Tuesday 10 January 2023
Bullet Train to Nikko
Today I tick another thing off my bucket list with my first journey on a bullet train. We are travelling north to Nikko; a World Heritage Site of shrines and temples set in a cedar forest.
After taking two local trains to Tokyo Station to board our shiny bullet train to Utsunomiya.
It’s our first day using our 14 day JR Passes. These are small cardboard tickets which cost almost £300 each and if lost, cannot be reissued. Apart from being terrified of losing this incredibly expensive scrap of cardboard, every time I enter it in a ticket machine, I panic until I see it safely spat out the other side again. Then I must hand it back to the old man for safekeeping due to my track record for losing things.
The bullet train is as sleek and fast as you’d expect. Toilet report; it’s a bit like entering a space capsule. There’s even a mirror on the rear wall for that all important toilet selfie. As anticipated, there is a large selection of buttons to press. The closest one is the SOS button. Judging from the signage, this gets mistaken for the flush from time to time. Luckily, I manage to have a wee without stopping the train and we disembark without incident.
We have to change to a local train in Utonomiya, which apparently is big in the world of strawberries. There are tubs of strawberries around the station and even a statue of a strawberry wearing a crown.
We take the Nikko Line train to the town of Nikko, which is around a mile from the shrine. The four train, 86 mile journey should taken 2 hours 15 minutes. It has taken us somewhat longer as the old man has insisted on building in extra contingency time.
When we arrive in Nikko, it’s snowing, which is unfortunate as I don’t have a coat. It was so warm in Tokyo yesterday that I was wandering around in just a t shirt.
We buy a bus ticket to enormous shrine complex, disembarking at Shinkyo Bridge, a traditional red bridge across a picturesque stream. For Y300 you can walk onto (but not cross) the bridge for a photo op. I mean, the photo isn’t compulsory but why else would you pay Y300 to not cross a bridge? We make do with taking a free photo from the road bridge.
We decide to start with Tosho-gu. This in itself is a substantial complex/stair combination costing Y1300 to visit. Tosho-gu is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun Warlord. It consists of several buildings, all very ornate, decorated with intricate carvings and paintings, primarily of animals both, real and imagined and in some cases both. The strange creatures on one of the buildings are believed to be elephants carved by an artist who’d never seen an elephant. The shrine took 15,000 artisans two years to complete.
You must pay an extra Y300 to access the five storey pagoda at the entrance. We just took a photo from outside.
The entry to the shrine is via the ornate Omote-mon Gate which is guarded by Deva kings.
The most elaborately decorated, has over 500 carved images in white and gold. Worrying that its perfection might arouse envy in the gods thus bringing bad luck, the final supporting pillar was installed upside down so the building could not be considered perfect.
The Sacred Stable is only building of unpainted wood. It is lined with relief carvings of monkeys which ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ in line with Buddhist philosophy.
From here you can access, via 207 steep stone steps, the tomb of Ieyasu. It is decorated with a sleeping cat, apparently one of the most famous in Japan.
As if 207 steep stone steps wasn’t ordeal enough, there is no handrail, so nothing to lean on. And masks are compulsory. The more I climb, the harder I breath, the more steamed up my glasses become, soon I can’t see where I’m going.
The first thing I see when I reach the top, gasping for breath inside my mask, is a defibrillator! To be honest there’s not much to see to warrant the ascent. Now I have to descend the 207 steep stone steps with no handrail, not being able to see where I’m going.
We finish with a guided visit to Honji-do, which has a huge crying dragon (I thought it was a monkey – the old man says it’s obviously a dragon as it has a tail!?) painted on the ceiling. A monk demonstrates something by banging two sticks together. I think it’s supposed to be the dragon roaring. Next…
We had planned to continue to the next shrine complex, but decide we’ve seen enough shrines for one day.
Shrine toilet report; very basic, I had to do everything for myself but there were 17 rolls of toilet paper and useful instructions on how to use a toilet correctly.
We take the bus back to town in order to catch the train to Tokyo, reaching the station at 1.16. I had thought the trains were at 19 minutes past the hour, however it turns out they run at 19 minutes past every hour except one. So we have 63 minutes to wait in the draughty station. Did I mention I didn’t bring a coat?
At least, while I’m fending off hypothermia, I can explore the station, which was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.
Preserved upstairs, but serving no actual purpose, is the rather grand first class waiting room.
We catch our train/bullet train to Tokyo station, where I announce I need a wee before continuing. The old man accuses me of faking it to take a peek at the bathroom. Tokyo Station bathroom report: automatic fake flushing noise starts as soon as you enter the cubicle. Plus there’s a useful map of how to find the toilet.
Tokyo Olympic Park
Although our hotel is opposite the Olympic Park, we’ve still not managed to fit in a wander. It’s dusk by the time we return, but just enough light to see the Olympic Rings.
Dinner at Sowat
The old man has selected a Thai restaurant called Sowat for dinner. It’s very difficult to find and we pass many perfectly nice restaurants trying to locate Sowat. Did I mention I don’t have a coat? Eventually,we find it down an alleyway. Both tables are occupied so we have to sit at a bench. There is no English menu, so we must use the photos to choose our meals. I select something which looks like noodles. It turns out to be squid and octopus. Epic fail. I pick out the corpses floating on my plate and eat the sauce and rice.
I don’t usually eat seafood because I don’t like seafood. It turns out I’m also allergic to seafood. Luckily the epic coughing fits are brought under control by antihistamines and my epipens live to fight another day. As do I.