Missed Part 1 with all its weirdness?
Missed Part 1 with all its weirdness?
It felt good waking up late (okay later than usual, not late). We went down for our last ‘early’ breakfast and all of a sudden it seemed as though there were so many small things that needed to be done before we checked out. I went down to exchange some cash from the currency exchange machine (I still can’t understand why these aren’t more widespread in the world) and finally managed to send one out of four postcards I’d originally planned to send to friends in Korea. Then of course there was the last minute packing of all things banal that are considered dangerous by the airport, like hairbrushes and deodorants and bottles of cologne. Personally not carrying perfume is more dangerous than carrying it… it is possible to terrorise people with bad body odour. And last but not least was the hunt for a gift for our せんせいs who’d been absolutely amazing the whole trip. I set off on a walk to see if I could find any store that was open that had what we were looking for.
It was interesting to be out on a weekday morning, watching as everyone around me headed to work in their plain white shirts and sober trousers and skirts of blue, grey or black. I found it amazing that in a country filled with so much natural beauty (over 70% of Japan is forested), people chose to wear such demure colours. It’s not always been so and the kimono and yukata are a testament to that, so why now? Imagine how much more alive the city could be if only the people could break away from the corporate trappings of 50s and 60s sober office attire.
I walked past a grey torii that leads up to a shrine, sandwiched between the high rises yet fitting in so perfectly with the landscape. I stumbled upon a chair museum, if you would believe such a thing exists, and though curiosity would have me go in, being pressed for time, I went on ahead in search of a gift. There seemed to be a shop that might just have something nice but since it opened late, I headed back to the hotel with ma’s favourite sparkling apple Minute Maid and convinced ma to come back with me. We got back when the store opened, but unfortunately there was nothing there to be found except kawaii stationery that would distract the most serious of students.
Our last resort, which was actually our first resort, was the antique store in Tokyu Plaza but since it had always been closed whenever we came and left, we’d never had a chance to go in. Today, we were confident that we’d finally be able to explore the place and have enough time to browse and be picky and choosy because which store opens later than 10am right? Wrong – we found our way to the store only to find out that it opens at 11am – which is when we were scheduled to leave. So much for that plan. Ma was very surprised – not at the fact that the store opened late, which is something one can explain away, but at the fact that it still closed early. When exactly does someone shop here?
With that unsolved mystery, we boarded the bus. We were scheduled to visit some gardens first before heading to the Japanese Muslim Association, but there were some stragglers, as is expected on the last day, and in the end we decided we’d be better off going straight to the JMA, especially since the day was threatening to be toasty with glaring sunshine.
We reached the centre shortly and it turned out to be a small and humble building with the men’s prayer room on the top most floor, the ladies prayer room and library on the 2nd floor and a nice place to gather for meals and lectures on the ground floor. Our attempts to take a picture in front of the building were hilariously thwarted by oncoming traffic but we succeeded at length and were finally led inside to the prayer hall where we met the president of the JMA. We learnt that the centre is run by Japanese reverts and aims to educate people about Islam by providing resources such as the Quran, tafseer and hadith all translated into Japanese for accessibility so people have a place to turn to to get quality information and none of that nonsensical propaganda being spewed by irresponsible media.
As we sat in the prayer hall, we were welcomed by Mr. Amin, president of the JMA and graduate of Al Azhar. He spoke to us in Arabic and thankfully, despite by lack of speaking ability, I was able to understand everything he said. Listening to him speak, I was surprised on a number of occasions. Good surprises included learning how the foundation of the centre had been supported by the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Turkey and the opening of which had been attended by delegates from around the Muslim world. It was also good to learn that this centre represented a significant upgrade from their one room apartment that used to be the base of their work previously. Another thing we learnt, surprising for most, but something I had already discovered some several months ago, was that they broadcast their prayers live on Facebook, in particular the Friday prayer and the sermon, which meant countless Japanese Muslims around the world are now able to listen to a sermon in their own language.
I was surprised and also disappointed to learn that there are only about 10,000 Japanese Muslims in a population of over 100 million. What was reassuring though, was the knowledge that in a country where few practice any form of organised religion, courses about Islam have started to be offered at a university level, garnering much interest and inspiring many conversions. While we sat there, we were also introduced to Mr. Khalid, former president of the JMA, another Japanese graduate from Egypt who shared his story of how he reverted. It’s amazing to listen to the stories of how people reverted, each of them attracted by something different that spoke to their hearts.
