Stoking the Fires of the Buddha:
A Journey into Kitsch and Paradise in Nikko
Ever since we got our car, Justin has been dying to go on a weekend car trip to somewhere like the scenic tourist town of Nikko. Nikko is only a few hours away from Tokyo by train, and so it is a popular destination for Japanese tourists and weekend trips. It's famous for temples and shrines. One temple is especially famous for a carved painting of a sleeping cat. Another temple is known for paintings and statues of three monkeys portraying the themes 'see no evil', 'hear no evil' and 'speak no evil'. Justin really wanted to go on a weekend trip for his birthday. Though we knew Nikko's gorgeous leaves wouldn't have turned yet, we decided to go anyway, figuring that at least the place wouldn't be packed with tourists. I gave Justin an early birthday present- a cool one shoulder backpack reminiscent of anime (Japanese cartoon) style. Late that bright Friday afternoon, we packed up a small day bag and set out in our car, Snowflake.
We drove merrily down the highway, glad to be escaping the city for the weekend. We put in some J-pop (Japanese pop) CD in our car stereo. It's always nice to be in the car with nothing to do but talk and listen to music together. We drove, and drove, seeing the same sights that we always see on the road in Japan- an endless procession of pachinko parlors, love hotels, and ramen shops. I was getting hungry, as always, so we stopped at a cheerful American style family restaurant, Coco's. I was absolutely thrilled to see that they offered a special thai menu with a delicious looking spicy coconut soup- until the waitress told me that it had been discontinued. Disappointed, I ordered a seafood vegetable risotto. They had a drink bar, which I always enjoy. For one low price, you can have as many soft drinks, tea, or juices as you like. I am always excited to see an automatic cappuccino machine. Though the espresso is just so-so, it's on par with most coffee chains in Japan, and it's so cheap! The meal was surprisingly filling and tasty.
We stopped at a lovely tourist stop- It reminded me of shops in Estes Park or Yellowstone Park in America. They are shops in the middle of nowhere, that only exist because they are on the way to somewhere else. They're geared towards Japanese tastes, so they have large centers offering local gifts, omiyage, to bring back to your family, friends, and co-workers. Omiyage might include dried seaweed, seafood, pickled vegetables, cakes, cookies, and crackers made with special products of the region (like apples, blueberries, etc), nuts, or inedible things like cloth or paper goods, dishware, or plastic gifts. At this place, I found a darling teacup which I couldn't resist- blue with lovely gray flowers. Justin couldn't resist an ice cream cone from the shop, and we idly looked at the offerings of the Japanese restaurants, as well as the vending machines.
We journeyed on. We drove through an old Onsen (hot springs) town, full of winding, narrow roads flanked by trees and sharp drop offs. Onsen resorts were hidden among the trees, away from the road. As we drove through the charming streets of the town, we saw men in cotton yukata robes walking in groups around to different hot springs. A leader often carried a lantern to light the way. Some of the onsen resort hotels looked like Victorian palaces, luxurious places for a self indulgent vacation or trip with co-workers to build teamwork. We wound through the roads away from the town, still catching glimpses of the odd resort or tourist shop. One particularly caught my eye- a little pretentious shop selling antiques near a big resort. Presumably it was for little old ladies who might get tired of soaking in the hot baths and wanted to enjoy some shopping. Justin and I thought as we drove away that we might rather like to come back and try an onsen adventure of our own. We wondered how the other guests would react to our presence among them. The longer we stay, though, the more comfortable we feel about venturing into socially uncertain situations- like the ever popular soaking in hot springs!
We drove on to the next town, and the next. It was getting quite dark, even though it was only not quite five. I was surprised and delighted when we came to a pottery centered town, and drove past pottery dish shop after pottery dish shop. I thought they would be closing soon, but I couldn't resist and asked Justin to turn around so we could try going to one. After some circling, we pulled into the big parking lot, and walked up to the brightly lit shop filled with gleaming pottery dishes. Their sign said they closed at 5, but there were still shoppers inside, so we scurried in and started looking around; half convinced an irritated shop clerk would turn us out. To the left were the gallery quality items, hand crafted pieces of usable art. Their prices were above our budget, but some were very lovely and they were all quite interesting. We went into the main showroom, passing roughly hewn crafted pieces. Ahead of us we saw shelves of handmade bowls, cups, dishes- and then on our right, against the window, were gift items like pottery earrings and other small things.
