Shrine calls visitors to hear, see, speak no evil

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Room Key: Nikko Kanaya Hotel

Address: 1300, Kami-Hatsuishi-machi, Nikko City, Tochigi, 321-1401, Japan

Phone: (011) 81-288 54-0001

Fax: (011) 81-288 53-2487

E-mail:[email protected]

Rates: Prices are per day and vary, depending on the season:

" Deluxe rooms: $155 to $380

" Rooms with bath: $105 to $145

" Economy rooms: $75 to $115

Facilities: Three restaurants; lobby bar; gift shops; pool/skating rink; gardens; Japanese bath house.

NIKKO, Japan -- No visit to Japan is complete without an excursion here.

This quiet, mountainside town offers a perfect combination of natural beauty and Japanese history, both of which can be found at the Toshogu shrine set in a forest at the end of the citys main street.

Listed as a Unesco World Heritage Site, Toshogu draws thousands of tourists each year.

Toshogus buildings are decorated lavishly with lacquer work and intricate relief carvings.

An integral part of Japanese history, Toshogu is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1868.

Built in 1616, the shrine consists of a dozen or so buildings of both Buddhist and Shinto design, all in pristine condition. The preserved buildings, combined with the forest setting and the Japanese tourists dressed in kimonos, make you feel as if youve taken a step back in time.

One of the most popular features of Toshogu is a carving called San-en, a rendition of the hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil proverb.

Travelers from all over the world visit Toshogu to contemplate -- and mimic -- this famous relief sculpture depicting the three monkeys.

On the shrines steps youll find tourists imitating the monkeys, making them almost as interesting to observe as the sculpture itself.

Although a splendid glimpse into the history and culture of Japan, Toshogu isnt the only reason to visit Nikko.

Located an hour outside town, Nikko National Park offers dense forests, hot springs, mountainside vistas and crisp, clean air. Its the perfect getaway from urban Tokyo, which is about 90 miles to the south.

The park can be accessed by bus via the Irohazaka, a mountain pass with needlepoint curves. The ride can be treacherous, as the bus winds its way around the mountain. The buses are often full, so be sure to arrive early to secure a seat.

The first stop in the park is Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls. The 320-foot waterfall is relaxing, the lake is crowded.

Yumoto, a small, hot springs town near Lake Yunoko, is by far a better option. Be sure to visit Onsenji, a Buddhist temple with hot springs that are open to the public. Guests can enjoy  the waters in the serenity of a Buddhist temple.

It is also worth visiting Yudaki, a 230-foot waterfall, and the Senjogahara Plateau Nature Trail, which winds along the Yugawa River. It takes about two hours to walk the entire trail.

Back in Nikko, the citys main street is filled with shops, restaurants and guesthouses and is a good place to try a local dish called yuba-ryori, tasty strips of tofu cooked in a stew.

Most restaurants on the main street close before 8 p.m., so it is advisable to eat dinner early or in your hotel.

The best place to stay while exploring Nikko is the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, located atop a mountain bluff. This luxury hotel is close to Toshogu shrine, the city center and the buses that run to the national park.

Dating from 1873, the hotel is a cultural experience in itself. Its one of the worlds oldest wooden hotels and features beautiful gardens and exquisite art and architecture.

Although the hotel has a historical feel, its 80 rooms have been renovated to suit modern needs. While comfortable, they dont offer the true Japanese guesthouse experience of tatami mats and futon beds, but the friendly staff makes up for this with the hospitality for which Japan is famous.

There are eight classes of accommodations ranging from deluxe rooms with attached baths to economy rooms with shared showers. The class B rooms located in the annex are the best value, offering spacious rooms with private bathing facilities and a view of Mount Nantai.

To contact the reporter who wrote this article, send e-mail to [email protected].

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