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Saturday, September 10, 2016

Japan’s National Parks: Nikkō National Park

Located in the north western part of Tochigi-ken (let’s say some 100+ kilometers northwest of Tokyo for reference), Nikkō National Park (日光国立公園, Nikkō Kokuritsu Kōen) was established in 1934 as a national park, spreading out over four prefectures of Tochigi-ken (my old stomping grounds when I lived in Japan between 1990-1993), Gunma-ken, Fukushima-ken, and Niigata-ken.

Ken” is representative of the terms ‘prefecture’, which is akin to a province of state.

While Nikkō National Park was established on December 4, 1934 as a national park, it was previously designated as an Imperial Park (帝国公園, teikoku kōen) in 1911, until the laws were revised (see HERE for more on the basics of National Parks in Japan.

As I mentioned in the previous blog, I visited this park many, many times, seeing quite a bit of its more famous sites to sight see, including:
  • Nikkō Tōshō-gū, a Shinto shrine, Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture—UNESCO World Heritage site; 
  • Rinnō-ji, a Buddhist temple, Nikkō—UNESCO World Heritage site; 
  • Lake Chūzenji, 11.62 square kilometers (4.49 square miles), a scenic lake, Nikkō (see my photo above); 
  • Kegon Falls, 97 meters (318 feet), one of Japan's three highest waterfalls; 
  • Ryūzu Falls, 60 meters (200 feet), a scenic twin waterfalls; 
  • Mount Nantai, 2,486 meters (8,156 feet), rises dramatically above Lake Chūzenji; 
  • Mount Nikkō-Shirane, 2,578 meters (8,458 feet), a shield volcano.
I’ve gone rainbow trout fishing in Lake Chuzenji-ko ('ko' actually means 'lake')—even getting the opportunity to sit on and use the Emperor’s royal toilet there… it’s a wooden seat… no big deal, except for my non-royal butt being on the royal ‘throne’. That's the lake in the photo at the very top - a photo taken by me, myself and I.

Kegon Falls (華厳滝, Kegon Taki) is considered to be one of Japan’s three most beautiful water falls—Japan has a lot of interesting lists consisting of three of this and three of that… but making the list creates an instant tourist attraction. Barring a major earthquake, these lists, once created, don’t ever seem to change.

Speaking of earthquakes… the Kegon Falls that one can see NOW in 2016, is different in size and scope from the one I was able to enjoy in the 1990s, and even that was different from how it appeared in the 1930s… yup… earthquakes have indeed altered the landscape!

Kegon Falls circa 1930. The waterfall flows straight down over the cliff to the bottom. Water comes from Lake Chuzenji-ko.
Kegone Falls circa 1991 - as of 1986, thanks to erosion, the waterfall no longer fell the entire length of the cliff. 
Kegone Falls circa 2012. The boulders are now gone from the top of the middle image, and you can see that the waterfall does not flow all the way down, hitting a ridge about the half-way point (you can see tiny little water fall areas).
Since I am the Ame Otoko (Rain Man), so named because it rains whenever I traveled around Japan, you can tell that the dull image in the middle is one of mine. It was rainy, misty, and Autumn, and for whatever reason, I did a zoom in to get a close-up rather than the full specter of the waterfall. At that time, I was heavily into taking photographs with imagery in the foreground—in this case the red maple leaves. I also hated having photos everyone could take. We're all individuals. But I'm not. 

Anyhow, my crappy photo is actually a photo I took two nights ago of a blown-up photo encased in a glass frame that I probably should have cleaned. 

By the way, the Kegone waterfalls are notoriously infamous for being a leaping point for suicidal folk.

I also think that while the Japanese seem to think that size matters—Kegon Falls is one of the three highest waterfalls in Japan, I actually prefer the much smaller Ryūzu Falls (龍頭滝, Ryūzu Taki, Dragon's Head Waterfall) for its beauty. Or maybe because it wasn’t as busy as Kegon was for tourists… I can’t ever recall seeing another tourist at Ryūzu Falls.

While I enjoy the company of people, I also prefer the company of no one. I guess I’m pretty flexible.

