From Ueno Station in Tokyo I boarded a shinkansen (bullet train) to take me north on my journey across Japan. I had ridden on high-speed trains in Europe, so I knew what to expect from the shinkansen, and yet it somehow felt slightly different from those European trains. Whatever differences I perceived were probably just in my head—when you’re in Japan everything seems new and novel, even if it’s the exact same thing as you’ve experienced elsewhere. The shinkansen took me to Utsunomiya, where I transferred to a regional train that would take me to the mountain town of Nikko. The scenery along the ride was great and I remember passing by a number of small towns and villages. After almost a week in a city with millions of people I was now coming to a town with less than a hundred thousand, and not long afterwards I’d find myself all alone along a lake in the mountains.
Once I arrived at the Nikko train station I quickly went to the ticket office and made a reservation for the next shinkansen in my trip. Way back in 2012 I had learned the hard way about the importance of making mandatory train reservations well ahead of time, and ever since that one bad day in Paris I’ve always made a point of getting mandatory train reservations done shortly after arrival in a new city. With that taken care of, I walked out of the train station to make my way to the hostel where I was staying. Right outside the train station I ran into an American couple that I heard talking about Tokyo and I casually mentioned that I had just come from there. The man’s name was John and he and his wife were in Japan to visit their daughter (sorry, I forgot to write down the wife’s name and can’t remember it anymore). We chatted for a few minutes about Tokyo and Japan in general and then we went our separate ways. As it turned out, it wouldn’t be too long before I ran into them again. The hostel I was staying in was close to the entrance of the World Heritage site in Nikko, making for a long walk to it from the train station. On the plus side, I’d be right next to the town’s main attraction and could more easily get there before most of the tour buses showed up in the mid-morning.
At the hostel I met a British guy, also named John, and a Japanese guy named Jin (or it might have been Jun). We decided to go out to eat together that night at a restaurant in town. This would be my first time eating out in Japan and I won’t deny that I felt a little more comfortable doing it in a group rather than by myself. We walked back to the main part of Nikko and started looking around for a place to eat. The first restaurant we checked was full but soon we found a ramen place and got ourselves a table there. The staff at the restaurant didn’t speak much English, so we had to rely on Jin to help us with ordering. I got a bowl of salt chicken ramen with a small beef and rice bowl, plus three beef dumplings. That turned out to be a little more than I could eat, but I wanted to try out a variety of things and John finished off the last bit of food that I couldn’t. While we were eating, American John and his wife walked into the restaurant. American John’s wife had a specific seafood allergy that they were trying to communicate to the staff but weren’t having much luck. Thankfully, Jin was able to step in and translate for them. As we walked out of the restaurant I stopped by American John’s table and remarked about how fortuitous it was that we had met earlier at the train station. On our way back to the hostel we got some snacks at a convenience store and for me that meant a bag of dried fruit and a bottle of milk tea. Back at the hostel the three of us talked some more before going to bed. Jin was a PhD student (I think in literature) and John is a web designer. John is also a gamer like myself, so we talked about some of our favorite games and upcoming games we were looking forward to. Soon it was getting late and all of us had busy days ahead of us, so we split and went to bed.
I started the next day with a minimal breakfast. Maybe it was the big meal from the day before, but I didn’t feel all that hungry until late in the day. Whatever the reason, I worked through my morning routine as quickly as possible and headed out for a full day of sightseeing. Less than a minute from my hostel was the Shinkyo Bridge, an old orange bridge straddling a river gorge. The bridge is right at the entrance to the path leading to the famed shrines and temples of Nikko’s World Heritage site but it was closed to the public when I was there. I got some photos of the bridge and then began the hike up the hill to the World Heritage site. The route I took must have been some sort of backroads approach because I hardly saw anyone else until I got near the Toshogu Shrine. Google Maps showed that I was on a path to the shrine, but as I was coming up those quiet forest paths there was a minute where I wondered if maybe I was going the wrong way. When I came out onto a main road I saw that I had merely taken a shortcut and not much later I arrived at Toshogu.
The Toshogu Shrine holds the remains of the Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan under his rule in the early 1600s and founded a Shogunate that lasted over 250 years. It is also might be the most decorated and ornate shrine in Japan. The artists and engineers who built the shrine complex clearly spared no expense, judging by all the gold leaf, woodcarvings, and intricate details at Toshogu. I walked all around the shrine gathering photos, except for inside one of the main halls where photography is prohibited. Later I climbed the long stone stairway up to Tokugawa’s mausoleum, which is fairly plain compared to the rest of the shrine complex. At one of the landings between sections of stairs an old man tried asking me a question but since I don’t speak Japanese I couldn’t understand what he was saying. In retrospect I should have pulled out my phone and used Google Translate’s microphone function.
