When I was first here in 1979 as part of a training delegation from the Inner London Education Authority, apart from workshops at Tokyo University, we were guests at a school in Maebashi for a day of workshops with teachers and classroom observation. Very formal and quite unlike London schools in the 70s. We stayed overnight in teachers’ ryokan style accommodation with futons on tatami floors and a six o’clock rise to salute the flag and greet the day. Mid morning our hosts decided we had earned our supper and drove us to Nikko and Lake Chuzenji. Both made a striking impression on me and I wanted to go back with Dee but time would not allow us to make that trip with everything else we wanted to do and there’s no big Murakami connection. So with the willing (I think) indulgence of all the family we set off for Nikko on Wednesday morning in a Toyota Hi-Ace 9 seater minibus. Our driver Ikeda san was waiting for us promptly at 08:30 and confessed that despite being a professional driver for 35 years he’d never actually driven this particular job before. He seemed pleasant enough, had little English but we got by just fine. The first part of the drive out of Tokyo was quicker than I expected but then was quite dull across the flat Saitama plain with suburbs and occasional rice fields, until after about an hour we started to climb and tree clad hills with good patches of cherry blossom appeared.
The main attractions of Nikko are the Shinkyo Bridge, a fine vermillion specimen at the top to the town and which is thought to be sacred as the entrance to the shrines, and the Toshogu Shrine complex which climbs through a hillside of massive cedars and has the world renowned monkey carving ‘hear no, see no, speak no evil’ and the most elaborate collection of buildings of any of Japan’s shrines.
Just outside the car park there’s a culvert in which water appears to flow uphill. It’s an optical illusions as two slightly downhill streams meet and form a whirlpool. My science fan grandson was intrigued by this and deduced a lucid explanation. We then moved on into the main shrine area where there is just so much to see and absorb that a few words from me can’t do it justice. Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu was credited with founding the first unified Japan in 1600 and his shogunate lasted until the Meiji dynasty started in 1868. So I guess it’s fair that this hillside has more elaborately decorated buildings and sacred places that any other. It’s a world heritage site of course. The atmosphere despite thousands of tourists is serene and stimulating, peaceful and provocative at the same time. Apart from noting that this is where the original wise monkeys originated and of course had to recreated by the family – monkey has been my grandson’s toy of choice since birth – and that there’s also the famous carving of a beautiful sleeping cat, I’ll report that we got two hons stamped, climbed 207 steps to the main shrine – carefully counted and checked by my granddaughter – I’ll let a few pictures convey a sense of the place. I’m so glad I went back as it is really special. We also took time to visit the museum which has lots of interesting artefacts and documents contemporary to Tokugawa’s time. The guidebook said lots of people don’t bother but it was well worth the half an hour to examine the contents portable shrines, swords, scrolls and books. By the way no photography permitted in the main shrine.
Tom’s brilliant IT geekery found a splendid restaurant, Hippari- Dako in Nikko Town which Ikeda San was able to put in his SatNav and get us there in no time. After a morning of walking, most of it up somehow, we needed food and drink. Then it was up to Lake Chuzenji of which I still have the sharpest memory of eating fresh trout from the lake and struggling as a chopstick novice to extract lumps of fish and leave the bones behind. It must just have been so fresh and tasty that it’s stayed with me for nearly 40 years. The lake is spectacular and 1270 metres above sea level. It was formed when Mount Nantai erupted and blocked the valley 20,000 years ago. The water today looks very black and volcanic. The area is not much more developed than when I was last here although I don’t remember swan boats.
The fun bit of the journey is the approach to Chuzenji up the one-way Iroha winding road. It has 48 hairpin bends which elicited a number of ‘Oh My Gods’ from the children as we powered our way up. We stretched our legs and had a photo call at the lake before moving on to see the Kegon Falls another of Japan’s ‘divine’ waterfalls. However, Ikeda San missed the turning and with great humility and apologies drove us back down and then up again. He did joke that we were likely to be unique in doing the Iroha road twice in one day. The falls were quite impressive but as my daughter ventured ‘It’s no Niagara’ and even Gulfoss which Dee and I visited in Iceland was more impressive in its scale. I did find the noise and apparent weight of water falling pretty impressive.
We all had ice creams and then settled into the minibus for the trip back to Tokyo. There was some dozing off in the back, unsurprising after our day’s efforts and we hit bad traffic at the approaches to Tokyo so were an hour later than planned getting back to the hotel – only part of that due to Ikeda san’s mistake.
A tiring day, but one which everyone enjoyed and I was very pleased that my wonderful family indulged an old bloke’s desire to take another look at a place remembered more for it sense than it’s actuality during a business trip 40 years ago.