Wednesday, 18 May 2011

Golden Week: Yokohama, Nikko and exploring Tochigi-ken

Since the big earthquake, tsunami and nuclear power plant incidents, tourists have been avoiding anywhere north of Tokyo like the plague. Perhaps it's the media's fault; their addiction to sensationalism overriding any pangs of guilt for causing unecessary panic. Perhaps it's down to the embassies advising against non-essential travel to anywhere north of the capital. Perhaps people are generally just keeping on the safe side, and don't know what to expect.
Well, I visited Yokohama, the second largest city in Japan, a few train stops before Tokyo (from Hamamatsu) and then I visited Nikko, a three hour train ride north of there. Neither were disaster zones, and even the "blackouts" didn't extend to more than a slightly inconvenient train schedule and a few escalators turned off. It seems that some places are making only a token effort to close down electricity, perhaps turning off one or two lights while most things go on as normal. Nikko is in Tochigi prefecture; the prefecture just next to (south-west of) Fukushima. Does this strike fear into your hearts? I'll tell you about it, and you can decide what you think.

Firstly, Jeff and I spent a day in Yokohama's Hikkeijima Sea Paradise. It's an aquarium...with rides! 4800円 buys you a day pass. What can I say? The rollercoaster was cool, although just long enough to start you feeling sick. Although it's built on an artifical island, there's a delightful city-beach a few steps away from where you get off the train. When I say city-beach, I mean a beach with skyscrapers directly behind it, as I see in pictures of Australia's coast. This is unusual for me, as most beaches in Wales are down small roads or tracks, and so all you can see behind the sand are sand dunes, beach huts or perhaps trees. 

City beach...

The aquarium itself is split into three sections. There's the lagoon, where you can molest sea creatures (sorry, touch dolphins and sit near sea-lions while posing). It looks a lot better in the video that they make you watch before going in than it does in reality, but hey. Part of this is the sight of the theme park's Curry and Seafood Restaurant across the dolphin bay... 

Hey there!

I'm pretty sure that the Japanese often see aquariums as nothing more than live food exhibitions. As we walked through the main aquarium building (5 floors of awesome sealife, with WHALE SHARKS in a big theatre at the top, where they have their hourly shows) I said to Jeff, "Let's count how many times they say 'oishii' (delicious)". Within two minutes, we honestly heard the word five or six times!
The main aquarium part is definitely the best. Behold!

And then, there's Dolphin Fantasy, where dolphins swim above your head for few metres. All I could think about was how little living space they had. All in all, it's another fun day, but way overpriced.

In the evening, we checked out China Town - the biggest one in Japan, or something. There was a shop where everything was panda-themed, including some pandas in compromising sexual positions painted onto sake cups. Obviously, we had to buy this. 

Of course, it isn't Chinatown... without Hello Kitty in panda skin

We also sauntered over to the bay, just so I could see this "famous" view - 

I didn't take this photo, though. When I tried, this is what happened:

...time for a better camera, I think!!

One thing I'll say for Yokohama (I didn't see much of it): The station has amazing food. There's a Bagel Bagel restaurant for a delicious lunch, and on the 6th floor we found a Vintage Vanguard restaurant. It served amazing mojitos and the most delicious, unhealthy, "real" gourmet burgers I've seen for months:

Ohhh yeah.


NIKKO! It's just beautiful. It's a small town, famous for housing Toshogu Shrine; the mausoleum of Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate (who ruled Japan for over 250 years). There are some famous monkey statues, and the temple is reportedly unique (and gaudy), but being Golden Week we didn't venture into the mile-long solid queue of cars. Instead, the spent the first day at a place I'd wanted to go to for a while - Edo Wonderland.
It advertises itself as a re-telling of the edo period, with ninja, samurai, geisha... I wouldn't go. It's 4800 for entry, and extra 500 every time you want to try throwing darts or ninja stars, and another 1000-5000 to dress up and walk around. The "experience" shows have an hour-long wait, and the "ninja extravaganza" we waited for was more like ninja interpretative dance. There are some waxworks of old scenes and a "ninja trick house" which reminds me of the 50p ghost house in Pwllheli.. that is to say, cheap and not at all scary. Still, here's the website (, and here are some photos:

They still had sakura!

Nyan-Mage, the creepy mascot of Edo-Mura


Me showing my ninja skills.
Actually, the best part was the slanted house. It's basically just a house built on a weird angle, so that your eyes tell you one way is up, but your sense of gravity tells you quite another. You'll be pulled towards the walls, and when you stand "straight" it will look very weird. It might make you feel drunk, or sick. 

Up the hill, towards what is marked on the map as nothing more than a big forest, we found a deserted Edo-like village. Was this the old Edo Mura? Or perhaps where they film samurai dramas? It was peaceful, abandoned, empty - unfortunately the rain was pouring down, so we didn't get a good look at it. Nor did I take photos... sorry.

