On a day trip to Nikko, we reach the zenith of Japanese politeness.
The journey involves four trains and a bus and a public transport meltdown . . . almost.
The short version is don't eat jellyfish ... or maybe I just experienced a decidely unsettling variety.
Nelle and I are bickering furiously about which Japanese symbol to press on the ticket machine at the subway station when we hear, “this button, press for Nikko”.
Our saviour is called Masako, a name this complete stranger shares with the infamously reclusive Japanese Crown Princess, and she’s rocking a pale-pink netball skirt and white knee socks with pompoms . . . as only the Japanese can. She’s not heading in our direction, but helps us navigate the ticket machine, even jumping on the train to make sure we don’t get lost.
Masako is an IT student and as we stand swaying in the perfectly-temperate train carriage, she explains that her generous act is not completely selfless. She often helps travellers find their way, she says.
Firstly to practise her language skills, but also to make sure tourists leave her country with a good impression of Japan. It’s working. She stays with us long enough to make sure we’re on the right train to Nikko before racing off to college.
Nikko is a small city in Japan’s Tochigi Prefecture in the mountains about two hours north of Tokyo. It has been recognised by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site.
Getting there is all part of the adventure, as the urban landscape falls away to snow-capped mountain vistas. Shrines and pagodas emerge from the cedar groves like bonsai on a grand scale.
Much of the architecture nestled among the rugged and wooded topography is 17th century with many of the buildings dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
We alight at Nikko train station and meander uphill to our ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn. Nikko Tokanso is minimalist chic with tatami-matted rooms, shoji screens and futons. At reception, we trade our sneakers for slippers and shuffle after the concierge to our room.
We spend the evening cross-legged at a low table enjoying a multi-course kaiseki dinner — entrée, appetiser, sashimi, sushi, soup, simmered dish, grilled dish, a steamed course and numerous other cupped, bowled and plated offerings.
It’s delicate, colourful and delicious, and each course is deftly served by a waitress in traditional Japanese dress, whose presence is only apparent by the swish of the paper screen as she exits after presenting each course with an almost religious solemnity.
One course contains something wobbly and jelly-like. It reminds me of jellyfish, like those little stingers that used to wash up on the beach when I was a child. But not wanting to seem rude I pop it in my mouth and it slides down effortlessly with ne’er a taste.
It’s hard to say with any certainty which of the many, many courses was to blame but I spend the remainder of the evening hugging the toilet as the jellyfish and all of his friends revisit me until they bid me a final sayonara in the wee hours. I’m up-close and personal with the Japanese toilet and study the intricacies of its plumbing as the waves of nausea wash over me.
Unlike toilets back home, which at their most refined have two buttons for dual flush, the Japanese version comes with all manner of bells and whistles . . . and a telescopic thingum that squirts, dries and warms your unmentionables.
Only in Japan.
Next morning, vomitus episodes have decreased in frequency allowing me to at least attempt a walking tour of Nikko. The weather is arctic, and while the bracing freeze of the winter weather makes for a rather crisp visit, it does chase away many of the tourists, who can be quite ruinous during the summer months.
I race about the sacred Shinto site snapping shrines, pagodas and temples, monstrous bronze lanterns, urns and statues. I last exactly 36 minutes . . . before I have to dash back to the ryokan to resume my horizontal vigil on the cold bathroom tiles.