DM's Japan 2006 Trip Diary

Day 7 - Utsunomiya to Nikkō to Sydney

Saturday, 28 January, 2006

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20:38 Japan Time, 22:38 Sydney Time

We are on board flight QF22 for Sydney, which left Narita pretty much on time at 20:00.

I got up this morning, showered, and went to the combini to get some sushi and a cream-filled chocolate eclairy sort of thing for breakast, the returned to my room to pack bags for the flight home. I had to leave out a lot of warm clothes, including gloves, scarf, and beanie, since we were taking a trip up to Nikkō near the mountains where the forecast was -10°C to -1°C for the day.

I headed down to the lobby with all my gear at 9am, where Matthew and Saito-san were waiting. We were also waiting for Endo-san, who would be driving us out to Nikkō. Saito-san went out to the fron of the hotel to see if he was there, then his wife and her Korean language teacher arrived from the rear entrance, followed soon after by Endo-san. Matthew then went out to get Saito-san, who returned from the rear entrance as Matthew left via the front!

Eventually we managed to get everyone in one spot, and loaded up in Endo-san's van for the one hour drive along a toll road to Nikkō. We approached the mountains, which were capped with a significant amount of snow (yuki in Japanese). Although it was cool outside, Endo-san's car was heated to an uncomfortable degree, and Matthew peeled off down to a T-shirt, while I sweated it out in my jumper.

We reached Nikkō and drove past the famous old red bridge there, but didn't stop to take a close look. Instead we drove up through the sloping narrow streets of Nikkō to the parking area for the Nikkō Tōshō-gū shrine. We clambered out of the car and rugged up with coats and scarves. It didn't feel too cold, but we were in the bright sunshine. After a few minutes, and walking through shade, we realised how cold it really was, as our fingers quickly became numb. Although I had gloves, I eschewed them for the convenience of being able to take photos at will.

And there was much to take photos of. Nikkō Tōshō-gū was a sprawling complex of temples and shrines, ranging up the hillside amidst picturesque pine trees. Granite steps led up the hill, past pagodas, large bells, and frames where visitors had hung prayers written on blocks of wood or strips of paper. One shrine had the famous three wise monkeys, who see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil, carved on it above the doorways. We passed a granite pedestal that contained bubbling water; above it were long-handled metal cups. People used these to tip water on their hands and to drink from. Saito-san's wife explaied that it was to purify oneself before visiting the temple. I tried it and found the water to be freezing cold.

Nikko Tosho-gu
The cold water washing station

Further along was the very famous statue of the sleeping cat. Saito-san had mentioned it to use at Canon earlier and explained that although it was very famous, it was also very small. I was expecting something maybe the size of an actual cat, as opposed to larger. We reached a spot and Saito-san said here was where the famous sleeping cat was. I saw a doorway through a wall and beyond it stone steps leading up a hillside. I was looking curiously up the steps and wondering when we were going to go up and see this amazing statue. Everyone else was just standing around, and it was only after I asked where the statue was that Saito-san indicated a sculpture about 15 centimetres long mounted over the doorway! It was indeed the famous sleeping cat. I took some photos, zoomed up really close.

Lion statue

Then we went through the doorway and climbed the 200 or so steps further up the hill, where the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu was located. It was a truly beautiful and peaceful location, with the mausoleum consisting of a pagoda-like structure about 3 metres high made of what Saito-san said was a mixture of gold, silver, and copper, sitting in a square granite courtyard covered with snow. There was a wooden walkway around it, passing through a flat area of river pebbles, the whole surrounded by steep granite walls.

Further along, we entered a Shinto shrine, taking our shoes off first to walk on the tatami matting that led into it. Walking around on the cold carpet outside in the freezing weather with only socks on our feet was rather chilling. Inside it was decorated with some very old traditional maki-e paintings made with gold. No photographs were allowed, but inside the shrine they were selling souvenirs. I bought a wooden plaque featuring a painting of the sleeping cat, supposed to bring good fortune to your household.

Stone lanterns

A second shrine, of the crying dragon, also required shoelessness. Inside we heard a guy telling us the story of the shrine in Japanese. Saito-san indicated the painting of a dragon covering the whole of the ceiling, and said that it was sad and crying. The guide clapped together two blocks of wood several times, unbelievably louder each time. Saito-san said that the echo between the dragon on the ceiling and the floor represented the crying.