We stayed at the beautiful Nikko Park Lodge, run by Ken, a friendly Japanese guy who lived in the USA for about twenty years (and so has awesome English). The atmosphere is cozy, clean, friendly and the food is fantastic (try the teriyaki chicken!). Here's the official website - Here are some of my photos of the lodge and Nikko in general:

The Park Lodge

The next day was waterfall exploration day! Here we have Kegon Falls, the most famous.... 

While it's definitely the biggest, to me it wasn't as impressive as the others, perhaps because of how narrow it was. It didn't help that we didn't see it in its full glory - you have to take an elevator down to the bottom, which costs 540円. Still, here's cheating... this is a picture nabbed off the internet of what it *could* look like.

Now, isn't that lovely.
The journey to the waterfall took a long time, perhaps because we drove up a curvy mountain, which lead to a ropeway. Once the two lanes merged into one at that point, it was plain sailing. I have never been more grateful for "20 questions". After Kegon, we drove to two other waterfalls. Ryuzu is beautiful, although the only way to see it seems to be by walking up a pretty long stairway. I'd recommend it, though. 

At the top of the Ryuzu stairs!

...and at the bottom again! There's a cafe here, looking out at this view.

The third waterfall was Yutaki. We parked at the top, by a lake surrounded by remnants of SNOW! Yes, snow, in May. We were definitely north. After exploring the lake (definitely an isolated spot, by the way!) we started walking down steps by the waterfall. That's where I stepped on a rock and twisted my ankle. Ouch. It still hurts now, which isn't the best sign. Instead of cotninuing downwards, I climbed back up and we drove down to a nice viewpoint. 

Duncan and Jenny discover SNOW!

Steven checks the authenticity of the snow.

Looking down Yutaki


Nice! Apparently you can see Buddha in the rocks behind the water. Look closely.. I think I see him!

The next day, we travelled north, to Jenny's new home near a place called Nasu. The day's itinerary was unfortunately not ideal for my ankle. Firstly, we travelled up to a mountain (Nasu yama) with a cable car. Nice views, but misty. 

Next, we went to a temple. There's a legend here about a naughty nine-tailed fox from China who turned into stone to escape capture, but was locked into that form forever by a powerful monk... or something like that. This story! His final curse was to release his sulphuric farts upon the neighbourhood for eternity, which is why the place smells strongly of rotten eggs. Below the temple are hundreds of jizu, these little statues. 

Sadness: this horse was knocked over in the earthquake.

Here lies the fox, now stone.

We finished the day with a beautiful onsen (hot spring). Unfortunately I have no idea how to find it, as I fell asleep in the car... but for 800円, down 263 steps (yes, I counted - damn ankle!), is an outdoor, mixed gender hot spring. Waterfalls, rocks, ice cold pools and wonderfully hot rocky enclosures. 
In case you're not familiar with "onsen" tradition, it's a time for famously "reserved" Japanese people to get naked with each other! Usually, onsen are separated by gender. To a British lady, bathing naked with strangers seems CRAZY, but you do get used to it. First, you shower until you're clean - by sitting on a bucket in a row of other naked ladies. Then, you sit in some very hot water, often scented and filled with minerals for the skin, letting your muscles relax. Usually, these are too hot to stand for very long, but they're a great place to bond, too! It's surprising how quickly it becomes completely un-weird to see your friends naked. Once you realise that little old ladies are walking around, proudly flashing their bits, you might feel more embarrassed to be covering up your bumpy bits. Of course, being foreign, you can expect some subtle stares in the direction of your chest, but it's OK. Now, mixed gender was a different matter - we three evil ladies wrapped towels around ourselves and submerged them in water, while the four boys proudly flashed us their wares. This means that everyone present saw my man naked, but hey. It was definitely...insightful. 

Of course, I didn't go around taking photographs. But from my changing space, this is what I could see! Amazing, eh?

 The way back to Hamamatsu was long and slow, as the blackouts meant a 3-hour wait in Atami. I welcomed the chance to see Atami, an old seaside resort near the Izu Peninsula (between Tokyo and Hamamatsu). There wasn't much to see or do there; most restaurants were closed (at 1pm?) but we managed to find a nice Chinese restaurant. We walked down the long, winding slopes to the beach, and saw this:

Well, I suppose the Tokyo city folk need their beaches, too. If you're looking for amazing beaches in Japan, though, I'd say save your money and go to Thailand. Although... Japan is home to the world's first Articial Sea Beach (click here for the link) - quite an interesting thing for, y'know, and island country to develop!

I feel I got off track, here, but all in all - Golden Week was fun. Tochigi prefecture is fine and dandy; the main suffering is that of the tourism industry, the people who rely on foreigners for their income. Many hostels and guest houses will lose money now that so many are afraid to venture anywhere north of Tokyo, but I wanted you to know that things do not seem damaged there at all. In fact, what better time to visit? You'll be able to avoid the usual crowds and have a little bit of beautiful Nikko to yourself. So go on; they could really do with your business right now. 


  1. Looks amazing Gwynnie! I'm so jealous! ;)

  2. The onsen sounds lovely, although I can't see John being happy flashing his meat and two veg to strangers if we ever did it :D