On our second day in Nikko, we did very little. We slept for a bit (no 8 AM pick-up today!), ate breakfast at the hotel, which was served on the second floor veranda with a nice view of the surroundings. We checked out and took the bus up towards lake Chuzenji.
Now, in various travel books on Japan, it is stated that taking the bus is not to be recommended if you don't speak Japanese. So it was with a bit of hesitation that we got on the bus to Akichidaira, but we figured we could get past any misunderstandings that might arise during the trip. We got a ticket stub which said "2", and sat down nervously. It turned out that the Japanese bus system is, in fact, easier than the Dutch system. For those of you who don't know, all of the Netherlands has been divided into public transport 'zones'. When you get on the bus, you have to use your strippenkaart and stamp off one more than the number of zones you're going to travel in. Sound complicated? That's because it is.
For example, most of Nijmegen is one zone. If you, say, wanted to get to the university from the station, you'd stay in that one zone, so you'd have to stamp off two strippen. Dukenburg is another zone, so if you want to get to my place from the station, you'd have to stamp off three strippen. That wouldn't be so bad, but you'd have to know where you are going (which bus stop you have to get off), and how many zones that was, all in advance. You can ask the driver, but they don't always know, and it's a lot of hassle.
But in Japan, what simplicity! You take a ticket stub which states the number of the stop you got on the bus. In the front of the bus is a large electronic sign board. For each stop, the fare upto that point is displayed under the number of your stop. When you leave the bus (you get off in the front of the bus) you pay the driver the fare, and that's it. Anyone can understand it, and it works like a charm.
We went up to Aikechidaira via the infamous road with all the hairpin turns. Even though we didn't have the best driver in Tokyo behind the wheel, I had no complaints about the way the local busdriver handled his vehicle. There was a tight spot where some road worker had parked his lorry in one of the curves (smart move, duh!) but we got past that without too many problems (basically, the bus driver just waited until the lorry had been moved away).
At Akechidaira there is a cable car ("rope car" in Engrish) takes you to the top of a hill, from where you have a good view of the surrounding area. We were stacked into a small car with a few Japanese people (there have been few times I have felt more big and awkward...) and taken to the top at a leisurely pace. And indeed, the view was pretty good. We could clearly see the lava flow that had blocked off the river, and had the Kegon fall in full view, with the lake beyond. This all was flanked by mountains and hills, all overgrown with lush trees. A cool wind blew, making it the perfect spot to just relax for a bit.
View of the Kegon Falls from Akechidaira
When we went back, the guy who checked our tickets (it is possible to get a single trip ticket and hike down) ripped the return strip from our tickets. So far, so good, but when we wanted to get into the car, he started mumbling something about 'tickets'. Seems like he couldn't even remember what he had done 2 minutes ago. I decided it was his problem, mumbled something in English in return which he couldn't understand. He must have seen the error of his ways, or simply decided it wasn't worth his time to argue with someone who couldn't understand him, so we got onto the car unhindered.
We got the bus up to the lake, but we had to wait for a long time since it was running late, for some inexplicable reason. Seems like public transport in the country-side is a problem everywhere... We got off the bus, put our extra luggage in a coin locker at the bus station and wandered over to the lake. I know I've written before that it is a tourist trap, but it bears repeating: it is a tourist trap, no two ways about it. We simply walked on the sidewalk, and a lot of people working for restaurants tried to talk us into having lunch at their place. We even saw a few people waving at cars, directing them into the parking lot of their restaurant, but I didn't see any car falling for it. I can't imagine doing such unfulfilling work, but apparently people make a living out of it here.
Originally, we had planned on getting some onigiri (rice balls) at a convenience store to eat at the water front, but we didn't encounter any. In the end, we just went inside a restaurant and ordered some noodle soup. Afterwards, we strolled along the water front and generally didn't do a thing. It felt good to just relax for a bit, after all the guided tours and many hours of pounding the pavements of Tokyo and Kamakura. We did find out why there's a lake: we found the dam that kep the water in the lake! How phony!
The secret of Lake Chuzenji exposed!
We went back by bus (taking the road down, the one with the 28 hairpins) and got off at the hotel. We didn't have any business at the hotel anymore, but we wanted to drop off a thank-you present at the place we had dinner the day before. I mean, grandma gave us a nice present, the least we could do was to return the favour, right? We did, and she seemed very pleased (though I think the two tourists who were there at the time were laughing at us). We said our goodbyes and walked to the train station.
We had reserved seats on the train to Tokyo. It seems there are more than one company operating railroads (which might be a good idea), but those railroads don't connect to each other. This is a bit of a nuisance: if you want to get to Tokyo from Nikko, you have to travel with a certain company. The only station that company frequents is Asukasa, which is a long way from the hotel. You can't just simply transfer and go to a station closer by, because those raillines are operated by a different company...
On the train, they served bentos, but we had to go to another car. I didn't feel hungry or adventurous enough and neither did Ingeborg. We arrived at Asukasa station without any problems and took the subway to the station nearest to the hotel. When we left the station, we saw three non-asian girls wrestling with three large pieces of luggage. I helped them out with hauling the suitcases up the staircase (for which they were very grateful). Turned out they were Canadian, and they were also staying in the Asia Center of Japan, so we showed them the way. On the way to the hotel, we told them about the convenient convenience stores located close to the hotel, what to see (Asukasa Kannon for the carnival-like atmosphere, Meiji Shrine for the serenity) and where to eat. It sounded like we had been in Tokyo for weeks instead of days...
I proposed to Ingeborg that we should take them out for dinner, but in the end, we decided against it: we're not their tour guides, and they should be able to take care of themselves. We checked the Lonely Planet guide for a ramen place in Akasaka, near the hotel, but we forgot to take it with us when we went out. We couldn't find the place, so we went to the little street which we had passed through when we went to Yakitori Luis earlier. I selected a small ramen place: it looked awful (low tables, bare light strips) but the staff was pretty relaxed and was happy to help us with the menu. There were a lot of Japanese people popping in for dinner (some more drunk than others). It turned out that Ingeborg had selected a won-ton ramen, while mine was a pork ramen. A good meal was had by all, after which we returned to the hotel.
Originally, I had planned to do some washing (there are coin-operated washing machines in the hotel), but I thought it was too late for that. Instead, we got a large can of beer from a vending machine (pop quiz: estimate how long a vending machine containing beer would go unmolested in the Netherlands) and watched television, drinking beer and eating strawberry pocky. Sounds like a strange combination (it probably is) but it tasted pretty OK.