Check out that kaiseki! With so many dishes, I thought it most efficient to organise the photos from Nikko into slideshows. As an aside, I lost many of these photos when they were bizarrely and randomly wiped from the computer. In an amazing show of technical wizardry, Sandra managed to retrieve them from the camera even though they'd already been deleted from the memory card. Thank-you, thank-you, you genius! However, a few of them were unretrievable, leaving me with only blurry alternatives. Please excuse these!
Nikko is a town approximately 2 hours north-west of Tokyo. Being home to numerous hot-springs, ryokan (traditional Japanese inns) and the famously impressive (some would say gaudy) Toshougu mausoleum of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nikko is popular with both Japanese and foreign tourists. Toshougu tends to get incredibly crowded by the middle of the day, so it makes sense to leave Tokyo bright and early (say, 8am?), or to stay the previous night in Nikko. We did the latter. Below we have some photos of the Toshougu.
If you do make it out to Japan, I would highly recommend a stay in a ryokan. A nice night of relaxing may be the perfect antidote to days of frenzied shopping and sightseeing. A proper ryokan is deeply fabulous, with gorgeous food, rooms, baths and fluffy fluffy futons, but can also be very expensive. On the other side of the scale, a shitty cheap ryokan will provide little more than a traditionally styled building, and probably won't be worth the trouble.
In the end, we chose a place between these 2 extremes - the Nikko Green Hotel, which looks like a western hotel on the outside, but has wonderful Japanese style rooms, onsen (hot spring baths) and Japanese kaiseki dinners and breakfasts. We were recommended here by a friend who'd stayed here a few months earlier. (Actually, it was the same friend who told me about the cheap Paul Bocuse Brasserie lunch... what a legend!)
Whilst all ryokan are slightly different, and each will have their own character, they all share some basic features.
1. After you check in, the maid will show you to your room, show you the amenities, and explain where the baths are, where and when dinner is served, how to wear your yukata (cotton relaxing robe) and so on. If you need help understanding anything, now is the time to ask. Sometimes they make you tea, otherwise they will point out tea-making facilities to you.
2. Take your bath! Japanese public baths are fantastic, an integral part of traditional Japanese culture and just so relaxing. By the way, an onsen is a bath with natural hot spring water, and an ofuro is a regular old public bath. Both good! (Guide to onsen and ofuro etiquette here.) You can actually take your bath whenever you want - at our hotel the baths were open from 5 in the morning until 11 at night - but we found this time to be the most convenient.
3. At the appropriate time, head down to the dinner area. This may be served in your room, or in a restaurant within the hotel. Enjoy your kaiseki!
See above for a photo of the entire table, see below slideshow for closeups. (Click on the speech bubble in the bottom left hand corner for captions).
Overall, I enjoyed the meal, even though I found some items too unusual even for my taste. There were some items whose names I couldn't get; the staff spoke less English than I do Japanese, which made finding out the names of dozens of dishes extremely difficult.
4. While you are eating, maids will come to your room and set out the futons for sleeping. So come back and sleep, full, relaxed and content. Aaah...goodnight everybody...
5. ...but make sure you set your alarm and make it down in time for breakfast! I enjoyed the breakfast even more than the dinner. Having a nice, big, hot, nutritious breakfast was a brilliant way to start the day. (Again, click on the speech bubble in the bottom left hand corner for captions).
Above all, relax!! Don't get too worried about the little details, and simply ask the staff if you need help or clarification. (The staff at the Green Hotel were particularly helpful!) The point of staying in a ryokan is to relax. As all the staff say, go-yukuri shite kudasai! (Take it easy).