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SPECIAL ASIA ISSUE / JAPAN

Serenity amid the shoguns

Spas, monks, mountains and military heroes. Nikko offers a soothing respite from the blare of nearby Tokyo -- except on weekends.

October 08, 2006|Ben Brazil | Special to The Times

Tourists also cluster at an unpainted stable, staring at a carving of three monkeys miming "Hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil" -- a principle of Tendai Buddhism. The ceiling of nearby Yakushido hall bears a swirling, 16-by-52-foot painted dragon.

After shuffling through the tourist crush at Toshogu -- ignoring all reason, I'd visited on Saturday -- I walked a broad, gravel path to Futarasan, a much simpler shrine whose most striking adornment is an exterior coat of bright red paint. Still, it wasn't all mystery and wonder. As at Toshogu, Futarasan's worship hall contained a stand selling charms, picture books and assorted knickknacks.

Everything in Nikko, it seems, has a price. The main sites are included in an $8.60 combination ticket, but seeing anything more costs extra. Merely crossing the scenic-but-short Shinkyo Bridge -- where Shodo Shonin supposedly crossed the Daiya on snakes -- costs an additional $4.30.

The nickel-and-diming grew tiresome. In fact, a couple of days into my stay, the whole tourist-trap scene was becoming a bit much. There was only one thing to do: lace up my hiking boots and head for the high country.

As the bus climbed into the mountains, clear skies shone over Nikko National Park's lakes, waterfalls and snow-dusted peaks. It was a wonderful day for a springtime hike. So why were so many people on the bus carrying skis?

As our bus passed huge, sun-flecked Lake Chuzenji and climbed toward the hot springs village called Yumoto, the reason became clear: At 3,000 feet in elevation above downtown Nikko, it was still winter.

Cross-country skiers passed between the trees on brilliant, shining snow. Lake Yunoko, next to Yumoto, was almost entirely frozen over. I was just glad I hadn't worn shorts.

It seemed wise to call off my hike. But then, in the visitor center, I saw snowshoes for rent. When I asked a woman at the desk about the forecast, she drew a smiley-faced sun into my notebook. I was off.

I didn't need the snowshoes at first as I hugged the shores of Lake Yunoko, then descended to a little restaurant beneath 250-foot-tall Yutaki Falls. I stayed 20 minutes, snacking on a skewer of ayu fish, grilled whole. After that, I crunched through the brilliant snow on cross-country ski trails -- perfect for hiking in warmer weather. A frigid wind rattled the tree branches overhead and snowflakes fell from the blue sky.

Still, the sun was warm as I followed wooden planks across the Senjogahara Plateau, a dun-colored highland marsh. Its swampy waters gradually coalesced into a meandering river, and bamboo shoots pushed through the snowbanks melting at its edge.

I've already mentioned the waters' next move. By dusk, the snow clouds had descended from the mountains and turned into a full-on blizzard. I had to walk backward to the visitor center to return my snowshoes. It was the only way to protect my face from the stinging wind.

Luckily, not all the water in Yumoto was frozen. I ditched my snowshoes, found an onsen, and stayed until the last bus left for Nikko, snow still whipping all around.

*

'Solemn grandeur'

ISABELLA BIRD, a 19th century travel writer and adventurer, visited Nikko in 1878, after the Meiji Restoration had ended the Tokugawa Shogunate. The new government soon decreed the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism -- striking at Nikko's syncretistic heart.

It was a time when Nikko's future was in doubt and its temples were falling into decay. Still, Bird praised the town's "solemn grandeur, its profound melancholy ... and the historical and religious atmosphere from which one can never altogether escape."

"Solemn grandeur" and "profound melancholy" can seem distant today at the crowded main shrines. But it's surprising how little effort it took to find both, even in Nikko's core.

On my last full day in town, I chose a hike on the Takino-o Path, which begins near Nikko's major attractions but veers away from them. Instead, it heads toward deeper woods and smaller, simpler shrines.

A bit less than halfway through the walk, for example, I passed a stone torii (gate) standing in front of Kaisando Temple, dedicated to Shodo Shonin, Nikko's founder. Behind the temple, enclosed in a low stone fence, sits Shodo's simple grave. If not for my trail guide, I'd never have guessed it held anyone of more than minor importance.

Simplicity. Sunlight flashed through the cryptomeria trees onto the stone path; the air was cool enough to numb my fingers.

At the far end of the trail, a stone staircase led to yet another small but brilliantly vermillion shrine. I was the only one there, and I breathed in the stillness. I could hear a stream gurgling nearby.

*

(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Free-flowing splendor

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, All Nippon, American, Japan, Korean, Northwest, Singapore and United offer nonstop service to Narita Tokyo Airport. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $780 through Oct. 24, then $980 until Dec. 28.

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