I looked at the dishes, picking some up to see if the craftsmanship carried through on the whole piece- noting the markings on the bottom, the coloring of the glaze and painted details. I felt like a kid in a candy store, but it was overwhelming. In a way, I wanted to take home it all, but since that wasn't feasible, we looked for special pieces that we could pick and take with us. I was amused by cat teacups that could be turned upside down on their plate to show a cheerful, fat cat. However, I was more interested in teacups and bowls with a rich grey texture on the outside, and swirling light grey filling on the inside. Finally I picked two cups, with white streaks on the outside, and that same grey filling, as well as a matching bowl with a creamy orange circle on the front that made me think of a ripe peach. We felt bad at keeping the shop clerk there late, so we finally left, and drove onward, past the pottery town. We resolved to come back another weekend for a mini break.
We drove on, getting more and more tired and hungry. Finally we drove into a long corridor flanked by Japanese maple trees, marked by the occasional tacky love hotel or small village. We thought, aha, this must be the famous road which becomes a red autumnal paradise filled with a slow procession of cars. The traffic wasn't too bad, so we congratulated each other on our decision to drive down. We drove through the long corridor, and when we came out, we found ourselves in the actual city of Nikko. Its train station was central to the city- and marked by 1950s reminiscent charm. Shops were all around us, and a few tourists milled about, but the shops were all closed. We drove up a bit, noting all the ryokans (traditional style inns) and hotels. It was definitely a tourist town, though it was sleepy at the moment. Most of its guests were cozily ensconed inside their resorts, enjoying onsens and other luxuries.
We decided to turn around when it became clear we wouldn't be finding any love hotels this deep inside the city itself. After getting slightly turned around, we made our way back to the corridor of maples and began seriously searching for a place to crash. We ended up at a hotel, chose our rooms by the illuminated picture visible at each parking spot, and jumped out with our bags. We walked into a brightly lit, deserted hallway with an ever popular 'UFO catcher' style Winnie the Pooh stuffed animal game machine. Pleasantly sappy music was playing. We followed signs pointing to our room, up a long stairwell. There was décor at each landing- white Greek statues with silk floral arrangements that added some atmosphere. We stepped into the room's entranceway, noting a funny safe like thing at the entrance that opened into the hallway, and changed into the plastic room slippers. The room walls were half covered in gold Egyptian tile, half covered in cream and pink checkers, creating a strange, *alice in a pyramid* mood. The bed was covered in a colorful, striped comforter. We dragged our bags in and waited. The phone rang, and Justin picked it up. It was the manager calling, to tell us the charge for the room, so that we could put the money in an envelope, into the safe for a staff member to pick up.
Once you are checked in, the door automatically locks you in, and Justin and I were hungry, so we decided to order some extremely reasonable room service. They had a picture menu with lots of inexpensive offerings, so Justin picked out some things (yakisoba, fried noodles and cabbage, steamed Chinese dumplings) while I ordered vegetable pilaf and a grilled rice ball. While we were waiting I took a quick bath. Unfortunately there were no Jacuzzi bubbles, but there was complimentary blue bath salt. Most Love Hotel bathrooms have piped in music offered by a special music service, so I listened to the latest Japanese pop while bathing. The food arrived and we had a picnic on the bed, wearing our hotel yukata robes. We watched a little tv, listened to some music on the many channels, and then went to bed.
The next morning was bright and shiny, and we were excited to explore. We paid for our food bill, and then went out to our car for the drive to nearby Nikko. As we approached the town, we saw that it was bustling, and the morning tourists were just beginning their tour. The cute shops were open, and I wanted to check them out, but we had a lot to do. First, Justin dropped me off at the Tourist Information Center while he found a parking spot. I walked in, with very little idea of what to do, or where to go, and walked out with a map of temples and waterfalls, and all kinds of ideas.
