When your partner’s 94 year old mum has a Japanese friend from forty odd years ago that she still writes too, you find yourself en route to Itako, a small town on the coast northeast of Tokyo. It is in a rice growing area and must be full of mosquitoes in the summer, but in April, the little area by the canals was lovely. The cherry blossoms were just going and we were too early for the masses of irises planted there. In fact there were people busy weeding, making sure they would look great when they came out. The town’s manhole covers depict irises too.
We had arranged to meet Aki at her house for coffee at ten o’clock. She lives above her little coffee shop. It was lovely to see all the postcards and things sent from England displayed in the shop. She even has a English recipe book and her cakes from it make the shop popular with the locals, but we were her first ever tourists. Her English is still excellent – her son teaches it and her granddaughter can speak it too. A neighbour called round to hand in freshly cooked bamboo shoots for us to try. Then Aki wanted to show us some kimonos and insisted we take a couple home as gifts. She also insisted in taking us to lunch which was lovely. She was thrilled that we had seen so much of Japan – most of the places we have visited, she has never been to. We tried to explain how easy it is now with the Satnav, but she is of a generation still struggling to use a mobile phone. I teased her and told her to get her granddaughter to teach her. We took photos to show my partner’s mum and Skyped her later to tell her all about the visit. It was lovely to see a friendship that has lasted over many years and a huge distance.
We said our goodbyes and headed off to Nikko, another long drive and we had spent longer with Aki than planned, but that was more important than another Unesco world heritage site! The shrines there are magnificent, larger, more decorated and spread out. First you have to see the famous red bridge Shin-kyo. According to legend, when the Buddhist priest Shodo Shonin visited Nikko in the eighth century, he was helped across the Daiwa-gawa river by two snakes which formed a bridge and then vanished. The bridge originally went up in 1636, but has been replaced many times since then. We went then to Tosho-gu, famous for the carvings of monkeys – see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil, the three major principles of Tendai Buddhism. A five storey pagoda greets you after you pass through the giant stone stories, one of the few remaining features of the original 1617 shrine. The Yomei-mon gate (sun blaze gate) is covered with intricate carvings and gilt decorations. We saw the famous “ sleeping cat” carving and climbed the 200 steps to the tomb of Ieyasu, the shogun who requested that a shrine be built there in his honour.
We removed our shoes yet again and entered the shrine to hear about the “crying or roaring dragon” depending on which translation you read. (Tip always wear sandals that are easy to remove on temple visits – not lace up hiking boots!) A huge dragon is painted on the ceiling and the priest explains who the only place there is an echo is directly at the head of the dragon and demonstrates this by clapping two pieces of wood together, which they often do in their ceremonies. We glimpse another priest in purple robes and admired the many stone lanterns, then it was time to leave as they were closing.
Finally a lovely drive through the hills behind Nikko to our hotel for the night, spotting deer as we went. Dinner that night was memorable – everything was on a stick over the fire, including newt! I needed the sake to wash it down. Delicious raw venison on the menu too, so I tried not to think about the lovely creatures we had spotted earlier. Definitely not a menu for vegetarians!