After nearly missing my train, I arrived in Nikko, a small mountain city famous for its shrines and temples. I had actually already been to Nikko a few weeks before, on a Temple-organized overnight trip to Tochigi. Ever since our bus passed through the onsen town of Lake Chuzenji, I’d wanted to come back by myself, hike, and spend time in the cafes overlooking the cloud-filled lake.
When I got off the train, it felt like I’d stepped through a time machine into fall. It was about ten degrees cooler than Tokyo, and everyone was bundled up in sweaters. Blue-gray clouds crept over the mountains, like the fingers of misty giants reaching up to peek into the valley. To get to Lake Chuzenji, I rode a bus up a winding mountain road, where we’d round a bend and all at once catch a glimpse of a stunning view of the mountains stretching out below us, rusty with autumn leaves.
Since I’d already experienced most of the tourist attractions in Nikko, I was content to explore the smaller areas at my own pace. Although the two-day trip felt like an adventure, I also intended it to be a calmer experience. And for the most part it was–except when night fell and it was time to check into the inn I’d booked for the night. I had never booked a place to stay by myself before. I was walking along a path between houses I wasn’t entirely sure I was supposed to be on, night rapidly falling, suddenly filled with worry: What if this place was kind of sketchy? I was traveling alone; what if something happened to me? What if I couldn’t find it? How exactly do you check in, again?
It all worked out fine–after some initial awkwardness, I figured it out. The owner offered me a few cookies wrapped in plastic along with my room key, “for Halloween,” and otherwise left me pretty much alone. I went out for a walk in the tiny town, which had completely shut down after seven o’clock. The quiet and the darkness were no longer familiar to me after nearly two months in Tokyo; I could hear the mist pattering down on the ground beside my feet.
It felt a bit lonely staying at the inn by myself, but the next day (after breakfast looking out on the lake) I set out on a six-hour hike.
The nature trail took me along two lakes, into woods, and through a field full of grasses that change color with the autumn leaves (Senjogahara). I stopped for lunch at a tea house at the base of a famous waterfall said to resemble a dragon. There were a lot of other travelers–families, couples, other people traveling alone–who would greet me in Japanese or English as they passed. I felt proud of myself for deciding to take this trip to an unknown place alone, buying the train tickets, figuring out a place to stay, and then coming here, where I was crossing paths with other travelers. With the quiet of the woods settling into my mind, I felt like I was exactly where I was supposed to be.