Even though it’s already quite a while ago, I still want to tell you about my visit to the world heritage sites in Nikko, the places in Aizuwakamatsu and the places we visited in between those two towns. Friday the 16th of December 2016, we left the University in the beginning of the afternoon to pick up our rental car so we could start our trip to Nikko (and areas around Nikko). From Saitama, Nikko is about 2 hours away by car. And for the first time we were not stuck in traffic!
When we arrived in Nikko, it took us a while to find our hotel, but after we finally unloaded the car it was time to do some sightseeing! We wanted to go to the world heritage site first, but since we were already quite late, we were approximately 10-15 minutes late to get inside of the temples and shrines. This meant that we could only see the outsides, so we moved the real temple visits to Saturday and spent the rest of the evening and night at our hotel, just relaxing.
Saturday morning, we got up early. First thing on the agenda: visiting the world heritage site! Since we were really early, there were not a lot of tourists yet, so we could take our time to walk around and take a closer look at the amazing structures. Smaller ones and larger ones, there was a lot to see in the temple complex.
The first part of the site that we visited, was the Toshogu Shrine. This is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who ruled Japan for over 250 years. The shrine complex is located inside a forest and consists of more than 10 buildings, some of which are currently being renovated. Near the entrance, the first two things that you’ll be able to see are the huge pagoda and the gate that leads you to the shrine complex.
To get inside of this shrine complex, you had to pay a fee. After paying, you could walk through the gate and enjoy the many buildings inside of the complex. The shrine complex itself was beautiful, especially since the sun was shining brightly, which made the colors of the buildings really jump out of the green forest.
There are 3 famous carvings on the walls of the buildings in the complex, of which the most famous one is a carving with 3 monkeys on it. The monkeys cover parts of their heads with their hands: “see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil”.
After entering through the main gate, you will see the main shrine building. This building consists of a praying hall and a main hall that are connected to each other. You are allowed to enter the main shrine, but you have to take your shoes off and you are not allowed to take photographs inside of the building. Nonetheless, it was very impressive and beautifully decorated with lots of yellow and gold-ish ornaments.
Next to this the main shrine, you could also enter the Honjido Hall. This special hall is the resting place of the “Crying Dragon”. After entering the building, a monk will explain a couple of things about the crying dragon and the explanation is done in Japanese as well as in English! The ceiling of the hall features a large painting of a dragon.
The monk that did the explanation was also holding two pieces of wood. He clapped them together many times during his explanation, while walking to different places inside of the hall. When he was directly underneath the head of the dragon, the sound made by clapping the pieces of wood changed to a bright ringing sound. This was the cry of the dragon, made possible by the acoustics of the hall. Unfortunately we were not allowed to take photographs (again), so you have to see it (and more importantly hear it) with your own eyes (and ears).
The next part of that we visited, was the Iemitsu Mausoleum. The mausoleum, also called Taiyuinbyo, is located near the Toshogu shrine, so you can easily walk there. The mausoleum features a mix of Shinto and Buddhist structures. The Taiyuinbyo is a subtemple of the Rinnoji temple and it was built for the third Tokugawa shogun.
The main hall can only be seen from the outside. Just like the Toshogu, this building was beautifully decorated in gold-ish ornaments.
When we started driving towards the waterfall in the area of Nikko, it started snowing! It was very cold, so we did not stay here for a very long time (and we got a hot chocolate for afterwards!). The most famous waterfall in Nikko is the Kegon waterfall. It is quite a big waterfall and because of the low temperatures, the area underneath the water was completely frozen. Combined with the splashing water and a little bit of snow, this was an astonishing view!
After visiting the temples and shrines, we walked to the Shinkyo Bridge, a sacred bridge. This red bridge is just a couple of minutes away by foot from the shrines of the World Heritage Site. It is ranked as one of the finest bridges in Japan. You can walk over the bridge, but you’ll have to pay a fee to do so.
Tobu World Square
On our way to Aizuwakamatsu, we stopped at the Tobu World Square. This is an amusement park with replicas of building from all over the world. This meant that I finally got to see the Twin Towers before they were destroyed. The amusement park was divided into different areas: you could see a Japanese part, an American part, a European part, some other Asian buildings and temples, the pyramids of Egypt, etc..
When you enter the park you are greeted by a big ball saying ‘Welcome’. If you wait long enough, you will hear music playing and you can actually see the ball opening. Inside of the ball, some dolls are singing and dancing around, which is a funny welcome for such an amusement park.
Even though the structures are replicas from the original buildings and even though they are way smaller than the original pieces, they are still very large. Inside of the amusement park, there are 102 world-famous building and that includes 45 World Heritage Sites! It was really funny to see some of the places that I visited years ago (like London’s Tower Bridge), but also buildings and structures that I visited only recently in Japan!
After the amusement park, we drove all the way to Aizuwakamatsu. And suddenly we were in a big layer of snow again! We got to see beautiful lights of the sun near the water and with lots of untouched snow. Exceptionally beautiful, despite the large amount of clouds that was gathered there.
We saw the lake while we were driving towards the reconstructed samurai mansion, Aizu Bukeyashiki. This mansion used to serve as the quarters of the region’s most important samurai, his family, employees and servants. The original complex was burnt down in 1868, but the reconstruction is absolutely marvelous.
You could walk around the many buildings and also get inside the buildings. There was a samurai museum and you could see the chambers of the samurai family that used to live in the mansion. They even put dolls inside of the building to recreate the living scenario of the samurai. At the end of the tour, we got really nice and hot tea at the souvenir shop, which was really great, since it was very cold outside and we had to walk without our shoes to prevent damage to the mansion, when we were looking at all the different rooms inside of the mansion.
The real Tsuruga Castle, located in the Aizu region, was destroyed after the Boshin War of 1868. This building was a reconstruction of the original castle. Around the castle is a large park and around the park a large castle wall can be seen. The park has well tended lawns and a lot of cherry trees, which I think would be especially beautiful to see in the Cherry Blossom season.
The last stop of this weekend’s trip was Ouchijuku, the former post town along a famous trade route in the Aizu region. Post towns provide travelers with food and a place to rest if they need it. This trade route connected Aizu with Nikko during the Edo Period. The town was covered in a small layer of snow when we arrived. This made the experience more special, but also very slippery, since all of the people who were walking through the town flattened out all of the snow.
Visited in the weekend of 16-18 December, 2016