I woke up in the Fukaya's home feeling refreshed, but I was unwilling to leave the comfy and warm bed. Without the heating on, the room was freezing cold in the early hours of the morning. I blindly reached out with my arm and, feeling the floor, I looked for my clothes and got changed under the duvet.
Bundled up, I opened the blind and I was welcomed by a beautiful blue sky, white peaks and frozen dew on the newly born leaves of trees and bushes in the street. How lucky, the best weather for a day of trekking!
I walked downstairs, the puppies barking frenetically at the noise of my steps. There was a blurry silhouette projected behind the frosty glass door of the kitchen. It uttered a high-pitched and long おはようございます(ohayou gozaimasu, good morning!), which I quickly identified as Atuko-san, and only an instant later rushed steps slid the living room paper door open. Takahiro-san greeted me in a similar eagerly manner and he led me to a room at the other side of the house while gesticulating the action of eating. Yes, it was breakfast time!
He slid yet another paper door open and I was welcomed into a traditional Japanese dining room. The room was austerely furnished: tatami mats throughout, a wooden stage at the corner with a flower arrangement and a Japanese calligraphy, and a low-rise table at the centre, its sides covered with a thick cloth. The highlight of the room was the decoration hanging from the walls: about 9-10 gorgeous woman kimono of diverse colours and patterns, straightened in specially large hangers.
With his hands Takahiro-san kindly invited me to take my slippers off and seat on the tatami by the table, while he disappeared to bring me some breakfast. I sat by the table and put my legs under the cloth, and pleasantly felt the warmth of the heating underneath. If it had been hard to get out of bed earlier, it would be even harder to leave this table!
My plan today was to head to 奥日光 (Oku Nikkō, or Inner Nikkō), about 17km away from the actual settlement of Nikkō that hosts some natural wonders of the mountainous region. The Fukaya family had asked me about my plans the previous night and they kindly offered to give me a lift so I could save some money by not taking the bus. I gratefully accepted and after breakfast the three of us got into their toy-like car and drove uphill through a dizzily winding mountain road until we reached 中禅寺湖, Chuzenji Lake. They dropped me off there and wished me a good day of hiking, which started with this magnificent view:
Chuzenji was created 20,000 years ago when the nearby Mt Nantai erupted and blocked the river. The lake stands at an altitude of 1,269m and has a depth of up to 163m. Considered sacred, the mountain was closed to women, horses, and cows until 1872. It wouldn't be until the Meiji restoration that the region would be opened to the world, with many European countries building holiday villas around the lake for their diplomatic staff.
It's 11:00, and despite its beauty and the great weather, there isn't a single soul at the main settlement on the eastern side of the lake. So after wandering around and checking my map, I decided to head north-west along the shore, determined to make it to the remote onsen village of Yumoto (湯元), about 20km on foot.
On the way, though, I make some interesting stops. The first, shortly after starting trekking, is Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社), a calm and beautiful shintō temple, whose reds and greens delightfully contrast with the virginal white of piles of snow, laboriously stacked up by dutiful monks.
After Futarasan, there's a long stretch of walking along an uninteresting and dull mountain road. It's not until a couple of hours later that I reach the next beautiful spot of the day: the Ryuzu Waterfall (竜頭ノ滝, ryuzu no taki).
A beautiful wooden altar presides over a mound in front of the water.
Beside it, there is a quirky rural restaurant where they serve different kinds of ramen as well as Japanese homemade confectionery. The seating area goes around the building, so I grab a full meal and I go sit in front of the waterfall so I can enjoy my food while observing the water flow.
My meal finished, I swiftly resumed my hiking before the drowsiness that comes with a full belly could kick in. From there I followed the road for only a short stretch, and then I took a diversion toward the Senjōhagara Plateau Hiking Trail (戦場ヶ原).
Now, if the settlement at Chuzenji had felt deserted, this walk was even more lonely: I didn't bump into a single soul for the more than 3h that I was trekking through forest and meadows, the scenery getting whiter and whiter as I ascended towards Yumoto.
After a strenuous trek, plowing through and literally butt-sliding down snowy stairways, I reached one of the highlights of the day: Yudaki (湯滝), or 'The Boiling Waterfall'.
Having exerted so much physical effort, I felt inclined to some self-indulgence. However, there wasn't anybody around to ask for a selfie, so I strategically positioned the camera and took a few shots until I was satisfied with the result!
At the top of Yudaki appeared another lake, much smaller than Chuzenji, but much more peculiar: Yunoko (湯ノ湖), or 'The Boiling Lake'. This name wasn't chosen haphazardly: the high concentration of sulphurs in the waters of volcanic origin impregnate the air with the foul smell of rotten eggs.
Only a couple more km separated me from the end of my hike, the onsen village of Yumoto (湯元). With a long history as a spa town, the place felt then like a ghost town, most of its businesses closed during the low season and only a handful of adventurous souls exploring its snowy and empty streets. Yet the calm did nothing but enhance the beauty and charm of the place. It got me thinking how it would feel to relax in a spa like these ones. I'd find out only a few days later!
Satisfied at having achieved the goal of the day, and having concluded that Yumoto has nothing else to offer to me, I caught a local bus back to the settlement in Chuzenji. Before heading back to the Fukaya's, I make a lightning stop at the most scenic landmark in the area: Kegon Falls (華厳の滝, kegon no taki), a waterfall that drops for 97m, speeding up the waters of the Yu river on their relentless journey toward the Pacific Ocean.
And without further ado I headed back to Imachi to spend my second and last night at the Fukaya's. I was sticky, sweaty and stinky, exhausted but deeply content about the peace and beauty I had been fortunate to witness that day. I would have the most rewarding sleep!