Nikko—two hours’ train ride from Tokyo in the heart of Tochigi Prefecture; the retreat of ascetics, mentally unstable emperors, and city-weary Leahs. But I get ahead of myself.
Before coming to Japan, I was able to receive the Boren Scholarship—a year abroad funded by the National Security Education Program (NSEP) of the U.S. State Department, in return for a year of service in the government after I graduate. About a month before arriving in JapanI received a very surprising emailfrom Mrs. Suzanne Basalla, the senior advisor to the current Ambassador to Japan, John Roos. “In my last job at the Pentagon we hired a former Boren scholar,” she wrote to all Boren scholars currently studying in Japan, “And I was so impressed I took the liberty of getting your email addresses from NSEP. If any of you ever come to Tokyo, feel free to drop in at the Embassy and we’ll get together for coffee.”
It’s not every day I get invitations to coffee by the Ambassador’s senior advisor, so I decided during Spring Break to make a special trip up to Tokyo again to meet with her. To be honest, I heartily dislike Tokyo. It was when I returned from Tokyo for the first time that I realized how rather than Japan in general, my heart is given to Kyoto. So since my Tokyo friends were busy, I thought I would just go up on the overnight bus, meet with Mrs. Basalla, and then head back to Kyoto the same day. But then an idea came into my head. “Nikko. You’re going all the way to Tokyo on that awful night bus; you might as well make use of it! Why don’t you book a few nights at a hostel in Nikko?” The name brought to mind images of dark forests, cold, clear air; mountains. Yes, I was very much in need of some mountains. I was a bit nervous about traveling alone. “You never know,” said my friend Stacey, “You might meet some cool people.” I snorted. “I’m not going there to meet people, just to get my mountain fix and tree-worship in,” I laughed, though when I said it I thought I’d never done something so utterly self-indulgent as traveling someplace with the sole goal of enjoying. Well, I defended myself, I’m in Japan, I have to be a good exchange student and step out from time to time and explore.
Mrs. Basalla was very kind, and talking with her was like talking with a professor from back at Linfield. She was interested in my life at Doshisha and told me stories of her own experience studying abroad in Japan. She also explained the best ways for a Boren scholar to get hired with the State Department, and then sprung an interesting question on me. “It’s really dismal how few young Japanese are studying abroad. The Ambassador and I are really trying to brainstorm creative ideas for attracting more Japanese students to the U.S. Do you have any ideas?”
I caught in her voice the anxiety of the U.S.government over a Japan growing more independent. I realized how difficult her job must be, appeasing pressures from Washington to advance national interests in the face of a foreign country not always very interested. Hmm, I thought. Did I really want to go into government? The world was suddenly looking entirely too big and serious for me. Time to escape to Nikko.
When I got off the train, I noticed instantly how clear and delicious the fresh mountain air was. I gulped it in eagerly and set off to find the hostel I would stay at for the two nights. It was a tiny Japanese-style place. From the booking website I’d gathered it was run by a friendly married couple; perhaps because Nikko is a small inaka (countryside) town I expected an older couple, and was surprised when I opened the door to find that the go-shujin (husband) lounging in the kotatsu was only around thirty. “Oh hey, Leah-san! It is Leah, isn’t it?” he called. He set me up with tea in the toasty kotatsu before showing me my lovely tatami room.
The next morning I gasped as I stepped out of the hostel at the view of the mountains behind the station that I hadn’t seen in the dark last night. Then I set off for what turned out to be a magical, but weary day of hiking through snow and shrines and silent cedar forests. I also made a new friend: a tiny cinnamon-colored stray cat. She came running out of under a temple building mewing at me, and when I crouched down to her she jumped right into my lap, and gave me a kitty-hug by putting cold little paws up to my neck. I think she also gave me a few fleas.