We had to adjourn for Friday prayers and we went downstairs to do wudhu and waited patiently for the sermon to start. The sermon was delivered in Japanese and while my limited Japanese meant I could only get the gist of what was being said, it was enough to understand that they were discussing the dangers of pride.
After prayers, we headed downstairs for lunch with the rest of the congregation which was then followed by an open Q&A session, and we did have a lot of questions. Some of the things we were most curious about were how Japan, despite its close proximity to Indonesia and Malaysia, had such a low population of Muslims and what was being done to reach out to the youth. Another important question we had was on what was being done to support reverts in the community. They were deep questions with answers that left us reassured at the optimism expressed by both the president and former president of the JMA. Our lunch of butter chicken with a solid orange dye that stained our fingers, salad, naan and the seasonal sweet cherries followed by cheesecake had dragged on and when our guide came in to check on us we knew it was time to say goodbye.
We left the centre with two lovely ladies, both Japanese reverts who would accompany us for the rest of the day as we went to the Edo Museum, Tokyo Skytree and finally, to the airport. On our way to the Edo Museum, we passed the Ryogoku Kokugikan, where sumo matches take place and I’m tempted to add this to my list of things to see if I ever get a chance to come back to Japan.
We stood at the foot of my favourite escalator leading up to the museum, in two lines, and I got handed the same entrance ticket that I was handed 2 years ago- the lady in blue with the long hair before we were allowed to go up. The last time we’d come here, I had been too tired to take in much and the size of the museum had been amplified in my memory by the exhaustion. This time, I was determined to take it slow and take the first exit out to the seats by the museum shops if required. Thankfully though, we didn’t need to and this time we were able to get through the whole museum, which no longer seemed as big as I had remembered it.
We walked past huge scale models of so many different places and I wished at that moment that I could change my profession to model builder and do something at the same time fun, fulfilling and maddeningly frustrating. As we walked through displays of Edo period Japan, we came across a statue of Iyeyasu (he seems to have followed us all the way here) and also came across, quite fittingly, a description of Tanabata – on Tanabata! As we strolled around, we ran into せんせい’s friend, who had been our lunch buddy at our favourite Indian restaurant. She had brought us all sweets as a parting gift, and remembering that ma and I couldn’t have eggs, brought us special snacks with no egg. We were moved by the thoughtfulness of her gesture and wished we had more time to spend in Japan so we could get to know her better.
We had enough time to appreciate the original Mac of the 90s, pose for pictures on penny farthings and in cycle rickshaws, to print out newspaper articles from the day we were born, to visit the restroom and browse all the museum shops. We were spoilt for time. At the museum shop I was lucky enough to find a book describing furoshiki techniques, which would help with the bag we’d bought earlier during the trip at Nakamise. After much browsing around, we were finally ready to head to Tokyo Skytree.
Having missed going up Namsan Tower when we were in Korea, we were determined to go up Skytree this time but by the time we got there, we decided we had other more important things to do – like find something dad had asked for, or an alternative should fate thwart our plans and also to find a gift for the せんせいs. And so it was that we walked away from Skytree. While Z went to help our guide with something and to get our final commemorative coins for the trip, ma and I went on to get the gifts. I retraced the familiar path back to the shop where we had picked up a gift for ma two years ago, only to find that nothing had changed over the years. The shop was exactly as it was, even the deceptive mirror display which makes everything larger than it actually is (so deceptive in fact that ma was convinced we were buying the wrong size of Edo Kiriko glass, until we moved it off the mirror). With dad’s gift picked out, we watched the care with which the glass was carefully cleaned and packed. They guided me through the tax-free procedure and the lady there, noticing it was my birthday, wished me and even let us pick out origami stars for fun.
That done, we now had time to pick out a gift for the せんせいs and as luck would have it, we found just what we were looking for, in the same store. We managed to convey to them, through a mix of Japanese and English and much body language exactly how we wanted them packed and when we told them it was a gift, they helped us picked out the wrapping and stickers and in a few minutes all the things we’d come here to do were done.