Justin and I decided to go to the nearby temples first, so we drove down the road and turned into a pay parking lot. We parked and walked towards the park on the hill, full of historic temples and shrines. We walked up the hill, hiking up steps and slopes surrounded by old trees and trickling streams. We approached a temple on our map, and found a booth where we could buy a 5 in one temple and shrine pass. We saw tour busses pull up to the lot and watched hordes of school children, elderly people, or middle aged people with cameras pile out. Justin and I we were grateful we weren't being herded along on a pack tour. Group leaders with bright flags called their members over and ushered them in the right direction, periodically stopping to announce some interesting historical fact.
We went into the first temple, and were faced with rows and rows of separate pack tours. We didn't know where to go in, but temple assistants gestured us over to the right, where we were instructed to take off our shoes and pad along to see the sacred statues inside. The statues were beautiful, but everything seemed quite dusty. As I walked along, surrounded by people, I felt like my lungs were closing up, filled with centuries of dust bunnies. Wheezing a little, I looked up at statues of kannon and other deities, and eventually came to a row of golden statues depicting different years of the zodiac. Right after that, we were offered the opportunity to buy nice zodiac necklaces directly from a temple stall. Justin secretly wanted one, so I got him one for the year of the Horse. I thought he might wear it as a necklace, but he told me it was for his key chain. We stumbled out into the sunlight, putting on our shoes.
Next, we walked up the slope to the next temple. To my surprise, it was a newer building with a bright, fresh coat of paint. As we got closer we could see something happening inside, so we peeked in. Pews were set up in rows in front of an altar/ stage, sectioned off from the entrance with cord. Some people were already sitting in the pews. We went inside. A priest was kneeling in the front, facing an altar. A fire was burning merrily before him. I could smell the rich dryness in the grains of the wood, its rich dryness. He began a series of clacking motions with evenly cut sticks, banging them about in a prescribed manner.
The audience inside the cords was hanging on his every movement, many of them fingering strings of beads. People outside the cord, tourist newcomers largely, casually observed. A few families came in and walked up to the big money grating, tossing in coins, bowing, and clapping, before leaving. The priests' movements intermingled with the crackling of the fire as he fed it. I looked against the far wall and wondered about the identities of the carefully lined up Buddhist deities. Occasionally Japanese and foreign families would come in, watch, and eventually wander away. I wondered if I should go, but I was compelled to stay. There was a funny feeling in the room, the focus of the audience, the ritual performance going on right in front, casual tourism mixed with what- spiritual tourism? There was a notice on a table in front of us, seemingly announcing the times of services.
At key moments the priest's assistants brought the priest key ritual implements, opening corded gates purposefully before them. The ceremony moved like clockwork, like a play, like a dance. The priest began reciting a mantra. I looked at the closest audience members and saw that many of them were reciting along with him, bobbing their heads along as they counted on their prayer beads. I wondered about these people- who they were, how often they practiced, why they were there. What made them decide to attend this service at this time? Something about the smells and sounds of the crackling fire, the music of periodic bells, banging wood, thumps of movement, moved me. I didn't understand exactly what was happening, but I figured that deities were being propagated, on the behalf of the audience. I felt lucky to be there, witnessing this, witnessing people's sincere participation. It didn't matter if they were tourists, if I was a tourist, at this moment in time, they were believers. I might not have been a believer per say (After all, I wasn't sure quite what I was supposed to believe in- Amida Buddha? The Pure Land? The Sun god?), but I felt a deep respect for the participants, the ritual, and the priest. How beautiful Japan can be!
The ritual continued on and on. I wondered if Justin was bored, but I could hardly breathe for interest in the events before me. We shuffled forward and I perched tentatively on the edge of a pew set outside the cord. Surely no one would mind my sitting here, I thought. Two elder ladies in kimono came in and bustled into seats near me. I admired the detailing on their wide sashes, their accessories. I watched closely, trying to soak everything in, remember every detail. The ritual was drawing to a close. The priest turned to his audience for the first time. He seemed to be inviting them to bring forth plaques to be blessed. One at a time, a few of them chose to come forward, making private prayers, offering their plaques to the priest, listening to him and finally receiving a dramatic, abrupt blessing. We could feel the freshness of cool morning air through the open door, and the slight morning tiredness only made the experience more real.
