for the last half hour.
We eventually rolled into the Tobu Nikko train station just before 9:30 am. In the interest of not wearing myself out before the day had even started, I opted to just grab a taxi for the 6 minute drive to the Turtle Inn. I left my luggage, and my kindly hostess outlined the various highlights on a map for me, including pointing out where various convenience stores and post offices were which is handy. Map in hand, I pared down to just my tiny purse and camera and headed off to the shrines. The Inn is actually only a 5 or 6 minute walk from the entrance to the park, so I was soon forging up steep steps. The sun had come out, and it truly was a beautiful morning. There was a long sandy/gravel road leading up to the first (and probably most famous) stop, the Toshogu Shrine. After sorting out how to get my tickets with my World Heritage Pass (which got me roundtrip train, free buses and entrance into several of the major shrines), I headed up to the shrine. Evidently, when the lady who sold me the pass warned that Saturday would be rather busy, she wasn’t kidding. There were swarms of folk, even at 10 am, and they tended to come in tour groups. The area was a complex of shrines and other buildings, gorgeously and brightly painted. I circled through the complex, though part of it was under construction, peeking into the stable which houses “the sacred horse”. Apparently, this beautiful white horse was donated by the New Zealand government as a token of goodwill and friendship. I also realized that they were doing calligraphy at this shrine, and I’d left my little book back at the Inn. Something I discovered at the end of my time in Kyoto was that you can take this little book of blank pages to the shrines and they’ll stamp it with the shrine’s seal and do some beautiful calligraphy (usually the name of the shrine and the date and such).
I was feeling somewhat famished, so I decided to head back to the Inn to grab my book and something to eat before seeing anything else. In the end, I grabbed a delicious strawberry ice cream cone from an obliging vending machine, got my book and went back up the long walkway to Futarasan Shrine. It was nice enough, though I’d certainly seen more impressive temples. Actually, there was a small, traditional Japanese house just outside Futarasan that had a lovely little garden and was doing display of Bonsai trees. From there, I happened upon a temple next door that wasn’t on my list, Taiyuin-byo, but was thankfully covered by my pass. Taiyuin-byo was probably my favourite of all the Nikko temples. Perhaps because it was lesser known and subsequently quieter, but there was an air of calm there, peacefully nestled in amongst the soaring trees. It sat perched atop a hill, looking down over a moss-covered garden. Moss was definitely a theme for the day; everything seemed to be covered in moss! I climbed up several steep flights of stairs, but as I neared the top, the sun peeked through the clouds and shone down on a (briefly) deserted shrine—breathtaking! The colours were also more subdued, more black and gold, which leant a more reserved air to it. Eminently satisfied, I headed back down the hill, ostensibly in search of the last shrine, Rinnoji Temple. I happened to pass a World Heritage Bus, however, and decided to hop on to see where it went. I ended up riding it down the hill to Shinkyo Bridge.
Shinkyo is a lovely little (sacred) bridge that spans the Daiyarawa River. I lingered for a time, waiting for a drove of school kids to clear off it, before taking my pictures and basking in the sunlight. I wandered down towards the train station, popping into an adorable little antique shop (my newfound love for antiquing/thrift shopping compelled me), before turning around and heading back to the bus stop. It didn’t seem to be in a hurry to pick me up, so I ended up just making the walk up the steep hill to Rinnoji Temple. At long last, I was able to get some calligraphy in my shrine book. If there is one marked difference between temple-visiting here and in Thailand, it would probably be the money. It gets quite expensive to visit any of the shrines here; whereas, in Thailand, with the exception of probably the big Temple of Emerald Buddha in Bangkok, they’re all free (perhaps because they’re actually used as places of religious worship fairly regularly). There was massive construction surrounding the temple…I couldn’t really tell, but I had a sneaking suspicion they were building some kind of modern structure on the back of it. I toured through the facility, which housed some massive statues of what I originally thought were Buddhas, but turned out to be goddesses of mercy (who looked quite angry to be doling out mercy). I also sat and watched a monk chant in front of a fiery altar—he kept fanning it and feeding it bits of wood, all the while chanting in a style that sounded bizarrely like an auctioneer.
Having seen all the shrines I’d planned to see, I made my way back to the Inn to properly check-in. The room, despite not having its own bathroom, was a lovely Japanese-style room, with lots of closet space and its own sink. I rested for a bit before running out again to see Ganmangafuchi Abyss. It was a pleasant walk to the park area and along the riverside trail, with its violent and speedy rapids. This area is particularly known for its row of 70 little statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who cares for the deceased. It had clouded over, which lent a quiet, reserved feel to the place. I walked the pathway for a time before turning around and heading out of the abyss, so to say. I went up to the convenience store and invested in my dinner for the evening, a couple sandwich packs with ham and cheese or egg, before going back to the Inn. I did take the opportunity for using their hot springs bath to unwind a few knots before calling it a night.