[top Nikko

We packed all our belongings, which had multiplied considerably since we arrived. Our bulging bags were now extremely heavy and difficulty to carry. In addition, the woodblock prints had to be carried separately, sandwiched between cardboard sheets. We got as far as the main street, where we stopped for a breakfast of French pastries and coffee. Suitably fuelled, we boarded the subway to Tokyo Station.

We had delayed our departure slightly because of the thought of carrying all our stuff on a peak hour subway train. Even still, an amazing thing happened on the way to Tokyo - the entire city's population got in the train with us! We skipped the first train which came through Shin-Nakano Station, because it was fairly full. So was the second one, but we struggled on anyway. At first, we travelled okay, a bit cramped, but not impossible. Then we stopped at a station and a wall of humanity crashed into the carriage in one block, as if a ramrod was pushing them in. We had seen images of white-gloved station attendants pushing commuters onto subway trains in Tokyo, but this was the real thing! They could see a gap in the humanity where our luggage was on the floor and in an instant moved to fill the gap. The luggage was shunted to the wall of the carriage. Those in front tripped on it as people behind shoved their way onto the train. A fairly petite girl who had been standing next to me got crushed against the wall and looked as if she might go under, but somehow survived. All I could see of Jacqui was her cursing head sticking out of the melee at a strange angle, and an arm. As suddenly as it had appeared, the block of humanity left at the next station and the train was more comfortable from then on. By the time we got to Tokyo, there were actually seats available.

We changed to a Shinkansen fairly readily, making it just in time. However, this one had two decks of seats and ours were on the bottom row, so nothing was visible through the window. After about an hour, we arrived at Utsunomiya to change trains for Nikko. While we waited for the local train, I tried to ring mum in Adelaide, but there was no response.

The train to Nikko took another three quarters of an hour. It was late morning, sunny and quite warm when we arrived. As we were trying to be bona-fide budget travellers, I searched high and low for a bus to take us by our hotel as per the brochure description, but although there were many buses, I couldn't find one which I was sure would go the right way. After about twenty minutes, we decided to take a taxi. This was our first taxi ride in Japan. We got in and I pointed to the hotel's reference in the brochure. At first, the driver squinted at what I was showing him, then said "Ah, turtle!1", and we set off. The taxi was spotless. The seats had been covered with white doilies and sealed in plastic. The driver wore a blue vest and white gloves, so he looked a bit like a hotel doorman. The trip cost us about A$11, which wasn't substantially more than it would have cost us in Adelaide.

The hotel, although it looked fairly basic from the outside, was very comfortable and decorated in a European style. The woman who ran the place greeted us warmly. In a complete contrast with the Tokyo hotel, she wasn't there to demonstrate the features of a superior culture. She just seemed to like being in the hospitality business and having Westerners to stay. The lobby had maps of the world, where all the guests were encouraged to write their name on a little sticker and put it over their place of origin. Australia had been obliterated by little stickers, so ours went some thousand kilometres south, in the middle of the Southern Ocean. There were no footwear rules. The benefits didn't stop there - we were enraptured to find than our room actually had pillows and a stand up shower, with all the hot water we wanted, whenever we wanted it!

After dropping off our bags, we set off walking and soon came across somewhere for lunch. Again, we got a warm greeting from the people running the place. People in Nikko seemed much more approachable and nicer than in Tokyo. I got curry and rice by mistake and Jacqui had soupy noodles - Y1,350 the lot. Curry and rice was a common dish in Japan. It tasted a bit like mum's, (without the sultanas) and the main ingredients were peas and carrots. If you were lucky, you got a piece of meat.

