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Nikko, Japan

Dec 18 – 20

After spending a week with Chika and Shinsuke, then a few days with Chika’s family, I packed my bags and headed to the train station for Nikko. I didn’t make any hostel reservations, so I’d just have to show up and hope there was room for me. Chika was so worried about me and made me promise to call her when I got there. And she said that if it didn’t work out, I could always take the train straight back to her house. Sweet.

It was a long, but pretty effortless trip all in all. I used to be so worried I’d either not hear or not understand the announcement and miss my stop. But Japanese train travel is really very easy. I took a nap and set my alarm. The train pulled into the stop exactly on time. As always.

When I finally got on the local train to Nikko station, it was pouring rain and already getting dark.

The hostel web site provided a cute hand drawn map with directions to get to the place. I printed it out and tried my best to follow it. The route is actually pretty easy and well signposted, but on that dark, rainy, night I didn’t have a lot of patience for getting lost. Each time I turned a corner, I doubted myself. After walking down a few little side streets, I popped into a small shop to ask the owner. Before I could say anything, he just looked at my backpack and said “Yes. Diayagawa Youth Hostel.” Then pulled me by the arm and walked me the rest of the way there.

It turns out that when the guide books talk about all the crowds at Nikko, they aren’t really referring to the winter time. I had no reason to worry about the hostel being full. I was the only guest there! It was a cute hostel (more like a guesthouse) owned by a Japanese family. The woman was really sweet and talkative and spoke good, but broken English. Most guesthouses and hostels in Japan do not have communal kitchens, but some let you order a meal in advance. Many also have a set time that you are allowed to take a shower and they often have a curfew. This hostel was like that. Showers could be taken from 4-9pm and the curfew was at 10. No problem really, as there isn’t much to do after dark anyway (temples close around 4 and grocery stores/restaurants close around 8).

This was one of the first times I’ve actually used my guidebook. Usually the collection of maps and flyers I pick up at hostels and tourist info stations (paired with ideas from conversations with locals or other travelers) are more than enough. But from the guidebook, I learned that I can get a discounted 2-day bus pass, which was very useful information that I probably wouldn’t have known otherwise.

The guidebook also mentioned Hippari Dako, a restaurant with nice vegetarian options. It turned out to be right down the street from my hostel, so I decided to give it a try. It was a great place. The sweet, motherly woman who owned the place smiled and said “You hungry?” Then she poured me green tea and gave me a giant bowl of Curry Udon. When she saw me sniffling, she gave me some tissues and water. And when I was struggling to put on my raincoat and tie my scarf, she stepped over to help me get dressed. It’s clearly a very popular place, as there are notes and pictures from travelers all over the wall.

I added my own touch.

Although it wasn’t quite as interesting as this one.

Nikko felt really quiet and desolate, but it was kinda nice to be back on my own. I was the only one in the hotel, the only one in the restaurant, and one of the only people walking on the street. I walked around a bit and looked into some of the shop windows.

Then I went to the grocery store and photographed all the funny food they have there.

This tourist cracker series is quite nice.

I also found a vending machine with some sort of corn chowder.

There wasn’t much else to do in evening and I was tired anyway, so I fell asleep really early and woke up around 6am. I went downstairs to brush my teeth and say “oyaho gozaimas” (good morning) to the woman. I should have stayed awake, but it was cold and my room with the heater and heap of blankets was still too inviting. I crawled back into bed and slept another few hours. Once I finally woke up again, I went into town to buy my bus pass. It was a pretty day.

The bus route was only in Japanese, but I had several collections of maps and schedules and was able to spend a few minutes taking bits of information from each one to piece it all together. I had talked about visiting Nikko National Park since I arrived in Japan and I was so happy to finally be there.

First I took the incline to the top of a lookout point.

There were only 2 other people there – a Japanese couple (who probably had a better idea of what was going on than I did). Knowing that the buses ran infrequently, but not knowing exactly when the next one would come, I figured I better keep an eye on these people and head to the bus stop when they did. When I saw them rushing, I followed. The bus came a few minutes later. Good timing.

I boarded the bus again and got off at Lake Chuzenjiko. It was a really scenic area, but many of the shops were closed and there wasn’t much to do other than walk around the lake. I could continue with the bus to get further into the park, but that didn’t seem like all that much fun – and I’d have to pay (as the pass I paid for only took me as far as the lake). I decided I would just walk until I didn’t want to anymore, then take the bus back.

