It's more than a few furlongs from Avondale Racecourse to a 17th-century Shinto shrine in Nikko but the link is strong, writes Dean Parker

"Now the balloon's up and they're under starter's orders," I barked. "Regal Monarch, the favourite, looking settled with the inside draw … "

No interest from the sacred horse standing before me, the sole inhabitant in a sacred stable, though a crowd of Japanese inspecting wooden carvings nearby became intrigued.

Tokugawa dynasty men in traditional costume at the Nikko Spring Festival. Photo / Getty Images
Tokugawa dynasty men in traditional costume at the Nikko Spring Festival. Photo / Getty Images

"This time! Mum's Pav first out, followed by She'll Be Right, Regal Monarch handily placed in third … "

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The Japanese had now come into the stable to watch me doing my race-call horse-whispering, but I was getting total indifference from the great horse. It just stood there in all its sanctity, looking away from me into the distance.

I tried a different tack. I gave out a long wail, followed by an invocation. "Now the siren has sounded. Hold all tickets. Stewards' inquiry into race six. Horses involved are seven, eight, nine and 10 …"

Success! The beast turned its head to stare at me. Everyone cheered.

"Ash!" called out my companion.

It turned and looked at her.

"Ash! We've come from Avondale."

What was that look in its eyes? Ancient memories?

Ash used to be the mount of the Clerk of the Course at the Avondale Races, a great handsome thing, a whiter shade of grey. A few years ago he was presented to the Japanese Government — the fourth in a series of gifted horses going back to the 1970s — and his homely name peremptorily changed to Kotuku.

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He now lodges in the oldest wooden stable in Japan, 17th century and elaborately carved, part of a magnificent shrine near Nikko. There he embodies the noble spirit of all horses, his every wish rightly attended to by reverential Shinto monks.

Not bad for an Avondale Westie.

Most New Zealanders visiting Tokyo take a cultural side-trip down to Kyoto as an add-on. Kyoto is the old Japanese capital, site of ancient Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. But Nikko has Kyoto beat. And it also has Ash.

It's a small town nestled in mountains, a two-hour train ride north of Tokyo.

There are climbing roads from here that are all Devil's Elbows, taking you up into mountain streams, cypress groves, lilies, blossoming pink cherry trees, milky-blue lakes, glaciers, sulphurous hot springs, cedars, pines, spectacular waterfalls, marshlands, ancient wooden bridges, fallen timber, dead trees — and silence.

And at the foot of all this, among the trees, are sublimely painted shrines, temples and palaces.

It's outrageously enchanting.

Toshogu Shrine, where Ash is stabled, is set in a grove of ancient cedars, a dazzling sight when the sun strikes the gold paint of the palaces and pagodas among all the greenery.

For two years 15,000 artisans from all over Japan worked here, carving, gilding, painting and lacquering.

For this is the burial place of the 17th century warlord and shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu who established a dynasty that ruled Japan for 250 years.

We stayed three brilliant days and on returning to Tokyo the obvious next move was a day at the races.

It's what Ash would have wanted.

At the Tokyo track

From central Tokyo,take the metro to Fuchu station (an $8 fare) and follow the punters. The track is minutes away, entrance $2.50.

Betting at the race track in Tokyo. Photo / Dean Parker
Betting at the race track in Tokyo. Photo / Dean Parker

"Feel refreshed by the brilliant green ofthe turf and the pleasant breeze," said my Japanese Racing Authority booklet. The layoutis immediately familiarto anyone who has been to Ellerslie, with the addition of batty souvenir shops filled with horsey stuff.

Firstrace is at 10am, last at 4.30pm. Lunch break is at 12.30pm and you can have a fine sliced pork, rice and cabbage for $7 and a decent handle of beer for $4. No Auckland prices here. After each race a white-coated brigade emerge to replace divots on the home straight.

You could be at the polo if it wasn't for the usual desperates at the beer tables, gazing at their race cards, trying to find a winner. The race card is online, in English, with a full account of form.

To make a bet you go to the information desk under the main stand and ask for an English language betting guide.

This is a plastic window into which you place your Japanese betting slip. English instructions on the window guide you in filling out the slip.

All betting is automated. Once you've filled in your slip you take it to one ofthe vending machines and insert it with your dough. It's a cheap and hugely enjoyable family day.

Give the tea ceremony a miss, forget the view from the Park Hyatt — head to the track!

TOP TIP

Best time to do a Tokyo-Nikko horse trip is May.

In Tokyo, the races are just about every weekend that month.

In Nikko, on May 17, there is a festival tribute to the shogun of old with hundreds of horsemen dressed in ancient costume parading through the streets; the cherry blossom is out and the noble Westie Ash is always waiting.

CHECKLIST

GETTING THERE
Air New Zealand flies from Auckland to Tokyo, daily to Narita and a seasonal three times weekly service to Haneda (until May 2). One-way Economy Class fares start from $499 for travel between April 8-June 28.

DETAILS
In Tokyo at Asakusa or Sky Tree train stations you can buy a return ticket to Nikko plus a bus pass that gives you up to four days' local travel, all for $83.

ACCOMMODATION
In Nikko we stayed at the welcoming Park Lodge Hotel, up on the Nikko slopes: $140 a night for the two of us, including breakfast and an excellent dinner.

A Shinto priest sweeps under the Yomeimon gate at Tosho-gu Shrine. Photo / Getty Images
A Shinto priest sweeps under the Yomeimon gate at Tosho-gu Shrine. Photo / Getty Images