The Cedars

Listen as the wind runs through the cedars,
Telling tales of the Shogun who fought here.
They came to pay respect to respect to their leaders,
And to console them from their greatest fear.
The land was torn apart from civil war
As the blood of men stained the frozen ground.
Many sacrifices were lost to lore,
And only the cedars could hear their sound.
After all the monuments have been built,
And the tourists have come to take their pictures
No on will remember the life blood spilt
Except for the wind running through the cedars.
Will you stop to listen to the tale told,
And the numerous lesson that they hold.

A Change of Pace – Back to Japan Day 4

Statue outside of Futarasan Shrine in Nikko National Park.

If I haven’t said it before, I will say again right now. I really enjoyed Nikko, Japan. It is a beautiful town set in a beautiful part of Japan with friendly people and great food. There is enough culture here to make my time that I spent there not only rewarding but fun at the same time. There are many places that I would go back to if I ever find myself in Japan again, but Nikko would have to be the top of my list. I could have spent more time among the cedar trees and just soaking in the mountain air, but this is not the reason I came out to Japan in the first place. I was here to see the cherry blossoms, and I had yet to really experience this on this trip and I wasn’t going to find it in Nikko.

A path through the cedar trees in Nikko National Park.

So I said goodbye to this wonderful small town, got on the train and headed off to Tokyo to where I knew the cherry blossoms would be. Now, I have been to Tokyo on a couple of other occasions, and it seems to get better every time I head back there, so even though I was leaving behind Nikko, I was excited to see what adventure awaited me this time.

The view from my place in Tsukiji.

First off, getting to Tokyo is a big change from the quiet atmosphere of the mountain town I was just in. Depending on what source you look at, Tokyo is one of the biggest cities in the world, if not the biggest. So the tall cedars and wide open spaces were replaced by tall buildings, and big crowds. I have found that the best way to explore this city is to find one little neighborhood to go to and see what it has to offer. This time I am going to stay in Tsukiji next to the old fish market, and close to Ginza, one of the bigger shopping centers in town. I am close to the subways, but I know that I will not be able to see all of this town, so I will just have to pick and choose what to do while I am here.

Stairs outside of a shop in the neighborhood of Harajuku.

But I do not think that it really matters where I stay because the one thing I know about this town is that the people are individuals and like to think of new and exciting ways to express themselves. Every corner I turn I know I will see something that will make me smile and make me laugh. There are surprises that I will find here. I have been here for only a couple of hours, and I have already had some great food, seen some strange sights, and have even run into one of my students. It is a great way to start this part of my adventure.

Mud Season – Back to Japan Day 3

I know that the eventual goal is to find the cherry blossoms out here, but I was pretty sure that this would have to wait until I made it to Tokyo. I thought that I was up too high in elevation for these trees to be able to survive and show the pink explosion that I have heard so much about. But I have found a couple of them as they try to compete with their siblings down in the big city, but it was still not the time for them to come out like advertised. And yesterday, I went further up the mountains of Japan making sure that I would not see them at all.

One of the things I recommend getting if you ever come out to Nikko, Japan is the bus pass for the area. It allows you to have unlimited rides on the bus through town, and will even take you up a very windy mountain road to the mountain town of Chuzenji. This town sits on the banks of a mountain lake, and has many hiking paths in the area that can take you to many exciting and beautiful spots. I imagine that during the summer months, and the fall, the place is packed with people, enjoying the mountain air, and playing on the lake. The trees up here make it look like the perfect place to be when the leaves change color, but in the spring, there are not many people here. The town knows this, and most of the shops and restaurants close up for the mud season.

Even all of the docks were blocked off, preventing people from going out on to them, and all off the paddle boats shaped like swans were loaded up on the shore, and locked up until warmer times would come. Despite the lack of people, I think that this might have been the best time to come. I did not have to fight crowds to enjoy the scenery, and without the noise that comes with vacationers packing the shore, it gave me a quiet respite that allowed me to just enjoy the day for what it had to offer.

Even the biggest attraction out there, Kegon Falls, did not feel overcrowded. This 100 meter waterfall brings many people to take pictures. There are some nice viewing places on top, but to get the best views, I needed to take an elevator through 100 meters of mountain to get to the bottom of the falls. There were a few people who took the bus up to this spot today, but not nearly as much as there could have been. I had no trouble finding a spot on the rail to take some pictures and enjoy the beauty of the scene. Granted I have seen pictures of this place in autumn and I can see why the crowds come out for it, but I really enjoyed the time I was able to spend there without them.

I know enough about the mud season by growing up in Colorado, and seeing the mountain towns empty during those times of the year when the tourists just do not want to come, but I think that these can be the best time to enjoy places. I got to see something truly spectacular, and I felt like I was the only one that got to see it. I know in reality that is not true; that many people come to this place to take in its beauty, but I still will hold on to that feeling because it has made this trip one of my favorite ones so far. It is still about the sights, but this time, it is mine to enjoy the way I see fit.

