Saturday, July 6, 2013

Nikko and the Wise Monkeys

As great as Tokyo is, Japan has much more to offer.  Hokkaido to the north offers abundant natural wonders and world class skiing in the winter time.  Okinawa to the south offers a tropical climate with sun soaked beaches.  And in between you have bustling Osaka, historic Kyoto, and much more, each worth a visit in its own right.

For this particular trip to Japan, I made a quick overnight trip to Nikko, which is about two hours north of Tokyo.  I had never been to Nikko, an area with many hot springs as well as historic shrines dating back to A.D. 800.  I had previously been to several other areas with springs and onsens around Tokyo, such as Hakone and Kinugawa.  I had enjoyed them, and my friends encouraged me to give Nikko a try before I flew out of Japan once more.  So with two days free before my flight, I headed north.

The weather was quite cloudy and a little chilly, with occasional sprinkles.  Normally, this would dampen my mood, but I was first headed to the Toshogu shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site.  Japan also categorizes it as one of its official National Treasures.  Somehow, the cloudy, somber weather fit my visit.  The shrine dates back to the Tokugawa era and I struggled to remember what I could of the history of these times. I vaguely remembered snippets from a couple of classes in college, but probably more from reading James Clavell’s Shogun novel when I was on a beach somewhere in my younger days.  I have no idea how factual his novel was, but the book sure was entertaining reading.

I was unsure what to expect from the Toshogu shrine, but I wandered around until I found the famous “hear no evil” monkeys.  I have no idea why they are called the “Three Wise Monkeys”, because they certainly don’t look particularly smart to me.  Perhaps this is another example of a cultural gap.  I stared at them for awhile, trying to figure them out, and them moved on.

The shrine was quite crowded despite the wet weather.  Not surprisingly, a large percentage of the tourists were mainland Chinese.  It seems everywhere I go now, I run into Chinese tour groups, which is very different than ten years ago.  It just reminded me how much I stunk at foreign languages.  Those Pimsleur tapes aren't working yet! Speaking Mandarin certainly would be a great asset these days, but realistically I have a better chance at mastering nuclear physics than speaking Mandarin.

As I roamed around, I eventually noticed a long queue snaking up a hill.  I didn’t have a guidebook with me, so I had no real idea what I was looking at.  But I am in Japan; if there is a line, I will go stand in it.

When I reached the top, I found that the summit was a simple place to offer prayers.  Well, OK I guess.  I don’t recall exactly what I prayed for, but I bowed my head for a moment or two and then headed back down.  I stumbled around for a little longer, admiring the buildings but admittedly kind of ignorant as to what exactly I was looking at (other than knowing that the place was a Tokugawa era UNESCO heritage site).  Everything was certainly pretty enough regardless.

Eventually, I came across a building where a monk gave a short bilingual history of the shrine.  Now I was able to make a little sense out of the areas that I had been wandering around aimlessly.  Argh, I wish I had come to this building first.  I walked around for a bit more, and by this time the weather was clearing up just a little bit.

Eventually, I tired, so decided to head over to my inn, which was in a nearby village facing a pretty lake.  I found it easily and checked in, eager for a hot Japanese bath.  The baths in the inn are fed by thermal spring water, and soaking in the hot spa goodness felt oh so nice.  Better yet, the views from the tub were amazing.  I would normally have been worried about people on the outside being able to look into my bath and see me in my natural wonder, but the entire village was pretty much deserted.  So I soaked feeling quite content, until my body got eventually got too warm to stay in any longer.

Feeling refreshed, I decided to explore the village. I must have arrived during off season, because everything was empty.  Lots of evidence suggested that this village was a resort destination during the summer, but this time of year many of the places were closed and boarded up.  That was fine by me, because the emptiness added to the tranquility of the lake.  Even the cloudy skies seemed appropriate.

After my walk, I returned back to inn for a simple traditional Japanese dinner.  It was exquisite.  I don’t know exactly what I ate, but the meal was delicious and a perfect ending to the day.  I spent the rest of the evening just looking out my window.  As cynical as I can be at times, I really felt at peace, even if was fleeting.  Was I getting my zen on? Without really trying, I fell asleep sometime that evening, and I awoke fairly refreshed.

The following morning was still cloudy.  I had time for another hike around the lake, so I decided to go in the opposite direction from the prior afternoon.  I came across various camp sites and trails, and took my time enjoying the walk and the views.

All too soon, it was time for me to leave Nikko (and Japan), and head to Narita Airport.  

My only thought was that I didn’t want to wait another two years before returning to this very special country.

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