Z was still missing, so we decided to roam around a bit more, which is when we discovered the most intricately carved crystal sake cups, which we fell in love with at first sight. The price tag, was not quite as lovable, but it didn’t stop us from admiring the handiwork for a long time. While we were there, the saleslady brought to our attention the fact that the craftsmen from the company that makes all the things we’d bought, were actually in store and demoing their work. Unfortunately for us, the craftsman had just packed away his tools so we didn’t get to see him at work, but did get to take a picture with him instead.
With that, we left ma to rest her legs indoors while Z and I walked out to get some shots of the Skytree. The sun had only just begun to set, leaving behind a burning red sky in the distance. Soon the tower would be lit up, as it had been on our first visit. Z also got his hands on a brand new flavour of Calpis at the base of the tower, declared it to be terrible, but didn’t hesitate in offering it to ma to cross-check if it really was all that bad. It was. With that quick verification, we were ready for dinner at Amara.
Dinner was more papad and steaming naan with sweet butter chicken, and ma declared she wouldn’t have butter chicken for months once we got back. I was just glad for the protein before the long flight and sad at the fact that we’d forgotten once again to share a dish to avoid all the wastage.
It was as we sat there, wondering how time had flown and discussing how we’d all be back to work come Sunday, that the singing began. せんせい had come out with a cake, accompanied by her friend’s daughter all dressed up, singing happy birthday… to me. In the time Z had been away, he’d planned everything under the guise of helping our guide with something, when really our guide had been helping him plan out the elaborate surprise complete with cakes and prerequisite halal checks. It was a completely unexpected surprise because ma had given me a birthday card already in the morning and I thought we’d naturally be celebrating once we got back home. I was moved to tears, which is not something that happens often, and definitely never happens in public. Despite all the grief he’d given me, despite not having bought a suitcase this time around, he’d more than made up for it with the surprise. He’d also got our tour buddies to sign a card for me, which I got filled with all their wishes. And in typical Z style, I got my one funny card – a singing sheep. ^^ I even got gifts, not just from Z, but also from one of our tour buddies who knew how much I love models and even from our guide who’d been with us from the JMA. I got to celebrate my birthday with amazing people on Tanabata in Japan. What more could I have asked for?
We polished of all the yummy goodness of the cake and it was finally time to head to the airport. As we got together for what would be our final headcount, オサマさん declared I had the best brother, and for the most part, he’s not wrong. We climbed on to the bus and the mic was passed around for our final Q&As and last minute messages to each other before we pulled up at the airport. Checking in proved to be a hassle with new rules regarding hand luggage, in which a purse no matter how tiny it is counts as hand luggage, so all the ladies with us with a trolley bag and a purse were forced to stuff their purses in their bags before being allowed to check in. Thankfully, we had not just our せんせいs but also our guide and the ladies from the JMA to help us out and after much redistribution of luggage it was time to say goodbye.
Both せんせいs would be staying back in Japan for a few more weeks, our guide would go back to his job with a new group from a new place on another day, and the ladies from the JMA would go back to life as usual. And us… well we would all go back to the familiar daily grind come Sunday, with only Whatsapp left to connect us during the week, shared memories of our trip together and a promise to get together for a reunion once we all got back.
It was an entertaining wait in the lounge as we were amused throughly by our in house MC and I was tempted to go out and buy her one of those portable battery operated mikes that you see children holding so she could entertain us with her newly acquired guide skills on the plane which would probably go something like this
“On your left is a patch of clouds. On your right is a never ending sky of blue. Who knows exactly where we are, but the important question is why aren’t you married yet?”
We boarded the plane, and almost immediately and unexpectedly fell asleep for the next 4 hours. The rest of the time was spent watching anime after anime (Z continued his Harry Potter marathon that had started on the flight here) and when the plane touched down we were all ready for a breakfast of karak chai and Oman Chips paratha.
It’s good to be home.
Missed Day 9 Part 3 in Nikko?
Lake Yunoko was a wild card on our trip which didn’t just catch me by surprise – it left me breathless. The bus pulled up at a parking area where we got off to the most sulphuric smell coming from the water, a pungent reminder of Japan’s violent volcanic presence, and watched as the placid water suddenly plunged into a turbulent and frothy white fall- the Yudaki falls. Watching the water suddenly drop off the edge I thought how the water was a reflection of our lives. The calm and seemingly endless routine of life, at once plunged into sudden chaos taking you deep into uncharted territory where you fight your way through obstacles driven on only by the hope of rest at the end of your struggle. A bit like how this waterfall would turn into a river which would eventually quietly meet Lake Chuzenji for some much needed rest.