Finally, the ritual was complete. People began standing, moving out of their seats. The ritual implements were secreted away, the priest's job was finished. As he stood benevolently before the crowd, I marveled that such a pleasant looking man had been, just moments before, reciting mantras, clapping and shouting loudly. We stood to go, and went out into the cool, gray light of the day feeling physically and spiritually refreshed and cleansed. A faint smell of wood smoke clung to my clothing, reminding me of beach campfires and summer.
The question came to us- now what? We continued on, up the slope, towards the other temples awaiting us. I knew that one of the more famous things at Nikko was the famed 'sleeping cat' at a Temple… I couldn't wait to see it. I imagined an enormous temple, filled with golden statues of Buddhas and colorful statues of cats, prowling all over and around the Buddhas. I could picture one golden monk, seated with his robes flowing down onto the platform, with his golden hem delicately pinned by a sleeping cat. Wasn't that what this temple was themed after? And perhaps the place would be overrun by sweet faced, spoiled, and special cats that have lived at the temple since time began… a Japanese Temple of Bast.
On our way to the Sleeping cat, we found ourselves at an elaborate temple like nothing I'd seen before in Japan. Everything was painted and gilded and filled with tiny detailing- layers and layers of Asian designs on roofs like icings on an impossibly colorful cake. There was every color of the rainbow, but thinking back, I'm left with an impression of gold and turquoise blue, contrasted with red and orange. The golds made everything gleam like a burnished, Indonesian jewelry box. We wandered about, trying to dodge the herds of rampaging school children on school trips, trying to stay out of posed group pictures (a travel requirement- otherwise no one might believe you went!) We tried to take a few pictures of our own. Justin waited, patiently… patiently… to squeeze the camera trigger when no one was between him and his dear, smiling wife. Tourists were milling over the site like ants, and it just felt shiny, gilded, and slick.
In an effort to breathe, we slipped around the side of the temple to a long gated walk, where the only visitor was an elderly Japanese man patiently setting up his million dollar camera equipment. Justin took a few pictures of me posing in doorways and what not, and I was really happy to be there and to be out of the main crush. We wandered around, and Justin tried to get his perfect shots without getting tourists as well. I don't know how they get those beautiful, tranquil shots of Temples in tourist areas like Kyoto and Nikko at high season- the ones without anyone in them. They must section off the scenery, or take them right at sunrise or something. Otherwise, I just don't see how it's possible.
Somehow we got sucked into visiting another temple- this one with long boarded walkways between buildings and a big, ominous shoe cubby (enough spaces for several elementary schools and their shoes too). Everyone was whipping off their shoes and tottering down the walkway, so we figured we might as well do it too. I wished I had worn socks that day. I tried not to think about the army of other people's naked feet that had walked where I was walking. So, we somehow found ourselves waiting in a line of other tourists- families, children, and teenagers- there were no foreigners in sight. We were slowly ushered into the first room in an empty, old temple, and were urged to sit down and scrunch together. The room was full, and then they let in about 50 more people, so we got to know our neighbors quite well. We saw a foreigner- with his Japanese girlfriend and her (mother? Aunt?). We wished we had a Japanese girlfriend when the speech began (in Japanese) and continued for some time, elaborating on the fascinating historical conditions leading to this temple being built, and its survival. Apparently the painted scrolls around us were quite old and famous for some reason. (I was not able to eavesdrop well enough to find out the reason, I could only discern that they were famous. Perhaps I could have figured that much out without utilizing my eavesdropping skills.) During the lecture, the entire room would simultaneously shift its gaze to different parts of the ceiling and walls at the same time and make impressed noises. Several musty, empty rooms later, we were released to the doubtful ecstasy of the gift shop. This really wasn't a shop- it was a line. More to the point, it was a very long line of people agonizing over getting the temple amulet in red or blue. Justin told me that I really didn't need to buy anything, and I had to reluctantly concede the point. We beat a hasty retreat and ran for the hills.