The hostel provided a cute little hand drawn map with distances and hiking trails from Ryuzu Falls to other areas in the vicinity. It didn’t say how long it would take to get to Ryzuzu Falls, but I figured I just start walking and see what happened. It took about 1.5 hrs. On the way I passed a temple.

Ruzu falls was pretty.

And from there, I found the trail my map was referring to and I followed it. It was a long walk, but beautiful. The trail signs were infrequent and most were only in Japanese. I just had to trust that I was still going the right way.

The little sign next to the distance was most confusing to me. Did it mean 40 minutes? 40 meters? 40 kilometers? A critical difference, but I wasn’t sure. So I just kept walking. I had already hiked quite a while, so it didn’t make sense to turn around.

And I was about to fill my water bottle up from the tap, but there were signs posted all over the bathroom wall. For all I knew, the signs could have said “Untreated water. Do not drink.” I wasn’t sure and there was no one around to ask, so I waited to get water.

Whenever I came across a direction marker in both English and Japanese, I took a picture of the sign. This way if I ended up getting stuck at a crossroads, I’d hopefully be able to look at my picture and match up the characters to figure out which direction to go. It seemed like a good idea and I’m glad I did, because it was useful a few times. Not terribly necessary (it was generally pretty clear which direction to head), but since I was alone, it was more as reassurance that I was still going the right way and wouldn’t be lost in the woods.

I only encountered a few people on my hike. A cute couple with hiking books, hiking sticks, and proper winter gear. Then 3 workers with axes, snow clearing tools, and measuring devices. One of them looked shocked to see me and he asked me something in Japanese. The others laughed and seemed to be waiting for a reply from me. I don’t know what they said, but I just laughed and said “Konnichiwa.” They seemed satisfied enough by that answer because they kept walking. I have no idea what he said, but probably something along the lines of “Crazy girl. What are you doing hiking in the snow in the middle of the woods all by yourself? You don’t even know Japanese.” And there I am just saying “Hello!” and marching onward into the snow. After a few more hours of hiking by myself with noone around, I came across a Japanese guy with a big camera. I was glad to see him because I passed him just as I was starting to think I was crazy for doing this. He was walking very leisurely in the same direction as me and didn’t seem to be in a hurry, so that was a good sign.

Once I stopped worrying about being lost, I had much more fun.

This is me dancing in the snow cause there’s nobody around.

The hike was beautiful. One of the best things I did in Japan. First the trail was a grassy, snow covered path that went through the woods.

Then it turned into a wooden boardwalk covered in snow.

The sign was right. This walk through open fields was very scenic. It was beautiful that I kept giggling to myself as I walked.

And there were pretty streams.

And more amazing waterfalls. Even though the entire park was deserted, there was a vending machine with hot drinks next to this waterfall. That was a pleasant surprise, as my fingers were pretty much numb at this point.

The trail ended at Yumoto Lake. I got there just as it was getting dark.

And I found a hotel with an onsen inside – the perfect end to a long day of walking in the cold. At first I had the hot spring all to myself, so I was able to take a few pictures. This one was a strong sulfur bath, so it smelled very intensely of rotting eggs.

The next day, I walked up the street to see all the famous temples and shrines. I bought a combination ticket so I could visit all of them and get a discounted price.

Each temple had guards in the front.

Many of the temple guards were standing on something or someone. I’m not sure of the significance.

Each temple was adorned with elaborate paintings and carvings. That was my favorite part.

After all the temples, I passed the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, then went to see the long line of jizou statues. “Bake” means ghost in Japanese, and because noone is able to correctly count all the jizous, they are called “Bake-jizou.” Here’s the start of the long line of jizou statues. There are around 100.

I really liked their crumbling, moss covered faces. Each statue seemed to have its own personality.

Some didn’t even have faces anymore. They were just little stumps with hats.

The next day, I relocated to Nikko Park Lodge. It was a little bit of a trek from town, but not too bad. And it was located in the area of the park I hadn’t yet visited. But the main reason I went there was because I saw that they offered a vegan Buddhist dinner and a morning yoga class. It was slightly more expensive (only about $2 more than the last place), but it turned out to be a good decision. I stayed at the lodge for 2 nights and I could have been happy staying there many more. There was a fireplace and the owner played music videos on the TV (stuff like Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, and Kenny Loggins).

The next day, I hiked around a different area of the park. There wasn’t any snow on the ground, but there were pretty woods, fun river crossings, and nice waterfalls.

