Nikko, Japan — VISITORS come to Nikko to gawk at Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and craggy, evergreen-covered mountains. But the element that animates this tourist town is water.
On my visit, it emerged first as sound, filling the cedar forest and surrounding the vermillion shrines with the gurgle of small streams. Then it fell as mist, glistening on ferns and slick, mossy rocks.
On a hike through the highlands, water descended violently in waterfalls and gently as snow. The flakes drifted out of a sunny sky during the day, then tore through the valley at dusk, as vicious as a scourge. There was nothing to do then but seek shelter in a hot springs spa, or onsen, where the water made me loose and lazy. Soaking in an outdoor pool, Nikko's waters took another form: icicles in my hair.
Water determined the tenor of the four days I spent in Nikko last March. But it did so subtly, while I focused on gilded shrines and snow-dusted mountains. Of course, these are the main inducements to visiting Nikko, where some of Japan's greatest shoguns are buried and, at least in theory, worshiped.
About 90 miles north of Tokyo, Nikko is a popular day trip from the capital. For the most part, tourists come to see its sprawling complex of temples and shrines, all embedded in the forest. Of these structures, the most lavish are dedicated to the deified shoguns, the hereditary military leaders of Japan for centuries.
At its best, Nikko recalls an older, more mystical Japan: Gravel paths lead past moss-covered stone lanterns; robed monks drift past curved, copper-tiled eaves; enormous cryptomeria trees, or Japanese cedars, tower over everything.
Unfortunately, Nikko tends to be at its worst on weekends, when most people visit. Scads of Japanese and foreign tourists jostle through roofed gates covered in gilding, snapping cellphone pictures of intricately carved animals and plants. At times, it feels more like navigating a subway than a shrine. But it's not like this always, and certainly not everywhere.
I had planned to end my three-week trip to Japan in Nikko. Instead of a single day, though, I allotted nearly four. The temples sit in mountainous Nikko National Park, an area slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles, and its hiking trails promised a chance to get away from the crowds, to re-center after an exhilarating week in Tokyo's blaring neon jungle.
As I stepped off the train, the main temples and shrines were closing, so I set out on a hike along the Daiya River. As always, the water took over. A light mist fell on the stone statues of Jizo -- the Buddhist saint of travelers and children -- that lined a short stretch of the river. Below the statues' moss-covered faces, whitewater crashed through a small chasm.
After maybe a one-hour walk, I reached Yashio-no-yu, a municipally owned onsen, or hot springs spa.
Japan loves its onsens, and the highly volcanic nation is the best place to sample naturally heated waters outside of Iceland. Soaking is almost always done naked, in gender-segregated pools -- and only after thoroughly washing and rinsing before getting in. Ignore this etiquette at your peril.
At Yashio-no-yu, I changed, showered and allowed the day to end as all great days in Japan should: up to my nostrils in hot, relaxing onsen water, surrounded by naked strangers.
Hundreds of years in the making
NIKKO'S religious history dates to the mid-8th century, when a Buddhist priest named Shodo Shonin crossed the Daiya River, legendarily on the backs of two serpents, and founded a religious community of ascetics. He built four shrines in the area, including one on the northern side of the river and one atop the revered Mt. Nantai.
In the ensuing centuries, Shintoism and Buddhism blended seamlessly in Nikko, as they did throughout Japan. Most of Nikko's glitz, however, owes to the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan between 1603 and 1867. Tokugawa Ieyasu -- the shogunate's Machiavellian founder, the unifier of Japan and the inspiration for James Clavell's novel "Shogun" -- was interred at Nikko in 1617.
His grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu -- whose slightly less ornate shrine is also in Nikko -- rebuilt Ieyasu's shrine in 1636. The resulting complex, called Toshogu, comprises a series of structures so ornate that many Japanese find them off-putting. Certainly, the shrine deviates from Japan's traditional aesthetics, which tend toward subtle, minimalist grace.
Yomei-mon, or the "Sunlight Gate," is probably the most over-the-top structure at Toshogu. From a distance, it appears massive and shimmery with gold, its roof high and curving. Up close, every inch swims with whiskered dragons, swans, cherry blossoms, little children, even giraffes -- all of them boldly painted, or covered in gold.