The 400 year plus old Kanaya House

As one sinks into old age, the opportunities to make a difference become limited, and I question my relevance. So, I have been thrilled to hear I have made the tiniest of difference to the Kanaya history museum in Nikko, Japan – the exquisite little Inn my travel hero, writer and explorer ISABELLA BIRD stayed at in 1878 with her young Japanese guide Ito Tsurukichi.

Kanaya was built in the 1600’s, originally as a home for a high ranked Samurai officer and his family. When the Edo period passed, samurais found themselves out of work, and turned to other employment. In this case, the Kanaya family decided to enter the hospitality business, transforming their home into a small Inn. Today, that Inn is a museum – the Kanaya history house – registered in 2014 as a ‘nationally-designated tangible cultural property’

The rooms Isabella and Ito stayed in are preserved as they were when the travelling duo was there for a 12 day stay. The rooms are adjoining – hers on an upper level looking out to the front garden, and his at the back of hers on a lower level with a connecting door.

Ito’s room looking up into Isabella’s room
Isabella’s room, looking out to the front garden

Kanaya provided their last nights of comfort before they set out by horse and by foot into the rugged mountainous interior where many Japanese had never seen a Westerner.

Isabella wrote fondly about the Kanaya house and the Samurai family that ran it.

It is a Japanese idyll; there is nothing within or without which does not please the eye, and, after the din of yadoyas, its silence, musical with the dash of waters and the twitter of birds, is truly refreshing. It is a simple but irregular two-storied pavilion, standing on a stone-faced terrace approached by a flight of stone steps. The garden is well laid out, and, as peonies, irises, and azaleas are now in blossom, it is very bright. The mountain, with its lower part covered with red azaleas, rises just behind, and a stream which tumbles down it supplies the house with water, both cold and pure, and another, after forming a miniature cascade, passes under the house and through a fish-pond with rocky islets into the river below. ISABELLA BIRD

Looking out to the back garden

I almost wish that the rooms were a little less exquisite, for I am in constant dread of spilling the ink, indenting the mats, or tearing the paper windows.” ISABELLA BIRD

Isabella’s room

The house is not only known for Bird’s visit. It is an architectural heritage that provides an excellent example of a traditional Samurai residence, complete with Samurai secret escape hatches for use if the home was under attack. My husband was most impressed! ‘Boys own adventure’ stuff! When you enter, you are transported back to old Japan. It is a delight to visit – and to my mind – an absolute must for a Nikko itinerary.

Kanaya house has some other unique features not usually seen in Japanese homes – many unnecessary staircases, stairs built behind doors, and low ceilings – features that were all part of the home’s Samurai defence systems. In 2014, the building was registered as a nationally-designated cultural property and it was opened to the public in 2015 under the name of Kanaya Hotel History House.

Samurai weapon

Being a enthusiastic Isabella Bird fan, Kanaya was a priority for my Japan trip in NOVEMBER this year (2022).

It nearly didn’t happen. Unbelievably, our train from Tokyo to NIKKO was delayed because of a railway crossing problem. I say unbelievably because late trains are a rarity in Japan. I had never before seen one that was even out by a second on its schedule. So we were confused and shocked when our train didn’t turn up!

We even jumped on another train in that confusion, thinking it was ours – it was, after-all, at our platform! Other people were in our ‘designated seats’ – wrong train – get off quick! Thankfully, we were only going to Nikko on a day trip, so we weren’t lugging baggage.

The problem with a day trip, involving a four hour return train journey, is that time is of the essence, and our time for Nikko was seriously being eaten into by our train delay! A further complication was that this was a two stage trip – with a connections to be made en route between a shinkensen to a local train.

Announcements about the delays and changing timetable were blaring out over loud speakers, but in our panic, we couldn’t grasp what was happening. When in doubt, ask, is my motto – so a quick consultation with a railway official who told us our train was still coming, but its arrival could be hours away! He urged us towards another train and an unreserved carriage, assuring us it was going the same way! Thankfully, it was.

Our day in NIKKO – a few hours journey from Tokyo – was always going to be a tight schedule. The trip there on Japan Railways using our JR pass takes about two hours. You can do a more direct shorter trip with the Tobu Railway,  but the fare is not covered by the JR pass.