From the falls we began our 3km hike around Lake Yunoko – a naturally dammed lake which had formed with an eruption of Mt. Mitake. Unlike lake Kawaguchi and Lake Chuzenji, this lake was untrammeled by the trappings of commerce and touristy attractions like swan boats leaving us a pristine view of nature to appreciate in silence and the soft rustling of leaves. We were not competing for space with hordes of tourists in the narrow path that took us around the lake. Instead, we walked at leisure, at our own pace, appreciating the serenity of the lake afforded to us by the brief openings in the leafy cover and for once, I did not feel compelled to take many pictures, as though the silence would cement the memory for me instead.
Ma went on ahead, Z lingered somewhere behind and I took it all in in relative solitude interrupted only by fleeting conversations with our tour buddies. And as I walked, slowly realizing just how cold it had become, we came across a break in the trees through which we began to watch as lines flew through the air, landing still in the water, almost imperceptible if not for the widening pool of ripples in a lake softly disturbed as you would a sleeping child. There, standing waist deep in the water, were men who were fly fishing in complete silence. In fact, it was so quiet that you would never have noticed them standing there in their gear if it hadn’t been for the betraying ripples.
I watched mesmerized and later, when I stumbled upon a fisherman standing quite close to the trail, I asked him for a picture, so I could remember that men need not be loud to have their presence felt, but can move the world with patience, in silence and chosen solitude. The trail continued, and we came across the body of a fisherman lying on the bank of the lake. オサマさん, who had gone down to investigate, came back with the reassurance that the fisherman was very much alive and just fast asleep. He reminded me of the puzzle my dad had once put together, of a fisherman surrounded by trees, asleep by the lake. I wonder, if I should fall asleep there, what I would feel awakening in the darkness, undisturbed by street lights, the buzz of electricity and the familiar sound of cars and traffic, with only the light of the moon filtering through the dark canopy. I wonder if I should feel scared, or alone or perhaps closer to God and the Earth. I wonder if I should panic, or lie back and stare up at the sky, my eyes adjusting to the dark to trace outlines of the leafy canopy hiding the starts. I wonder if the sound of insects should scare me, or be welcome company… I wonder…
As we rounded off the trail, past enticing signs that lead up to Usagi Jima (Rabbit Island), I could spot ma at a distance in the middle of a photo shoot thanks to the ever obliging オサマさん who was capturing the moment for her while Z and I caught up. I ran all the way up to her and discovered that she was as much in love with this place as I was. With that settled, we began to think out loud on what it would be like if we could just stay there and what we would do to get by. I decided I would simply open a store that would stay open past 4pm, which is when the only store we’d seen there closes, and in doing so I should be able to tap into the night crowd. ^^
The weather had been divine- chilly but not distractingly so, like winter mornings back home or a summer afternoon spent at Nuwara Eliya. I was loth to leave, but we had to. It was going to be a long and winding drive back down the mountain and the driver had invited 4 people up to the front for enviable views of how those tight turns are navigated by the big bus. Z went up and I stayed back to enjoy the last views of the lake flying past our window. I was surprised that I hadn’t experienced any motion sickness on the way or down here. In Korea I’d been okay but it had been tough on Z whereas in SL I was in a bad sort of way. Perhaps it had something to do with the weather, or perhaps it was the less than daredevil driving on narrow two way roads.
We made our way down the mountain to much applause and began the long drive home to Tokyo thoroughly entertained by our in-house MC who had now taken control of the mic. We reached the familiar rest area with its origami decorated restrooms, took a moment to stretch our legs and went to the store to look for something, anything really that was halal because by this point all my rice and fried chicken had said farewell and left me a splitting headache as a parting gift. As soon as we went in, we came across the one vending machine that I’d been looking for at every train station since we landed in Japan- the vending machine that dispenses actual food – as in nice hot food…french fries and burgers and the whole unhealthy yet delicious lot.
Despite the hunger pangs we had to pass since we couldn’t be sure if it was halal (no idea what oil they use) so we walked hungrily back to the bus, me with an ornamin C and ma with an enthusiastically purchased jasmine tea. At this point I was craving anything salty that was NOT salted nuts and I would have killed for a pack of crisps. And just as I said this to ma, Z got on the bus… with a halal pack of Pringles. God works in mysterious ways. This pack of Pringles, I enthusiastically devoured, while ma tried to pass of her failure of jasmine tea to Z…who liked it. Success!