RYUzu Falls Image

The entirety of Nikkō National Park takes up 1,147.53 square kilometers (443.06 square miles) of land/water… and is indeed quite beautiful.

(Along with my visits to the many temples and shrines and waterfalls and mountains in the park, I also like to visit the small town of Nikkō, where I would visit one particular antique store to learn about ukiyo-e art and to purchase a few original pieces from the 1840s on up.)

As for Nikkō Tōshō-gū (日光東照宮?) is a Shinto shrine, and is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate (shogun!).

Built by Tōdō Takatora in 1617AD, when Tokugawa Hidetada was the second shogun, it was enlarged during his son’s reign (Iemitsu) as third shogun, and contains the remains of the very first shogun Ieyasu.

It’s a beautiful shrine. During the spring and autumn, there are two parades known as the “procession of a Thousand warriors” featuring, you guessed it, 1,000 people walking by.

I saw it once, and I’m pretty sure that was enough. I was there on a class trip with Ohtawara Chu Gakko (Ohtawara Junior High School).

At the temple holds the Yōmeimon gate (aka "higurashi-no-mon”) that apparently means one could stare at it all day and its rich carvings and never grow tired of looking at it. Obviously this was something meant for the Japanese and not the dumb gaijin like myself. See my photo of the gate above.

Now… this shrine is also home to the famous Three Wise Monkeys: Hear no Evil; See no Evil: Speak no Evil.

First off… it is actually kind of disappointing when you first see the original carving.

Located as a painted, wood carving up high on a breezy window aspect of a stable—yes, a stable for horses!—the three wise macaque monkeys (common in Japan) perch up high are meant to signify the wisdom of discretion or as a talisman against slander.

After all, everybody's got something to hide, 'cept for me and my monkey!

If you want to learn more about these monkey's, click HERE.

Ashley standing under the monkey signage, as a Japanese mother quickly pulls her disappointed daughter away to safety.
There’s also a very cool five-story pagoda on the site - of which this 1940s era ukiyo-e I own is representative of:

I’m unsure if I actually saw the Rinnō-ji (輪王寺, Rinnō Temple)… probably did… Ashley would have made sure of that, as she would plan our initial excursions (I was just the boytoy, arm candy that tagged along—in those early days (first 35 of the 36 months I was there, odds were good that I would get lost when traveling).

Anyhow, Rinnō Temple (‘ji’ is used to denote ‘temple’) is a large complex of 15 Buddhist temples, first established (with a single building) in 766AD. One of  the most famous buildings is the Sanbutsudō (三仏堂) or Three Buddha Hall which has gold-leafed statues of Amida, Kannon with a thousand arms (Senju-Kannon) and Kannon with a horse's head (Batō-Kannon).

Mount Nantai (男体山, Nantai-san) means “man’s body mountain” is a stratovolcano - which means it is steep and conical, and because it last erupted 7,000 years ago, can still be considered an ‘active’ volcano. Really.

Apparently Mt. Nantai was considered to be a sacred mountain hundreds of years ago, because it as believed that a ‘kami’ (spirit) lived in it, and would send down water to the people below (to their rice paddies). Anyhow, it’s made the list as one of the 100 famous mountains of Japan, and stands 2,486 meters high.

Guess what else made that list of 100 famous mountains of Japan? The Lava dome mountain of Mount Nikkō-Shirane (日光白根山, Nikkō-Shirane-san) that stands 2,578 meters high. 

I don’t believe I climbed either, but I did wisely look upon each with awe and wonder from afar.

I only ever stayed over night in Nikkō once—and that was to stay at a friend’s house the Hutchison Family)—so I am unaware of what it takes to find accommodations there, and if you have to book long in advance, or if you can just walk up and find a place.

Nikkō is one of those special places that have to be on one’s must-see tourist spots when visiting Japan. Excluding the climbing of the two mountains, you can see darn near everything else in a single day's travel to Nikkō.

And… just note that when you are there seeing all the cool temples and shrines… you are also within the Nikkō National Park.

Andrew Joseph

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