I woke up to the sound of falling rain and checked the clock. The plan was to wake up early and go north. Escape the city and it’s tempting arcades that held me captive two nights in a row.
From Tokyo station we boarded a train bound for Nikko, an hour and a half journey, with a change at Utsunomiya. The main destination in Nikko is the lavishly decorated Toshogu; the shrine and mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Yet, the town and it’s surroundings have a lot more to explore.
With this in mind we boarded a bus from Nikko station to Kegon Falls, in the vicinity of Lake Chuzenjiko. The driver moved with surgical precision through the narrow and sinuous mountain roads surrounded by tall trees. We stopped on a deserted bus terminal near the shore of Lake Chuzenji. Famous for its Onsen hotels and koyo – autumnal colours – there was little people around. However, Kegon falls, regardless of time of year, is a sight to behold. This massive one hundred meter drop is the only exit for the waters of the near by lake. If impressive from the road side, then after taking an elevator down, the scene was overwhelming.
The same foggy atmosphere that engulfed the mountains, followed us to Toshogu. Set in a beautiful forest, the mausoleum was initially simple, expanding along the years to what it is now; more than a dozen buildings spanning all the way up the mountain. Its uniqueness lies in the combination of Buddhist and Shinto elements, something unseen anywhere else in Japan.
The big granite Torii door marks the entrance to sacred ground, the road up is steep and covered in gravel. Heavy mist surrounded us, the deeper we got into the complex. I couldn’t help feelingl the height of solemnity in the air.
My romantic ideal of Japanese mountain shrines was fuelled by hours playing Final Fantasy. The beautiful temple sceneries surrounded by thick mist, and priests chanting in a grave, low tone were my favourite in the game; experiencing such a thing was amazing. The main shrine building is composed by an outer praying hall, and behind it, the inner and main hall. Countless woodcarvings, covered in gold leaf and bold colours, adorn these buildings. Every single piece tells a story, and together form a more complex tale. The visual richness, visible from far away, is overwhelming.
Next to the shrine a gate adorned with the famous carving of Nemurineko, the sleeping cat, marks the start of a long flight of stairs that leads uphill, through the mountain, to Tokugawa mausoleum. The mausoleum itself is a sober and austere place, so it’s amusing to see a stray cat taking a nap in the middle of it.
After soaking up the peaceful scenery, we descend through the slippery stone stairs, and enter Honjido Hall. The building is massive and presents twelve statues of each Chinese zodiac sign. Yet, it’s centrepiece is a large dragon painted across the ceiling, known as the Crying Dragon.
In a broken English, a priest invite us to join a small crowd. After a few words, he claps two blocks of wood together in several locations across the hall. It’s only in a particular location that the sound echoes in a way that resemble a shrill cry, giving the dragon it’s name. You have to hand it to Japanese architects and their knowledge of acoustics.
We were engaged in conversation by the priest shortly after. He was keen to know our zodiac signs, to point us to the correct statue for us to pay our respects and possibly, buy an Omamori. Like in every temple, the exit was through the talisman shop.
When we left the complex, and walked down through the main path, it was difficult not to look back in awe. The ambiance was perfect; the gold leaf and greenery, that surrounded the buildings, was beautifully paired with the low mist. But when we reached the Shinkyo bridge something wonderful happened. The sun came out behind the clouds for a brief moment. Rays of sunshine inundated the valley, like it was thanking us for visiting.