SPACE riverhouse first lodges itself in my mind when I hear a co-worker raving about it. More research online reveals it’s nestled in the mountains, right on the bank of a gurgling river in Nikko. It’s remote, peaceful and sounds like a great place to reconnect with nature after struggling with the crowds and concrete of Tokyo on a daily basis.
So one long weekend, after a packed train ride and a twenty minute drive through dark, twisting mountain roads (courtesy of the hostel’s free shuttle), my friend and I arrive. It’s night, and the nature surrounding us is nothing but shadow, but I can hear the crickets chirping, hear the promised river rushing nearby and smell the clean mountain air. Our host is Scout, who is an American transplanted to Nikko. After a tour he leads us to our room— the Riverside Annex, which runs 5,000 yen a night per person. There are only two of us, but it can house up to four. The room is a converted train car with futon beds and tatami flooring. It’s simple, and there’s a trick to locking the door, but in the morning I awake to the murmur of the river. Throwing open the curtains, I get a gorgeous view of glittering water flowing between green mountain foliage, and I’d gladly honor the hostel’s tradition of a morning swim if I weren’t such a weakling about the cold.
We have a great (free) breakfast and I ask Scout to recommend some places to go sightseeing. This is when his Nikko fever first gets blazing. I’d had a hint of it through email, when he’d said the guidebooks were all wrong. In person, he tells me stories and his theories about the history of Nikko with unmatched zeal, bordering on reverence. He has numerous maps, and repeatedly shows me the big one he has hanging on the common room wall, pointing out Nikko city’s past boundary changes. He is adamant that people should understand Nikko cannot be appreciated in a day, and he feels guidebooks perpetuate a fallacy that Nikko is for day trips.
“I’d like to not do day-trippers any more. Two day minimum, I’d like to get to that point.” He tells me guide books and review sites are useless, and that Zen hostel is ideal for the self-aware traveler.
A 20 minute shuttle ride later and we’re at Tobu Nikko station, boarding the bus to explore the Oku Nikko region. Our first stop is Chuzenji, the namesake temple of Lake Chuzenji. As we step onto the grounds I’m surprised by how few people are here, even though it’s a long weekend. I can hear a bell tolling, and smell incense. Instantly, I like the energy of the place. A monk gives about ten of us a tour of the inner grounds, while explaining the history (all in Japanese), and then leads us to an altar and invites us to pray. He strikes a bowl-shaped gong, and its reverberating chime is almost something tangible, almost breathable. It seeps through my ears into my brain, coaxing my mind to be still for just a moment.
After Chuzenji we board the bus again for Ryuzu no Taki. The waterfall is the start of a hiking trail through the Senjo ga Hara plateau. The second we step through the gate we’re surrounded by forest, and there is no one else in sight. We hike to the soundtrack of a bubbling river to our left, occasionally passing other hikers and saying hello, until the trail opens up onto a stunning marshland. It feels like walking into a painting, the beauty is so unreal. There are hardly any trees, just a sea of red-brown grass stopping only when it bumps up against the horizon, and even then only to give way to mist-shrouded peaks.
After about a two hour hike (though the expected walking time is closer to three), we catch the bus to the Yumoto Onsen area. As we walk along the road, squinting through the light of the setting sun, we can see steam rising up from vents in the ground. Scout has recommended a small place called Yunoka Inn, which has a hot spring so close to the source it smells like sulfur. Despite the stink I slip into Yunoka’s outdoor pool. It’s twilight, and the mountains are shadowed giants against a blue screen of sky. The water makes my skin tingle, and I feel like I’m truly experiencing the rejuvenating powers of Japan’s hot springs.
That night I spend some time in the common room eating delicious homemade pizza, talking to the other guests and Scout, who shows me the map again, though at times I find it difficult to understand what he’s trying to explain. I’m tired, but though the day was long, it was fun, and I’m looking forward to another day of exploring the beauty of Nikko.