"Never say magnificent until you've seen Nikko" goes an old Japanese proverb. This ancient treasure, secluded away in the mountains of central Honshu, was long a favorite weekend destination for American servicemen stationed in and around Tokyo. Winter was the best time to visit, as snow added so much to the atmosphere and allowed for good skiing. I went there with some army buddies from ASAPAC at Oji Camp and later JCRC at North Camp Drake, several times during 1958 and 59, and even returned in the summer of 1964 as a civilian. It was that marvelous a place.
The first trip was in February 1958. Joining me were my co-worker Jim Webb and another guy whose name I've forgotten. We were with the Personnel Processing Detachment, Headquarters US Army Security Agency Pacific, Tokyo, Japan. It was a two-hour ride by train from Asakusa station in Tokyo. On arrival in the village of Nikko, we headed straight for a Japanese-style inn (Ryokan) that Jim knew about, and where we spent two nights. That's me on the right, shivering in the cold as I was about to enter the inn's steaming hot traditional bath, where we drank hot sake while immersed in the deep tub.
Once settled, we headed up the main street , passing the Sacred Bridge that separates the village from the world-famous Toshogu Shrine, an immense complex of temples built on steep hills and surrounded by dense forest on the edge of the enormous Nikko National Park.
The Sacred Bridge (photo, left) supposedly marks the spot where a priest named Shodo crossed the Daiya River astride two huge serpents on his way to the mountains beyond. What a way to travel! By the way, ordinary mortals are not allowed to cross this sacred span.
From here we climbed up through minor temple areas to the big one, the Toshugu Shrine, built in 1636 in honor of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The view below is of the grand entrance, the Niomon Gate built in 1653 in memory of Iyemitsu, the third generation of the shogunate.
The many splendid buildings here are a mixture of both Buddhist and Shinto architecture, harmoniously representing the two religions of Japan.
The structures are covered with ornate carvings, such as that scary guy above. The most famous of these depict three monkeys doing their "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" bit.
After visiting the shrines we would take a tram up into the mountains, followed by a funicular and finally a cable car (photo, right) to an overlook from which you could see Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji. A return to the road, then a bus over the thrilling Irohazaka Drive to Lake Chuzenji. This road is incredibly steep and has numerous hairpin turns — better to be in a bus than to attempt driving it.
Our destination on the shores of Lake Chuzenji was the Nikko Kanko Hotel, which catered to American servicemen and offered a wide range of activities at reasonable cost. The next year, February 1959, I stayed there for a few days with two friends from an ASA field station in Kyushu. We had planned on skiing, but the snow was not suitable, so we ice skated on their pond, played Go, ate and drank. Good times.
Here's a view of the lake from a 1958 visit. The two guys were stationed with me at Oji; the nearer one is Jim Webb, but I've forgotten the name of the other one. On this visit we returned to our inn on the main street of Nikko village. Going past a hardware shop there I spotted a cast aluminum hibachi of just the right size. These are used to contain a charcoal fire for cooking or heating, but are usually made of ceramic and much to heavy to carry home. This one was just right, so I bought it and mailed it back to America. It now serves as a wastebasket in my bedroom.
The last evening on this first trip was spent in a local bar where hardly anyone spoke English, even poorly, but they had plenty of tasty Asahi Biru (Rising Sun Beer) on tap. Then it was back to Tokyo and work.
Here's a neat diagram of the whole trip, from a hotel folder circa 1958.
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