Nipping is a funny word to associate with Nikko, because on this trip we did nip through, having barely stayed for 24 hours, but also since we decided to camp overnight out of season and so the night was quite nippy (or as I like to say – nipple-y). Just enough time though to zoom through the famed shrines and see Lake Chuzenji in the national park.
After some dramas getting organised for the trip after a night out in Tokyo, we got it right the 2nd time and took one of the early shinkansens to Utsunomiya where we changed for the JR Nikko line.
We bought the 2 day Lake Chuzenji bus pass, but then paid the difference (¥260 each way)for the 4 extra stops to Shobugahama campsite rather than paying for a ticket all the way to Yumoto Onsen and Lake Yuno. Next time, if there is a next time, I’d like to go all the way to Lake Yuno (where there is also a campsite) to see if being a little higher makes it a little more special.
Just be aware that Google Maps has the wrong location for Shobugahama. I’ve correctly marked it here with the red location marker. It’s supposed to be ¥1,000 or so to camp, but they don’t open until May and we arrived early April. There look to be showers, a whole bunch of facilities and also lakeside lodging if you’re not up for camping.
So we took the bus up from Nikko to the shrine area and ditched our bags at a hotel by offering their cafe our patronage. From there it was a short walk to all the shrines.
Rinno-ji was closed and covered by an enormous warehouse-like building. Apparently it’s closed for renovations until 2020. They sure do like to take their time with these things.
We headed on up to the Toshogu Shrine and paid the pricy ¥1,300 entrance fee (most temples in Kyoto are only ¥500). You do get to see quite a bit I guess and the carvings are quite elaborate and probably time consuming to maintain. Plus, seven year restoration projects ain’t cheap!
Unfortunately the great gate was under renovations too (maybe until 2020 – who knows!), but we could still appreciate the rest of the temple.
After the gate, you can hike all the way to the top of the complex if you take the stairs to the right past the Sleeping Cat carving. It’s surprisingly popular.
The main shrine is off limits to both shoes and cameras, but is quite impressive too. The explanations are all in Japanese I’m afraid, but it’s fun to see what you can work out anyway.
The bit I found the most interesting was the Crying Dragon. Again no cameras, so nothing to show, but they pull off a cool trick inside. I’m not sure if it’s some clever acoustics or a prestige pulled off by the guide and a colleague, but when they crack a pair of sticks together it makes a regular sound everywhere except under the dragon’s head. When played in this special spot, the sound of the sticks is trailed by a chattering sound. The sound is said to be the dragon’s cries.
Short on time before dark, we grabbed some supplies near the bus stop and skipped the Kanmangafuchi Abyss though it looked interesting. We hoped to come back in the morning, but we had to nip on through.
The bus took us to Lake Chuzenji and then a little further to Stop 33 outside Shobugahama. The place was closed, but since there was no snow we set up camp between the river and the lake. That way, the bears would only have one way to sneak up on us. Kidding! Though the visitor centre did warn us about bears and I suppose spring is when they wake from hibernation feeling ravenously hungry. I’m not sure if Japan has local salmon so the bears might look for other ways to make sure they get their daily intake from all the food groups.
To be honest there wasn’t a lot to see or do, but we walked a bit around the lake in the fading light. We ate all our strawberries as soon as we could, because after all, bears primarily eat berries right? Maybe it would have been smarter to leave the berries for them rather than help them be omnivores.
Things got cold pretty quick after sunset so we hit the hay. I remembered the fun exchange with the visitor centre ladies. I think they thought we were going to die with it being so cold and all the bears out and about. One of them actually recommended we camp in her backyard instead which perhaps we should have considered.
I was pretty happy with my new sleeping bag in the morning though because I stumbled across a frozen bucket of water. I didn’t realise it had gone subzero, but I was much more comfortable than on the Overland Track in Tasmania or Skaftafell in Iceland – probably the coldest I’ve felt camping. Actually that’s a lie, when the guide left my sleeping mat off the list of things to pack on Mt Vallunaraju in Peru – that was the coldest I’ve ever been when camping!
I continued reading Memoirs of a Geisha (laugh it up, but it’s cultural right?) in the cold winds by the lake to catch sunrise over Mt Nantai, the stratovolcano that is the biggest feature of the park. I couldn’t help but feel things would be better at Fuji Five Lakes (and were better where we’d come from in Kanazawa).
We needed an early start to traverse all the way to Kawaguchiko via Tokyo and so we packed up our house and headed back to Chuzenji hoping for some hot chocolate and an onsen to warm us up. Sadly, most things were still closed, but a nice old lady who was preparing for the day of business served us one out of two – hot chocolatey goodness.
A quick pit stop at Kegon falls was the last item on the itinerary and then we jumped on the bus back down to Nikko Station.
It took some stamina to get through the 5hr train ride, but Mt Fuji and the Five Lakes did not disappoint!