Postcards from Japan: becoming the first foreign opening rider of a Shinto ritual, and Nikko's hidden gems with Michael No

Michael No came to Japan in 2012 with plans of spending a cheeky year to refresh through farm life in Saitama prefecture. This working holiday first turned into 18 months, and then suddenly he's been living there for nearly ten years! Michael's travels brought him to Nikko where his curiosity to learn yabusame, a shinto ritual of mounted archery, turned into a 7 year passion, a job at Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura and a blossoming carreer as a Japan blogger!

We talked to Michael about his journey, insider's tips for exploring Nikko an area famed for its natural beauty, and his expert food recommendations.


Could you tell us a little about yourself?

I was born and raised in the eastern suburbs of Melbourne, Australia, and now live in Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture which I call home for 8 years now. I work for Edo Wonderland as Deputy Manager of Planning and Sales. If you can’t find me in the office or out promoting the park, you’ll probably find me working with horses or riding dirt bikes in the mountains.  

What first got you enthusiastic about Japan?

Well I grew up doing Judo, Astro Boy and Monkey Magic were my favourite shows, plus most of the motorbikes I owned were Japanese but my interest in Japan only seriously sparked after my first holiday here. I love all the natural beauty, traditional architecture, history, and cuisine, but first and foremost it’s the people, the incredible hospitality and the fact that the moral integrity found here is second to none.

How did you end up settling in Japan?

It was never my plan to settle - back in 2012 before starting in a new direction, I decided to refresh with a quick working holiday in Japan. A quick few months rapidly turned into 18. I spent the first year in the quiet country town of Obusuma, Saitama Prefecture, working at an organic farm, dawn till dusk planting, harvesting, collecting eggs, and eating only produce from the farm. I trained Judo and Kyudo several days a week. It was an incredible time and by far the healthiest I’ve been in my life. With only a few months left on my visa, I was itching to get out of the town and see the rest of Japan. My boss was incredibly kind to gift me an old mini farm truck which I named it after her, loaded it up with a bag of essentials, my Judo and Kyudo gear, a foam mattress, tarpaulin, and then took off on a solo road trip for a couple of months.

I washed in rivers and slept in the back of the truck even through a typhoon. I visited dojos to train as I moved around Honshu, Shikoku, and Kyushu, and by late October I arrived in Nikko, just in time for the display of autumn leaves. While in Nikko I came to drink with a man and as we spoke I shared my ambition to learn yabusame (shinto ritual of mounted archery). It turned out this man knew one of the members of the renowned Ogasawara school of mounted archery and offered to introduce me. He also happened to be the owner of a company with horses. I immediately offered to volunteer for his company for the remainder of my time in Japan. That man became my boss, I’ve now been practicing yabusame for 7 years and still work for Edo Wonderland today, though no longer as a volunteer.  

You currently work for Edo Wonderland. Could you tell us a bit about the park and what it offers to visitors? 

Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura is a cultural theme park. The word theme park may evoke images of rides and neon lights but none of that can be found here. Through live shows, activities, and exhibits, we are solely dedicated to showcasing the culture of the Edo period. The property spans approximately 50 hectares of mountains and forests with about 5 hectares developed into a faithful recreation of an Edo period townscape. 80% of our customers are Japanese, consisting mostly of families, friend groups, and couples both young and old. Of our shows, the ninja show is very popular, as is the Oiran courtesan performance, and then there are lots of great activities like ukiyo-e woodblock printing, aizome indigo dying, and musical experiences like shamisen or taiko drum lessons.

What’s your favourite thing about Edo Wonderland and what would you most recommend to someone coming for the first time? 

I think we have struck a great balance between entertainment and a genuine connection with Edo culture. We’re supported by highly dedicated staff and are closely connected to many traditional artisans and groups. The open and friendly atmosphere makes it easy for guests to access different aspects of Edo culture in one location, there really isn't another place like it.  I strongly recommend visitors to try the kenjutsu sword training workshop, where they can learn the basics of handling a Japanese sword, or the Yabusame experience where participants will get to try traditional training methods of mounted archery on a wooden horse using antique Edo period saddles.

Also, wearing kimono is optional but in my opinion a must. Many places around Japan offer kimono rental, but what's special here is that customers choose a kimono suited to a particular job or class of person, for example, ronin masterless samurai, lord, princess, farmer, and so on. Wearers can expect to be treated according to appearance, some kimono demand more respect than others, it greatly enhances the customer experience and is excellent for taking photos.

How would you recommend someone include it in an itinerary?

To do Edo Wonderland justice I would dedicate at least half a day - there are more than enough shows and activities to take a full day, but half a day should allow guests to pick and choose the points that interest them most. Since Nikko is a couple of hours each way from Tokyo, I strongly advise against attempting Nikko as a day trip. It can be done, but only in a very limited way and travellers will miss more than they see. I highly recommend at least a one night stay in Nikko combining a half day in Edo Wonderland, and a half day in the UNESCO temples and shrines, taking advantage of our free shuttle bus for connection, then on day two spending the day slowly taking in the national park around Chuzenji Lake, Kegon falls, and maybe an activity like a stand up paddle boarding tour on Chuzenji lake with Sup! Sup! Nikko which offers an incredible panorama of the national park. If hiking is of interest, try taking one of the shorter hikes around Yunoko Lake or Mt Hangetsu through pristine alpine forest, just be wary of bears!  

