We departed the Yamagata region and drove straight into a thick mist on the freeway on our way south but fortunately it did not last long as we turned west towards Aizuwakamatsu and our first stop at Tsurugajo Castle. The Old castle has been totally restored but was closed internally the day we visited but the grounds were beautiful and the moat featured some delightful weeping tress and the autumn colours were all out.
There was not a whisper of wind so the water was like a mirror and we really enjoyed seeing as much as we could before heading to our next stop at the historic village of Ouchi
The village has been turned into a tourist Mecca and was massively crowded but at the same time showed off what a traditional village and environment was like. They have set up fields and schools, businesses and craft houses so all in all a good worthwhile experience.
Positioned in a protected valley surrounded by forests alive with colour it was virtually hidden away from reality apart from the huge space for car parking down the road. We enjoyed a nice toasted sandwich at a cafe with a really lovely atmosphere which was one of our rare forays away from traditional food.
There was plenty going on in the village and the craft work got a good look into and a few purchases were made. The opportunity to step back in time and wander was a great afternoon activity and the ideal stop off.
As we made our way to Nikko we snaked alongside valley streams and mountain gorges with spectacular colours at every turn. It was a beautiful drive and as the roads are so good and the drivers polite it was a pleasure to take it all in and as the sun started to set we finally arrived at Nikko.
The Tokugawa Hotel was a great place to stay and our room was amazing, and was one the best we have had the whole trip. the room was an actual apartment with a stunning water pond and hot tub and the Hotel traditional gardens were stunning.
We had a lot of plans in this amazing place and the first day we woke to MIST, thick, soupy and everywhere. The big decision was Lake and Mountains or Temples/Shrines and after a lovely morning cake and Coffee in Nikko town we decided to head up the mountain and take our chances on the mist lifting…We snaked our was up the switchbacks following the tail lights of the cars in front in the mist and arrived at Lake Chuzenji covered in mist with zero vision. We pulled over to the Chuzenji-ji temple car park and hoped for the best and boy did it deliver. Walking into the grounds covered in mist the temple revealed itself with a stunning red colour blooming in waves through the swirling mist. As we exited the tour of the temple the mist began to lift and the hills were alive with colour all around the lake.
The intensity of the colours was amazing and the mist lifting and then dropping in again is waves added to the mystique of the whole environment. The yellow, orange, red and green were all intense and was simply breathtaking .
Looking across the Lake from the English and Italian Embassy holiday Villas the hills and mountains came alive with every reveal through the mist with every shade of the four colours on display
Visiting the Embassy Villas was a real highlight and gave such a sense of the high life of the late Victorian to early 1900’s period and so good to see these amazing building so well preserved.
We enjoyed a Devonshire tea at the English Villa in fine style and then toured the more relaxed environment of the Italian Villa. We really felt like the original occupants had just walked out for a stroll as they were set up perfectly from the period.
We were rugged up to the max as the temperatures had dropped to 5 deg and wetness was all around but wow it was simply a wonderful experience and so glad we saw it all in the mist. But we were not done yet as we still had the Kegon Falls to visit and true to our luck that day as soon as we arrived the mist lifted from the valley and the magnificent falls were revealed. And then bit by bit the sheer cliffs of the mountainside revealed something we did not expect as bright vivid colours emerged on every side as foliage alive with colour clung to the rocky sides in a burst of vibrance unlike anything we have ever seen
The pictures do not tell the whole story for as soon as they revealed themselves the trees then disappeared again into the mist. We then began our decent down the multitude of switchbacks to the Nikko Valley below but this time the mist had cleared and the mountain side was again alive with colour at every turn, but impossible to pull over and photograph…making ones for the memory bank.
After a big day we did what we have done almost everyday and sunk into our Onsen bath to sooth the weary limbs to be ready for the next days adventures and then dress up in our regulation Yukata uniform for our nightly feast
Thete was plenty to see around Nikko town and we decided the best way was to walk around and see what we could stumble across ( with the help of a bit of research of course) We found the best Coffee on the trip so far at Nikko Coffee as well as a great curry and Desert Kakigori (shaved ice) It was such a cool place and then as we continued our stroll we enjoyed an afternoon ginger and honey tea along the river at a tiny tea shed and it was the best
Next stop was the incomparable Nikkosan Rinno-ji Temple complex (UNESCO) made up of over 6 different Temple and Shrine compounds spread throughout the forest on the hillside beside Nikko
It is hard to define the way these are set up but suffice to say there is over 500 years of various Shoguns and Emperors influence at play here and some of the artistry on display is the best in japan. Not only the grand examples but its the small little shrines and cameos that really impress.
When it comes to real breathtaking sights the Nikko Toshogu Shrine complex is second to none with the Gate house seen as the most magnificent Buddhist structure in the world by many. This was built in the early Edo period of the 1600’s
The three wise Monkeys feature big time here on the carving artworks and this is where the see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil originated from. They represent the arch of life and are located on the stables in 8 panels.
The Toshogu Gate and Arch lead to the equally ornate Shrine at the rear with every detail ornate and beautifully executed. At one stage there were over 1,000 artisans and craftsman working on the temples at one time
WE spent so much time getting up close to the detail that was 3D deep and it became overwhelming especially imagining the designers who created these masterpieces
Looking in every direction there was a path to take to a new site to see and another temple complex to explore around the corner so walking around we did not know what we would see next, except one thing was for sure, and that was school children of all ages everywhere. School groups were out in force and it so good to see the education of their culture is so strong. This is our third trip to Japan and each time the school group tours have been in full force.
The sleeping cat is one of the most viewed carvings and everyone had to line up to get a photo..as did we as it symbolises Peace, the cat is not threatened and therefore peace is at play for all creatures.
The next temple we visited was the Futarasan Jinnah Shrine with its very old gateways and Temples and small shrines covered in moss
But our favourite was the meandering Jogya-do Temple that cascaded down the hillside through a series of gatehouses (with monster guards) and staircases and a vast array of individual Shrines and retreats for monks
The massive Shannan Shokudo gate is one of the largest in japan with many school groups gathering for photos under its arch on the stairs.
The pathways and forests intersect and the whole space sits in harmony with nature so beautifully..
We had completed the full loop of the temples and ended up where we started at the Rinno-ji Temple seen above framed by the stunning maples trees in full Autumn mode.
We explored more of Nikko that afternoon wandering towards the river passing small temples and typical family homes along the way
We were heading for the 100 Buddha’s and the Abyss pool along the Daiya river where we passed small waterfalls and small gorges
Not much of an Abyss in Autumn but we can imagine the fierce torment of twisting seething water cascading down here in spring . The 100 Buddha’s on the other hand were a revelation, sitting side by side along the river bank for 100’s of years before being nearly destroyed in a massive flood just a few years ago. A few heads were lost but most stayed in tact thanks to some enterprising locals with unwavering commitment and lots of sand bags.
The section of Buddha trail that saw some lost in the flood is slowly being regenerated as they find remnants in the river and bring them back home so that they can wear their red hats and bibs again.
Our last stop in Nikko was on the day of our departure and we visited the Imperial summer house on the banks of the river. It has stood for over 300 years in some form and the current building has been added to and modified 4 times so it is a real history lesson as you wander through. The highlights apart from the classical architecture are the mother of pearl inlaid door and cabinet panels and the lovely tranquil gardens, especially how the sliding window panels bring the outdoor in.
Last stop was the samurai house that became the first European guest hotel in Nikko back in 1860 as the Kanaya Hotel
We have had an incredible time in Japan and with the effort to finally get to this trip it was worth all the hoops, changes, controls, visas and all round fun and games