Wandering illustrator Tim Baynes turns his eye – and his pens – on Japan's prettiest temple town
Swarms of people in white shirts and dark suits carrying impossibly slim briefcases; commuters moving down the streets with the precision of a Red Square Parade; rain, polishing the streets ready for a remake of the film Blade Runner – I am back in Tokyo!
Nikko National Park is two hours from Tokyo, with several changes of train. When the tickets were purchased last night I began to realise the enormity of the journey in terms of probability for error. Too late! I was without the linguistic capability to negotiate a ticket refund.
Nikko has been a centre of Shinto and Buddhist worship for centuries and is blessed with mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs.
It was raining hard as I walked to Shinjuku station, my black umbrella going with and against the flow of others. As I entered the cavernous station – blind panic. I was the only one there not knowing where I was going, but talking to myself and focusing on the signs for my track number miraculously gets me onto the right train.
I only had 28 minutes on the bullet train and changed at Utsonomiya and then onto a branch line direct to Nikko. Entering this train carriage there was a curiously pungent smell of moth balls. The train was full of people, quite a lot older than I, which might have explained the aroma.
Forty minutes on the branch line to Nikko and I was there. Alighting from a station – which is architecturally more Bavarian than Japanese – I expected to see lots of temples and shrines but no, I needed a bus to get to the Park. The next one was in 30 minutes so I took a cab to the Shinkyo Bridge, crossing the River Daiya at the foot of the National Park.
I paid £2.44 to walk across the Shinkyo Bridge. Originally only the Shogun, Emperor or members of his retinue were allowed to cross the bridge – at £2.44 a crossing they were probably the only ones who could afford it. The bridge is at the foot of the sacred area containing more temples and shrines than you could shake a Samurai sword at.
A stunningly beautiful place set on a steep wooded hillside and in places very peaceful. It does get busy – more coaches are parked here than for a Man U away game. In spite of the hoards of people, most of whom were shorter than me, it was well worth the three-hour journey.
Autumn was just colouring the trees that nestled up against the shrines and temples. Inside these magnificent temples you had a real sense of religious awe, inspired by golden deities metres high.
The air was so fresh and pure you could almost slice off a piece and take it home, the best antidote to recent days of air-conditioned meeting rooms.
Souvenir stands around the park were ingeniously designed as shrines neatly tucked into every available space. Each was selling charms for any eventuality – I bought three for ‘protection’, mainly because the design appealed the most.
The train journey back from Shrineland (Nikko) was easy. I breezed through Tokyo Station and Shinjuku – a bit too confidently in actual fact – the difference between the Shinjuku’s west exit and west central exit wore out a lot of shoe leather. The evening was restful: a conference call, some emails and a hamburger in a coffee shop. Gaijin, gaijin, gone.
Friday morning dawned bright and clear across the skyline of Tokyo; 16 floors below me the old folk were going through their daily exercise routine in Shinjuku Park. I caught the Friendly Airport Limousine Service to Narita. My business was achieved plus some exciting cultural experiences at Nikko and a new found confidence in the Japanese rail network.
Tim Baynes, is a senior executive with the BBC. He has recorded his impressions of more than 20 years of travel with sketches and observations from Istanbul to New York to Tokyo. His book, Drawing from Experience, is available from his website.
For further illuminations on Tim and his travels read his interview here, The World According to Tim Baynes.