Serenity amid the shoguns

Special to The Times

VISITORS come to Nikko to gawk at Buddhist temples, Shinto shrines and craggy, evergreen-covered mountains. But the element that animates this tourist town is water.

On my visit, it emerged first as sound, filling the cedar forest and surrounding the vermillion shrines with the gurgle of small streams. Then it fell as mist, glistening on ferns and slick, mossy rocks.

On a hike through the highlands, water descended violently in waterfalls and gently as snow. The flakes drifted out of a sunny sky during the day, then tore through the valley at dusk, as vicious as a scourge. There was nothing to do then but seek shelter in a hot springs spa, or onsen, where the water made me loose and lazy. Soaking in an outdoor pool, Nikko's waters took another form: icicles in my hair.

Water determined the tenor of the four days I spent in Nikko last March. But it did so subtly, while I focused on gilded shrines and snow-dusted mountains. Of course, these are the main inducements to visiting Nikko, where some of Japan's greatest shoguns are buried and, at least in theory, worshiped.

About 90 miles north of Tokyo, Nikko is a popular day trip from the capital. For the most part, tourists come to see its sprawling complex of temples and shrines, all embedded in the forest. Of these structures, the most lavish are dedicated to the deified shoguns, the hereditary military leaders of Japan for centuries.

At its best, Nikko recalls an older, more mystical Japan: Gravel paths lead past moss-covered stone lanterns; robed monks drift past curved, copper-tiled eaves; enormous cryptomeria trees, or Japanese cedars, tower over everything.

Unfortunately, Nikko tends to be at its worst on weekends, when most people visit. Scads of Japanese and foreign tourists jostle through roofed gates covered in gilding, snapping cellphone pictures of intricately carved animals and plants. At times, it feels more like navigating a subway than a shrine. But it's not like this always, and certainly not everywhere.

I had planned to end my three-week trip to Japan in Nikko. Instead of a single day, though, I allotted nearly four. The temples sit in mountainous Nikko National Park, an area slightly larger than the city of Los Angeles, and its hiking trails promised a chance to get away from the crowds, to re-center after an exhilarating week in Tokyo's blaring neon jungle.

As I stepped off the train, the main temples and shrines were closing, so I set out on a hike along the Daiya River. As always, the water took over. A light mist fell on the stone statues of Jizo -- the Buddhist saint of travelers and children -- that lined a short stretch of the river. Below the statues' moss-covered faces, whitewater crashed through a small chasm.

After maybe a one-hour walk, I reached Yashio-no-yu, a municipally owned onsen, or hot springs spa.

Japan loves its onsens, and the highly volcanic nation is the best place to sample naturally heated waters outside of Iceland. Soaking is almost always done naked, in gender-segregated pools -- and only after thoroughly washing and rinsing before getting in. Ignore this etiquette at your peril.

At Yashio-no-yu, I changed, showered and allowed the day to end as all great days in Japan should: up to my nostrils in hot, relaxing onsen water, surrounded by naked strangers.

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Hundreds of years in the making

NIKKO'S religious history dates to the mid-8th century, when a Buddhist priest named Shodo Shonin crossed the Daiya River, legendarily on the backs of two serpents, and founded a religious community of ascetics. He built four shrines in the area, including one on the northern side of the river and one atop the revered Mt. Nantai.

In the ensuing centuries, Shintoism and Buddhism blended seamlessly in Nikko, as they did throughout Japan. Most of Nikko's glitz, however, owes to the Tokugawa shoguns, who ruled Japan between 1603 and 1867. Tokugawa Ieyasu -- the shogunate's Machiavellian founder, the unifier of Japan and the inspiration for James Clavell's novel "Shogun" -- was interred at Nikko in 1617.

His grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu -- whose slightly less ornate shrine is also in Nikko -- rebuilt Ieyasu's shrine in 1636. The resulting complex, called Toshogu, comprises a series of structures so ornate that many Japanese find them off-putting. Certainly, the shrine deviates from Japan's traditional aesthetics, which tend toward subtle, minimalist grace.

Yomei-mon, or the "Sunlight Gate," is probably the most over-the-top structure at Toshogu. From a distance, it appears massive and shimmery with gold, its roof high and curving. Up close, every inch swims with whiskered dragons, swans, cherry blossoms, little children, even giraffes -- all of them boldly painted, or covered in gold.

