Nikko Tour

We decided to reprint the entire account of the Nikko tour [originally published in V. 2, n. 9/2], of which the honorably mentioned haibun [see v. 3, no. 4 below] forms the second part.  Our haiku poet-in-residence had reworked the original haibun, improving on them we hope, so what is below will be slightly different.   We also discovered after publishing the original account that November 25, the day the Grand Tour set out on its journey to Nikko, is the anniversary of Basho’s death, which in haiku circles is associated with the seasonal phenomenon of wintry rain.

* * * * * *

[The following article originally appeared in slightly different form in Tokyo Tree, Vol. 2, No. 9/2, June 13, 2009.]   Travel Diary:  Nikko. We’ve mentioned in a previous issue the 17th century haiku poet Basho.  He is also famous for his travelogues, in which poetic essays describing his experiences on the road, called haibun, are interspersed with haiku expressing the same or related experience in pithier terms.  Here is an example, excerpted from Basho’s The Records of a Travel-worn Satchel (translated by Nobuyuki Yuasa in The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches, Harmondsworth, England:  Penguin Books, 1966, p. 81).

I threw away quite a number of things, for I believed in travelling light.  There were certain things, however, I had to carry on my back–such as a raincoat, an overcoat, an inkstone, a brush, writing paper, medicine, a lunch basket–and these constituted quite a load for me.  I made such slow progress that I felt deeply depressed as I walked along with faltering steps, giving as much power as I could to my trembling knees.

Tired of walking

I put up at an inn,

Embraced comfortably

By wisteria flowers.

Inspired by Basho, we have written (or, to put it more accurately, attempted to write) the Nikko segment of the Grand Tour Diary in haibun form.

Nikko Tour 1:  “Following in the Master’s Footsteps…”

November 25:  Departing Asakusa Station under cloudy skies, our train sweeps northward to the Prefecture of Tochigi, passing snow-capped Tsukuba to our east, and after an easy transfer at Shimoimaichi Station, brings us to our destination, Nikko.  We expect to find it full of fellow travelers.  Is it because the threat of rain hangs in the clouds above us, and a nip is in the air, or had perchance the latest travel magazine recommended somewhere else?  For on this day, there seems to be no one here but us.

We leave the station and head up Rte. 119 toward the Kanaya Hotel, dragging our luggage behind us.  Had not the guidebooks said the hotel was but a 15-minute walk from here?

Up the hill we trudge

and trudge, taking not fifteen

but forty minutes.


Tired of walking, we come at last to the entrance to our hotel.  Before us rises a steep cobbled drive.  Encouraging each other, we struggle onward and upward to the courtyard of the grand old hotel.  A kindly concierge rushes out to welcome us, despite our bedraggled appearance, and shows us to our room in the Annex.  Its view of the garden scattered with red maple leaves, its nostalgic decor, its up-to-date bathroom with high-tech toilet seat, all embrace us comfortably.

But outside beckons, so we set out to explore.  Behind the hotel we find the entrance to a trail up Daikoku Mountain.  To aid our trembling knees, we help ourselves to bamboo walking sticks decorated with bells, and thus equipped for the steep climb, ascend the wooded hill.   We pause to rest and worship in front of a small shrine, and descend the other side, where we come upon an outdoor swimming pool and skating rink, neither one in use.

On the surface

of a deserted pool only

a tree’s reflection


We return to the hotel, having met no one on our walk but the various gods and spirits of Daikoku Mountain.

Nikko Tour 2:  “After a Night of Cold Rain”

A cold rain falls all night in Nikko, but we are fast asleep in our enveloping room at the Kanaya Hotel, oblivious to the outside world.  The date is November 25.

In the morning the clouds begin to disperse, and the sun to come out.  Unable to afford the hotel dining room, we go out in search of breakfast elsewhere.  Finding none, we turn our steps toward Toshogu.   The air is misty and crisp at the same time, the ground damp beneath our feet.

We come to the Sacred Bridge across the Daiya River.  It costs ¥300 to cross it, but there is no exit on the other side.  We choose instead the profane bridge next to it because it costs nothing and goes somewhere.  When we reach the entrance to the shrine grounds, we feel in the presence of something old and vast.  Above us soar ancient trees, whose rain-sodden branches the sun is just beginning to penetrate.

No coffee yet but

sunlight pours instead through cedar trees,

and mists arise


A shrine maiden in vermilion hakama is sweeping the wide stone steps that lead up into the inner precincts.  We are among the first visitors of the day, soon followed by a group of schoolchildren in yellow hats.  They cluster near the torii and listen to their teacher’s history lesson.

Without a guide

our boy races through the gate

to sacred ground


The steps take us past prayer halls and washing troughs, treasure houses and souvenir stands, all decorated with gold leaf or elaborate, colorful carvings of fantastic dragons and guardian gods, flowers, cats, monkeys and imaginary elephants.

The wooden clappers

crack–and then from somewhere comes

the dragon’s answer.


Nikko Tour 3:  “Absence and Presence”

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag up the road to what

we don’t yet know

The bus stops and lets us out into cold fresh air, sunlight reflecting off new-fallen snow, and a wide blue sky.  We pad through the snow to the lake.  Deer have been here before us, perhaps at dawn, to drink at the water’s edge and return to the mountain.

Here on this still shore

footprints and droppings of deer

left in pristine snow



If Toshogu is rising mists and ornate mysteries, Chuzenji is simple clarity at its illuminated best.  The water of the lake shines blue and clear, the mountainsides around the lake etched sharply against the sky.  We pass two young women making a tiny snowman.  Later they find us again and give the snowman to our boys.  We give up all our plans, surrendering to the scenery and the moment.

If only things could

always be so crystal clear:

Lake Chuzenji!


The boys want to find monkeys, so we leave the shore and walk behind the shops in search of them.  We come upon a parking lot as big as a football field.  Not a single car is parked in it today.  We tramp through a wooded hillside above the lot, looking for monkeys.

Beside a blue lake

an empty parking lot

no monkeys either


It’s time to catch our train back to Tokyo.

The bus goes zig zag

zig zag back down the hill to

what we used to know





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