In this case, the hills included one sleeping cat temple. Unfortunately our happy pass ticket (five temple entrances for one low, low price) didn't cover the sleeping cat, but we were convinced that it was worth any extra price to see the SLEEPING CAT OF NIKKO. The cat of much adoration and acclaim. Imagine our delight to find that not only could we get access to the cat, but some dead emperors tomb at the same time, for one low, low price. Well, I was delighted. Justin thought it was a little expensive. I convinced him that the sleeping cat was a must-see, chance in a lifetime, can't miss event. We paid our money (actually not such a low price), and went in through a little gate.
For some reason, visitors were having trouble going in. They seemed fixated at this one doorway, unwilling to go forward or back, whipping out their keitai cameras and regular cameras and making excited noises. Always willing to go along with the crowd, I looked at the doorway, trying to see what was so exciting about it. And there, above the doorway, I finally saw it. A sleeping cat, half carved and painted above the doorway. Well, isn't that cute, I thought, smiling to myself, the first of many! I could hardly wait. What the heck, I thought, pulling out my keitai camera and taking a picture.
We crossed under the doorway. Hmm. Suddenly I wasn't too sure. Where was the menagerie of cats? Where was the golden Buddha with the endearingly sleepy kitty at his hem? Instead we were facing a rather bland building and an extremely steep walkway up to 'The emperors tomb'. We peeked into the building. No cats. Hmmm. Not much of anything, actually. We decided to follow the sign up to the emperors tomb, which turned out to be quite a little mountain hike, through brush, bog and briar, involving little wooden bridges and the whole bit. Hmm. Since little old grandmothers were gamely trucking up I decided it couldn't be as steep as it looked. A fourth of the way up, panting and red in the face, I had to stop, while the grandmother breathing down my neck nimbly passed me and continued darting up the mountain. Justin, with his longer legs, was ahead of me, but we both found it a little much. And I wanted to know where the kitties were. Halfway up I found a vendor selling cat memorabilia. Aha! I thought this was a good omen. Granted, they looked an awful lot like the painting at the doorway. It must be a repeated motif. I bought a good luck amulet for Ann.
We got to the top (a square cement indent) and went to each of the four corners, looking desperately for more cats. No cats. Actually, there wasn't much of anything. Presumably somewhere, deep down, there was a body, but it wasn't immediately evident. I was quite disconsolate, as we began the long trudge back down. Surely that little cat over the doorway wasn't THE cat, was it? It was just one little painting, not even 12 inches wide. Surely all the fuss wasn't over that little doorway detail? We trudged through the doorway and I looked balefully over my shoulder at the cat. It was hard to see it, actually, because there were so many people fighting for a look, taking pictures of it.
We wandered out, admiring a building with the famous "see no evil" monkeys inscribed. I tried to figure out why I was suddenly thinking of livestock and straw and manure, and followed my nose to a small building set some distance away. A sign indicated that the horse within had been a special gift from some nation or another, and every day, the horse was brought to spend time in this temple stall so that he could be admired. I looked in and saw the shadowy white outline of a horse, crammed into a small stall with barely enough room to turn around. The price you pay, to be a bridge between nations. I hoped on his off hours he lived in a huge pasture with lots of tall grasses and room to gallop.
Our wandering took us to a children's shrine. Families held their new babies up for pictures, smiling proudly. Some mothers wore beautiful, expensive kimonos, while their husbands wore shiny suits. Other families were less gorgeously attired, but they all seemed happy to be there with their children. Children ran joyfully all over the grounds, exploring. There was a miniature red, curved bridge set up in front of one building adding to the atmosphere of the place. A young boy, perhaps 5 or 6, or 8 (I`m no good at guessing ages) stood on the bridge, trying to throw special rings over posts. Something good was supposed to happen if you succeeded- (something spiritually good like a wish coming true or good luck or something, not like a man coming out with a big stuffed yellow animal.) Justin and I patiently waited for the kid to finish, and then tried our hand at throwing rings. (Because together, we have a collective age of about six.) I'm not going to tell you how many we got on the posts, but let me just say, it was harder than it looked. And I think the kid cheated somehow. I posed like a Japanese high school girl on the bridge, and then we dragged ourselves away.
