Getting Away From It All

As the summer heat of Tokyo is so oppressive, for our last summer holiday getaway we decided on somewhere that could be a bit cooler than the city or at least offer the opportunity to spend some time swimming.   We wanted to find somewhere within about 2 hours of Tokyo that was reachable by standard trains and offered an opportunity to escape from the hustle and bustle of the city and wasn’t overly expensive to stay at.  After a bit of searching around we settled on Nikko, and using AirBnB found Space Riverhouse, a hostel overlooking Black River in Minami Okorogawa, where we booked a private annex room.
After working in the morning we caught the 3:00pm Tobu Skytree Line out of Kita-Senjo station headed for Shimogoshiro Station where Scout our host would be waiting for us.   Upon exiting the station we discover just how far away from normal Japan we really are.  Normally when you get on a train in Japan you swipe you IC card (or insert your ticket) at the gates as you enter the first station and do the same again as you exit at your destination and if you haven’t paid enough you will have to go and add more money to your card or ticket or pay the guy sitting at the end of the gates.  As we arrived after 5:00pm the station was unmanned so there was no way of making the fare adjustment so we pretty much got a heavily discounted fare (which is also unusual if you are actually living in Japan as all discounted rail passes are only available for tourists…). Technically when we used our cards next they would have worked it out and taken the right fare off, that is if Jimmy didn’t happen to loose my card over the space of the weekend.   I guess it is good to have some wins now and again.   Anyway Scout helped us find a store to get some supplies to put on the BBQ that evening for dinner before heading back to the hostel.   The hostel is located in the middle of nowhere on the banks of the Black River, with a large outdoor dining / entertaining area and was in its heyday some sort of onsen lodge.
Downstream View
Our room was a converted railway container with 4 futon beds on raised tatami platforms set amongst some rustic gardens directly overlooking the river.   It was great to be able to sleep with the sound of the river below, something that we as New Zealander’s take for granted as being easily accessible.   After a good nights sleep we were treated to an amazing breakfast of fruit, blueberry pancakes and yogurt, a great way to start the day.
Jimmy tucking into his Kakigori

Despite the fact that we were in Nikko a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its many temples, we were here just to get away from it all and chill out, we’ve seen plenty of temples and shrines (and anyway we can always come back here to do that) so didn’t feel the need to hunt these out.   The first day we spent just mucking around in the river, skipping stones, building dams, looking for fish, swimming and sunbathing.  Having spent the last year living in Tokyo the kids had missed the freedom of playing around in the water with no one around and in such beautiful surroundings.   It was great to be able to be outside and doing nothing, with nobody around, something which apartment living in Tokyo isn’t renowned for.   After spending the afternoon in the water we went for a short walk up the road to the nearest cafe (Seiryuin Yamagoya Cafe) where we enjoyed a coffee and Jimmy had the most delicious Kakigori (Japanese shaved ice) he has tried.  The owner of the cafe had built himself a traditional ice shaver, used natural ice due to it being harder than man made ice and flavoured it with natural sugar syrups rather than the sickly commercial flavours you get elsewhere with the result being a shaved ice aficionado’s dream.

