Explore a more tranquil Japan – Historic Nikko day trip from Tokyo
November 10, 2016
My experiences in Nikko a picturesque and historic town just north of Tokyo.
The work ethic in Tokyo nearly killed me. Long hours in a cold bar left me with a spot of pneumonia. The kind of thing I might have been hospitalised for back home but considering the price of well everything in Japan, I decided to avoid medical care and instead head out of the city for a few weeks' recuperation. That’s how I ended up spending autumn in the small hill town of Nikko 140km north of Tokyo.
My memories of Nikko are of wheezing walks through shrines dappled in autumn colour, sunrises through mountain mists and evening in a cosy chair the open fire. The smell of wood smoke and soil and the warm of rays of afternoon sunshine on my back as I nibbled dried local strawberries.
Nikko restored my faith in Japanese culture. I spent the first few days in a hotel right on the river. It was quintessentially Japanese, (more of a family homestay than a hostel), with mismatched but oh so Japanese bowls and little wagara privacy curtains on the bunks. The curiosity and friendliness of the family were the perfect way to ease me into the rhythm of small town life. But winter was coming and there was only one other tourist in the place which meant they never turned the heat on. Eventually, I decided to sacrifice authenticity for warmth and moved up the hill to a more modern gaijin hostel, with big fluffy duvets and an open fire to snuggle in front of.
At first, I camped out at the hostel, keeping warm and indulging in movies and a decent internet connection. The evenings had a bite, though the days were mostly warm as the sun baked off the hillside mist and I slowly came out of my cocoon. Firstly shuffling slowly down the hill to explore the main street shops and quaint tourist traps. Then wheezing painfully back up again, stopping often to rest. This became kind of a routine. I would wander stopping often to sketch or read as my poor lungs struggled but slowly I became able to go further. Wandering through the soaring cedars and pines, admiring the leaves burnished autumn colours and scrambling from bolder to bolder across the river.
When I look back it feels like a dream, a girl emerging slowly from the otherworldly morning mists to enjoy a field full of wildflowers or a stately red painted bridge. Like the magical heroine from an anime movie and somewhere before the credits rolled I fell in love with Nikko.
My solitude added to the dream like feeling but for every improvement in my health, there was a new walk or adventure I could explore. I walked winding paths that lead to picturesque waterfalls. Explored grand shines such as Nikko Toshu-gu and Tayiuinbyo, with their intricate three-dimensional carvings and stately tourist-thronged walkways. I wandered through fields of grasses and flowers taller than my head, to onsen baths where I soaked and steamed, clearing my lungs and pruning my fingers. I braved autumn drizzle to visit smaller historic sites, where mosses crept over the faces of ancient deity’s and valley mist clung to the torii but if you clambered up the cobbled staircase you would almost be guaranteed to find a stick or two of incense curling prayers up into the sky.
I recovered both my health and my respect of Japanese culture. Though I did choose to move on from Japan. My time in Nikko reconnected me to the culture of delicate respect and propriety, so steeped in history and tradition. I would recommend a visit to Nikko for anyone wanting to see a little of Japanese culture outside of the hustle and bustle of modern city life. If you love hiking and history then this is the perfect place to visit.