Saturday March 31, 2018

On Thursday, while folk back home were getting ready for Easter and a long weekend, we Mad Midlifers left fast-paced, hi-tech Tokyo and drove two and a half hours into the countryside where (for something utterly different) we plunged into Japanese history and culture. The town of Nikko was a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries. It sits at the entrance to a scenic National Park, and is most famous for its World Heritage shrines and temples – including the lavishly decorated Toshogu, final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years (until 1868) … and Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu.

We Kiwis toured both sites, then took a leisurely wander through the Tamozawa Imperial Villa – a splendidly restored imperial palace dating from the Edo and Meiji eras.

That night (and the night after) we were guests at the Kinugawa Park Hotel – a small, traditional Japanese inn (‘ryokan’) that allowed us the chance to experience traditional Japanese hospitality. We traded our shoes for traditional Japanese footwear … our Western-style clothes for traditional Japanese gowns … our beds (if we chose) for traditional Japanese ‘tatami’ mats, made from woven rushes … and our normal breakfast and dinner options for traditional Japanese food. We also had the chance to join traditional Japanese guests for a soak in a traditional ‘onsen’ – a steaming rock pool fed by thermal springs, men one side, women the other, and not a stitch of clothing allowed!

Yesterday, we braved chilly winds and countless hairpin-bends in the snow-splashed mountains surrounding Nikko so we could eyeball a stunning lake-cum-summer-resort. Then we were off to Edo Wonderland – a fun-filled theme-park that took us back in time to the 17th century era of Japanese merchants, craftsmen, peasants, ninja warriors, samurai swordsmen and kimono-robed courtesans.

Finally, this morning, we drove four hours to the temple-town of Nagano (site of the 1998 Winter Olympics), where we went in search of some apes that reportedly enjoy a hot bath in the middle of winter. The Jigokudani Monkey Park is home to large groups of Japanese Macaques – also known as Snow Monkeys – that regularly soak themselves (and their cute babies) in the steaming natural spa-pools.

It wasn’t cold enough for them to be soaking today, but we Kiwis were nevertheless enchanted! And we had to tear ourselves away for one last-but-not-least visit to Zenkoji Temple (revered for more than 1400 years as Japan’s primary Buddhist centre).

COMING UP: Tomorrow we check out a ‘wasabi’ farm … an extremely old wooden castle … and the ancient Japanese art of silk-dyeing. So don’t go away …

PEOPLE-NEWS: More of our world-famous Quacky Yellow Ducks have been flapping their wings and finding new owners …

  • JOHN S walked away with our coveted ‘Cutlery’ Award – after being spotted during a dumpling dinner last night trying (unsuccessfully) to use his chopsticks like a knife-&-fork – holding his food down with one, and trying to saw it into pieces with the other!
  • LLOYD, our Japanese guide and mentor, won, for the first time ever, our ‘Slave-Driver’ Award – after making us climb at least a zillion stone steps to photograph a stupid stone cat.

Yours bloggedly – JOHN

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About John Cooney

John Cooney and his wife Robyn have enjoyed more than their fair share of travel. They hesitate to call themselves ‘experts’ – but they’ve grabbed every chance that’s come their way to explore new countries, cultures and customs. They’ve had the privilege (both on their own and as the leaders of numerous successful group-tours) to sample many stunning destinations: Europe, the UK, Singapore, Vanuatu, the USA, Israel, Egypt, Africa, Dubai, China, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam. And their recent (and most pleasant) memories are of the places ancient-and-modern that border the Mediterranean. John and Robyn are at-home in airports, hotels, cruise ships, and the like … and they know how to make the most of a unique travel opportunity. Travel, they reckon, is an all-five-senses experience – a chance to see, feel, smell, hear and taste the world. And they’ve done it often enough to know for sure: sightseeing with a group of laid-back Kiwis is DOUBLE the fun – lots of laughs, great company, and memories that last forever!


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