Photo: Turtle Inn Nikko

After lunch, we visited a number of temples and shrines in the hills above Nikko. The natural scenery was jaw-droppingly beautiful, but all the temples charged exorbitant admission fees. The main one, Toshogu Shrine, was Y1,250 (A$15) each, which we thought was a bit steep, but had to pay. The shrine included a couple of very ornate gates which are apparently very famous in Japan, also the original "three wise monkeys", which are carved into one of the lintels of its stable. Nearby was the Futarasan Shrine, which was only Y200, but there wasn't much to see and we could have given it a miss. By the third place - Nikko Mausoleum Taiyuin - Jacqui got cheesed off and refused to go in (it was Y500). I reasoned that I might never go there again, so I swallowed my pride and paid up, while she waited for me outside. In many ways, it was better value than Toshogu Shrine, with a beautiful main building covered with gold leaf. The mausoleum also held the tomb of the third Shogun, Iyemitsu. As I was going into the main building (struggling to take off my shoes, as usual2) a couple of Japanese ladies said "Konichiwa" to me. I said "Konichiwa" back and got a very excited response, most of which I couldn't understand. They asked me if I was an American3 and when I told them I was Australian, they got very excited again. As far as I can gather, Japanese are not big on greeting total strangers, so the fact that they sometimes said hello to me suggests that they are interested in Western people, as a bit of a novelty.

Photo: Temple drink station

On the way out, a couple of German women asked me something. I responded in my Grade 7 German that I don't speak German and they switched to English. They wanted to know whether they could walk to a place called "Jakko Falls"4 from there. Ha! Ha! I pulled out my map and tried as best I could to help them, seeing as I had only been in the place about three hours. A little later, a French girl asked us for bus directions. Ha! Ha! again. What was it about us that suggested we knew where we were?

Photo: Three wise monkeys

We went on to a quite spectacular botanic garden, lined with stone buddas, with napkins tied around their bodies. They looked like they were ready to tuck into a dinner of Texas ribs! After this, Jacqui wanted to walk back into Nikko's main street for dinner and browsing, so we did. On the way, I saw a bus with "Miyanoshita Hotel" on it5. As we were walking along the main street a big family of monkeys crossed over it, using the roofs and electrical wires with great agility. One guy didn't enjoy the show and rushed out of his house, waving a gun at them! This was about the only action to be found, however. By the time we got there it was after 5.30 and the shops were closed. Luckily, we stumbled on a charming little restaurant run by a cheery old lady. It was obviously listed in the tour guides, because the walls were bedecked with business cards and messages from all over the world, left by tourists past, some telling how they had been moved by the experience of eating there. We had yakitori and meatballs on skewers, with some sake to wash it down. The whole meal was delectable and good value. The lady was very jocular and taught us to say "Oishi", which means delicious. As we left, she stood at the door, bowing and saying goodbye in English and Japanese while we walked off down the street.

We had done quite a lot of walking that day, so when we got back we decided to have a Japanese bath. This involved getting wet and rinsing outside the bath first, then getting into the scalding hot bath for "relaxing nerves and muscles". We felt more like lobsters and could only stand it for about five minutes.

Our room's TV had a broken powerpoint, and the owner fixed it for us. I also tried to tell her about Rex, the room's resident Huntsman, but the word "spider" was not in her vocabulary. For the next two days, Rex would appear periodically and I would pursue him with a shoe, but I never did manage to inflict any serious injury on him, let alone kill him.

With the first real pillows for a while, we slept like logs. The weather opened cooler than any day we had yet experienced in Japan. We were headed for Lake Chuzenji, about 14 kilometres up into the mountains from Nikko. This time, there was no problem getting onto a bus headed there, but it was packed to the hilt with Japanese tourists. We made spectacles of ourselves with the ticket machine, because we tried to pay the driver as we got on. In fact, the system was that you collected a numbered ticket as you entered, then watched an illuminated board at the front of the bus. As you went along, the price corresponding to your number gradually increased. The road to Lake Chuzenji was one-way only, with numerous hairpin turns.

Our map showed that we could catch the bus to a place called Akechidaira, which had a cable car6 to an observatory. From the observatory there was supposed to be a walking trail to another cable car station, from which we could ride down to Lake Chuzenji township. That was the plan, anyway. Akechidaira turned out to be a small tourist stop "miles from nowhere", so we were feeling a bit uncomfortable as our bus deposited us there and headed off down the road. We couldn't see any cable cars running, but we went down into the entrance. The lady in charge pointed to a TV, with nothing on the screen. Actually, there was something on the screen - mist. The TV showed the view from the observatory at the other end of the cable car, and this day it was mist and nothing else. We showed her our map, somehow explaining that it was the walk from the observatory that we were interested in, not the view. Cautiously, she sold us tickets, warning all the time, "Careful, mist". The other person there also looked concerned for our welfare. Feeling nervous but undaunted, we got in the cable car and set off. We were probably their first customers for the day.