We looked in the special building, which had special statue things set up with placards that were incomprehensible to us. The kids seemed rather excited about it though. Then we wandered on to see a series of springs, where you could wash your hands and collect the special water, if you were so inclined. A kid was already playing with the water, and he drank some. Justin and I were tempted… the water was icy cold and fresh, but we restrained ourselves, reconciling ourselves to having spiritually grubby insides. We wandered on, and saw more temples, more shrines, tons of lovely bell shaped structures, and it was fun, but after a while they all started to blur together and we decided it was time to move on.
We returned to our car, and got in, ready for a drive to the other most famous spot in Nikko- the Kegon Falls area. We drove up, slowly, through all the traffic, passing a lake and passing under a huge red Shinto torii gate set up above the street. We parked at the falls parking lot (figuring we might not be able to find any elsewhere), and got out. There were several small, touristy restaurants, and souvenir shops set up around the area. We walked around them (me fighting the urge to buy postcards), and went around a building to a tall metal staircase on the edge of a cliff, the viewing platform for the waterfall. It was a truly spectacular sight, off in the distance, with the mist rising from the falling water, the water falling from a breathless height. You could hear the soft crashing of the water on the wind, feel the mist on your face and hands. The leaves were mostly a steadfast green, except for a few faintly tinged yellow leaves whispering of fall's approach. It was cooler here, in the higher elevation, than it had been down below, near the temples. We stood there and admired the timeless view. Other tourists around us clustered at the railings, on different platform levels. They posed for their pictures, and we thought, sure, why not. We kissed and took pictures of each other, and even took a short movie of the waterfalls with our digital camera. Finally, getting a little restless even in the face of this perfect beauty, we moved on.
We wandered on and into the tourist mecca which beckoned- largely a long line of omiyage (souvenir) shops and restaurants. It started to mist on us slightly, and we walked down the street, crossing the street from lakefront to shops at will. The lake was lovely. It must be truly breathtakingly gorgeous on a sunny day, and even on this gray, misty day, it was lovely. We saw some brave souls out in the middle of the lake, paddling rental Swan boats- big, tacky plastic peddle powered boats for two or more passengers. We might have been tempted, but it was expensive, and getting cold. Actually, we thought that it might start to rain at any moment. We picked up a latte at an enterprising crepe/ pizza/ latte booth attached to one of the omiyage shops, and kept looking for a restaurant.
We looked at ramen shops, yuba (tofu skin) shops, of course soba, udon, and other traditional offerings, as well as an Indian buffet, before finally darting into an unpretentious shop that offered toppings on rice. I ordered an egg/onion topped rice dish and Justin got a bowl of noodles, and we cozied up, enjoying some hot green tea and fresh mountain pickles with our meal. It started pouring outside, and we were glad to be inside where it was warm and dry. The solid, bustling, Japanese grandmother serving food seemed happy to see us enjoying our meal. The next table over had a group of young college guys, in relaxed clothing that made us think they might be touring motorcyclists, reading Japanese comic books.
Replenished by our meal, we headed back out into the cool evening air. Though it was no longer raining, we were soon chilled, and Justin began to speak longingly of hot spring baths. "Our towels are in the car," I protested. (The car was a good hike away, and it would be a hassle to get them.) "Oh, I'm sure they have towels," Justin wheedled. "Well…." I said, reluctant. We stopped in front of this place that was either an onsen, a hotel, a restaurant, or an exercise club. We walked back and forth in indecisive shyness. Something about the prospect of taking off all ones clothes and puttering about in slippers just naturally brings out our natural reticence. I was prepared to bolt, while Justin poked his head into our mystery yellow building to see if baths were available. There were plastic slippers at the door, which automatically made me nervous. He came back out with a glint in his eye and a swing in his step. "They have baths," he said, "for 8oo yen a piece, and they have towels." "Oh," I said, not seeing any way out of this.
