Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Japan: Honshu 2 - Yamagata & Nikko

19 July - Yamagata

Lovely Yamadera
We leave early from Hiraizumi and arrive in Yamagata at 10.30am. but pickup/check-in for the guest house is not available until 3pm, and it’s too hot to walk or explore the city. Yamagata has NO signs in English, seems Yamagata is not much of a tourist town ... but the girl at the tourist office is very helpful. We hop on a bus to Hirashimazu, suspiciously eyed off by a horde of young children who are not accustomed to seeing 'gaijin'. Hirashimazu is supposedly (Lonely Planet) an enclave of potteries in an outer-town village by the river. We arrive. It’s hot, not a pottery in sight, just a post office. We walk along the river towards the hills - nothing. Back to PO and PO girl tells us that our route was correct but we didn’t walk far enough. <Sigh>. We try again and after 15 minutes find an open general store where we are directed to the ‘brown house’ nearby. There’s a large-ish pottery shop, but no sign of a working pottery, demos from the master or lessons available … we buy a few small bowls (seconds - artisan pottery is so expensive!), and they offer us tea and snacks. But no - we must catch the bus back and head back to town.

Children boarding the bus
Train to Yamadera

20 July - Yamagata/Yamadera

Today is the ‘day of 1000 cuts’ according to Chris, who believes that ascending to the Risshaku-ji temple on the mountain-top at Yamadera on such a hot day will be the death of him. We start early and take plenty of water, and I carry the pack. It is a quick (15 minute) and lovely train ride, and the town is quiet and cool when we begin the climb. The lower part of the walk is beautiful and shaded, and the steps are shallow and easy. Every few minutes is a glade with statues, mossy rocks, lanterns and a tiny shrine. It’s gorgeous. We make it to the top in just over an hour, and it’s by now sunny and hot. We buy a little picture book of the travels of Matsuo Basho. A poet and Buddhist who became a pilgrim and promoted Zen Buddhism through his prose and haiku. He is a cult in these parts. Most renowned for ‘The Narrow Road to the Deep North’, he wrote of Yamadera: “Stillness, seeps into the stones, the cry of cicadas”. Of Hiraizumi he wrote: “Summer grass, all that remains of warrior dreams”. But the stillness is now invaded by many more tourists on the ascent, so we hurry back down.

Yamadera shrine
Matsuo Basho, cult poet
Intrepid climbers, another Yamadera shrine
View of Yamadera from the top
Basho again ...
I have been hankering for a sushi picnic, since missing out in Hakodate, so we go to ‘Family Mart’ to pick some up, but the choice is not so good. Anyway, it’s now very hot, so we opt for the cool of a soba noodle place at the station. It’s air-conditioned, and the soup is good, with lovely chewy noodles. Now - walk home via the ‘City Museum,’ located in an old weatherboard palace of a building that used to be a hospital (Miyazaki again!). But it’s too hot to really enjoy the weird collection of exhibits (old hospital machinery and instruments, woodblock prints illustrating various ailments including pregnancy), so we soon melt off home. When we get back to the guest house, a sizeable choir is practising their harmonies in the kitchen/dining room. Gorgeous!

We ask advice about a restaurant for dinner, and have three otions: nearby rice bowl place, slightly more distant a ‘bit dirty’ downmarket fish place, and further again, a more upmarket ‘typical Yamagata’ restaurant. We try for the fish place - it’s upstairs at a shabby old fishmonger’s shop, and is probably great, but the host has no English, or a menu, so (to his relief I expect) we thank him and leave. The ‘upmarket’ place is not far, so there we go. It’s in a converted warehouse, restored in a retro kind of way, cool and with dark wood trims and furniture, and the set price is reasonable (about Y1800 - $22). The food is beautifully presented - bits of sushi, pickles, noodles, soup, fish and meat on various lovely plates - a grazer’s dream. But the atmosphere’s a bit lacking: we are the only customers in the ‘western’ room, and the lights are a bit too bright.

