Winter in Japan; The road to learning the Japanese alphabet

THEME parks and towers, castles and temples, the busiest intersection and street are all good to see but there is so much more to see—and experience—off the major tourist stops in the popular cities of the Land of the Rising Sun.

While spring is a great time to visit Japan for the famed Sakura, autumn is just as beautiful. The candy tones of pink and white blooms of spring are fleeting but the vibrant red and gold leaves of autumn linger longer.

I was glad I caught the tail end of autumn and showered with last few falling leaves of a willow tree in the garden of a temple. It was the onset of winter and I was in Isesaki in the Gunma Prefecture. Later that day, I was told we were going on a road trip to Nikko.

Nikko is a city in the Tochigi Prefecture, north of the Kanto Region, which encompasses seven prefectures that includes Gunma and Tokyo. The drive will take more than hour across a winding road, which my hosts said, I should see and experience. That got me wondering why.

As a prelude to the “main event” I was welcomed by a beautiful tune, not on the radio but the one produced by the road—a Melody Road.

Of the four permanently paved Melody Roads in Japan, one is in Gunma. It’s the shortest at 175 meters and consists of 2,559 grooves and produces the tune of “Memories of Summer”. The other three are 250-meter stretches in Hokkaido, Wakayama and Shizukoa.

Now for the exciting part of the drive, it’s Japanese alphabet time through the Irohazaka Winding Road.

The winding road of Irohazaka is a famous road that connects Okuzo Nikko and central Nikko. It ascends to 400 meters in altitude and was originally a two-way street. Today it has two separate one-way roads, one for uphill and another for downhill traffic.

Since the early Showa era, the road was referred to as Irohazaka, from the ancient Japanese alphabet consisted of 48 letters, the same number of hairpin curves along the slope.

In 1954, the road was improved and the number of turns was reduced to 30. But adding a second road, a one-way street heading up the slope, increased the number of curves to 50. To match the number of letters in the Japanese alphabet system, two roads were removed and brought back the count to 48.

At each turn, there is a corresponding sign with an alphabet below the illustration of Nikko’s city flower, the azalea. Heading up and down, the signage is arranged in alphabetical order.

Here’s a trivia about this road. Did you know that in the past this road was for ascetics? Going up the slopes was not allowed to women and horses. There is also a giant stone on the slope, which is said to have a magnetic force.

Autumn is one of the best times to pass the Irohazaka Winding Road as trees flank both sides of the road and the koyo (Colorful leaves) is a sight to behold. I missed it as I arrived just after the leaves fell to ground on early winter. The last one whispered, “You should come back soon.” Oh yes, I will.

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