Temples, Shrines and Blizzards
On a whim, Max and I took a side trip to the small town of Nikko, 100 miles north of Tokyo. Halfway there our train split into segments and we ended up in the wrong car, travelling far north of our goal. A kindly train conductor saved us from an uncertain fate and we arrived in Nikko at 8pm, long after the tourist info center and buses had stopped running. It started to snow on us as we waited outside the station! Then our luck changed.
We hailed a cab and it took us to the "hostel" we'd booked, which was a cross between a Zen retreat and a Motel Six. Ultra new and clean inside, but with traditional Japanese architecture and rooms. For $40 per night per person, we had a private room with toilet. Since it was the off season and we're dirty foreigners, they gave us our own six-person family room with loft, easily the largest non-public room we've seen since we got here. Donning size 9 slippers and a yukata that barely reached my knees, I felt absurd but comfortable.
Notice that I mention a private toilet, but not a private bath. That's because the bath was in the traditional Japanese style – a huge public hot tub, with showers to wash yourself before entering. It's sex segregated, but otherwise, modesty is best left at the door. No clothes are allowed inside the baths. Max and I scared out the last two Japanese kids in the baths and sat enjoying the scalding hot, waist-deep mineral water for an hour while we watched the ever heavier snow fall outside. Overnight, it turned into a virtual blizzard and we awoke the next morning to a wintry dreamland. Deep snow drifts everywhere!
After another go at the baths, a filling Japanese breakfast and a brief stop in town to buy snow gear, we hiked through the snow to the historic Nikko temple area where some of Japan's most historically significant buildings are located. It was bitterly cold and the wind only made it worse; I had to use 5 layers of clothing to stay warm, and my hands and feet still got numb. There wasn't another soul in the place, though, and it was truly an unforgettable, even magical experience. I got plenty of pictures!