More and more people were arriving at Toshogu Shrine by the minute, though there were surprisingly almost no other Westerners other than myself among the crowd. There were several Chinese tour groups there, but most notably the shrine was being visited by multiple groups of elementary school children. Two or three kids stopped to say to me “Hello, how are you?” Maybe they wanted to practice English with a Westerner, or maybe they just thought it was funny, but whatever their reason I replied, “I’m good, thank you.” This would turn out to be the first of many times in my journey across Japan that children would try to talk to me. Some of those times would turn out to be part of school projects where they were tasked with asking where tourists were from, but other times they seemed to be speaking to me of their own volition.
When I finished at Toshogu I went over to the nearby Futarasan Shrine. I happened to get there while a ceremony was in progress and thus got to see one of the priestesses in action. Having very little knowledge of Shinto and Buddhist rituals I unfortunately don’t know what the ceremony symbolized. She would do a few actions, then spin 360 degrees, and then do some more actions and spin again. When the ceremony finished a few minutes later I got some photos of the shrine and then made my way back to the main part of Nikko.
I walked all the way down to Nikko’s bus station, which is right by the train station, and sat around for 20 to 30 minutes waiting on a bus to take me further up into the mountains to Lake Chuzenji. When the bus showed up I got on board and paid with the Suica Card that I had been using for public transit while in Tokyo, though I found out later I could have saved a little money if I had bought a bus ticket at the train station. Oh well, that’s a lesson for whenever I’m able to come back to Nikko. The bus ride took about 40 minutes and I got off at the Ryuzu Falls bus stop sometime in the mid-afternoon. Ryuzu Falls are a series of cascading waterfalls near the end of a river that empties into Lake Chuzenji. Four other people had gotten off the bus with me but there was hardly anyone around at Ryuzu Falls, or at Lake Chuzenji as I would be soon finding out. As I took in the sight of the falls and collected photos I’d say that less than a dozen people total passed by me.
From Ryuzu Falls I walked down to Lake Chuzenji. My original plan had been to get to the lake earlier in the day and do a full loop around it but I as I checked my phone and looked up the timetable for the bus back to Nikko I realized that I simply didn’t have enough time for that. Instead I’d have to settle for just walking the north side of the lake. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, but my time at Lake Chuzenji turned into one of the most memorable moments of my time in Japan. Two days earlier I had been in Tokyo, a city where I was surrounded by millions of people. At the lake I went long stretches where I saw absolutely no one. Seriously, the most notable sighting of other people happened early on when I came across a team of people operating on of those DJI Phantom drones. The path along the lakeshore was close enough to the road that I’d hear a passing car from time to time, but otherwise it was just the sound of my footsteps and the nature all around me. Birds chirped, waves gently lapped against the shore, and the breeze whistled through the trees. It was a warm, pleasant day. I stopped very frequently for photos; probably doubling the amount of time it took me to reach the end of my hike. It was also a cloudy day, and being on the north side of the lake meant the sun was frequently in a problematic position, so the photos weren’t the greatest. Still, it was a good, relaxing time. Just before I reached the town along the lake where I’d catch the bus back to Nikko I came to the Nikkofutarasan Shrine, which is related to the Futurasan Shrine back in Nikko (I’m guessing they’re both dedicated to the same deity). In the back of the shrine is a trail up the mountain but I didn’t have time to check it out. If I’m ever back in Nikko I really need to set aside a full day at Lake Chuzenji to make sure I’m actually able to do more things there. The sun was going down as I took my final photo of the lake and then walked to the bus station where I’d catch a ride back to where I’d come from. In Nikko I bought some food at a grocery store and took a photo of Shinkyo Bridge at night before retiring to upload photos to social media and eventually going to bed.
The following morning I ate, packed my backpack, and prepared to leave for my next destination. John just so happened to be leaving Nikko on the same day as me and we were going to be getting on the same train back to Utsunomiya, I was ready to leave first so I met him at the train station. On the train we both couldn’t help but notice all the small graveyards along the way. Japan’s rural areas are beautiful, but the small towns in them appear to be slowly dying. At Utsonomiya we parted ways. John was heading south to Tokyo while I was venturing further north. His journey across Japan was nearing its conclusion. Mine still had a ways to go.