Tourists also cluster at an unpainted stable, staring at a carving of three monkeys miming "Hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil" -- a principle of Tendai Buddhism. The ceiling of nearby Yakushido hall bears a swirling, 16-by-52-foot painted dragon.

After shuffling through the tourist crush at Toshogu -- ignoring all reason, I'd visited on Saturday -- I walked a broad, gravel path to Futarasan, a much simpler shrine whose most striking adornment is an exterior coat of bright red paint. Still, it wasn't all mystery and wonder. As at Toshogu, Futarasan's worship hall contained a stand selling charms, picture books and assorted knickknacks.

Everything in Nikko, it seems, has a price. The main sites are included in an $8.60 combination ticket, but seeing anything more costs extra. Merely crossing the scenic-but-short Shinkyo Bridge -- where Shodo Shonin supposedly crossed the Daiya on snakes -- costs an additional $4.30.

The nickel-and-diming grew tiresome. In fact, a couple of days into my stay, the whole tourist-trap scene was becoming a bit much. There was only one thing to do: lace up my hiking boots and head for the high country.

As the bus climbed into the mountains, clear skies shone over Nikko National Park's lakes, waterfalls and snow-dusted peaks. It was a wonderful day for a springtime hike. So why were so many people on the bus carrying skis?

As our bus passed huge, sun-flecked Lake Chuzenji and climbed toward the hot springs village called Yumoto, the reason became clear: At 3,000 feet in elevation above downtown Nikko, it was still winter.

Cross-country skiers passed between the trees on brilliant, shining snow. Lake Yunoko, next to Yumoto, was almost entirely frozen over. I was just glad I hadn't worn shorts.

It seemed wise to call off my hike. But then, in the visitor center, I saw snowshoes for rent. When I asked a woman at the desk about the forecast, she drew a smiley-faced sun into my notebook. I was off.

I didn't need the snowshoes at first as I hugged the shores of Lake Yunoko, then descended to a little restaurant beneath 250-foot-tall Yutaki Falls. I stayed 20 minutes, snacking on a skewer of ayu fish, grilled whole. After that, I crunched through the brilliant snow on cross-country ski trails -- perfect for hiking in warmer weather. A frigid wind rattled the tree branches overhead and snowflakes fell from the blue sky.

Still, the sun was warm as I followed wooden planks across the Senjogahara Plateau, a dun-colored highland marsh. Its swampy waters gradually coalesced into a meandering river, and bamboo shoots pushed through the snowbanks melting at its edge.

I've already mentioned the waters' next move. By dusk, the snow clouds had descended from the mountains and turned into a full-on blizzard. I had to walk backward to the visitor center to return my snowshoes. It was the only way to protect my face from the stinging wind.

Luckily, not all the water in Yumoto was frozen. I ditched my snowshoes, found an onsen, and stayed until the last bus left for Nikko, snow still whipping all around.

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'Solemn grandeur'

ISABELLA BIRD, a 19th century travel writer and adventurer, visited Nikko in 1878, after the Meiji Restoration had ended the Tokugawa Shogunate. The new government soon decreed the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism -- striking at Nikko's syncretistic heart.

It was a time when Nikko's future was in doubt and its temples were falling into decay. Still, Bird praised the town's "solemn grandeur, its profound melancholy ... and the historical and religious atmosphere from which one can never altogether escape."

"Solemn grandeur" and "profound melancholy" can seem distant today at the crowded main shrines. But it's surprising how little effort it took to find both, even in Nikko's core.

On my last full day in town, I chose a hike on the Takino-o Path, which begins near Nikko's major attractions but veers away from them. Instead, it heads toward deeper woods and smaller, simpler shrines.

A bit less than halfway through the walk, for example, I passed a stone torii (gate) standing in front of Kaisando Temple, dedicated to Shodo Shonin, Nikko's founder. Behind the temple, enclosed in a low stone fence, sits Shodo's simple grave. If not for my trail guide, I'd never have guessed it held anyone of more than minor importance.

Simplicity. Sunlight flashed through the cryptomeria trees onto the stone path; the air was cool enough to numb my fingers.

At the far end of the trail, a stone staircase led to yet another small but brilliantly vermillion shrine. I was the only one there, and I breathed in the stillness. I could hear a stream gurgling nearby.

