Saturday March 31, 2018

On Thursday, while folk back home were getting ready for Easter and a long weekend, we Mad Midlifers left fast-paced, hi-tech Tokyo and drove two and a half hours into the countryside where (for something utterly different) we plunged into Japanese history and culture. The town of Nikko was a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries. It sits at the entrance to a scenic National Park, and is most famous for its World Heritage shrines and temples – including the lavishly decorated Toshogu, final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years (until 1868) … and Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu.

We Kiwis toured both sites, then took a leisurely wander through the Tamozawa Imperial Villa – a splendidly restored imperial palace dating from the Edo and Meiji eras.

That night (and the night after) we were guests at the Kinugawa Park Hotel – a small, traditional Japanese inn (‘ryokan’) that allowed us the chance to experience traditional Japanese hospitality. We traded our shoes for traditional Japanese footwear … our Western-style clothes for traditional Japanese gowns … our beds (if we chose) for traditional Japanese ‘tatami’ mats, made from woven rushes … and our normal breakfast and dinner options for traditional Japanese food. We also had the chance to join traditional Japanese guests for a soak in a traditional ‘onsen’ – a steaming rock pool fed by thermal springs, men one side, women the other, and not a stitch of clothing allowed!

Yesterday, we braved chilly winds and countless hairpin-bends in the snow-splashed mountains surrounding Nikko so we could eyeball a stunning lake-cum-summer-resort. Then we were off to Edo Wonderland – a fun-filled theme-park that took us back in time to the 17th century era of Japanese merchants, craftsmen, peasants, ninja warriors, samurai swordsmen and kimono-robed courtesans.

Finally, this morning, we drove four hours to the temple-town of Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics), where we went in search of some apes that reportedly enjoy a hot bath in the middle of winter. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to large groups of Japanese Macaques – also known as Snow Monkeys – that regularly soak themselves (and their cute babies) in the steaming natural spa-pools.

It wasn’t cold enough for them to be soaking today, but we Kiwis were nevertheless enchanted! And we had to tear ourselves away for one last-but-not-least visit to Zenkoji Temple (revered for more than 1400 years as Japan’s primary Buddhist centre).

COMING UP: Tomorrow we check out a ‘wasabi’ farm … an extremely old wooden castle … and the ancient Japanese art of silk-dyeing. So don’t go away …

PEOPLE-NEWS: More of our world-famous Quacky Yellow Ducks have been flapping their wings and finding new owners …

  • JOHN S walked away with our coveted ‘Cutlery’ Award – after being spotted during a dumpling dinner last night trying (unsuccessfully) to use his chopsticks like a knife-&-fork – holding his food down with one, and trying to saw it into pieces with the other!
  • LLOYD, our Japanese guide and mentor, won, for the first time ever, our ‘Slave-Driver’ Award – after making us climb at least a zillion stone steps to photograph a stupid stone cat.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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