Places to go in the fall – Nikko

I may be biased since I lived in Tochigi and Nikko is definitely the best to see in the entire prefecture, but Nikko is kind of a year-round place. I’ve ben there every season, and it’s good in every season. Despite that, the association is probably strongest for the fall. Being at a high elevation, the leaves turn more quickly than in other areas and the landscape lends itself to an autumnal feel.

The Area Near Nikko Station

For simplicity’s sake, let’s categorize the trip into three choices: near the station, up the mountain, and the greater area.

For the past near the station we have Toshogu shrine. Toshogu shrine is one of the largest shrines in Kanto, and is a possible walk from the station if you think you can handle it. I’ve covered I. Pretty extensively in a previous post and there are many good food places nearby and on the road that leads there.

The bridge in front of Toshogu

The lanterns in Toshogu

The real draw of the season would definitely be what lies beyond the shrine. Nikko does generally refer to a cluster of mountains that were mostly created from volcanic explosions well before humanity from where Chuzenji lake now stands. Following the main road would bring up to the lake area where the leaves will change first and there’s much more nature to see. While a hike is entirely possible I’d recommend taking the bus which will likely leave you off at a terminal near Kegon Falls.

Near the bus terminal

I had a boss who said Kegon Falls is nothing compared to Niagara Falls (he was Japanese). This is true comparing size but I’d much prefer the beauty surrounding Kegon, it also gives a feeling of being enclosed in a secret place that I very much enjoy.

Kegon falls

From there, Chuzenji lake is easily walkable and the road has many shops and restaurants to stop by, if it happens to be a bit warm you can always take a paddle boat out onto the lake which is much larger than it looks.

The mountains from Chuzenji lake

Don’t feel bad if you didn’t drive or don’t have the time or will to take another bus, but I would say that missing the further area due to disinterest or laziness would be a huge mistake. If you continue in the direction of the road you would take to get to Chuzenji Lake you can reach Okunikko, the true hot spring area of Nikko.

The lake at Okunikko

On the way to Okunikko there are two other noteworthy spots, which will make a car feel more useful, in order you will come up to Ryuzu no Taki (Ryuzu Rapids) (竜頭の滝) which boasts some beautiful nature and a cafe to enjoy it from.

Ryuzu rapids

Amazake from a cafe at Ryuzu

Past that is Kotoku farm which would be a 20min walk off the main road if you happen to be taking a bus where you can eat some quality food and even has their own onsen (though I haven’t been). You can get Jingisukan which is a term for Japanese style Mongolian BBQ.

Jingisukan (Genghis Khan) at Kotoku Corral

Finally there is Okunikko with many hotels, skiing (if it happens to be that cold), their own lake, and a public onsen. The whole place reeks of sulfur which to me is a general rule for hot springs, it just doesn’t feel right otherwise. Even further beyond there are endless hiking paths with nature that ranges from forest to wasteland. But I think if you were able to make it this far, you can be proud of yourself and say you definitely saw Nikko.

The onsen in Okunikko

After the Quake

It’s been two years now, and it’s only been getting crazier to think about the amount of time since the earthquake as time goes on. I didn’t really write much about the earthquake the month after it happened because after the initial shock I didn’t know how much it would change me or my life. I’ve only just started getting used to buildings rumbling due to large trucks or people in my current apartment building stomping down the halls. This is because the day of the earthquake my boss told me that there should be a large aftershock that usually coincides with a decrease in seismic activity. He expected it to happen after a day, but even now I’m still not sure if it ever happened.

Not exactly a warzone, but it is how the apartment looked after.

You can see my recount on this blog, but before March 11th, all of the earthquakes, including a 7.2 two days before, didn’t feel so intense or violent. In contrast, even the smallest aftershocks after felt violent and left us waiting for it to develop into a larger earthquake. I had foolishly imagined that earthquakes could be predicted hours or even days before happening, even though the time between the horrible earthquake alert cellphone alarms and the actual quake hitting were a few seconds. It became completely natural, only seeming strange when we returned from west Japan or for the few rare jolts (including one I didn’t feel but saw because it only lasted for the second I was stepping off of a train). I also imagined that there could be some kind of localized earthquake and that the effects of earthquakes couldn’t possibly be far-reaching.

That's everything from our bathroom.

Of course, that was wrong. As everyone knows, there was a bit of a fiasco following the earthquake, not due to the tsunami or quake damage, but due to the threat of radiation – a threat that is very real, but was reinterpreted in the worst possible ways. The days following the earthquake were pretty horrible, especially that Monday. I spent almost all of my time educating myself on radiation and how it affects the human body, which elements can and can’t travel far and how long they will last. With all of this information, I figured that I was far enough away (coming about 125-150 miles away), but was freaked out when the US government extended the exclusion zone to 80 miles. That was their estimation for the worst possible circumstances, which I can agree with, but it being the worst possible situation was never mentioned, and we imagined that there would still be people who would think to leave the whole country. In the end, being smart seemed to be enough for many to keep safe, and the media hype died down along with the memory of tourists.