The skies darkened around us as the mood in the bus began to lighten up thanks to our resident MC’s efforts which left us in stitches of laughter despite our exhaustion. We learnt that one of our tour buddies had been on the same exchange program that our せんせい had been on years ago, in which she had met her husband. There were songs and stories and finally we were all asked to share what we had loved most about the trip- from the places to the food. The sukiyaki was a clear winner along with Mt. Fuji, but there are always outliers – like the one person who only enjoyed plain Japanese rice and another person whose favourite place was the company of his newfound friend. ^^ For me personally today’s visit to Nikko had been the highlight of my trip along with the mouthwatering yakiniku where I had to exercise the most self-control.
The mic passed down the bus, from one person to another, all of us sharing our thoughts on the trip. I just wanted to thank our せんせい, both of them in fact, for their patience in deciphering the halal quotient of ingredients for any and every food you could find in Japan, and that too in record time. I also wanted to thank everyone for having looked after ma as well as they had but I was too shy to say anything so I’ll just say it here instead.
Time seemed to fly and the bus ride back seemed nowhere as long as when we had set out in the morning. Before we knew it we were back in front of our hotel and walking towards dinner which was waiting for us at Saray Akasaka. This time our dinner buddy was せんせい’s daughter and in all her bubbly enthusiasm we exchanged all possible forms of social media contact details and that’s when it hit me. The trip was coming to an end. The next day would be our last and then who knew when we’d all come together again. With that thought, we headed back to the hotel to pack in preparation for our early checkout. It would be the last night I’d sleep on my bead filled pillow. The last night we would attempt to make tea in the kettle that doubles in a practical thermos the way only Japanese products can. There were a lot of lasts on a day that had been filled with firsts.
Missed Day 9 Part 2 in Nikko?
Stayed tuned for our last day in Tokyo!
Lunch was going to be at the Chuzenji Kanko Centre right next to Lake Chuzenji for which we had to take a long winding road up the height of two Tokyo Skytrees to the foot of Mt. Nantai. As the bus climbed, we caught glimpses of the massive blue lake perched under the sky through the leafy canopy. I find it amazing that a body of water can be held up so high in the sky, like a precarious cup threatening to spill.
Lunch was a very Japanese affair, with my favourite low Japanese chairs which are easy on my notoriously creaky knees. Ma and I sat at the end of a table for an easy getaway should lunch not suit our picky palate (okay maybe not-so-easy getaway because we had to take off our shoes). We had another hot pot and by this time, I’d had enough experience with hot pots to know that they’re not my
cup of tea bowl of soup, so I dived straight in to the rice and explored my two tiered lunchbox where I discovered the magic that is fried chicken. I don’t think I’ve ever eaten fried chicken with as much enthusiasm as I did then. In fact, I was so enthusiastic that I even ate ma’s chicken and when my neighbour declared they don’t eat chicken, my eyes lit up and probably looked like those huge anime eyes, complete with sparkle. Alas for me, the chicken had someone else’s name written on it and I had to content myself with capsicum and eggplant tempura, ma’s included. I was full enough, for the time being, and the prospect of dinner at Saray Akasaka was enough to keep me going.
Lunch polished off (okay nowhere near polished off because I had to resist the temptation to spice things up a bit with the inviting bottle of spicy powder at our table), we went downstairs and walked out to the shore of the vast lake before us which glittered like a jewel in the sunlight when the cloud cover parted.
We walked up the Sunrise Pier where we sat for a while to enjoy the silence and I wondered if in the land of the rising sun, this would make a good place to watch the sunrise. Possibly not, but it’s something I still have on my wishlist so I’m scouting locations for the next visit, if it should happen.
