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Great Escapes Winter Hike in Nikko National Park
(Entered Feb. 14, 2010)
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Nikko is perhaps THE most popular weekend or daytrip destination for Tokyoites, with only Hakone and Kamakura being able to rival it in popularity. The main draw of Nikko is Toshogu Shrine, a beautifully constructed complex where people go to bathe in the presence of one of the greatest daimyo in history, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who is entombed there. Traditional Japanese architecture surrounded by nature definitely makes an impressive visual combination, but this wasn't my reason for going. I went to Nikko with the express purpose of getting away from it all, something I find I have to do more and more when living in the megalopolis of Tokyo. While the crowds descended on Toshogu Shrine, I headed directly to the outskirts, the area around lake Chuzenji and Yunoko, for some winter hiking.

nikko toshogu shrine winter

This is my third time visiting Nikko, but pictures and documentation of the two previous times are minimal, and embarrasing at best. One of my goals in going again was to do it some photographic justice.
My first stop was Kegon Falls, (the above picture of Toshogu Shrine was taken at the end of my trip) a heavily touristed spot in its own right, and the place where people with extra time go after seeing Toshogu. I hung around for a few minutes at the falls, but viewing conditions were pretty hazy, and I had yet to get the hang of taking photographs in snowy conditions.

nikko kegon falls

A couple of Japanese macaques hung out with the crowds for a bit before decending down the hills to escape the paparazzi.

nikko kegon monkey macaque

And I wasn't long in heading off either in search of solitude.
According to the little map that I picked up, there are numerous hiking trails covering Nikko National Park, but you wouldn't know it in the winter. The trails are covered in snow drifts of various depths, and if it wasn't for the fact that other people had left footprints, I probably wouldn't have tried to hike them.

nikko chuzenji lake winter

Even with the snow packed down a bit by past hikers, slogging through it wasn't easy. Depending on the snow's depth I would sometimes start potholling (a leg suddenly falling through the snow right up to my butt) which fills your boots and pants with snow and is extremely draining when it happens over and over. No complaints though, the clean air and beautiful scenery around Lake Chuzenji (above and below photos) more than made up for it, plus living in Tokyo for years has made me miss both snow and (real) winter, it was great to finally be out in it again. It was cold yes, but the effort of hiking through deep snow is a sure way to stay warm.

nikko chuzenji lake winter

I had booked a hotel for a night in Yumoto Onsen, about 8 hours away on foot from Kegon Falls, and since I only started my hike around noon I knew I wouldn't be able to make it the whole way before dark. So around 4:30 I veered off to the main road and took a bus the rest of the way, intending to hike the remaining half of the trail tomorrow.
It snowed off and on most of the day, and the skies were generally grey and hazy, not ideal photography conditions, but luckily the sun came out for a brief period around 3:30 so I could get the below shot.

nikko forest hike winter

With the setting sun, temperatures dropped quickly. I hadn't intended to go outside again after getting to my hotel, but changed my mind when I looked out and saw the skies had cleared up. The shot below was taken with a 45 second (approximate, used the bulb setting) exposure. I tried longer exposures of more than a minute but surprisingly, the earth spins enough in one minute to give the stars a drawn out look. Even in this shot the stars look a bit 'long'. After about an hour of wandering around the town with camera and tripod in hand, shooting here and there, I went back inside to get some sleep.

nikko winter night sky stars

It was snowing again the next morning, but I resolved to hike the remaining half of the trail that I missed the first day.
Unlike Lake Chuzenji, Lake Yunoko (below) was completely frozen over except for this small, duck filled section here.

nikko yunoko lake ducks winter

The trails around the west side of Lake Yunoko were completely covered by massive drifts, and if it wasn't for the fact that they were already marked out by skiiers and snowshoers who had left earlier than me, I would've left them alone. There were points where you had to cross over narrow sections only a few footsteps wide, with nothing to support you but snow, and only a few twigs to hold on to. I wondered to myself who would be unlucky enough to have it all give way under them to slide a very ungraceful, 20 or so treefilled meters down to the lakeside. Me perhaps? Thankfully no. I did pothole badly a couple of times, but only a couple. I'd learned by now how to avoid doing it by taking shorter, more careful steps. Showshoes would've been a help, true, but I ended up getting by fine without them.

nikko yunoko tough trail winter

At one point the trail went right out onto the lake. I followed a bit gingerly, hoping the people before me knew what they were doing. It goes without saying that potholling here would've been a very bad thing. I made it across though, and managed to stay dry.
On the far shore (below picture) you might be able to make out a small building (a boathouse). My hotel, and starting point, is just to its left, hidden in the trees.

nikko yunoko frozen lake

It was a Saturday, so I didn't have the peace and tranquility of yesterday's hike. Twice I passed huge groups of hikers, one time a group of almost 20 hikers passed me on the narrow trail while I waited patiently for them to go by, konnichiwas flying around like crazy. Another time I passed a different group of maybe 15, all sitting around cooking with their camp stoves, smoking (of course), and making a racket that would've done Shinjuku proud. Though generally (and luckily) crowds were the exception, not the rule, and 90% of my day was just me and the occasional bird. Sometimes it was so silent that I stopped just to marvel at what nothing sounds like. A rare treat.

nikko senjogahara moor winter

The main viewing point of the whole hike for most people is Senjogahara moor (above picture), a flat expanse of wetlands similar to the nearby, Oze National Park, which I visited in autumn. Of course there's not much to see in winter except snow and some shrubs, but still beautiful all the same. Maybe it has to do partly with the fact that it's so unusual to see any flat part of Japan that is still in its natural state.
After about 4 hours I reached the same spot where I ended up at yesterday, and since it was getting late in the afternoon, I caught the bus heading to Nikko station in order to have enough daylight to look around Toshogu Shrine for a while.

nikko winter river

I considered just heading home after my hike, but I felt bad not paying at least lip service to Nikko's number 1 attraction. In the end I was glad I did. Toshogu shrine was packed of course, but it was somewhat of a relief after days of snow and bare trees, to be able to photograph something that actually had colour.

nikko toshogu shrine winter

I walked around the complex for a bit, but decided not to pay the exorbitant 1300 yen to enter the shrine proper. I remember from previous visits that what you can see from the outside of the shrine is just as nice, if not better than what you can see on the inside.
And with that, I walked the rest of the way to Nikko Station, had a quick lunch, then hopped on a train home. All in all a very relaxing time away from the madness of Tokyo. I'm not sure how the crowds would be on the hiking trails in the summer or fall, perhaps someone out there knows? However if you miss winter and need to get away, but only have a short time to escape, Nikko may be the closest you'll get to perfect.

nikko map



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