The two-day tour of Nikko was on the program. We took our weekend bag with us, left our luggage at the hotel and were promptly taken to the bus station again. There we met up with our guide for the day, a cute bespectacled girl named Yuki. She told us we had nothing to fear from the traffic, because we had the best driver in Tokyo (there were only good drivers in Tokyo, because the bad ones had all been killed in various accidents...). Getting to Nikko took about two and a half hours, during which time Yuki entertained us with Japanese language classes (we learned to count, how to say 'hello' etc). She also explained a bit about daily life in Japan. Most of the stuff we already knew (either from our own research or from the previous tour guides), but it turned out a lot of tourists come to Japan not knowing that much about the country and its people.
When we got to Nikko, we first went to see the Buddhist temple there. Again, a large statue of Buddha, flanked by two statues of Kannon in two of her incarnations, all seated on lotus flowers. The temple had a strong astrological theme: the chinese zodiac was represented everywhere. Turns out Ingeborg and I have the same guardian deity (since the Oxen and the Tiger are guarded by the same deity). We offered a few yen to the guardian, you never know...
Then it was on to the Toshogu shrine. That's a Shinto shrine (the Buddhist have temples, the Shinto have shrines) dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the (in)famous Tokugawa Shogunate. Apparently Ieyasu united all of Japan, putting an end to hostilities between clans. His son had the shrine erected after his death, but it was his grandson who renovated the place. Now it's a World Heritage site (along with Stonehenge and Gizeh, amongst others), and I'm glad we visited it.
Gate to the second courtyard (Note Yuki's 'flag' in the lower left corner: a set of plastic irises)
The whole place is simply beautiful. A lot of colorful details can be seen on the buildings in the form of carvings. A simple fence has been turned into a work of art by painting on a beautiful flower pattern. The gates have been meticulously coated with a paint made of shells, into which patterns have been carved... There were hollyhocks (the family crest of the Tokugawa clan), rabbits (Ieyasu's chinese zodiac sign) and dragons (his grandson's chinese zodiac sign) everywhere. Nothing was just simple: it was all meticulously detailed. I think this is what makes this shrine so beautiful: even if you can't see all the details by just looking at it, it is all a harmonious total which pleases the eye. Only on closer inspection can the craftmanship be seen and appreciated.
The outside of the inner sanctum
There was also a stable for the holy horse (apparently horses are the messengers of the spirits in Shinto), donated by the New Zealand government. The horse was in the stable for four hours a day, and I felt sorry for it: it looked pretty bored. It must be boring to just stand in an old-fashioned stable, where crazy tourists come to look at you and take your picture.
Detail of the carvings on the wall surrounding the second courtyard
Then it was back into the bus and on to the place where lunch would be served. We had to go up the mountain, via 20 hairpin-curves. Quite a feat of the driver: I don't think I would have wanted to do it in my own car, let alone a large touring bus... On the mountain is lake Chuzenji, which formed after a lava flow blocked off the flow of a river. Lunch was served (a Japanese lunch, this time!) after which we strolled along the shore. It is a tourist trap, which lots of souvenir shops and water bikes for hire, but it was pleasant to walk around in the light, cool breeze.
When we got back to the bus, Yuki informed us that we had been so punctual that there was time for an extra item in the tour: a walk down the Dragon's Head cascade, so named because the rocks look like a dragon's head. We were dropped off at the top of the cascade, and when we came down the bus was already waiting for us. The cascade itself was pretty neat, but not really worth any detours.
Us in front of the rapids
Then it was to the Kegon waterfall, a famous suicide spot until 25 years ago. It's a 97-meter drop, where the water of the lake drops off the barrier of the lava flow and continues it's normal course. It's a pretty impressive waterfall, even though we saw it from a distance. There was an elevator down, but we didn't have time to go there. We did have time to shop for a bit. Then it was back to Tokyo for the rest of the group, but we were dropped off at the Nikko Kanaya hotel. We did think to bring our thank-you gifts, so we gave one to Yuki, the driver and the attendant (whose job it was to stand next to the bus and say "Thank you" whenever we got on or off the bus). They were surprised, but pleased.
The Kegon waterfall
The Kanaya hotel was pretty posh: not something you would expect on a budget tour (but I'm not complaining!). The room was very spacious and had a good view of the garden. There was an annex in Japanese style where the emperor himself had once stayed, but we were tucked away in the main building. We rested for a bit (wearing Yukata's!) and then went in search of food. Apparently by 19:00 everything had closed, which kind of sucked. The Lonely Planet spoke of a small place that had international appeal (judging by the many business cards and testimonials in diverse languages stuck onto the walls), but that supposedly closed at 19:00....
So imagine our surprise when it turned out it hadn't closed yet. We were welcomed by a grandmother, who turned out to be the proprietess of the place. She was assisted by one of her daughters and her granddaughter was playing around the place as well. There were two groups of Japanese eating there, and there was a third table free. The food was plenty and good (though they had ran out of Yaki-udon, but I was very pleased with the Yaki-soba as well), and grandmother made some smalltalk with the guests. One of the groups left, so that she could turn her attention more fully to us. She asked where we came from, and pointed to the plaque the Dutch ladies team of Tug-of-war for the World Games in 2000 had left behind. Then she asked whether we were on holiday, and I made the mistake of saying it was our honeymoon.
We were applauded, by both the staff of the restaurant as well as the other guests... They seemed to think it was a great idea of us to come there on holiday. She asked where we were going, and the crowd murmured approvingly when I replied we were going to visit Hakone, Tsumago and Kyoto -- I guess the Japanese would like to take a Tozai tour as well... ;)
The other group was about to leave, but not before they had snapped a picture. We had to pose as well (I don't know what they'll tell their friends when they show them that photo: "You know, there was a couple of Dutch people there on their honeymoon!" "Really? Great!"...). Then our dinner came to an end, and grandmother insisted on giving us a wedding present: a pair of cup and saucers. It was all wrapped up tightly so that it wouldn't break, and she had one of he daughters (the other had turned up) translate "Please, be happy!" It was almost embarassing, but very sweet... Of course, we had forgotten to bring one of the thank-you gifts with us to dinner (who could have expected something like that?).
Then, we went back to the hotel for a restful night of sleep.