Samurai, Snow, and Skiing

I had heard so much about Nikko just outside of Tokyo. Nikko National Park includes the Toshogu Shrine made for the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. His family crest (Kamon) can be seen in the detail on the buildings. The first thing you notice about Toshogu is that it is far more colorful than all the other shrines in Japan. In one temple a Roaring Dragon is painted on the ceiling. Some how the construction of the temple allows for a special ringing echo when sticks are struck together directly under the dragon - but no where else in the temple.


The Irohazaka Winding Road to Lake Chuzenji is a scenic one going over a pass with 28 hairpin turns on the way up and 20 down. Sacred Mount Nantai...and Kegon-no-taki 97 foot waterfall with a stop at Chuzenji Onsen


Lake Tazawa
We opted to kill several birds with one stone and head up to the Akita prefecture for skiing, onsens, and some off the beaten path sightseeing. Lake Tazawa is the deepest lake in Japan. Legend has it the beautiful Tatsuko now lives in the lake with her dragon lover keeping it from ever freezing - disbelievers attribute it to the hot springs below. The old caldera is in the Akita prefecture in northern Honshu. We stayed in a Minshuku (Japanese Bed & Bath) with an incredible host Yukosan right by the ski mountain. There are three main ski resorts northeast of Lake Tazawa on mountain Komaga-take, which is a relatively small mountain by Colorado skiing standards at 1637m. However, there was 285 cm of snow - which is about twice as much as Steamboat had at the time. I did learn the important difference between regular powder and Champagne Powder (TM) of Steamboat. I don't believe there were enough skiers in all of Japan to steal the enormous amount of fresh powder on the mountain. I bit off a big chunk of freshies and ended up doing an endo almost immediately because the powder was too thick and heavy. The mountain looks down on the lake and provides stunning views when clear. Unfortunately/fortunately, as I said, we were blessed with fresh snow. We could see the lake but the spectacular blue lake view on the ski brochure evaded us.



Kakunodate, just southwest of Lake Tazawa, has one of Japan's most beautifully preserved former samurai districts. It snowed continuously - this area stays under a thick blanket of snow about six months a year. In fact, the cherry blossom season is actually later this far north and peaks late April/early May. We spent so much time drooling over and selecting cherry bark craft (see below) we only had time to visit the Aoyagi samurai house. There was a main house complete with the thick thatched roof and then several other buildings within the estate including an armory.


Kabazaiku is a Japanese National Craft Cherry Bark work. Items are made from the thin bark of the blooming trees so celebrated throughout the country. Originally handcrafted by lower class samurai to supplement their income, the beautiful pieces are still made only in Akita prefecture. We visited the Denshokan where we saw one of nine craftsman actually working with the thin bark. The tools he used were antique, simple old tools. We watched him for over an hour - scrape the bark, cut and shape it into exquisite, well crafted business card holders.



Finally made it to Meiji Shrine, built in 1920 and rebuilt after WWII in honor of Japan's emperor. The shrine has massive Torri gates, immense gardens, and a fabulous tree to leave prayer votives (Ema). You purchese the wooden tablets at the shrine, write your wish on it and hang it under the tree and hope the deity will bless your prayer. Obviously, the wooden plaques can accumulated quite quickly. The monks will take them down at some point and burn them, allowing your prayers to reach the Gods. The tree was so packed, I had difficulty finding room to hang my tablet. I took many photos of the wall of sake barrels at the shrine. The pure rice wine is thought to be sacred and offered to the Gods.



February 2005

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Susan N. Freeman
Personal E-mail: snf@susannataliefreeman.com
Work Email: susan.n.freeman@boeing.com