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 nikko

ju-ichi gatsu 22 (nov)
It was late afternoon
when I arrived at the lodge near the national forest, several hours north of Tokyo by train. The odd, lumpy shapes of Japanese mountains I had seen in paintings, formed as much by rock as by the shapes of the trees, were slowly turning to silhouettes. A blazing red maple stood next to the lodge. It was the absolute perfect time for the autumn colors: the Japanese maples were a deep, sweet red; Ginkos a soft yellow; tall green cedars; and other deciduous trees rusting to brown. I took a walk in the evening down a forest path shaded by tall grass with silver waving tassels, and sat in a silent field watching the moon rise. It was so good to get out of the city.

The lodge was lively with an international mix. There was always someone to talk to; we swapped travel stories and looked at maps of the area for places of interest. In the morning, I went to a yoga class led by a Buddhist monk. In the evenings, enjoyed the vegetarian food: a Zen vegan meal and a tasty curry. Down the road there was a tiny onsen, or hot springs, crowded with Japanese women, especially the outside pool, steamy in the cold night air. The closeness was conducive to conversation.

On Saturday I visited the shrines and temples nestled up and down the hillside. Moss gardens and natural woods surrounded brown and red buildings both simple and ornate, stone lanterns, aged pagodas, gates, dragons and colorful statues, and of course souvenir shops and little eating places. It was almost like a city of its own. A man sitting by one of the gates sold wooden bird whistles he had been making for fifty years. A young artist painted dragons with flamboyant brushstrokes.

A humble, wooden stable among the many structures at the Tosho-Gu temple was decorated with panels of carved monkeys, including the famous three monkeys known to us as 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.' The Rinno-ji temple housed three huge golden Buddhas. Further down the river was a quieter area called the Abyss, where smooth rocks being sculpted by rushing water made the little river more interesting. Countless small stone Buddhas dressed in red hats and bibs stood along the path.

I hiked up to the Kirifuri waterfall in the park on Sunday morning. It tumbles down in two sections amid spectacular forest colors. A bus snaked up a switchbacked road to the dramatic, high Kegon falls and the beautiful Lake Chuzenji. The lake was ringed with volcanoes and reminded me of the serene, unforgettable Lake Atitlan in Guatemala.

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