After the hike, I was so hungry. There was only one menu at the top of the hill, but I was a little intimidated by the Japanese menu outside. There was a sweet old man outside the restaurant though and he smiled as I passed by, so I took it as a sign to enter. Once inside, the woman behind the counter stared at me and waited for my order. I said in English: “I’m a vegetarian. Can I eat here?” She stared at me blankly. So I spouted out all the Japanese I knew, basically saying something like “Hello. Good morning (it wasn’t really morning). I don’t eat meat. I don’t eat fish. I don’t eat fish stock. I don’t understand.” More blank stares. She started pointing at the Japanese menu with no pictures. So I just started listing some things I could eat: Tofu? Yuba? Somen? Soba? Udon? She started speaking again in Japanese very fast and pointing at various places on the menu (which meant nothing to me). Then she asked me a question, which seemed to be a choice question…to which I answered “Hai” (yes). Based on her confused look, I could tell that wasn’t the right answer. And based on my confused look, she could tell we weren’t going to get anywhere with this conversation. Eventually she just said it would be 1,000 yen (about $10). I handed it to her and she poured me some green tea while I sat and waited for my meal, wondering what it was going to be. It could be any of the things I mentioned….or all of them…or something completely different. I wasn’t even sure if she understood the vegetarian part. It would be a surprise. Luckily it turned out to be great. I had wanted to try Yuba Ryori, and that is exactly what I got – in a big stew with noodles and vegetables. Great! She smiled at me knowingly and seemed very happy that she was able to provide me with something I could eat. I was also happy that it worked out so well. I bowed and said Domo arigato gozaimas (thank you very much).

On the way back from lunch, I checked out the woodcarving center near the hostel. You can buy a mirror or box and they’ll teach you how to carve it. But I just walked around and watched the other people (as I didn’t want to weigh down my backpack with a bunch of wood).

At night I tried the hotel’s vegan Buddhist dinner. It was expensive, but was a lot of food. I got a vegan hot pot (with various mushrooms, noodles, and vegetables), brown rice, and a tofu steak. The unfortunate thing was that this was the only vegan meal they offer on their menu and it’s expensive and only available on certain days. They do offer a vegetarian curry, but they use milk. The next day I wanted to try something cheaper on their menu, but since they didn’t offer any other vegan options, I had to walk into town and find something else. I thought it was weird that their flyer placed so much emphasis on their “vegan” meal, but they didn’t offer affordable vegan meals every day. Still it was a cozy place and the owners and all the employees were really friendly.

The last night I was there, the owners had a Christmas party, so the living room area was full of Japanese families and little kids. Everyone was drinking and having a big feast. That night, the hotel owner and his girlfriend invited me to go to an onsen with them. A was thinking I should go to one more onsen before leaving Nikko, so I’m glad they invited me. The next morning, I had a yoga class with their resident Buddhist monk. It was the perfect end to my time in Nikko.


  • If you aren’t sure of proper onsen etiquette, here are some tips.

  • In case you didn’t know, Japanese toilets look like this.

  • This is a cigarette vending machine. They are quite common. They have a face recognition sensor to make sure you’re old enough to buy them. I’m not sure what happens if you are old enough to buy them but you don’t look like you (like me).

  • For some reason, Japan is really into surf gear. You can buy socks, underwear, and t-shirts that just say “SURF” in big letters. Most of these things are really tacky, don’t make a whole lot of sense, and can be found in areas that don’t even have beaches. I found this one in Nikko.

  • No matter what they tell you, this is not vegetarian.

  • Japanese people have mastered the art of sleeping on trains and subways. This isn’t a good example, as the trains are usually very crowded. I’ve even seen people sleeping while standing up.

  • Japan is a really clean country. You often see women with homemade brooms sweeping the streets.

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  1. mitchell namy

     /  January 24, 2009

    just having so much interest in viewing all you posred. you are a true photo-journalist.

    uncle mitch

  2. Sandra Canas

     /  January 25, 2009

    Hi Cristen,
    Bonnie, your neighbor in Austin told me abt your trip and the blog and i ‘ve been following you all along.
    You can’t imagine how much i enjoy reading it and watching the pictures. You’re an amazing writer and photographer.
    Take care and please keep on posting your adventures and experiences! Your trip is inspiring.

    Sandra (Also your neighbor)

  3. Amy

     /  January 27, 2009

    Those photos of you dancing around by yourself in the snow really warmed my heart. You are truly one in a billion girl.

    Can’t wait to see the next entry and wishing you lots and lots of love, luck, happiness… and some easy translations :)

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