Donning shoes again we explored the site a bit more, taking lots of photos of the shrines and the large carved granite lanterns around them, looking magnificent in the snow. By now it was approaching lunch time, and Saito-san's wife led the way rapidly down the hill and through a car park, with us not knowing what was in store. The way led through a beautiful Japanese garden, the grass coated with a thin layer of snow, and a small stream running through it. Beyond the garden was a traditional style Japanese building with wooden wall panels and paper partitions inside.

Phone Booth, Nikko, Japan
I found a red phone booth at Nikkō!

We took our shoes off in the entry way and entered to find a Japanese tea room set up with several low tables and pillow in the floor to sit on. The room was fairly sparse, but subtly decorated at the ends with ikebana arrangements and calligraphy hangings on the walls. We sat, and a kimono-clad woman brought us cups of green tea, which was delightfully warming after the cold outside.

Next came a stack of three red and black lacquered wooden boxes, set before each of us. We unstacked the boxes to reveal a selection of food, including small whole crispy fried fish, served with a tiny wedge of lemon and a pan of salt, a small bowl of ebi (prawns) mixed with seaweed and presented in a sticky clear syrup-like sauce, various pickled and sliced radishes carved into intricate snowflake-like shapes, thin sashimi slices of a white fleshed-fish laid on seaweed strips, hot boiled vegetables including chunks of intricately carved carrot, some green stalk-like vegetable I couldn't identify, and sweet potato, all served with a bowl of rice cooked with small chopped pieces of radish and some other vegetables, a bowl of seaweed soup, and a serve of geri (pickled ginger). It looked amazing, and tasted even better as we picked our way through the wide selection. As we finished our bowls of rice, more were brought out for us, and our tea cups refilled.

Bento Lunch
The incredible lunch

Towards the end of this incredible feast, the waitress brought a second cup of tea, of a rich red-brown colour rather than the pale and fragrant green tea we had begun with. Although I normally don't have tea because of the caffeine, I had to try both of the types served to us in this amazingly beautiful setting and atmosphere. Both were delicious.

With the remains of the meal cleared away, a third cup was brought out, apparently made of lacquered wood rather than the pottery of the first two cups, and with a lid on top. I thought it was a third type of tea, until Saito-san explained that this was dessert. Opening the lid revealed a rich and inviting aroma, sweet but subtle, and a steaming hot, thick, dark grey liquid speckled with black. Saito-san indicated it was in fact dessert, consisting of sesame seeds and soft mochi rice cake. Using the provided chopsticks I found two cubes of mochi buried in the thick liquid, which were pleasantly chewy, sweet, and exquisitely delicious dripping with the sesame syrup. After eating these we drank the sesame liquid, which was warm, sweet, and satisfying, much like a thick, creamy hot chocolate on a cold day.

Thoroughly relaxed and filled from this wonderful meal, we walked back to Endo-san's van and drove back to Utsunomiya. We picked up our left luggage form the hotel and with the help of Saito-sanand the others carried it all over to the station, where Matthew and I bought Shinkansen tickets to Tokyo and express train tickets to Narita Airport. Then we shopped for souvenirs before our train left; I picked up some mochi sweets stuffed with sesame paste - hoping they would taste similar to the dessert we'd had at lunch - as well as some chopsticks and traditionally patterned cloth for gifts. Matthew stocked up on weird Japanese food to inflict on office mates back in Sydney.

Finally we waved goodbye to Saito-san and the others, and went through the gate to the train platform. The Shinkansen departed spot on time, delivering us to Tokyo Station also dead on time. We had 19 minuts to navigate our way through this rabbit warren of tunnels and platforms to where the Narita Express departed. We made it with a few minutes to spare, amazed at the number of commuters and other people bustling to and fro in the vast underground caverns early on a Saturday evening.

The Narita Express deposited us at the airport, where we first visited customs to have the equipment carnet checked and stamped, then checked in at a Qantas counter. The flight home was non-stop, so on a 747, and there were vastly more passengers waiting to check in than on the way over. By the time we had checked our bags in, it was almost boarding time, but we took some time to have a last meal of udon in the airport self-serve cafeteria. I had tempura udon, which was delicious.

The flight home was uneventful, except for getting to watch an episode of Mythbusters on the in-flight TV system, which was hilarious as usual. We arrived haggard and tired at Sydney at 07:00 on Sunday morning. Michelle was waiting to meet me, and we left Matthew to get a train home while we grabbed a taxi with most of the camera gear.

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