Yunishigawa-Onsen to Nikko

I’m writing now from Yunishigawa-Onsen station, where we have an half-hour wait until I train for Nikko. Interacting with people is getting easier and easier; I even recognised the name of the station where we have to change trains when we bought our ticket from the office. And of course it helps that people are unfailingly polite and helpful. Arigatou gozaimasu (thank you very much) is getting us a long way, and we’ve also mastered good morning, goodbye, hello, and excuse me! All travel essentials.

This morning we experienced a spectacular breakfast downstairs at Honke Bankyu – a varied smorgasbord of tofu, potato, fish, miso, fruit, yogurt, various vegetables and more, plus juice and green tea. We were pleased to see we were the only ‘Westerners’ in the place.

We packed our bags, then went for a walk around the little village, almost deserted in the early morning, and along the river. Purely by chance we stumbled across the Heike Folk Village, a recreation of a traditional Heike clan village of thatched cottages. The Yunishigawa area is where the Heike (or Taira) clan hid when they were all but wiped out by the Genji (or Minamoto) clan in the 12th century. Striking red vertical flags bearing the Heike symbol (one I immediately recognised from using it in the graphic design I did for the board game Ninjato) are everywhere around the village, and the drum that was used to announce our arrival at the ryokan yesterday bears the symbol as well.

The recreated village was very peaceful and some of the cottages had interesting displays of tools and interiors.

We walked back to the hotel via the river, and sadly took our leave of Honke Bankyu, which I’m already sure will be one of the highlights of this trip. The bus across the street arrived at the advertised time of 10:01am precisely, and after a short ride, here I am catching up in this diary as we wait for the 11:15am train. I’m really enjoying keeping a written diary again.

Now I’m writing from our room at Nikko Tokanso hotel; another ryokan, albeit a more modern one with a bit of a faded 1960s vibe. I’ve just visited the hotel’s onsen, where I shared the communal hot sprint pool with one older guy. Perhaps the ritual of onsen contributes to the relaxed and peaceful aspects of the Japanese psyche, as taking one’s time over the task of bathing does seem to be good for the soul.

Here’s how it works. I put on my yukata robe, took my large and small towels, and in my slippers, walked to the men’s onsen. After placing my slippers on a shelf I went into the changing room and undressed, placing my things in a wicker basket and putting that on a shelf. There were two rows of cubicles separated by low walls, and I sat and washed using the shower hose and a small bucket provided. All clean, I stepped into the main hot pool and relaxed for a while. The older man didn’t seem to want to say anything, so I don’t catch his eye. Once I got too hot, I got out and rinsed with water, before drying and dressing in the changing room. Very relaxing!

Our train trip to Tobo Nikko station was easy, and there we wandered about a bit until we caught a taxi a few kilometres to this hotel. Leaving our bags, we walked down the hill to the beautiful red Shin-kyo bridge. As we waited to cross the road we talked with a group of schoolchildren, telling them we came from Australia. Everyone laughed and said ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ repeatedly.

Carol was getting hungry and we walked quite a way down the main street trying to find a toilet and a supermarket (where she could get ye olde egg sandwich). We eventually found the former at a tourist information place, and bought packets of chips from a shop, though I also got two ‘rice balls on a stick dipped brushed with soy sauce’ from a street vendor. These were chewy and glutinous – I don’t understand the attraction really!

Back up at the bridge we walked along the river to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a path along a small river gorge lined with small stone Buddhas, each with its crocheted red cap and red bib. Each also had a handful of one yen coins in its hands.

After sitting in the sun eating chips, we then walked to the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park, a restored wooden Imperial palace from the end of the 19th century. A beautiful building with simple, bare rooms, surrounded by a peaceful garden. Unfortunately the fall season hasn’t quite hit yet, so the gardens weren’t very colourful, though they were still very relaxing.

It was getting a bit chilly by now so we walked back to the hotel, passing through the main thoroughfare that leads up to Tosho-gu, the main temple complex. We’ll explore that tomorrow morning.

Then it was off to dinner to a place next door called Gyoshintei, where we’re experiencing shojin ryori, a style of vegetarian cuisine developed by Buddhist monks. Apart from a Dutch couple who left just after we arrived – we’d seen them on the train before, and this time we chatted briefly – there was no one else in the main room of the restaurant. The meal was our most expensive yet, but AUD$160 or so wasn’t much to pay for such a spectacular array of dishes. I had a non-vegetarian version, which added a bit of sashimi to the set meal. In pretty rapid succession, a gorgeous array of of delicate dishes, beautifully presented, was brought out to us.

Carol enjoyed not having to worry about what she was or wasn’t eating, though the flavours of Japanese food don’t do a lot for her. I enjoyed every dish however, especially some delicious dark fish sashimi, an amazing mushroom broth and a delicate shrimp tempura.

Another incredible, very full day in Japan! Early start tomorrow.

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