Nikko has an abundance of tourist attractions that people come from all over the world to see. But for our short day trip, I only had three main places I was aiming for – the famous KEGON falls, Japan’s highest elevation Lake – Chuzenji, and – most importantly for me – the Kanaya house.

On arrival in Nikko, we quickly opted for a day ticket on a public bus that took us up into the mountains to the Lake and the Falls – a journey of about 50 minutes – mostly on a winding road with more bends and drops than I care to think about. But great views. En route, I knew we would pass Kanaya house, and we looked out for it so we’d know where to get off on our return journey. To my dismay, we failed to spot it. This was a worry as there were scores of bus stops en route, time was running short and we didn’t want to get off at the wrong one and be stranded. I lost my travelling cool, upset at the thought I might not get to visit Kanaya.

A brochure for the buses points out that announcements are in Japanese, but you can see a screen at the front of the bus with bus stop numbers. The trouble is, if you don’t know what bus stop number to get off at, you are – to put it politely, a little stuffed! These public buses don’t linger, and don’t stop unless you push the button!

I cursed the fact that we’d chosen a cheap day ticket for the public bus, instead of the more expensive and tourist oriented World Heritage bus. Few drivers on the public buses speak english. Because Nikko has so many tourist and pilgrim attractions, Kanaya house doesn’t stand out.

The Kanaya website is available in English, with location instructions, but they weren’t explicit enough and provided no bus stop number. There is a big sign outside the house, but if you are on the wrong side of the bus, you can easily miss it!

Luckily, as our time whittled away, we found a little tourist info office hidden away in a museum at Lake Chuzenji and they gave us what we needed – directions and the all important bus stop number. The most simple information, essential for us.

Lake Chuzenji

The lovely people at the tourist office also assured us that the public buses ran by the house very regularly, so there would be no problem catching one quickly for the trip back to the train station in Nikko township. I might add at this point that relocating the tourist office to a more prominent, easy to spot location for visitors, might be a good idea! We were very thankful for that tourist office. Earlier, we had wandered into a shop at Lake Chuzenji that had a tourist info sign, but after climbing two flights of steep stairs, we found it was a closed booking office for the ferry, and in our time of need, no one in the shop spoke English.

The Kanaya house was worth all our effort and it did not disappoint. Many of the house’s original features written about by Isabella are still there.

The story of Isabella’s remarkable 1800’s Japanese travels were published in the book ‘Unbeaten Tracks in Japan’, still on sale today. She would become a famous travel writer, photographer and explorer, and was the first woman admitted as a member of the Royal Geographical Society. Ito also had a successful life, playing a role in opening Japan up to tourism. He was involved in the establishment of the Kaiyusha, the first Japanese guide organisation and interpreted work for State guests in Japan.

Our difficulties reaching Kanaya House reflected a little of what Isabella also faced when Ito went ahead in Nikko to check out the Inn.

Ito was long away, and the coolies kept addressing me in Japanese, which made me feel helpless and solitary, and eventually they shouldered my baggage, and, descending a flight of steps, we crossed the river by the secular bridge, and shortly met my host, Kanaya, a very bright, pleasant-looking man, who bowed nearly to the earth.

My husband and I were also greeted by a lovely Japanese lady, who guided us around the house, explaining in English its many features. There is a very small entrance fee to pay, but it is worth it.

Next door is a bakery cafe – another worthwhile visit. Our tussle with time meant we couldn’t enjoy one of their meals – I have heard their curries are good. But we quickly bought some of their delicious cakes and pastries for our train journey back to Tokyo.

The bakery

What has this all got to do with relevance? On my return to Australia, I emailed the Kanaya house suggesting the bus stop be added to the website location information. And they emailed back to thank me for the suggestion and advise me their website managers would be making the change. 😊 As indeed they did!

Such simple things add joy to my life! And a tiny bit of relevance! Of course, I was inspired to pursue the bus stop issue by the spirit of Isabella Bird! She would never have given up!

It’s BUS STOP 10, by the way!

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