A Day in Nikko – Back to Japan Day 2

I did get to see one tree start to produce a couple of bud that would eventually explode with cherry blossoms, but that is not what Nikko is really about. It is more of a mountain town filled with cedars and ancient temples and shrines. The town experiences and influx of people during the autumn months to see a different kind of event with the trees, and it was nice to explore the city during one of the quieter times. That does not mean that people still did not come out for the day from Tokyo to look at the sights before heading back for the evening. This town has the ability to get really busy for the day, but as soon as that last train leaves for the evening, it turns into a sleepy little mountain town again where everything closes by 10:00 in the evening. But it makes sense because all of the amazing things to see are best enjoyed during the daytime, and there really is not reason for a night life.

One of the more iconic sights is the Shinkyo Bridge. It is right across the street from the Nikko National Park, a World Heritage Site. It is an ancient bridge that spans the river that runs through town, and there is hardly ever anybody on it. The reason for this is because they charge you to walk across it, and it doesn’t lead to anywhere. In fact, you just have to turn around and come back after you have taken the journey, and you can’t really see the bridge while you are on it. It would be like going to the Rialto Bridge in Venice and wanting to take a picture on top of it. There is another bridge fifty meters from this one that you do not have to pay to cross and it is the perfect place to admire the architecture. This is where you will see the crowds taking their pictures in front of the bridge. They then travel across the street to see all of the temples and shrines that Nikko can brag about.

They will find themselves instantly among the cedar trees and every turn that they take they will find another pagoda, shrine or gate. It is a great fortress that was built during the Shogun era, and you can see how this would have protected people from rival armies. It is also the perfect spot to sit back and listen to the wind blow through the cedars while admiring the amazing art work that has lasted through the ages. The most impressive of the shrines is the Toshogu Shrine. It is worth the time to go up to the numerous gates and buildings and admire the intricate carvings that decorate the eaves. There are many little treats that you can spot if you spend the time to look for them, and because the crowds were smaller while I was out here, I believe I was given the opportunity to fully appreciate the sight.

But the place I enjoyed the most was the one furthest away from the crowds. It was the Kanmangafuchi Abyss Trail. This path runs along the river and you have to walk through a residential area in order to find it. It hold numerous Jizo Buddha statues, a favorite Buddha in Japan because he looks over the children. I know it is probably different during the busier times of the year, but we were only one of three groups of people who had made their way down here. The statues are really cool to see, but the river is also a treat. This is just what the city of Nikko has to offer itself. There is still the mountain area to explore that would make doing this small little mountain town in a day a really hard thing to do.

Ice Cream Asian Style – Back to Japan Day 1

What do you do when you get back to your hotel after a long day of traveling with a little snack of ice cream, and you don’t have a spoon to eat it with? Well, all of my years of camping in Colorado has taught me one thing. You adapt and conquer. You go through all of the stuff that you collected throughout the day of travel and find something that will work for you.

The parking lot at Incheon International Airport early on a Saturday morning

Yesterday was one of those crazy travel days that always kept me going, but I knew in the end it would be worth it. I would be traveling to Japan to search for the cherry blossoms that everybody talks about. They are supposed to be one of the things that everybody must see in their lifetime. It makes it on all of the travel bucket lists, and they are supposed to poke out starting this week. So I took the recent Spring Break opportunity to hop over the Sea of Japan to go and see them. The day started out early at Incheon International Airport, and I thought that I had planned correctly, nobody would schedule a flight that early. Boy, I was wrong. Many people must be on Spring Break right now and looking to find their own adventure in East Asia.

A look of the main street in Nikko, Japan

My goal for the day was to eventually make it to the Japanese mountain town of Nikko. It is a two hour train ride outside of Tokyo, and is one of the hidden gems of Japan. It is filled with old temples, and great Japanese architecture, and you do not have to compete with the crowds that you would find in the busy Japanese cities. It doesn’t have the cherry blossoms that Tokyo is famous for, but I have a whole week to see them, and this would be the perfect to ease into the week. The only problem was in order to get there I would have to hop off the plane, get on a subway, and then a train, and then a smaller commuter train if I wanted to make it there in time for dinner. It meant to keep going all day long.

Government building in Nikko, Japan

Because of the busyness of the Spring Break, the time that I thought would have to sit down for a quick bite to eat was taken away from me by standing in airport lines, and figuring out how to book the trains that I needed to make it to my destination. The only thing I could get to eat along the way came from a convenience store in the Tokyo airport. Luckily, I was in Japan. Even if you buy a couple of rice triangles to eat, the person behind the counter will stuff your bag with napkins, chopsticks, and salt and pepper. I didn’t know it at the time, but this little gift would become important later on.

Ice cream with chopsticks

So it came back to my original question. How do you eat your ice cream when you do not have a spoon? Well, you adapt and conquer. You go through all of the things that you collected through the day to see what might work as a substitute. When you find it, you eat it Asian style with chopsticks. They work just as good as spoons.