Most of the buildings that had damage were already abandoned.

The government provided people with the information needed, the radiation level readings, from powerful detectors that operated without interference from other sources. However, the attitude was that the information was printed and that was enough. People weren’t educated, so complaints ranged from why the numbers weren’t zero to why ground readings were higher. These are easy explanations: natural radiation, radiation detectors on the ground give a wide range of readings and need a lot of time to actually calculate, and the ground level has buildings with stone that may emit radiation or pollution. It’s a fair argument to say that not enough thought was put in to getting people to figure out for themselves what is safe or not.

As well as just plain old buildings.

My trips to the Hiroshima and Nagasaki A-Bomb Museums were more emotional than usual, because I was able to experience a small fraction of that fear. I can’t forget the last part of the museum in Nagasaki and its accounts from people who lived near nuclear testing sites from all around the world, including Nevada, recounting how their lives were changed by something so ridiculous as testing atomic bombs. Whether we like it or not, we’ve been living in a world still ripe with man-made radiation. However, that also doesn’t mean Fukushima was a hiccup and doesn’t deserve to live on in infamy and serve as an example of corporate negligence. There are real victims: the people of Fukushima who aren’t able to go back to their homes because of this contamination. Just because many citizens of Tokyo won’t have their lives cut short by this doesn’t mean that no one will. There are real victims, some of whom moved to cities that are still too close for comfort in my mind (like Koriyama) and will probably never be able to live their normal lives again because even after the threat of airborne radiation subsides, the threat of contaminated land and water in that area will continue. This did affect a large part of the country and population, and will continue on.

Most people had to only fix their stone walls and the siding in their houses, or possibly roofs.

The earthquake changed me; the time after the earthquake is when I truly started to live my life in Japan. It is one of the largest changes in my life that came from living in Japan, and yet compared to the people who were truly affected by it, I’m just a casual observer.

I still love Pachinko

Spoiler Alert: No, I don’t.

Before getting to the meat of this post, as I’m sure you could’ve imagined, I don’t have any other sequential events to write about and am for the time being in New York without any vacations out in sight. I was hoping to write more about what I was missing, but… work.

Some of you may recall my hobby of finding incredibly depressing buildings and photographing them, and how this entire idea must have been invented the first time someone saw a closed-down (or even open) Pachinko Parlor. To recap, Pachinko is a game that relies on 5% more skill than slot machines and is used to sate any gambling needs (even though you’re normally not given monetary prizes). I say that it may seem fleeting because there were only two posts, but trust me there was a lot of searching going on. This is what I have to show for that:

This is definitely on the classier or modern side since this was right near Oyama station.

On this semi-depressing street (the izakaya kills that buzz a bit) is one of the most awesomely decorated, thankfully I got a closer shot.

That’s right, it has a large eagle on it, along with the white double staircase. If there were no Japanese I would imagine it would come from a place like Asbury Park.

Are there more desolate places than Oyama? OF COURSE. This is from the “city” of Moka, which has a single car, diesel powered train line to reach it from an already smaller train line.

The fact that it was called Las Vegas was just an added bonus.

Finally, a simply amazing spot that I can’t hope to capture in one single photo. Across from this is a slot-house, down the street is an industrial zone, a bowling alley, an abandoned slot house and behind it is a love hotel (the last three of which I intend to post pictures of soon). Finally, after the earthquake, when there were controlled blackouts all over Japan and power conservation efforts, I knew the controlled blackout time period came to an end (pretty much a year ago) when I saw this sign on at night.

The Seat of Tokyo

The Imperial palace in Tokyo was built on the grounds of Edo Castle, the former seat of the bakufu. The Imperial family was moved to Edo, renaming it Tokyo and Edo Castle’s keep was lost shortly after.

Tokyo’s Imperial palace is one of few actual sights to see in Tokyo but is actually incredibly insubstantial. The tour consists of the exterior of government buildings, many of which seem barely dated and have very little character. This is indeed where the sovereign of Japan reigns and has done so, nominally of course, since the late 1800s yet there is no sense of history. The only worthwhile parts were what was left of Edo Castle along the way, and a beautiful Meiji-era style bridge that we couldn’t walk over.


All in all the real reason for the LONG wait between posts is that I realized just how insubstantial this really is. This is a sight of Tokyo that I wouldn’t recommend to anyone going there for less than a month because there are far more interesting things to see or places to go. Going to border neighborhoods such as Shibamata and Setagaya have given a way bigger sense of what kind of place Tokyo is and was. However, it is free, so if you’ll be in Japan for a long time, as long as I was, there’s nothing outright bad about the experience. But I would recommend traveling outside of the city for a while instead.

