In mid-October, a hand-picked team of non-Japanese professionals who have an intimate familiarity with Japanese culture and the tourism industry was assembled to take part in a three-day, two-night tour designed to make the most of the unique resources spread throughout Nikko National Park.
The first day began with a visit to the small town of Nishimachi and its surrounding area. Visiting the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa and gardens, built in the latter half of the Meiji Era (1868-1912) and long-used as a getaway for the imperial family, three days of exceptional dining began with a traditional kaiseki bento for lunch prepared locally. A group of local shop owners and individuals deeply rooted in the area helped guide the visitors throughout the town, strolling local backroads dotted with specialty shops ranging from locally-made rice cracker makers, to a retro-modern salon and kimono parlor, an old sake dealer, and other establishments dedicated to sharing local stories and treasures. As evening approached, the team made their way to the Shoubugahama Campgrounds nestled into an isolated shore of Lake Chuzenji. The evening culminated with a French cuisine-style dinner prepared and served on-site by a local chef using local ingredients paired with an array of local wine and sake.
Previously concealed in darkness due to the late arrival the previous evening, the travelers were stunned to rise-and-shine to the mirror on their doorstep that was Lake Chuzenji sprawling out before them, reflecting the autumn colors that painted the hillsides enveloping the lake. A lakefront breakfast buffet consisting of locally roasted coffee, fresh fruits and veggies, and hand-made soba galettes gave everyone the energy they needed for a light canoe trip around the lake. Lunch was hosted in a renovated boathouse built in the 1950s, providing a taste of an era when Nikko flourished as a popular summer resort for international visitors. After touring a series of local sightseeing highlights dotted around the lake, including Ryuzu Falls, the old Italian Embassy villa, and Futarasan Shrine, the travelers then made their way toward the small mountain village of Ieyasu-no-Sato deep in the mountain area of Okukinu, where another adventure in dining and accommodation awaited. In the inn's spacious, old-fashioned banquet hall, the visitors dined around a traditional open hearth and enjoyed unique foods consisting largely of locally caught wild game, such as deer, wild boar, and salamander.
The third and final day of the trip began with a visit to Kuriyama Toshogu Shrine, located in the hills right nearby the evening's accommodations. Learning about the small, hidden shrine's relationship to Japan's famous ruler, Tokugawa Ieyasu, and it's ties to the world heritage site, Nikko Toshogu Shrine, the group then trooped further into the mountains for a morning stroll around mountain lakes colored in the beautiful autumn leaves that adorned the valley surrounding Kawamata Dam. Heading then for their final destination, the Kirifuri-kogen highlands, the group encountered a pair of mountain priests undergoing ascetic training beneath a raging mountain waterfall, carrying on Nikko's culture of Shugendo, a Buddhist sect emphasizing reverence for, and a spiritual connection with the mountains and surrounding nature.