It was my third and last night at Yuta's place in Tokorozawa, Tokyo. We hugged, promised to keep in touch and wished each other the best after a good few days of sharing experiences together.
With a large rucksack on my back and a smaller but heavier one on my chest, I headed to Ikebukuro (池袋), one of the main transportation nodes in Tokyo, to exchange my voucher for my JR Pass.
The Japan Rail (JR) Pass is a transport permit that can be purchased only by foreign passport-holders visiting Japan for up to 90 days. It allows unlimited travel throughout all of Japan in any of the JR trains, including the shinkansen (新幹線) or bullet trains. The only exception is the ultra-fast Nozomi, which crosses Japan from East to West on the fly, taking you from Tokyo to Hiroshima in about 4h (average speed 300 km/h).
It might feel like a hefty investment to make when you buy it initially - for example, my 3-week pass costed 59,350円, about £400 -, but when you start using it, specially catching shinkansen up and down the country, you realise the great value and convenience of the pass. By means of an example: a round-trip from Tokyo to Kyoto on the shinkansen on its own costs already 27,820円 (£187), which is only marginally lower than a 7-day JR Pass, and the savings increase and increase the more you travel around.
A very positive byproduct of travelling with the JR Pass is that it makes you more flexible and hence more motivated to visit distant destinations because it feels you're travelling 'for free'. For instance, when I visited the Hiroshima area, I managed to do Couchsurfing by staying at the house of Gisella, who actually lived in the suburbs of Fukuyama, 100 km away from Hiroshima. But I could simply head to Hiroshima in the morning as a luxury commuter because it was just a direct shinkansen that took less than 30 min to reach Hiroshima Station. The price of commuting from such an accommodation would've been prohibitive otherwise!
So, in short:
Don't hesitate, JR Pass is the way to go to backpack in Japan!
My only advice is that, regardless of what big city is your port of entry into Japan, you wait to activate the JR Pass until you actually leave the city and start the long-distance travelling: local transport is actually quite affordable and, with the exception of Tokyo, not many JR lines run within the cities. In contrast, intercity travel is quite dear and JR has pretty much the monopoly of the service. So in this way to you will maximise your value for money!
Once in Ikebukuro I wandered somewhat aimlessly trying to find the JR Ticket Office to carry out my transaction. I got lost two or three times, but finally found it! After filling in some forms and showing my foreign passport containing a Temporary Visitor tag, I got the JR Pass. I'd protect this document with my life and obsessively check all the time that I was carrying it, as I was warned it cannot be re-issued in case of loss!
My next destination was Nikkō (日光), a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1999 which is not far from Tokyo and hosts plenty of very important temples and mausoleums. Unfortunately, the train combination to reach Nikkō was more convoluted than I expected, so I couldn't get there until early afternoon although I had planned to get there in the late morning. My next volunteer guide was expecting me around that time, so I sought a public payphone to call him and let him know about my delay. I got on the first of many train journeys in this trip.
The train passed through seemingly endless urban sprawl, until it suddenly reached the calm countryside. Eventually, even the countryside was left behind and high ranges of mountains appeared almost out of the blue, their peaks white, still covered with snow. It was a gentle reminder that the spring I had experienced earlier in Tokyo had been only an illusion: it was still early March and hence winter would drag on for a bit longer.
I arrived at Nikkō after lunchtime, having grabbed some bentō (弁当) lunch from the train station to eat on the way. I left my heavy backpacks in a coin locker at and there I met Onodera-san, my guide for the afternoon in the Heritage area of the town.
Onodera-san was well into his 70s and he told me that he had been trying for many years to become a licensed tour guide but he never managed to pass the tough exams, so he had settled for volunteer guiding instead. This information I gathered from him with extreme difficulty, because Onodera-san spoke the strangest English I came across during my time in Japan!
He was a nice man and it was a good experience overall, but I could tell he was annoyed at my last-minute rescheduling because it meant we had to rush through Nikkō if we wanted to get to see something. So there we went!
We passed by the eye-catchy Shinkyō (神橋), or Sacred Bridge. The current Shinkyō was constructed in 1636, but a bridge of some kind had marked the same spot for much longer.
Although its exact origins are unclear, legend has it that in 766 AD the priest Shōdō Shōnin (勝道上人), together with ten disciples, tried to cross the river on the place where today lays the bridge. They were unable to do so due to the heavy water flow, so the priest fell on his knees and prayed. Suddenly, the God of the River, Jinja-Daiō, in the form of a 3-m tall devil, appeared before him and told him that he would help him cross. The God released over the river two snakes, one red and one blue, which magically transformed into a bridge that allowed them to cross, and they eventually founded the settlement that is Nikkō.
We briskly trekked uphill amidst gigantic cedar trees, the day cold but sunny, in order to reach arguably the most important temple in the area: Nikkō Tōshō-gū (日光東照宮).