So, we went in, paid the man, were given two hand towels, and were pointed towards some plastic slippers and a carpeted stairway. We walked up the stairway and found ourselves in the middle of a hotel, with no real idea of how to proceed. After some stumbling around and wandering into banquet halls, we finally found ourselves facing two little curtains, labeled respectively "women" and "men". I went through the curtain and found myself in a plain little yellow room with sinks and hair dryers, as well as several little cubbies. One cubby had baskets for possessions. Timidly, I started disrobing, and put my clothes in the basket. No one else was there, but I saw an older lady enjoying the baths past a glass door. I was wishing my towel was larger.
I crept in at last, holding my towel over the relevant bits, and scurried over to the low wall shower, pulling out a little wooden bench and bucket for water. I poured the hot water over myself and scrubbed (my towel having been stashed on a little shelf next to me). The elderly visitor had moved to the bath outside. I crept over to the indoor baths and hopped in. The water was invigoratingly hot. I dipped myself in layers of water like a banana in chocolate, coming up for cool air occasionally. The elderly lady moved in again, and went to the showers against the wall. I found my towel, and moved into the outdoor bathing area I put my towel on the ground on a nice, dry spot. I sunk into the hot water and noticed mineral flakes floating into it. At least, I hoped they were minerals. I sat in a hot stream and felt the tension seeping out of my body and into the mineral flakes. Er, into the water.
The elderly lady had moved on, so I sat up half out of the water, brazenly happy, and looked at the nondescript view. There were half up-turned slats allowing you to see out, over the street and to the misty lake. (You could see the lake if you stood on the pool ledge and peered- which I did, hoping no one could see in). I turned to go back in and saw my towel, capsized in tidal ebbs from my pool gymnastics. "Oops," I thought. I picked it up, wrung it out, and went inside, to turn and submerge myself in the indoor pools a last few times. I was approaching the well done stage in the cooking process, so I decided it was time to turn on the cool water tap and baste myself in cold mountain water at the faucet (mountain water, well water, chemical processing water, who knows what it was, besides cold). Cold, shivering, but still pink as a lobster, I alternated between hot and cold water a few times, and then dripped my way into the dressing room.
No one was there, which was a lucky thing. I really was bright pink, all over. I had no idea I could be that color. I wrung the towel dry a few more times and tried to squeegee the water off my body, with damp results. Hmmm, I thought, looking around the room. Damn the Japanese disdain for paper towels. My gaze alighted on the hair dryers. Hmmm…… Several minutes later, I was considerably drier, though still slightly damp around the edges. I squeezed into my jeans and other clothing, and paddled out into a waiting room, where my elderly, previously silent companion sat, chatting up a blue streak with my husband. "Hot, wasn't it," she said jovially, among other more obscure pleasantries. "Yes, yes," we agreed. There was much smiling and bobbing up and down of the head and general politeness, and we were soon on our way, feeling warmed by her pleasantness as much as the water. We handed the manager our soaking towels, our blushes luckily disguised by our radiantly pink complexion (courtesy of the hot water). Happy with our experience, we stepped out into the refreshingly cool night air and began the long walk back to our car.
We couldn't resist popping into a souvenir shop on our way out- I ended up leaving with a gravelly textured, deep charcoal grey cup with little flowers painted at the base and a close fitting lid., and a burnished orange tea pot with a cream leaf indent in the surface. Justin rolled his eyes at me, but I wanted to remember this trip. With every new experience, I realize just a little bit more how much my imagination could never produce anything like the reality we find on our adventures in Japan. I create these fantasies for myself on every trip, and find them dissolving like tissue paper in a barrel of water. Maybe Nikko's famous cat was small and disappointing, but Nikko itself was bigger than I ever dreamed of. The odd tacky souvenir shop and plastic swan boat might have added an element of kitsch, but Nikko is truly a destination for people, both Japanese and foreign, to experience the natural and cultural beauty of Japan. The beauty of the Kegon falls, the shapes of the Japanese maple, the great maze of temples and shrines, are now part of my memories of Japan. The memories I'll take back with me are better than any fantasy- they're real, and I know I can go back anytime.
See more pictures in our Nikko Gallery!