Miyazaki style museum
Medical woodblock print

21 July - Yamagata-Nikko

A lift to the station - it’s a nice walk, but hot with luggage - and wait for the train. Chris manages to cause a stir when he presses the wrong button in the toilet and alerts security. Those Japanese toilets ... (also see Japan OTT).
In Nikko, I quickly begin to wonder - ‘Are we still in Japan?’. The guesthouse has not answered my email about providing a shuttle from the station, and in the sister guesthouse by the station I am told, ‘Only between 3pm and 5pm’. ‘But it is after 3pm’. ‘Ah ok, I’ll call him’. 45 minutes later we are still waiting. 
We have been spoiled in northern Japan, where we are often the only western tourists in sight and have been treated as special. Here in Nikko there is a profusion of Western and other non-Japanese visitors, and much architecture is also quite European, it feels quite un-Japanesey.
Finally at the guesthouse, it is in a pretty, slightly remote spot, only 15 minutes walk to town, but quite steep. After delivering our luggage and checking in, we trot back down the hill to shop and explore. At least the weather here is slightly cooler, and damp. Town is unremarkable, except that it feels more of a tourist hub than anywhere else we have been. It’s day-trip distance from Tokyo, so not surprising really. We buy some supplies (sake, beer, and addictive squid crackers) and on the way back up stop at a park shelter with atmospheric mountain views.
Because the guesthouse is out of town we have ordered dinner to eat in. The place is rather shabby, and a bit grubby (so un-Japanese!), but dinner is fine - grilled salmon with cabbage salad, rice and soup.

Mountain views near guest house 
Selfies at Shinkyo Bridge, Nikko

22 July - Nikko

Some places exceed expectations, other disappoint. Nikko is the latter.
How annoying that we ended up here on a Saturday - the place will be packed! So we try to set out early to the temple sites, hampered by the fact that breakfast is not served until 8am. We hurry through breakfast and down to the bus stop, arriving at the temples just after 9am. It’s not too bad yet. I try to buy the recommended ‘combination ticket’ for the best value, but it’s no longer available. So we get a ticket that covers two of the half-dozen sites Taiyuin and Rinno-ji. The first is a small unostentatious temple with some lovely woodcarving, and set in a garden with hosts of stone lanterns. Much of the garden is unfortunately screened off as they are pruning the pine trees today. I complain to the ticket seller, as we had not been warned that so much of the site would be inaccessible. But the laugh is on me when we reach Rinno-ji. It took a while to find it - because it is being reconstructed inside a giant warehouse, and most of it cannot be accessed. There’s a fenced off view into the front chamber, than some temporary corridors housing some of the temple treasures. Not what we paid for, and I complain more loudly this time.

The lovely side of Nikko
Meanwhile the crowd for the main shrine, Tosho-gu, is getting larger, queuing in the sun. So - let’s head for the art gallery - a tried and true strategy to avoid tourist crowds. Following the signs, the gallery we find (Nikko Toshogu Museum) is in a brand new building (yes, Lonely Planet says that they have a new gallery building). It is quite expensive but cool and airy, so in we go. But soon I realise it’s a different museum entirely from the one I expected, focusing on the history of the family who built the shrine. Still, it’s informative and a nice place to spend time away from the hordes. Emerging at lunchtime into the heat, the crowds are even more crazy. We now find the road to the old gallery (Nikko Toshogu Art Museum) and it is almost deserted. The gallery is, after all, still in a lovely old cedar mansion, the former head office of the shrine, with traditional garden. It has beautiful examples of traditional and a few more contemporary screen and door paintings. It's quiet and serene, aah - feel as if I’m back in Japan.
Nikko tourists
The old-style Art Gallery with old-style visitor
Art Gallery garden
Door painting in Imperial residence
So we leave from the shrine area and head for less-touristed parts along the river - a large park and the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa. Exploring a small temple along the way, just as we arrive at the park, the rain pours down. Aagh, no umbrella! But there’s a noodle shop! No, closed (but they do give us an umbrella). Then we spy a tea room! Sorry, closed. It’s not even 4pm. When we find the Imperial residence, it is still raining, so we might as well go in, it’s open for another hour. Traditional Japanese architecture is so soothing, we wander around the almost empty house and garden, with solicitous attendants offering snippets of information on the way. Definitely back in Japan!

It’s been an expensive (around $80 in entrance fees) and somewhat frustrating day, but we end it looking at the gorgeous mountain setting as we stop for a drink on our way back up the hill. In spite of the beauty, tourist-infested Nikko has not endeared itself.

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