This shintō temple was built in 1617 by Tokugawa Hidetada (徳川秀忠), son and successor of the first shōgun Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). The complex comprises 55 different buildings and they were completed in only 1 year and 5 months, which is mind-blowing when you think about the rudimentary building technology at the time. Compare that to the current renovation of the St James Shopping Centre in Edinburgh, scheduled to take 5 years to be completed!
But Tōshō-gū was not only built quickly: Tokugawa Hidetada ordered its construction with the finest and most luxurious materials - jade, marble, silver, golden leaf - to honour the grandness of his father, the first shōgun, the man who unified Japan and brought peace and stability to the country for the first time. From reviewing historic documents we know that the cost of construction, in today's money, would be about 40 billion yen, or £275 million.
We were greeted by an impressive 5-storied pagoda, Gojunoto, magnificently preserved when taking into account that it dates from 1,818, and nearby we crossed the first gate of the precinct, Sakuramon (桜門).
Shortly after crossing this gate we came across one of the most popular carvings in Tōshō-gū: the Three Wise Monkeys. These are a pictorial maxim that embodies the Eastern Asian proverbial principle of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil". Although in the Western world the phrase is often used to refer to those who deal with impropriety by turning a blind eye, in the Buddhist tradition the tenet of the proverb is to not dwell on evil thoughts.
Of course, the monkeys carved are Japanese macaques, the only apes that live outwith the tropical and subtropical regions of the planet, which I would later see in real flesh a few days later in my visit to Yudanaka (湯田中).
As we continued climbing the place got busier, the cedar trees larger and older and the materials became richer. It was an unquestionable fact that we were approaching the main hall.
Onodera-san stopped our rushed walking for a second to point out the carvings at the top of one of the buildings in the precinct, and he asked what animals I thought they were. I said that, to me, they looked like elephants, albeit weird-looking ones.
He was glad to confirm they were indeed elephants. He went on to explain that the carvers had been ordered to make elephants for this building, but they had never seen one in their life, these beasts not being endemic of Japan. Unable to properly research the anatomy and looks of pachyderms due to tight building schedule, the carvers took a bit of an artistic licence in deciding how these animals may have looked like.
We finally reached the innermost gate of the precinct, Karamon (唐門). This one is much smaller than Yomeimon but, in my opinion, far prettier and more elegant. Its name means 'the Chinese gate', and thus its intricate chalk-powdered carvings depict an audience given by a Chinese emperor from the Tang dynasty.
For centuries before the Edo Period China had been the lighthouse of culture and progress for backward-looking Japan, always too busy with struggles between samurai families to bother with trifling matters such as education or technological advance. Consequently, Japan shamelessly imported Chinese ideas and inventions, albeit they didn't have an issue acknowledging their intellectual superiority by depicting typical Chinese scenes in temples across the country.
We walked into the main shrine, of course in our bare feet despite the cold, which was beautiful, but unfortunately no pictures were allowed. I had hoped to be able to visit the sanctuary where the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu lay. However, as we had started our visit with a big delay, the temple precinct was about to close, so as we followed the herd of tourists who had come to visit this magnificent site I tried my best to capture in my memory the beauty of the place.
We headed back to the JR train station and I bid farewell to Onodera-san. I picked up my luggage and took the train for the next stop, Imaichi (今市), where I had booked my AirBNB for the night.
As I explained in a previous post, I got terribly lost trying to find the AirBNB! I walked and walked with my heavy backpacks asking people in the street with my rudimentary Japanese, but because I had the address written down in Latin alphabet, most of the people couldn't even read it!
As the sun set, I started to get nervous so I entered a ryokan (旅館), a traditional Japanese hotel, to ask for help. A very kind lady came out and tried with her phone to find the address. Despite her almost nonexistent English, I managed to explain to her that I come from Barcelona, that I was travelling around Japan on my own for almost a month and that it was my first time doing it alone. She was so amazed! Eventually we found the address, and she sent her son to walk me to the place. I thanked her profusely and, as we left, I reflected on the kindness of Japanese people: I asked for help in a hotel to find an AirBNB, the evil competence, and still they assisted me!
We finally reached the house and the guy said goodbye. I rang the bell and I heard dogs barking. A lady came to greet me and ushered me in. I got the sleepers on and she invited me to enter the living room and brought me a cup of freshly brewed green tea. There were two excited puppies and a gentleman sitting on the floor playing with them.
His name is Takahiro, a Karate sensei about to retire, and hers is Atuko, a teacher, and they are the Fukaya family. And surprise! They speak no English!
I would sleep upstairs, in the room of her daughter who was now living in Australia and managing the AirBNB ad remotely on their behalf. The room had been left untouched though, and I marvelled at her tremendous collection of manga that filled a bookcase as large as one of the walls itself. I tested the bed: a nice mattress!
I could finally have a good rest and wake up fresh for the hiking adventure I had planned for the next day: a hike through Inner Nikko, or Oku Nikkō (奥日光).
But that's food for the next publication!