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THERE’S A saying, “Never say ‘kekko’ [Japanese for ‘I am satisfied’] until you’ve seen Nikko.” Having visited this city and its environs, I can appreciate the sentiment. The region, in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture about 90 miles north of Tokyo, has significant history, fabulous scenery and a road so renowned that it also has life in a video game.
Savoring history, scenery and road, let’s tour Tōshō-gū Shrine, Kegon Falls and Lake Chūzenji—and finish with a quick run up—and, the scary part—down Irohazaka.
Tokugawa Ieyasu was shogun of Japan from just 1603 to 1605. However, the Tokugawa Shogunate that he established ruled the country until 1868 and the Meiji Restoration.
Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined at Nikko Tōshō-gū, one of the principal attractions of the city. Elements of this Shinto shrine date from 1617, a year after Tokugawa’s death. Hundreds of stone steps lead to his bronze funereal urn, all surrounded by a forest of cryptomeria, Japanese cypress.
Several of the buildings at Tōshō-gū are National Treasures of Japan. One contains a carving of the three wise monkeys who hear, speak and see no evil. Nearby is another that’s equally charming, an elephant said to have been carved by an artisan who had only a word description of the animal.
To the west of Nikko are formidable mountains of volcanic origin. Nestled within them are Lake Chūzenji and, flowing from it, Kegon Falls.
Kegon Falls is more than 318 ft. in height, one of the tallest in Japan. Amid rich colors in autumn, it’s a locale known for immense traffic jams. Other times of year, it’s still a great photo op—and a lot easier drive.
At an elevation of 4124 ft., Lake Chūzenji is a popular vacation spot with Japanese avoiding the summer heat. R&T’s Bill Motta and I stayed there once, having a ball with our modest command of the language but making lots of friends. Our vast tourist hotel had meals in shifts, the times announced—in Japanese—by a PA system on each floor.
The road rising to Chūzenji is quite a climb. What’s more, it’s a lesson in Japanese. It’s known informally as Irohazaka (think ABC Road) after I, Ro and Ha, the first three characters in the classic Japanese syllabary.
There are 48 characters in this traditional syllabary, and the original road had 48 corners. The route has undergone improvements and, wisely, it’s now one-way up and down. The number of curves is still 48, as identified by markers along the way.
Have you played the Initial D video game? If so, you’ve driven Irohazaka—albeit only virtually. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013