Monday, September 20, 2010

Nikko (Part 1): Of Waterfalls and Caldera Lakes

(Samurai T should be the one posting this, but he has a lot of marking to do. Year end exams. Bah.)

One of the MUST-DO day trips out of Tokyo, besides Hakone and Kamakura, is Nikko, a small town north of Tokyo and in the Tochigi Prefecture. However, do be prepared to have an aching ass at the end of the day as it is a 4+ hour return journey along the Tobu Nikko Line, which DOES NOT include your journey to Asakusa-Tobu station from wherever you are based in Tokyo. (For us, it was another half hour metro ride from Shinjuku.)

Most people are only aware that Nikko is famous for the massive and meticulously decorated mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns, including the grandfather of them all, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542 - 1616), which are, you guessed right, UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The mausoleums are situated within a magnificent forest of 13,000 cedar trees which gives one an out-of-this-world or lost in time atmosphere. There are also an abundance of maple trees in the area, and although we were unable to admire the autumn colours, I have seen gorgeous pictures of the trees in fiery colours.

Besides the Tokugawa mausoleums (which can only excite historians like Samurai T), Nikko also has plentiful natural attractions and is home to the Nikko National Park, where there is the fabulous caldera lake, Lake Chuzenji, Mount Nantai and numerous beautiful waterfalls. But if one is interested in doing everything, like us, consider yourselves warned: you MUST set off early (VERY EARLY) from Tokyo in view of the long travelling time. As we were still suffering from jet lag from our flight from New York, we scooted out of our hotel at an ungodly hour of 5.40am (but as it was in summer, it was already very bright). Unfortunately we were still unable to catch the first Tobu-Nikko train at 6.20am and had to take the 7.10am instead. We returned to Tokyo only about 12 hours later - and were almost like walking vampires. Samurai's eyebags were the size of, I don't know, giant pandas'? And I was about to throw up from motion sickness (and I usually DON'T get motion sickness.) Stupid jet lag.

At the train platform at Asakusa-Tobu Station.

The best way (and also the most economical) to explore Nikko (if you are not going with a day tour group) is to purchase passes by Tobu Railway from its office at Asakusa. Two of its most popular passes are 1) The World Heritage Pass which includes a round trip from Tobu-Asakasa station, admission tickets to the mausoleums and shrines, and free bus rides around central Nikko, not inclusive of the Chuzenji area (3,600 Yen per person); and 2) All Nikko Pass which included a round trip and unlimited travel around Nikko including Chuzenji but do not cover admission tickets to the World Heritage Sites at 4,400 Yen per pax. An additional 1,000 Yen per person would get you into all the shrines (apparently a discounted rate for pass holders). Since I was adamant in visiting the Chuzenji area, we took the All Nikko Pass and our final bill came up to a total of 5,400 Yen (SGD 85) per person.

Nikko town centre after emerging from the station.

Immediately after our arrival at Nikko, we took another 45 minute bus ride to the Chuzenji area (urgh yes, so much travelling), which entailed a dizzying ascent up the Irohazaka Pass with its numerous stomach churning twists and turns (hence do not have a full breakfast). We were gunning for Lake Chuzenji, the famous caldera lake at the foot of Mount Nantai, and one of Japan's top three waterfalls, the Kegon Waterfall located within minutes walk from each other, both of which are located about 1,200 metres above the sea level.

At Chuzenji with the looming mountains. The clouds look close enough to touch!

Our first stop was the Kegon Waterfall which was about a 10 minute walk from our bus station. The admission to the spectacular 100 metre waterfall was 500 yen, where we then had to take an old elevator DOWN an equivalent height and walk through freezing tunnels (and it was summer, mind you) before we were greeted by a most AWESOME sight from the observation deck located at the base of the falls. (P.S. If you are feeling cheapskate you can view the waterfall from the top, but the view is significantly less spectacular.)

This marvellous sight....

A geographical titbit: Kegon Waterfall is the only exit for waters from Lake Chuzenji, which also explains their close proximity to one another. I could have stood there for hours watching the waters dance hynoptically from the top and trickling down into the streams way below. From our position on the observation deck, we could feel the refreshing water spray, listen to the thunderous yet melodic roar and watch the unbelievably clear waters gushing down the valley. Like a spot of heaven on earth.

After taking God knew how many photos, we finally left and walk towards Lake Chuzenji. A fine mist was covering the lake which was still like glass, and reflecting the clouds and blue sky. It was so peaceful and quiet I would not be surprised if a female ghost floats across the lake - even in broad daylight!! Apparently, the lake looks even more beautiful in autumn where the forested mountains are in full bloom. There were obviously walking trails around the lake (note: research says the circumference of the lake is 25 kilometres!!!), but as we were pressed for time, we loitered around for barely half an hour before taking another barf inducing bus ride back to Nikko town and the Tokugawa mausoleums.

The majestic Lake Chuzenji

Going down the Irohazaka Pass - impressive but dizzying.

Next we alighted at the Shinkyo Bridge which was located near the entrance of the World Heritage Sites. A mystical bright red bridge ranked again as one of the top 3 in Japan (how do the Japanese rank them anyway??), it was also built more than 1,000 years ago by some unknown person, although the current construction dated to 1636. All said, it was indeed a beautiful bridge and made for a quaint picture together with the clear river (is the water blue? green??) and green forest.

We finally broke for lunch at a restaurant nearby the Shinkyo Bridge, and what do you know? Samurai T and I experienced our first ever earthquake. Thankfully mild, it nevertheless swayed the building we were in, but was over in 3 seconds. For a moment I thought I was still dizzy from the bus ride, but hey all in all it was an amazing experience, although I probably would not say so if it was any stronger.

Stay tuned for the next chapter on the Tokugawa Mausoleums.

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