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Free-flowing splendor

GETTING THERE:

From LAX, All Nippon, American, Japan, Korean, Northwest, Singapore and United offer nonstop service to Narita Tokyo Airport. Restricted round-trip fares begin at $780 through Oct. 24, then $980 until Dec. 28.

From Tokyo's Asakusa Station, it's about a two-hour train ride to Nikko on Tobu Railways, which has almost hourly departures. Fares, $11.20 for "rapid" and $22.50 for "limited express," which is 40 minutes faster.

From Shinjuku Station, one of Tokyo's largest and most central transportation hubs, Japan Railways East and Tobu Railways offer four trains a day. One-way fares are $33.50, or about $14 for JR East train pass holders. If you plan to travel into the highlands or hot springs spas around Nikko, the $66.90 JR/Tobu Nikko/Kinugawa Excursion Ticket is also a good deal.

PHONES AND ADDRESSES:

To call the numbers below, dial 011 (the code for international calls), 81 (the country code for Japan), 288 (the region code) and then the local number.

Japan's addresses, a hierarchical system, moves from large divisions -- like Nikko City -- to progressively smaller areas. Numbers refer to buildings and/or block numbers, not street numbers, and then the neighborhood. The best option: Get directions and a good guidebook -- or at least a map from the local tourist office.

WHERE TO STAY:

Nikko Kanaya Hotel, 1300 Kami-Hatsuishi; 54-0001, www.kanayahotel.co.jp/nkh/index-e.html. Venerable, rambling hotel with traditional architecture, ornate wood carvings and grounds overlooking the beautiful Daiya River, very near the major shrines. Western-style rooms from $95.

Nikko Narusawa Lodge, 1462-22 Tokorono; 54-1630, www.nikko-narusawa.com. A friendly and inexpensive minshuku, or family-run lodge, a 30-minute walk to the shrines. Hostess Kiyoko Wada offers wonderful light breakfasts and comfortable, basic Japanese-style rooms (futons and tatami mat floors). $31.50 per person with shared bath.

Turtle Inn Nikko, 2-16 Takumi-cho, 53-3168, www.turtle-nikko.com. Both Western and Japanese-style rooms. It's well located on the Daiya River. Owner Kinya Fukuda speaks fluent English. Doubles with shared bath from $77.

WHERE TO EAT:

Asian Garden, 1-7 Matsubaracho, across from Tobu Nikko Station; 54-2801. Tasty Indian food, with fluffy nan and good curries. Set meals include a curry dish, salad, nan or rice, and a drink, $10.30- $21.50.

Hipparitako, 1011 Kami-Hatsuishi, between Tobu train station and the shrines; 53-6465. Tiny place with good noodles and yakitori, Japanese chicken skewers. $3-$7, but many items are snack-sized.

Ki Kou, 1007 Kami-Hatsuishi; 53-3320. Just next door, good Korean food, including piping hot rice dishes cooked and served in a stone bowl. $4.30-$8.60.

WHAT TO DO:

Seeing every inch of Nikko means buying a lot of tickets. Your best bet: Buy the $8.60 combo ticket (sold on site) and hit the highlights: Rinnoji Temple, Toshogu Shrine and Futarasan Shrine.

Hiking options abound, including the Kanman Path along the Daiya River and the lovely Takino-o Path past less-visited shrines. Other hikes cross the mountains near Yumoto and Lake Chuzenji, both accessible from Nikko via bus. Maps and trail guides are at the Nikko Tourist Information Center.

Onsens, or hot springs, are an essential part of the Nikko experience. Bring your own towel or you'll have to buy or rent one. The Yashio Spa (Yashionoyu), 1726-4 Kiyotakiwanoshiro-machi; 53-6611, is a municipal facility with lovely outdoor pools, or rotemburos, lined with rough river rocks. You can soak inside too. $4.30 admission.

Yumoto is a hot springs resort village in the mountains above Nikko. I soaked through a snowstorm at Okunikko Konishi Hotel, 2549-5 Yumoto; 62-2416, www.okunikkokonishihotel.com/en/ for $8.60. But the town is full of other hot spring facilities.

TO LEARN MORE:

The Nikko Tourist Information Center, 591 Gokomachi; 54-2496, www.nikko-jp.org/english/index.html. The center sits on the main road between the Tobu train station and the shrine complex.

Japan National Tourist Organization, (213) 623-1952, www.japantravelinfo.com.

-- Ben Brazil

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