Source of Yumoto Onsen’s hot water

The next day we decided to do the tourist thing and take in the sights of the highlands catching the bus from Nikko Station heading to Yumoto Onsen.   On the way up we stop off at Lake Chuzenji for a look around and to visit the Chuzenji Standing Kannon.   This is a really beautiful area, which unfortunately like a lot of rural Japan seems to be dying out.   It is noticeable how many of the stores and eating houses are operated by elderly couples and also how many places have closed in recent times, I guess due to urban migration of all the young people from these places who are more attracted to the bright lights of the big cities combined with a down turn in tourism.    This isn’t the first place we have noticed this sort of trend in either, we saw it in Fuji when we stayed there on our way home from Hiroshima.  Here it is a real shame as Lake Chuzenji is very similar to Queenstown in our own country with regard to what it has to offer and unfortunately while many Japanese tourists will spend a lot of money to travel to New Zealand and have their pockets vacuumed of all evidence of money in Queenstown, they don’t want to visit the same sort of place here in their own country, which is way more affordable.  After getting caught out in a heavy downpour on our way back to the bus station we dry out for a bit while we wait for the bus to take us further up the mountain.   At Yumoto we take a stroll around the village, trying to find somewhere to eat, again this once thriving place is down to about 2 eating houses, finally finding a nice little restaurant / store overlooking the lake so enjoyed lunch while watching everyone out fishing on the lake.   After lunch Jimmy and I tried the outdoor onsen while Angela and Molly did the foot onsen.   It is great that Jimmy really enjoys the local experiences where ever we have been, whether it is a Finnish Sauna followed by a streak to beach or a Japanese ofuro (public bathhouse) or onsen (hot spring) he is happy to get his gears off and get into it with everyone else.   The bath here was fed directly from the volcanic springs out the back of the bathhouse, and was quite nice in the slight drizzle we had that day.

Fishing on Lake Yumo
Making Kakigori at Seiryuan Yamagoya

Our last full day in Nikko was again spent pottering in the river, the kids first entered the water at about 11:00 am and didn’t emerge till around 6:00pm.  It is amazing how much kids can entertain themselves when they are in a river…..  We built a small fire on the opposite bank of the river, hunting through the bush for some suitable sticks and logs to fuel it, where we cooked some sausages on sticks for lunch, something we haven’t been able to do for a long time now.   It was here that we came face to face with our first wild snake when Angela calls us over to look at something in the bush (not far from where I had previously been pulling out branches and twigs….) and there is was slithering away from trouble.   After describing its markings to Scout we discovered that it was the most fearsome of Japanese snakes the Mamushi, so lucky we didn’t annoy him enough to bite.   After emerging from the river we enjoyed Scout’s Pizzas for dinner.

Unfortunately the next day was our last so after enjoying another delicious breakfast, Scout dropped us off at the station and we were on our way home back to the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, but we will be back I am sure.    This place was such a great place to escape and is within reach of Tokyo even for a weekend trip, I am sure it won’t be long till the kids are pestering to return.

Nikko Essentials

Getting There

Japan Rail Passes - Book OnlineThe best way to get to Space Riverhouse is via the Tobu Skytree Line which you can catch from either Asakusa or Kita-Senjo Stations.   To Shimogoshiro Station it takes about 2 hours for a cost of around 1,200 yen, which compares favourably with the Shinkansen which is about 2-3 times the price and by the time you get to the right station takes about the same amount of time.

Accommodation

We stayed at Space Riverhouse to get away from it all, cost was 14,000 yen per night including breakfast for all 4 of us.   Even though you are a bit further away than the Nikko metropolitan area, Scout will happily drop you off and pick you up each day to suit your requirements.   They have both hostel beds and private rooms.

Dining

Enjoy a riverside BBQ with meat picked up from a local store or a supermarket in Nikko, or alternatively try one of Scout’s delicious New York Style Pizzas.   Also check out Seiryuan Yamagoya for a simple Japanese or Thai styled meal set in a wonderful handcrafted cafe overlooking the valley below.   For breakfast of course there is no better way to start the day than with Scout’s French Toast or Pancakes.

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Tony Fitzpatrick
Architect, Dad, Traveller & Head Rover at Around Rock 3
After a brief flirtation with Japan in the early '90's, and some occasional trips to Australia since, I have had an unrequited love affair with Japan and general desire to explore the world for the next 20 years while reality prevailed and I found myself pretty much stuck in my home country of New Zealand (not that is an entirely bad thing...).After a chance opportunity arose in mid 2012 to relocate our family to Moscow, Russian Federation I finally set off on my OE with my family in tow. It has been an amazing journey that has seen us experience life in Russia, Japan and now Finland, as well as visiting around a dozen countries so far in our adventure to date.While my family situation has changed along the way, I am continuing to explore the world with my tri-lingual son and enjoy sharing the adventures we have had with my followers.

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