Yakushima – The Spiritual Forest

Before anything, if you’re planning on going here you need to plan to stay over at least 1 night on the island. Secondly, this island is full of serious and ridiculous hiking trails so you really need to be ready. We learned these two things the hard way, by being vastly unprepared. Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke was supposed to have been set on the island of Yakushima, and just setting foot on the island makes it no surprise. Yakushima is a huge island that is over 80% forestland from thousands of years ago. In old Japanese beliefs (what we now call Shinto) forests and places of great nature are considered holy where gods or spirits would dwell as opposed to places of worship.

The main attraction of Yakushima is Jomon Sugi, a 7000 year old cedar tree, and to get to this tree the bus that will take you close to its trail leaves at about 4 am. Yet the entire island is full of old nature, even to widely varying degrees, and while most is forest land, the beaches are also regarded as being amazingly beautiful. Because of the time we arrived, we only had the choice of seeing the forestland around Yayoi Sugi, a relatively younger cedar tree.


For those outside of Japan, you’ve probably heard about constant small eruptions occurring somewhere in Japan. Most likely, you’re hearing about Sakurajima. Sakurajima literally means Sakura (Cherry Blossom) Island and was actually once an island before its last large eruption in 1914. Yes, that’s right! The lava changed the island into a peninsula.

Because volcanic ash makes for very fertile land, the island is split between one side that is incredibly good for farming and normally lush and another side that looks like it was used for the set of a Jurassic Park movie, in other words almost pre-historic. Over the course of the volcano’s existence, it’s had three peaks, only the lowest of which is active. This peak has near-constant eruptions, making ash-fall a common occurrence. In the summer this ash will go over the Satsuma peninsula, which holds Kagoshima city, and in winter the ash goes in the opposite direction, Osumi peninsula on the east side.

Sangen-en, The Shimazu Estate

The Shimazu family had controlled southwestern Kyushu, specifically the province of Satsuma, since the time of the first shogun and can allegedly trace their ancestry back even further. Being the ruling family of Satsuma, they enjoyed quite a reap of benefits after the establishment of the Meiji government being one of the main three loyalists and possibly the most wealthy and advanced. The Shimazu family still exists and has businesses that are very prominent in Kagoshima (what was once the main part of Satsuma). Sangen-en is their amazing estate which was used from the late 1600s until the late 1800s and has been preserved in the latter form.

The estate is well known for it’s garden, and was built at the bay to use the water and sakurajima as a part of its scenery. As well as the garden, there is also the remain of one of Japan’s first reverberatory furnaces, which aided in building up a modern military.

On The Hills of Shiroyama

Before I really knew enough kanji, I thought Shiroyama meant white mountain, it doesn’t. Shiroyama, plainly means Castle Mountain, in this case, the mountain Kagoshima’s castle was built near.

Shiroyama is famous for being the final resting place of Saigo Takamori. As I mentioned in my post about Kumamoto Castle, he and his men failed to take the castle, and ultimately returned to Shiroyama. By this time, the odds for Saigo and his forces were incredibly skewed, and despite being told to surrender multiple times they decided to fight against it. As the legend goes, Saigo, still in his Imperial (“western”) uniform, was shot with a bullet that shattered his hip bone. After this, he assumed the open legged, “composed” position that all samurai would take, before plunging his short sword into and across his abdomen. One of the last of his men cut and took his head, hiding it from the Meiji army.

The Volcano Above the Clouds (火山の上の雲)

Mt. Aso is a group of volcanic mountains with an active peak at Mt. Naka. It is apparently one of the most beautiful views in Japan and one of few chances in a lifetime for one to actually stand next to the volcanic crater. Of course, this is dependent on wind patterns and the volcanic smoke which can be deadly. All of this is closely monitored and actually even reported online, but to warn ahead of time, if you go on a cloudy day, you’re in for some headaches.

To get to Aso involves an interesting train ride from Kumamoto (or just take a bus), in which the train will need to back up a mountain and then continue onwards, making a z shape. The surrounding area is beautiful and it has quite a few onsen. However, we wanted to be ambitious and see if despite the clouds, we could make it to the peak. At the tourist center we were told the ropeway was running, at the bus station we were told it wasn’t but that we could walk up from the bus stop. Sadly these were both wrong and we waited around at the tourist center hoping for the weather to pass, which it never did. We were able to see a glimpse of the amazing landscape, however.

All in all it’s a place that is top on my list of where to return to in Japan, along with Yakushima (oops, gave that one away) but was still rewarding even without being at the crater. It made the amazing landscape more mysterious, and we were able to salvage the day by going to a great onsen (Yume no Yu) and eating horse curry. And yes, the horse curry was delicious and not gamey.