Back to Japan – Day 9 Part 3 (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.

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Yudaki Falls. If photos could capture smells, you’d be closing your browser right about now.

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.

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The untrammeled beauty of Lake Yunoko

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.

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The first time I’ve seen someone fly fishing

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. ^^

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On the trail

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.

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Do you come in a halal edition?

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!

Back to Japan – Day 9 Part 2 (Nikko)

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.

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Heading to Lake Chuzenji

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.

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Lunch that hid the golden jewel- fried chicken

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.

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Beautiful in blue

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.

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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!