I was adamant that this time around I take the swan boat but ma was an unwilling partner and Z had wandered off for a while so we took a break instead, sitting down by the lake watching the clouds roll past. When Z finally came back, he was up for the paddle boat, and we attempted to recruit a third willing volunteer in オサマ さん but he’d already been for one ride and it appeared that all the paddling had been too taxing on everyone. The speed boat option was a no-go because we needed much more than 3 people to set out, so we settled for Z and I taking the paddle boat by ourselves, helped along by some friendly advice from オサマ さん – don’t panic if the pin falls out of your pedal -just put it back in and continue pedalling. heart stops momentarily
With that bit of advice, any potential reservations I may ever have had came flooding back but we went ahead anyway, paddling our way to pleasure or peril. I’m admittedly not a thrill seeker, and while paddling a boat that looks like a swan nowhere near constitutes a thrill seeking activity, the thought of pins falling out and what not left me stealing more glances at the plastic bottom of the boat for signs of any pin looking things that may have dropped out than out at the lake. And with that I had only two basic instructions for Z – do not pedal too far out in case fallen pins that refuse to reinsert themselves should necessitate an embarrassing rescue operation (you see how far my imagination had run ahead) and second, take the wheel because at this point any lag in movement brought on by drifting with the currents would cause me to think we had lost the pin in our rudder too. You may laugh now.
We paddled out onto the lake, reveling in the splendour of the rolling hills and the stillness of the lake, broken only by our paddle boats and rippled with the wind. We stopped pedalling for a while, allowing ourselves to be buoyed along and rocked gently. Surrounded by all this beauty, came crashing the banal- the sudden remembrance that I had to find a restroom so ma could go before we headed on towards Kegon Falls. We cut our ride short, being short of time as it was, debated on where it was exactly that we’d taken the boat out from (everything looks decidedly smaller and unrecognizable when you look back on to shore) but finally we’d docked, without much crashing and incident. I headed to where we had spotted ma from our vantage point in the middle of the lake, and found her sitting with our other tour buddies, feet dipped into the cool waters of the lake. The opportunity was too good to pass up so off went the socks and we sat there relaxing as the cold water lapped up against our ankles.
It was then a quick rush back to the restaurant to scale the flight of stairs, and find a restroom, which we did in record time despite the hordes of students who had descended upon as at the staircase, only to find that the restroom was too dirty to use. A first in Japan. Resigned to our fate, we headed back to the bus with the promise that we’d find another restroom at the falls.
The falls were only a short drive away and as we got off the bus, it began to drizzle – a soft gentle drizzle which we decided to ward off with our raincoats (put to use at last) instead of our umbrellas. We stopped under the shade of a tree to negotiate our sleeves before headed down towards the waterfalls. What a sight it was. For a moment I felt transported back to New Zealand where I’d seen my first waterfall from up close. Since there weren’t many tourists around, we got to experience the waterfall in relative silence with the occasional exclamations of awe. We had the option of taking an elevator to go further down, but instead of wasting time we chose instead to enjoy the pitter patter of raindrops on our flimsy raincoats, the silently moving waves of white clouds drifting overhead and the sound of white waves cascading down to the river below breaking through the monotonous shades of green and brown.
The falls were also the site of another commemorative coin, so we left the roaring falls behind in search of the coin and a restroom, and while we were successful on the coin front, the search for a clean restroom came to naught. In fact this restroom was worse than the last and we were beginning to gloomily contemplate the long ride back when せんせい pointed out another restroom at the bus stop. Saved! As we loaded up on the bus, we passed a number of schoolchildren ready to go home. Our brief encounter left me with two thoughts. The first, that boys will be boys no matter where you go and there’s decidedly a set age when calling everyone around you ばか is cool. The second was that some teachers should consider alternative careers with minimum contact with children. This thought was brought on when a teacher smacked one of the kids for cheerfully calling out hello to all of us as we passed. So much for encouraging positive social interactions. sigh
Now that we’d see the falls, we began to wonder what all the rush was about seeing as how we had nothing left in our itinerary except the long ride back home and dinner. We were in for a surprise in the form of Lake Yunoko.
Missed Day 9 Part 1 in Nikko?
Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 3 in Nikko!
It was an early start for the long road trip to Nikko. It was also the second last day of the trip, which meant all our snacks were packed and we were all set to share the munchies during the 3 hour ride with our familiar guide Mikko さん. We were met with bright blue skies and cotton clouds dancing above the bright green rice paddies, the occasional rivulets and romantic by lanes disappearing up into the forested hills which is where most fairy tales are probably set.
