(See photos at end of story)

Japan, long known for polite culture and simple aesthetics, has a location two hours north of Tokyo with boisterous splashes of color that stand out in a way most of the nation prefers not to.

To be clear, the Nikko scene is not Shibuya on a Friday night, but rather a relaxing weekend getaway in a must-go-there-before-you-leave-Japan setting.

My wife and 2-month-old son accompanied me in a rented sedan from base — thus avoiding expensive out-of-pocket tolls! — and cruised our way toward what was said to be a magnificent explosion of foliage.

Once in Nikko, we checked into our hotel, quickly changed into warmer garb and strolled down to Central Nikko for a glimpse of the shops. We were disappointed, however, to encounter a super-sleepy village with few commercial businesses. Central Nikko is certainly pretty, but unless you like small trinkets, it’s no place to scratch a shopper’s itch. (We found out later that nearby Lake Chuzenji has lots of cool-looking storefronts.) Bummed, but not deterred, we returned to our Japanese-style hotel room where we sipped sake and melted away our workweek stress by slipping into the onsen on our private porch.

Refreshed, the next day we darted to check out one of the country’s most revered national treasures. Toshogu Shrine is a contrast to typical Japanese awareness. Sparing no amount of elaborate detail, the Toshogu complex is a campus of 17th-century buildings etched with finely painted wood carvings that decorate a bright-red finish overlaid by gold foil in many places. The shrine has many interesting elements to behold, including the Wise Three Monkeys carving that is credited for popularizing the "Hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" adage.

A picturesque pagoda set against lush green pines is likewise a sight to behold, as are the rest of its structures. Large crowds and the decor disqualify Toshugu Shrine as a place to get one’s Zen on, though it most certainly kept our little one amused.

After watching samurai archers on horseback hit their targets, we headed for Lake Chuzenji about 12 miles from Central Nikko. My wife had one desire — see Kegon Falls before the sun set. It took us an agonizing two hours to get to the lake due to bumper-to-bumper traffic, but boy was it worth it.

Aside from a road lined with breathtaking views of the fall’s best colors, we counted our blessings as we made it to the falls just before the sun dipped behind the cascading waters. We had finally found some harmony in a day packed with large crowds and enjoyable revelations. In fact, we can’t wait to get back to Nikko this winter when the crowds are sparse and the lake and surrounding mountains promise to be covered in white.

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