It was November, and the leaves were ocher on the trees swathing the hills behind the reconstructed wooden buildings. Gaggles of chattering exchange students ducked in and out of the faux historical shops and houses, obviously enjoying themselves and their day out.
The odd little village was an entertaining re-creation of old Edo (present-day Tokyo), the town that grew into one of the world’s most populous cities as home to around a million people when the Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan from there between 1603 and 1867.
Though the village, named Edo Wonderland, was loosely tied to its location via the Tokugawa mausoleum complex at Nikko, to 16-year-old me it seemed pretty phony.
The day before, we’d arrived in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, by bus on a cultural weekend away from our Kanagawa Prefecture host families. Naturally, we’d immediately visited Toshogu Shrine. The intricately ornate buildings, with their famous carved animals, were set in fragrant stands of cedars, and the elegant pagoda stood tall among towering cryptomeria trees planted in honor of Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun, who died in 1616.
As the unifier of Japan, who managed to bring some kind of stability to a country riven by civil wars for centuries, Shogun Ieyasu’s last wish was to be enshrined to the north of Tokyo, where he believed he’d continue to protect the peace of the country even after his death.
Standing below the shrine, my eyes had gone back again and again to the roof-line and then the trees. If nothing else, there was certainly peace there, in Nikko.
Not yet at that time a quarter into my year abroad, I was grateful for the translated explanation of the place, of its history and architecture. I was delighted by the mammothlike appearance of the elephant, carved long before elephants themselves were first brought to Japan, and charmed by the charming sleeping cat. The place was clearly foreign and ancient and belonged to a culture that had developed independent of and parallel to the one I had grown up in. I was awed.
Edo Wonderland, that cutesy little village-for-tourists, was, however, another matter entirely. There was neither awe nor history there, only a lighthearted, half-historical model of a place. Besides, I had been longing for wilderness, and here I was among mountain forests.
So, 10 minutes after we arrived, a similarly rebellious student and I cut out behind the ninja house, and, giggling, found ourselves immediately in woods. Crisp leaves crackled underfoot, the sky soared blue overhead. My ears were soon full of birdsong and the sound of my breath coming heavy. Reaching the top, we peeled off sweaters in the bright autumn sunlight and looked down at the single street far below, now a miniature model village.
Fifteen years later, on a rainy mid-April morning, I caught the shinkansen bullet train out of Tokyo, wearing a business suit and a nervous smile. My boss and a colleague met me on the train, and we went over the usual papers of the travel business: important sights, budgets, hotel lists. I’d been working selling holidays to Japan for a year, but this was my first business trip, and my Japanese colleagues helped me review the unfamiliar business-card etiquette.
A taxi met us at the station, and we clambered damply in, folding our umbrellas into the back. We visited Toshogu Shrine as a matter of course: Despite other shrines around Lake Chuzenji, it is the area’s main drawing card and one of Japan’s most elaborate sights.
I expected to be thrown back into memory, but instead I was again awed. Regardless of the drumming rain that dampened the colored umbrellas sheltering weekday tourists, Nikko Toshogu Shrine somehow holds the kind of quiet that centers you, rooting you to the moment you’re in.
It’s a kind of calm I associate with shrines and temples in Japan, and it’s not surprising to have found it there, since Toshogu Shrine is actually a mixture of shrine and temple. Over their long centuries together in Japan, Shinto and Buddhism had naturally — though never completely — fused.
But then, when the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867 and the Emperor was restored to power at the beginning of the Meiji Period in 1868, Shinto and Buddhism were severed. Shrines and temples were divided as much as possible, but because they often shared the same grounds, physical separation was sometimes impossible.
Toshogu Shrine is no exception, with its five-story pagoda, a typically Buddhist feature, standing near the clearly Shinto architecture of the Yomeimon Gate.
One of the charming things about Japan’s most famous sights is that their attractions are often surrounded by historic reminders of tourism in Japan — and a good thing about having worked in the travel industry is that I got to visit all of these.
Just uphill from Toshogu Shrine is the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, an aged, rambling Meiji Era (1868-1912) establishment that sprawls across the wooded hillside. Travel-industry connections, though, aren’t required to pass through the marvelous carved wooden doors that echo the elaborate Shinto architecture of Toshogu Shrine, and anyone can stop in for coffee or for lunch.
The hotel still maintains Japan’s oldest ice rink, and has hosted a surprising range of dignitaries, including Helen Keller, Albert Einstein and Frank Lloyd Wright — who left a sketch of a fireplace for the hotel. The fireplace was later built to his design and is now the focal point of Kanaya’s atmospheric bar. Inside, the hallways are carpeted red and the rooms are remnants of the affluent 1980s bubble era, though the architecture of the building dates back to its 1873 beginnings.
Behind the hotel, trees lean darkly in, giving the place the sense — that you get so often outside of the cities in Japan — that the wilderness is just there. As we looked around the hotel grounds, I suddenly began to see what had eluded me at age 16: that nothing is as clear cut as it seems to be.
In Japan, Shinto and Buddhism are still tangled up together just below the surface. In Nikko, the wilderness brushes against the town, touching the shrines, leaning in to the river valley, and overhanging the sacred vermillion Shinkyo Bridge. But the same is true of anywhere in Japan, even in suburban Kanagawa, where patches of woods ramble between the houses, mysterious and deep.
Nikko is about two hours from Tokyo Station by shinkansen and local trains (¥5,430 each way). It’s worth staying the night and exploring the area. While the Kanaya Hotel ( 54-0001) is the oldest and possibly the most interesting one in the area, there are plenty of other options for visitors in Nikko or up by Lake Chuzenji.