On Sunday morning, my first morn in Japan, I meandered downstairs to breakfast of bread and jam and for a few minutes of internetting.  We then made our way to the Uyeno station where we met up with Susan’s friend Colin and his girlfriend Amy.  Colin is traveling in Asia on business and was able to meet up with Susan a week or so ago in Beijing.  It was then that they realized we would all be in Tokyo at the same time.  After a short cell phone call to pinpoint our locale at the train station we were able to meet up quickly.  It helps that there are very few Westerners around so we rather stick out, but it is in general very easy to get around in this place.  So far everything is well-laid out and understandable if you take the time to read the signs.  We decided to take the slow train to Nikko partly for money’s sake.  Susan and I already have unlimited rail passes through the whole of Japan so it didn’t matter at all to us  but Colin and Amy had not purchased ahead.  And since one cannot purchase a tourist pass in this country, they were relegated to purchasing as they go.  The shinkansen (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shinkansen) is the fast train, the bullet train.  The mack daddy of trains.  So although that train is already a part of our unlimited JR rail package, it was considered too expensive for Colin and Amy, thus our decision to take the slow train.

The trip to Nikko is about 3 hours by slow train.  And it’s not the worst thing to do when you’re wanting time with friends and want to see the scenery of the beautiful autumn leaves along the way!  And such beauty!  Reds and oranges of the most deep and brilliant color amongst the green of the conifers.  It rivals anything I’ve seen in the states, including out East.  The train ride was most excellent as we had time to laugh, talk, and get to know one another.  And it was great people-watching as well.  Best of all, we are the only tourist-y types I have seen that are non-Japanese.  One gets the feeling so far that we are experiencing real life, not a life set up for the sake of tourism.

As it became more mountainous my ongoing comment/question was: is that Mt. Fuji?  It has become a sort of trademark for me to ask ridiculous questions and make crazy comments during my relationship w Susan, starting on our Antarctic voyage last year.  So I am carrying on the tradition.  “Unless there is a sign telling me this isn’t Mt. Fuji, I’m assuming it is,” I say!  Now if we don’t make it to the actual mountain, I’ll be fine because of the many Mt. Fujis I saw on the way to Nikko. (Not to mention on the flight in when I saw the sun set right beside the mount!  Spectacular to see the volcanic mountain looming above the clouds!)

Nikko is a small town known for its beautiful forest, World Heritage UNESCO sites, and ansen or hot springs, among other things.  It reminds me of Ushuaia, Argentina, the jumping-off point for Antarctica.  It also reminds me of a Swiss mountain town or Liechtenstein.  It is quaint and adorable.  Since it took us so long to arrive, we didn’t have much time as it was and unfortunately we were hungry so stopped at a great spot for noodles.  “One hour is pl-en-ty to visit, Nikko!” Colin joked).  As good as those noodles were, lunch slowed us up a bit for the rest of our time making it impossible to truly discover the shrines and sites.  But it was still beautiful and a great getaway spot for our first 24 hours in Japan.  We missed the hot springs, unfortunately, but hopefully will get the chance to visit some as unique as the ones in Nikko along the rest of our trip. 

Since everything closed at 5 and it begins getting dark at 4:30, we made our way down through the town to find ourselves a pub so we could grab some beers before the journey home.  We found a great spot (pictures to follow) and enjoyed our own company and beer (and stale nuts and some strange appetizers involving crunchiness wrapped around some kind of a bean curd) there for a few hours before heading down to the train station for Colin/Amy to buy tickets home.  Much to Colin’s delight, the pair of them decided to splurge on tickets for the shinkansen on the way home.  Whilst waiting in the train station for our own train, one of the other shinkansen barrelled by like a bullet and we were left in its wind wake shaking in our boots and squealing with excitement!  What a rush!  I can’t wait to get video of it next time and I can’t hardly stop thinking about it!  Riding the thing you have no idea you’re going at the speed of light (really only about 200 mph), especially at night.  Our train was nearly full with a seating arrangement and look of a jet airliner inside.  I am excited to experience it in daylight and to see the scenery whir past!

There are signs all over the train ‘Nikko is Nippon’, meaning Nikko is old-Japan, I think, since Nippon is the term (generally an older term) meaning Japan.  We had fun repeating this phrase over and over…  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Japan