Friday, January 06, 2006

Nikko is Nippon

Sigh...vacation is over and it's back to work for me. I had a lovely week and a half and it all started in Nikko with Jenny sensei. Finished with our holiday parties and most of our packing (we've moved to Takahama), Jenny and I set off for the mountains of Nikko. It took us about 3 hours to get there but the view from the train was scenic and the seats were comfortable. I thought I had packed a light bag but looks can be deceiving. The thing felt like it weighed a ton and I was not looking forward to hiking up to the hotel with it. The town of Nikko is quaint and surrounded by mountain peaks and snow. SNOW! It finally felt like winter. The air was crisp and despite the people milling about, it felt so quiet and pure. As soon as we walked out of the station and we looked around, my eyes were immediately drawn to signs that read "coffee" and "beer." I guess that's all the advertising you really need. Funny how those simple words can get me motivated. We didn't stop for drinks though since we were looking forward to a soak in the hot springs (onsen) at the ryokan. Ryokans are traditional Japanese inns or hotels. We booked two nights plus dinner and breakfast at Hotel Kosho. A taxi took us to the hotel. It was a little run down but the staff was pleasant and our room was comfortable. It had traditonal tatami matting and we slept on futons. As soon as we checked into our room, Jenny and I put on our yukata robes (with nary a stitch underneath!) and headed down to the baths.

This was my first experience at an onsen. There are rules to be followed before setting foot in a Japanese bath. First, remove every stitch of clothing. Next, seat yourself on a little stool and rinse your body. Then, scrub every little (or big heh heh) part of yourself until you are clean....repeat a few more times. Rinse..and then you are ready for the bath. Hotel Kosho has an indoor bath and outdoor. There are women's and men's baths but no mingling between the two. Sinking into the hot water was amazing. I felt the stress from the last few weeks melt away. The outdoor bath was small but nice because we were surrounded by snow.

After onsen, we were ready for our traditional Japanese dinner. We were taken to our own private dining room where everything was laid out. What a spread! Sashimi, miso, smoked fish, some kind of delicious stew, rice, tempura, fresh strawberries and cream....and Nikko beer. Each piece of food had its own beautiful dish and none of it matched but went together so well. I was starving but I didn't want to ruin the layout. Oishi desu! Breakfast the next day wasn't as exciting for me however. I can experiment and eat just about anything for dinner but I like my eggs, toast, and coffee in the morning. Breakfast consisted of tea, rice, fish (of course), salad, and some unidentifiable squishy things. I didn't eat too much.

We spent our first full day exploring the shrines of Nikko. We saw the Shinkyo bridge which is one of the oldest drawbridges still remaining in Japan. Jenny and I also went shrine hopping. Among my favorites were the Toshogu shrine, famous for the "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" monkey carvings and the mausoleum for the first shogun, Tokugawa, and the Rinnoji Shrine which houses the 3 buddhas. They were magnificent! So large and intricate, I felt like I was in the presense of gods. During our wanderings, it began to snow. The flakes were big and floated to the ground with barely any wind. It was magical.

Back in town, Jenny and I checked out some of the shops. We tried on some kimonos and I had a cup of coffee at a little cafe. I was the only customer and the owner made me little origami swans out of cigarette box foil. She said they were for luck. We were so tired that we really looked forward to our nighttime onsen session and dinner #2. Again, I was very impressed. We missed out on the waterfalls of Nikko but not for lack of trying. It was a little difficult to read the signs and we were tired from hiking up and down shrine steps anyway.

Before we left Nikko, we shopped around for mementos. Jenny bought some local pottery and I bought sake glasses. I reccommend checking out Nikko if you ever get the chance to visit Japan. The locals are very friendly to foreigners and the scenery is unforgettable. Geez, I sound like a tour guide.

The holidays were a little lonely without family and friends. I'm glad I had Jenny here to keep me company. I played a show on the 28th at the Pink Cow in Shibuya and met some really nice, and attractive, Japanese boys. Don't worry mom...I'm not getting any ideas. New Years was a night of boozing and dancing. We went back to the Pink Cow for a disco party but, it turns out, that the disco party fell through and we ended up doing a Vienna waltz with a bunch of strangers from all over the globe. Very interesting. I went to a big shrine in Asakusa with my friends Tsuji and Hayato. We pulled our fortunes out of a box and I drew daikichi, "the best fortune." Hayato also got the best one and was so thrilled that he treated us to lunch. Tsuji's was the second best so we were all very happy. We had yakiniku (grilled meat and veggies). It was my first time eating raw egg. I was hesitant at first but it was delicious. The boys wanted to continue my Japanese dining lesson so we went for soba (buckwheat noodles) afterwards where we met an older couple. They generously shared their sake with us (a little too generously I think). The conversation was all in Japanese but I understood bits and pieces. Tsuji and Hayato explained that the woman was a genuine Tokyoite from Asakusa. She was so upbeat and told me I was very intelligent. I don't know what gave her that idea! Must have been the sake.

So that was my vacation in a nutshell. Can't wait for the next one.