I went back into town for lunch at a little place that advertised yuba-udon. Yuba is a specialty of Tochigi but I’m still not exactly sure what it is. It seems to be a by-product of the soymilk-making process, but it was delicious. I was the only customer, so I tried chatting a little with the owner, an old man with a toothless smile. I often have a hard time understanding older folks’ Japanese and they seem to have a hard time understanding mine, but we got along. I asked him what his favorite season in Nikko was. “Tashika ni” (certainly) Nikko is famous for the fall leaves. This shop gets really crowded then. But I like early spring, when there is new green on the hills. You should come again then, or stay longer,” he chuckled.
I spent the remaing daylight, which fades quickly when the sun drops behind the mountains, walking along the Daiya River. I had read somewhere that the Taisho Emperor who came to Nikko to escape Tokyo summers loved the river and wrote a poem about it that is inscribed on a rock somewhere nearby. I never found the rock, but it was indeed a beautiful river: clear as light in the shallows and deep turquoise in the pools. I had wanted to visit the Imperial estate, but simply didn't have time or energy left.
That evening four more guests came to the hostel, German girls visiting their friend Juliane who was studying at Keio Universityin Tokyo. They were very friendly and when they saw I was alone they invited me out to dinner with them! Living with three Germans in my dorm I’ve gotten used to their pert, direct style and dry sense of humor—if Americans are notorious for talking straight I think Germans deserve the reputation even more! I spent the dinner laughing at their banter. One of the girls, Julia, wanted to go to an onsen that night. Satou-san kindly drove us to one and we had a wonderful chat while soaking in the hot water, talking about school and plans for the future (we both are considering going into government) and exchanging recommendations for books (we both like classical literature). I learned later in the evening that the girls were planning a trip to Kyoto the next week—I offered to meet them and show them around for a day or two. Juliane and I stayed up late exchanging stories of study abroad. She had arrived at Keio the same month I had come to Doshisha, and was also staying for a year. “Once I went to a host-club,” she said, “But it was so weird to pay for flirting. I asked one boy “Do you have plans for your future?” but he just kept touching my hair and saying I am so pretty. What a joke!” I tried not to laugh too loud. I could just see the practically-minded Juliane ruining the mood by asking the host about his future.
In the morning I got up early to set off for Yumoto-onsen, a tiny town in the heart of the mountains built around natural hot-springs. The two-hour bus ride was breath-taking, especially the morning brilliance reflected in the white snow and powder blue of Lake Chuzenji. Then came the Senjogahara Plain, in winter a white expanse dotted with elegant birch trees. Yumoto was deep in snow, with the plowed piles at the sides of the narrow roads reaching almost double my height. The sky was a brilliant blue and the strong wind roaring in the pines seemed as loud as jet engines. The town was very empty at midday and the first onsen I entered I had to myself. My favorite are the outdoor baths; this one was against a snowy hillside and the bitter wind flowing under the black pines blew tiny ice crystals across my bare shoulders.
All too soon I had to return to the hostel. I would just pack up my things and take the evening train for Tokyo to catch my overnight bus back to Kyoto. The time in Nikko had been entirely too short. The merry German girls I would meet again in Kyoto, but the Satous, the little brown cat, the places I had wanted to see but didn’t have time for, the morning view of the mountains…I would miss it all so much. Even Satou-san appealed to me. “Do you really have to go so soon? Won’t you come tonight to a full-moon party?” I wished he hadn’t invited me. It made me sadder to leave. “I’m sorry,” I said, “I really have to catch that bus. But is tonight a full moon?”
When I had the leisure to sit quietly in my seat as the train pulled away, a few tears started swimming in my eyes. For the first time I was returning to Kyoto reluctantly. I looked glumly out the window as the moon rose, round and golden as a 500 yen coin in the purple sky. I was already thinking of when I might have a long enough break to come back—May? I could see the “new green” that old man in the yuba shop had mentioned. End of June? Senjogahara would be waist-deep in wildflowers. But oh dear, there are still so many other places in Japan I wanted to see…