We alternatively napped and snacked and got lost in the beauty outside our windows until we reached a rest house. You would think that restroom entrances don’t need to be cute to entice you to go in, but this one was with its origami mobiles swaying in the wind and fresh flowers arranged artistically at the washbasins. It was a quick 10 minute stop and we were off again past worlds we’d never know and people we’d never meet until we finally came to the famously mysterious vermillion lacquered Shinkyo Bridge or snake bridge, as it’s also called. The legend goes that a priest looking to cross the river Daiyo was aided by two snakes who magically transformed into the bridge we see today (okay so maybe this particular version of the bridge was reconstructed after several natural disasters, but it still counts). We were afforded only a momentary glimpse of the beautiful curve of red which stood out over the blue of the flowing river, before we pulled up at our destination – the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, also the final resting place of our very own villain turned repentant sinner Iyeyasu who had requested to be buried in Nikko. We had finally come full circle in the life of Iyeyasu.
The walk up to the shrine was simply divine. Water trickled down on either side of a gently sloping grey gravel path cutting through trees that touched a sky which had lost its vibrant blue, as though sombrely dressed for the occasion. I could have stayed there forever, but we had to move on until we reached a 5 storey pagoda standing tall before the main entrance to the temple, tinting a grey sky with vibrant reds and greens and tips of gold.
We gathered together, collected our tickets and climbed up through the Yomeimon Gate which lives up to its name Higarishino mon, the gate you’ll never get tired of looking at. The structure reminded me of the humble and demure Nijo Castle, yet this place was a glorious and gaudy tribute to Ieyaysu, filled with some of the most famous sculptures delicately carved – an elaborate and intricate labour of love. To this day, festivals take place commemorating the procession that had once carried Iyeyasu from Shizuoka to his final resting place in Nikko.
We were told to look out for three carvings in particular, which is rather difficult considering everything is covered with such beautiful carvings that everything looks like a masterpiece. The first one we were asked to spot was the famous 3 monkeys with their see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil mantra. And there they were, sitting on a beam over the entrance to the sacred stable in which stood a single tall white horse – a still and silent witness to the hordes of people flocking to the shrine. Despite all the people and all the constant chatter, I couldn’t help but thinking that he must be so lonely in the crowd. It’s a familiar feeling, and I pass on, unable to find the words to say I feel the same.
The next carving was of the imaginary elephants, not because they’re not really there, but because the artist who carved them had never seen an elephant before and had carved them based on what he had heard they looked like. It must have been quite the gamble, but he seems to have done rather well considering. I know I couldn’t draw an elephant even though I have seen one before. Sometimes it’s not the eyes in your head you need, but the ones in your mind.
The third sculpture came after we passed the storehouses and the ablution area and made our way to the entrance of the Inner Shrine. There sat a cat, peacefully asleep for all intents and purposes, in a beautiful field of peonies (which are incidentally considered as the king of flowers in Japan… fun fact). Except on the other side of the entrance directly behind the cat, is the carving of a sparrow. It’s an interesting carving, at once symbolizing harmony and at the same time conveying a sense of caution, that no matter how peaceful things appear, a cat can always eat an unsuspecting sparrow if so provoked. It’s an artistic reminder not to take advantage of someone’s good nature because everyone has another side to them that they’ve just been nice enough not to show you.
Like Nijo Castle, photography is not permitted inside the prayer hall which is where we went next, after having removed our shoes. There are a number of reasons why I’m a big proponent of no photography in places like these. For one, it’s a place of worship and tourists flashing their cameras about not only detracts from the experience of people who’ve genuinely come there to worship but is also disrespectful of the sanctity of the place (truth be told, I’m still waiting for a solution to be found for the haram). And then of course as a tourist you want to be able to truly appreciate the magnificent architecture and the solemn atmosphere and dated rituals, not limited by the scope of your lens.
We entered the prayer hall, lined with portraits of famous poets and their poetry, where prayers were in progress and watched silently as the priest bowed, clapped and bowed again, his small congregation obediently following. Amidst all the opulence, it was a gentle reminder of your place in the grand scheme of things. We filed back out, through the doorway guarded by ornate dragons and went to put on our shoes.
Our tour buddies helped me help ma down the steep flight of stairs painfully lacking a banister and we began the scenic walk back to the bus past tall trees and green brush covered with o-mikuji in a tangled mess of bad white fortunes. The only thing with a bad fortune appeared to be the trees though, with all that wasted paper tied to them like a bad joke.
Thanks to the beautiful weather and the long walk, we were now pretty hungry and looking forward to lunch at our next stop, Lake Chuzenji.
Missed Day 8 in Tokyo?
Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 2 in Nikko!