Reviews of bucket-list-worthy things to do all over the world

A Shrine in the Woods!

Mist hung in the air and the sky threatened rain, when we arrived in Nikko, Japan, for an afternoon visit. The train trip from Tokyo to Nikko Station (free with our JR pass) would have taken about two hours had we not made a pit stop along the way, in Utsunomiya, where we spent the morning at a local zoo, hand-feeding monkeys, lemurs, giraffes, and an elephant.

From Nikko Station, we walked along streets lined with private homes and tiny shops toward Nikko’s most popular shrine, Nikko Toshogu. We knew that we were close to the shrine when we arrived at Shinkyo (Sacred Bridge). Below the bright red-orange bridge, an eerie vapor hung over blue-green water that rushed over boulders.
In the nearby mystical woods, we ascended the steps of a pathway lined with moss-covered low stone walls.
After passing under a huge stone torii (gate) and checking out a pretty five-story pagoda ...
... we purchased our tickets to enter the shrine grounds. There were two options, a 1,300 yen ticket that covered admission to all parts of the shrine or a 1,000 yen ticket that covered admission to all parts of the shrine except the nemuri neko (a carving depicting a sleeping cat) and Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb. I chose to bypass the carving and the tomb.

Up more stone steps, at the shrine entrance, two large, red-painted carvings of menacing guardian gods watched us enter.
Then, the beauty unfolded around us. There were stone lanterns, many of which wore crowns of moss and ferns provided by Mother Nature.
The brightly-painted shrine buildings were adorned with golden accents. I was immediately impressed by the opulence and colorfulness of Nikko Toshogu, especially when compared to the other shrines that I’d seen in Japan.
I easily found the famous three monkeys carving on Shinkyu (Sacred Stable), thanks to a small group of photographers training their lenses on it. This carving was the origin of the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys.
There were other non-famous, but interesting, monkey carvings on the same building. My favorite: one of a mother monkey and her baby.
I’d heard that inside one of the buildings, called Yakushido, there was a room that gives off a “dragon’s cry” when one claps. I found the building and joined a group of people inside. A monk gave an approximately five-minute presentation, entirely in Japanese. I understood none of it, and spent the time admiring the dragon painting on the ceiling. At the end of his talk, the monk held two wooden blocks in his hands and clapped them together. It sounded… like two blocks being clapped together. Then he walked to a different spot in the room and clapped them again. This time, the clap sounded completely different, like a cat’s purr. It was nothing at all like I would imagine that a dragon would sound, but then again, I don’t really know how a dragon cry should sound.

The threatening sky finally opened up, sending out a light rain. Judging by the lush green vegetation, rain is frequent in Nikko. People pulled out umbrellas and, probably because closing time was fast approaching, they began to leave. Soon, my friend and I had the shrine practically to ourselves.  
I felt a wonderful sense of peace and serenity… and a grumbling in my stomach.

We walked back through the sleepy town of Nikko, looking for Hippari Dako, a restaurant that was recommended in my friend’s Lonely Planet guidebook. Most every restaurant that we passed was closed for the day (most restaurants were only open for lunch), but fortunately, Hippari Dako was open.

The walls of the one-dining-room restaurant were covered with notes, business cards, and foreign money, tacked up by travelers from all over the world. 
 I ordered and devoured a delicious bowl of curry udon. Before I left, I added a My Dream Came True card to the dining room décor. If you’re ever at Hippari Dako, maybe you’ll find it. If you do, be sure to let me know!

I did this in 2013 in Nikko, Japan.

Jen (California, USA)

P.S. Inspired by my trip to Japan, I wrote a novel called Lost in Tokyo, about a girl finding herself and falling in love. Lost in Tokyo is available at and is FREE with Kindle Unlimited!

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Nineteen-year-old Erin is hoping that her visit to Japan with her best friend, Adam, will be life-changing. When Erin was just four years old, her mother mysteriously vanished. Erin's only clue to her mother's possible whereabouts is a hand-written itinerary for a dream trip to Japan, a trip that Erin doesn't know if her mother ever had the chance to take. Erin has decided to carry out this itinerary, believing that it might help her find her mother.

But Erin's trip won't be going according to plan.

Hours after they arrive in Tokyo, in a jet-lagged fog, Erin and Adam end up in bed together. While struggling with the tension that now dominates their once innocent friendship and the trauma stirred up from Erin's painful past, Erin and Adam visit the places on her mother's list. As they explore the wonders of Japan, Erin finds herself haunted by strange "memories" that seem to belong to her mother. Could these memories be real? If so, perhaps her mother can be found.

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