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Sunday, Sept. 5, 2010

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Time capsule: Chuzenji Temple, which dates from 784. CHRIS BAMFORTH PHOTOS

Lofty tonic in the heat

Lake Chuzenji is the place to go in summer


Special to The Japan Times

So what do you do when it's summer in Japan and the heat and humidity have become just plain silly?

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Away from it all: The Yukawa River at Senjogahara.

You can seek solace in air-conditioned spaces or in the cold depths of fermented beverages. Or you can do as the Brits did in the days of the Raj and head for the hills.

For those seeking refuge from the hot and dusty metropolis, the place of choice has long been Lake Chuzenji.

Just as British colonials repaired to hill stations to elude the ferocious Indian summer, so foreigners in late 19th-century Japan began making for this lake in Tochigi Prefecture. Nestling under the dominating cone of Mount Nantai, and above the spectacularly sinuous twin roads (one up, one down) of Irohazaka that connect it with ancient Nikko and its lurid temples, the lake — which sits at an altitude of almost 1,300 meters — can be relied on for its cooling summer temperatures.

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Kegon Falls

The relationship between the lake and the mountain goes beyond physical proximity. As the somehow ominous appearance of Mount Nantai suggests, the mountain is a volcano. When it erupted around 20,000 years ago, the vented lava dammed a river, thereby creating the lake. And even though it last erupted 7,000 years ago, Mount Nantai's rugged pyroclastic slopes give it the air of somehow always being ready to give another hefty blast.

Nantai did more than beget the lovely lake. It also produced Kegon Falls, which would have to figure in anyone's list of the grandest cascades in the country. The falls have a drop of almost 100 meters, and it is definitely worth paying the ¥530 charge to take the elevator that distance down to view the cataract from below.

There, too, you can admire Mount Nantai's igneous handiwork in the polygonal lava columns that wall the rocky amphitheater centered on the falls — before, that is, you pose for the de rigueur photo with the cascade as a backdrop. Truly, not even a jaded long-term resident who has seen the falls umpteen times can fail to be gobsmacked by the sheer splendor of it all.

If the Kegon Falls are the most exhilarating sight in the area, the most elegant comes in the shape of the temple that lent its name to the lake.

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The volcanic cone of Mount Nantai towers over Lake Chuzenji.

Chuzenji Temple was founded in 784 by a high priest named Shodo. One day, the holy man climbed to the top of Mount Nantai and at the summit was presented with an image of the bodhisattva Kannon reflected in the surface of the lake. Just to make sure that the message got across to Shodo, the deities decided to expedite matters: "An angel descended from heaven to sing and dance" for the gent, as the official pamphlet to Chuzenji notes.

So, with Shodo having been the lucky recipient of both a divine vision and a spot of holy vaudeville, what else could he do but build a temple there and then on the spot?

It is fortunate indeed that the angel did make a song and a dance about it, because Chuzenji is a blissfully placid temple by the blissfully placid lake — apart from the odd powerboat larking about. Constructed into the hillside, it is a place of gracefully curving tiled roofs sitting atop brick-red wooden columns and walls, wooden floors creaking to the tread of one's feet, the scent of incense drifting through the air.

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Chill-out time at the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park.

The chief object of veneration at the temple is a six-meter-tall statue of the Kannon of Shodo's vision, replete with 11 faces and 1,000 hands. Though originally male in India, Kannon in Japan generally underwent gender modification and in most places is regarded as female. But the Chuzenji Kannon did not go in for the sex change, and he stands there in the temple completely at one with his masculinity and flanked by his two blokey mates.

Not far along the lake's shore from the temple stands an atmospheric remainder from the days when foreigners were rather a novelty in Japan and Lake Chuzenji operated as an international summering place. The embassies of numerous countries built villas beside the lake, and from around 1890 (when a railway opened between Ueno Station in Tokyo and Nikko) to 1930, this was where embassy staff and their families came to relax, fish for trout and go yachting.

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Fish'n'sticks: A vendor grills lake-caught trout in the area above Kegon Falls.

Dating from 1928, the buildings of the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park make a delightful spot by the lakeside, their bark-shingle outer walls standing attractively among the Japanese maples of the grounds.

A century after the foreign community flocked to the place, Lake Chuzenji still wears a comfortable resort atmosphere. Strung out along the lakeside are eateries specializing in the fish that provided sport for diplomats, and newspaper cuttings displayed in stores attest to the prodigious size of specimens that latter-day anglers have hooked and hauled out.

As I dined on trout and handmade soba (buckwheat) noodles, the owner made a point of closing the outer door so as, she said, "to keep the monkeys out." The word she used to refer to them was the polite "o-saru-san," which is somehow charming considering the beasts' proclivity for breaking into local people's homes, causing havoc, stealing food and — as human burglars sometimes do — leaving less wholesome reminders on the floor of their ingress.

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Nature of a more agreeable kind can be appreciated amid the elevated marshlands of Senjogahara and Odashirogahara straddling the Yukawa River north of the lake. A sweet smell hangs in the air as you stroll along the boardwalks among a woodland of cypresses and silver birch, carpeted by bamboo grass and ferns. The wooden pathways follow the course of lazy streams, in which the weed undulates like a long green mane. If you are lucky, on the other side of a marshy expanse you may catch a glimpse of deer, heads bowing into the grass.

The place is wonderfully tranquil, and as you take in its sole sounds of rippling water, a low hum of insects and occasional bird-chatter, you realize that this really is the perfect tonic after the hot summer city.

Getting there: From Asakusa Station in Tokyo, Nikko can be reached in 100 min. by Tobu Railways special express train. The bus from Nikko to Lake Chuzenji (Chuzenjiko Onsen bus terminal) takes about 50 min.


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