The morning is cold in michi-no-eki Nikko. There is ice on the windscreen for the first time. The michi-no-eki (road station) is not very large but very busy as people visit the toilet and the convenience store.
Toshogu, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
It is time for us to pay our respects to Tokugawa Ieyasu, so we head out to his shrine, Toshogu. This shrine, where Tokugawa Ieyasu was enshrined as a god, was re-constructed in 1636 by his grandson the third Tokugawa shogun.
We have some trouble finding the car park but, eventually, walk to the shrine. The entrance fee is an exorbitant 1300 yen, especially as most of the place is under wraps due to a major restoration. The fresh paintwork makes the whole fantastic structure more gaudy and tasteless than ever. It is interesting to see the painstaking work in progress and the panels just rendered in white waiting for the colour to be applied.
We walk round the back and up the steps to the actual tomb, which is not a tomb but a memorial. We are able go inside. I don’t think that was an option the last time I was here. A concession, perhaps, as most of the place is covered in scaffolding and sheeting. I was impressed by a sumie of a Kirin on the fusuma but the place is generally, over the top.
The next hall is the Buddhist section. Here there is the famous dragon ceiling which causes an echo at a certain point. This a monk demonstrates by clapping (both hands) at various places until, at the sweet spot, there is an echo.
During our tour, it becomes more and more crowded as new arrivals continue to swell the numbers. As we leave, we note a long queue for entrance tickets which we did not experience and, by the time we return to the car park, there is an even longer queue of cars waiting to enter. Inside the car park, some confusion, as people drive around looking for a vacant spot and a much smaller number try to leave. We were lucky to arrive early, though we cannot credit our foresight.
Chuzenji Lake, Boat House
We drive on towards Senjogahara and by lunchtime we are at Chuzenji Lake. The overpriced restaurants do not tempt us and there appear to be no food shops so we drive round the lake a little further. It soon becomes clear that there will be nowhere to buy food if we press on so, we turn round. On our way back towards the restaurants, we stop, by chance, at a replica Boat House. It is open to the public free of charge.
The Boat House was an early attempt to create a tourist industry, in the late 1940’s. Very upmarket tourism it would seem to have been. The boat house is of European design and suggests blazers, boaters and gin and tonic. It is a wonderful place for a picnic lunch – a timber deck with beautiful wooden deck chairs – overlooking the lake!
We head back to where the restaurants were and, finding a back street, off the tourist road, discover a tiny, local mini-market. Then head back to the boat house with our salad and onigiri to enjoy a peaceful lunch with a table and comfortable deck chairs. I feel I lack only a blazer, boater and G&T but, I am driving.
After lunch, on to Senjogahara where we go for a walk. This is a high, flat, wetland surrounded by mountain peaks. Due to the season and the elevation, the trees are leafless and the reeds and rushes brown. A large number of the trees are actually dead due no doubt to the harsh conditions. We walk about 5 km. along a clear, fast running stream complete with mallards. I had always associated mallards with ponds in parks so was surprised to find them here in, what must become in a few weeks, a very hostile environment. The landscape is desolate and beautiful but, our walk is by no means lonely. We are kept company by a number of raucous school groups.
Over Mt. Shirane on Route 120
Next we move into Gunma prefecture by way of Route 120 and a spectacular pass. The top provides a view of a very craggy mountain – a real top of the mountain feeling- with the late afternoon sun catching the sheer rock faces. The landscape changes as we go down the other side. There are more conifers, more snow lying at the side of the road and the temperature drops down, suddenly, to 2 degrees. After checking the michi-no-eki Shirasawa at Numata, we shop at a handy supermarket, then return for an onsen. This place has a huge car park with fancy coloured lights highlighting the trees but, the entrance to the onsen is not exactly obvious.
The bath is not that great; the cold tap runs very slowly and the bath is not hot enough to counteract the cold draught coming from outside but on the other hand the rotenburo (outside bath) is very good; large hot and with a good view of a clear moon in the night sky.
Returning to the van I note another car has its wipers pulled up free of the windscreen so we are expecting a cold night with a hard frost.
＊Bokyo no yu (onsen) ; 560 yen/adult
The author is a long term resident of Japan who has and continues to travel the country extensively. Avoiding highways where possible, the author has driven from Kagoshima in Kyushu to Wakanai in Hokkaido covering 20,000 plus kilometres and counting.