Nikko is cradled in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, and is famous for it’s natural beauty, most likely because it’s only 2-3 hours away from Tokyo’s concrete giants. In Nikko it seems no matter which direction you turn there are ranges covered in robust carpet of trees.
Nikko is also known as a cultural hotspot, hosting some of Japan’s most well known temples outside of Kyoto. I visited Nikko’s famous Toshogu temple, but I won’t really be talking about it here, because I have to admit something: I’m done with crowded temples overflowing with tourists. A temple or shrine should be a quiet, sacred place and when there are too many crying babies and laughing people and line ups to go everywhere it turns me off, so I can’t say I was particularly moved by Toshogu. Chuzenji on the other hand…
When I first stepped on the grounds I instantly liked the atmosphere. The sun was struggling to force some grey light through the cover of clouds above, which threatened rain. Maybe that was why there were so few tourists milling around. A low, gong-like bell was rang out lazily from a tall, pagoda shaped tower. The scent of incense, to me the scent of prayer, rose up in wisps of smoke from an urn in the centre of the main square. My friend and I joined about five or six other people on a tour inside the temple, led by a monk in blue. He explained the history of the temple and the gods enshrined there (all in Japanese), and then led us to an altar and invited everyone to pray. We all stood silent with our heads bowed. A sharp strike with a his stick on a bowl-shaped gong released a low reverberating chime. The sound was almost something tangible, almost breathable. I could feel it vibrating in my ears, feel it seep into my brain where, joined by the soothing smell of incense swimming up my nose, they coaxed my mind to be still for just a moment. This was the tranquil temple experience I had been looking for.
Next we tackled the senjo go hara hiking trail. At first, when I heard about the estimated three hour walking time, I didn’t want to go (Ugh hiiiiikiiing, but I’ll sweeeaaat). But it was highly recommended, so the original plan was that were were gonna do a half-hour mini hike, up to the next bus stop. But once we stepped into the forest and started the trail we decided to see it through to the end, and here’s why:
Even the sign at the start warning about bears couldn’t keep me from traversing this wonderland, and the hike was easy, more like a nature walk. There was a river to the left of us for most of the walk. and it’s soft bubbling made pleasant hiking music. But though the walk through the forest was beautiful, it couldn’t even hope to compare to when the trees gave way, and opened up onto the marshlands.
No, that’s not a painting above, though at the time I had the dreamlike sensation that I was standing in one, the beauty is so unreal.
We ended the day with a trip to the Yumoto Onsen area. Here there are hot springs so close to the source of heat that there are vents with steam coming right up out of the ground, and the water smells like sulfur. After soaking in an outdoor tub at twilight, the mountains blocky shadows in the distance against a darkening blue sky, I both felt and smelled like a boiled egg. But my skin was tingling with the onsen’s magical powers.
I can’t recommend Nikko enough to any of you looking to come out to Japan. If you get the chance, go!