We reached the other end (a rip-off at Y380 each) and found the trail easily. It led up hill and down dale, all the while through beautiful mountainous country. For the first time in Japan, we could have been a million miles from civilisation. At times, the mist closed in, but we never lost the trail. After some time, we came across about 10 young Japanese coming in the other direction and they chattered brightly to each other about coming across "English tourists" in such a place.

Photo: Bushwalk near Lake Chuzenji

After about one hour's walking, we reached the other cable car station. By this time, the mist had cleared and the day was sunny. We got some great views of the lake and far mountains, some with snow still on their peaks. We caught the cable car down to Lake Chuzenji and then went to look at Kegon Falls. This involved catching a lift for 100 metres inside the mountainside, then walking through a tunnel to a viewing platform. The waterfalls were quite pretty.

Along the main street of Lake Chuzenji township were a myriad of souvenir shops and restaurants, mostly selling much the same selection, according to their plastic food displays. Many were empty and as we went in search of food, old ladies out the front encouraged us to come in and eat. After our usual comprehensive inspection of all the available restaurants, we eventually chose one and had the ubiquitous noodles. I also had a serve of fried rice, which the Japanese do particularly well. After lunch, we strolled around the lakeside for a while, then caught the bus back to Nikko. I counted about 60 hairpin corners on the route down to Nikko. The return trip on the bus cost us about A$24 each.

Back in Nikko, we paid a visit to a former Emperor's summer villa near our hotel, which is now a museum. It was built by Hirohito's father. The current emperor, Akihito, stayed there as a boy, during the bombing of Tokyo in 1944/45. Built of wood, with external corridors and tatami matting floors, it was an interesting place to walk through.

It was late afternoon, but still quite light. We had run out of attractions to visit, so we decided to do a walk up to Jakko Falls, the place the German women had asked me about the day before. We were getting fairly tired because we had been walking almost all day, but luckily there was a bitumen road all the way, so it was okay, although steep in places. We reached the falls in about 40 minutes. There were stone steps up to the falls and we went up to take a look. They were okay.

On the way down, on the second-to-last step, I went over on my ankle and fell to the ground. Yes, Bozo the Clown had sprained his ankle. After a minute, I picked myself up and tentatively put my weight on it. We had a three kilometre walk back to the hotel, so I found a stick to help me. We got back to the hotel without mishap, but I leaned heavily on the stick all the way. When I pulled my sock off, my ankle and the top of my foot were very swollen.

After a short rest, Jacqui bound my ankle with the belt of a yukata7 and we set off in search of food. It had been our intention to go back to the place where we had lunch before, but when we got there it was closed, as were all the other places in striking distance of the hotel. The only option seemed to be to try for the place we had dinner the previous night8. This was about one kilometre away and there was no guarantee that it was open - after all, everything else wasn't. Adventurous (stupid) to the end, we set off, me leaning heavily on Jacqui. Just before the restaurant, we amazingly found an open chemist shop and even more amazingly, managed (without a skerrick of Japanese) to buy a couple of bandages to bind my foot properly.

Fortunately, the restaurant was open, the lady welcoming us like old friends. We sat down to a delicious meal of noodles, yakitori and meatballs. Actually, we ordered too much and stuffed ourselves (again). We had to share a table, with a French guy who had lived in Japan for six years, and his Japanese girlfriend/wife. At another table were a middle-aged Singaporean couple having a break from a business trip. We had a good time talking about culture shocks in Japan. It was another painful hobble back to the hotel for a cold water foot bath and a rest for my foot. Mich rang us and arranged to meet us in Kyoto.

1 He wasn't calling us turtles. For some reason which we never discovered, the place we were staying was called "Turtle Inn Nikko." Perhaps the area is famous for its turtles.

2 Traveller's tip: Don't wear shoes with laces to Japan.

3 What an insult!

4 I wish I had never met these women. To find out why, read on, McDuff.

5 Think about it. You'll get it eventually.

6 The Japanese called them "ropeways", which sounds altogether much more daring and invokes images of shimmying across vast chasms by hand, on a single rope.

7 A cotton dressing gown provided by the ryokan for wearing around inside.

8 In retrospect, we should have begged the Turtle Inn lady to cook us something simple. We knew she did a sukiyaki for Y2,000 by prior arrangement, and she probably would have cooked up something for us if we had asked.