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Journey in Japan Part 52: House of Red Leaves

There is a famous phrase in Japan, “You haven’t seen real beauty until you’ve seen Nikkō.” So far on this trip, I haven’t really seen a thing. Only darkness. I wake up at 9am, the first thing I do is take a look at the view from the ryokan window. No skyscrapers here, only mountains and sky.

Outside the air is clean, and a reasonable 20°C, so I take one last soak in the outdoor Onsen; before paying for the room and leaving. I realise once I am all the way at the bus stop, that I’ve forgotten to pay for my ice cream. The bus stop tells me I have half an hour before the next bus, so I decide to explore the Yumoto Onsen area.

Despite this being the highest point in these mountains that the bus chooses to stop, and at an altitude of 1,475 metres, there is a huge natural lake up here. Lake Yunoko, translating to mean, ‘Hot Water Lake’, sits almost completely still. Formed 20 thousand years ago when a nearby volcano erupted, the lake is a nesting ground for wild ducks. A sign beside the lake says that ‘fresh’ landlocked sockeye salmon and rainbow trout swim in these waters.

I take a wander around the water. At the south end a waterfall, at the north, the view is somewhat ruined by a construction team nestled at the edge of the lake. It isn’t quite clear what they are actually doing, other than making noise and ruining the otherwise peaceful scene.

My bus eventually arrives. The elderly residents use their hand on the Suica card machine instead of actually scanning their cards. Presumably they don’t have electronic cards on the mountain; and by the looks of it, they get to travel on the route bus free of charge.

The bus swings back down the mountain, passing impressive scenery. Mountains sit quietly in the distance. The view very much different from the journey yesterday. Toward the bottom of the bus route, I see some interesting red leaves, so decide to hop off.

Koyo are the colourful autumn leaves of Japan. They spread across the country starting from the north and moving south. This process takes about two months and is known as the koyo front. Almost completely opposite to cherry blossom season, but getting equally as popular, people come to areas of nature like Nikkō to view these leaves in the autumn.

Beside the area of red leaves, I see a sign for a World Heritage Site, Tōshōgū Shrine. The shrine is the place where Tokugawa Shogunate founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is enshrined. It was built on his orders and used as his hideaway, and I can see why he chose this area. The view from the entrance to the shrine is an impressive mix of mountains and wildlife. The perfect place for a military leader to spend his free time.

Inside the temple grounds is the origin of a Buddhist proverb about not dwelling on evil thoughts. A statue of the three wise monkeys, Mizaru, Kikazaru and Iwazaru sit over the shrine. The proverb is rather well known and translates to, “See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”

At the entrance to the temple grounds sits the five-storey Gojunoto Pagoda. A sign beside the pagoda tells me that the structure is the same height as Tokyo Skytree. I think this is a translation issue, as this pagoda is a mere 36 metres tall, whereas Tokyo Skytree is an impressive 634 metres tall.

What I think is meant by the sign is that the elevation here is 598 metres, meaning that the roof of the pagoda is at the same elevation as Tokyo Skytree. Perhaps this is merely a coincidence, but I would guess that Tokyo Skytree was built at this specific height, so that it shares the same point in the sky as this famous pagoda.

After temples, I take a wander around the Nikkō area. I see a shop selling ‘Heritage Nikko Cheese Egg’, and would be a fool to pass up on the opportunity to eat a Cheese Egg. It costs just ¥100, and completly shatters my ignorant assumption that the Cheese Egg would contain at least one of the two ingredients in its name. Instead, I find myself eating a bland tasteless cake. The primary flavour, disappointment.

I continue my wander, and spot a cigarette machine with some advertising above it that would never be allowed in England.

I make my way back toward Nikkō Station. The area around the station has a selection of small shops all selling exactly the same things. Souvenirs. Other shops sell more souvenirs, and more shops sell the same souvenirs as the other twenty shops. The stallholders here are cashing in on a popular Japanese custom, Omiyage. In Japan, when you visit another region, you are expected to buy souvenirs for everyone else who couldn’t make the trip. So for me, I have to buy everyone I know a gift.

Wishing I had purchased Cheese Eggs for all, I instead opt for a relatively pricey box of Strawberry Pie. I chose this gift because I enjoyed the English text; it reads: “Plenty of choice of strawberry red, so happy tea time we can enjoy this strawberry pie.” Whatever that means.

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