Edo Wonderland is located very close to Nikko, one of Japan’s most famous collections of temples and shrines. What are some of your favourite things to do in Nikko and why do you think it is so popular? 

Toshogu shrine, and Rinnoji temple are amazing, but there are a lot of other cool places close by that are not in the spotlight, like Kanaya Hotel History Museum which is a actually a 360 year old samurai residence with an interesting history. British explorer, Isabella Bird stayed as a guest there in 1878. Then there is the Tamozawa Imperial Villa just across the road, where Emperor Hirohito stayed during World War 2 - a reminder of those times you can still see in a bomb shelter hidden in the gardens. And I love the historical lakeside British and Italian embassy villas. Not only are the views incredible, they provide a lot of interesting information, photos and film, from the early days when foreign diplomats spent summers on the lake having yacht races, and fly fishing. Over 1300 years ago Nikko established itself as a place for the practice of ascetic life and over the centuries it has become the final resting place of two shoguns and the getaway for emperors and foreign diplomats. I think to this day it’s the remote nature and rugged beauty that attract people. 

What else is there to do in the wider Nikko area, that a normal tourist might not normally do? Anything that sets it apart from other parts of Japan? 

For nature and outdoor enthusiasts there is quite a lot, with plenty of multiple day hikes through some amazing landscapes, incredible trout fisheries, and water sport opportunities like canyoning, rafting, kayaking and even stand-up paddle boarding in the dead of winter to witness beautiful natural ice formations. Personally I’m hooked on climbing frozen waterfalls. Certainly not things the average tourist will do but there are tours available for all these things.

Any food recommendations?
Yuba is the trademark food of Nikko - it’s soy based food with a very delicate flavour and is served in many ways. In the summer months, Nikko is famous for kakigori desserts made from natural ice formed over winter and kept in traditional store houses, no refrigeration, worth a try for sure. For the really adventurous, though not common, in the real backcountry of Nikko you can find traditional mountain foods like salamanders, river crabs, pheasant, wild boar, deer, and even bear stew.  

Some of my recommendations
Cafes
Nikko Coffee (A couple of locations, great coffee and meals)
Hongu Cafe (Shinto priest's home converted to cool cafe with a great menu)
Lunch
Nikko Yuba Zen (Great Yuba cuisine)
Pizza Linne (Excellent wood fired pizza made by a practicing Buddhist monk) 
Meiji no Yakata (Stylish western style cuisine, in the historical home of businessman F.W. Horn) 
Tonkatsu Asai (Best tonkatsu, 6 counter seats only, expect lines and wait)
Dinner
Zion (Traditional house converted into a very cool bar restaurant fusion Japanese)
Myogetsubo (Excellent Japanese style steak and grill in a beautifully renovated traditional home with gardens)
Unagi Uotoku (Over 100 years old delicious grilled eel restaurant)
Other
Katayama Shuzo and Watanabe Sahei Sake breweries, with tastings and tours
Sakaya Fried Yubamanju (Famous local sweet snack served hot in front of Tobu Nikko Station) 

What’s your favourite memory from living in Japan?

I have very fond memories from my early days in Japan with life on the farm when everything was new and even simple things were exciting. But it has been incredible to realise my dream of joining the Ogasawara school and partaking in yabusame rituals all around Japan. There are so many great benchmark memories related to my yabusame journey, but maybe the most special memory was being the opening rider for the first yabusame ritual of the new Reiwa era at Shimogamo Shrine, Kyoto in 2019. It was packed - Japan Times reported 25,000 spectators! There was a lot of preparation and an immense amount of pressure, and it was also the first time ever a foreigner had opened the ritual which I tried not to think about but still played at the back of my mind. Wearing the incredibly elaborate and heavy Heian period kimono, I rode a beautiful white thoroughbred gelding to successfully complete the ceremony hitting all targets. Just recalling that moment now, so many strong feelings and even the nerves rise up in me.

'This month we're looking at the word 'tabigokoro' meaning 'the innate urge to travel'. Where is it that you are most keen to travel to next within Japan and why?'

I just got back from my first trip to Okinawa to do some diving! I was so impressed - there’s a completely different vibe going on there, largely due to the Ryukuan kingdom roots and subtropical climate. It was a very different type of Japan. I am keen to go back soon to explore the other islands in the region (particularly Iriomote and Yonaguni), to dive with hammerheads, and to make my own judgement on if the mysterious Yonaguni underwater monument is manmade or a natural phenomenon.

 

Make sure to check out Michael's blog Wild in Nikko for more exciting content!

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