The shrine and temple buildings [of Nikko], together with their natural surroundings, have for centuries constituted a sacred site and the home of architectural and decorative masterpieces.
UNESCO World Heritage citation for the Nikko area
The volcanic mountains of Nikko, namely Nantai, Nyoho, and Nikko-Shirane, have been long considered sacred. They became quiescent about 12,000 years ago, long before recorded history. When Shodo Shonin, a buddhist monk, founded the Rinno-ji temple in Nikko, the Shinto tradition was already old. On the way to Tokugawa Iyeasu’s mortal remains, the path passes through some of this beautiful landscape.
I’m terrible at identifying plants even in the parts of the world that I live in, but that doesn’t stop me from looking at them as I walk anywhere. The spreading creeper whose leaves you see in the featured photo and the one above, was very interesting. It looks like a normal flat leaf at first, but then you realize it is not. It is actually one turn of a flattened out spiral, only one end of which is attached to the stalk. I wonder if you’ve seen this before, and if you’ve watched a leaf grow. Does it actually grow as a spiral, or does it unfold from the leaf bud as a small spiral and then grow outwards? The ground sloped below it, and it stood among ferns. So I guess a moist but drained ground is needed for it.
This early in the spring the ground was full of pine needles. I could see some trunks of black pine (Pinus thunbergii, kuromatsu), widely used for bonsai. But the trunks that you see in the background of the photo above belong to the red pine (Pinus densiflora, matsu). It was not clear how wild the landscape was, because one of the trunks was held up by guy wires.
Of course, this was spring, and there were flowers everywhere. Various kinds of daisies could be seen, and there was this one flower which I have a strong feeling I’ve seen before. Is it a digitalis? Every plant in this post cries out for your help in identification.
The shrine and temple buildings, together with their natural surroundings, have for centuries constituted a sacred site and the home of architectural and decorative masterpieces. The site continues to function today as a place of religious rituals and other activities which maintain its traditions, both physically and spiritually.
UNESCO World Heritage citation for the Shrines and Temples of Nikko
Nikko is a place which can be visited again and again. It had been over thirty years since my previous visit, and I’d forgotten how very impressive it is. If you read through this one post about a single gate in the enclosure, you’ll realize that I’m serious. What you see here is the karayotsuashimon (唐四脚門, literally ornate four leg gate). The curved gable (karahafu) over the gate is said to be a Japanese invention, so I’ve used the reading “ornate” for the first character 唐 instead of the alternate “Chinese”. As you can see from some of the photos, all four sides of the gate have this curved gable, hence the appellation four-legged (四脚) for this gate (門).
As I gawped at it, The Family pointed out the paired dragons on each side of the gate: one rising, the other descending, done with a mixture of techniques called jimonbori (relief carving) and ukubori (embossing). I was equally drawn to the doors: each quartered and illustrated. Unfortunately, I don’t have close ups of the paintings. Only extremely important persons are allowed to pass through these doors: the descendants of Tokugawa Iyeasu, the first shogun, turned into the reigning god of this place, were among them. The rest of us have to go around and take a side entrance.
If you are not one of the many people posing for selfies or photos in front of it, then the details of the gate can keep you standing there looking, and thereby making sure you photo-bomb others’ selfies. All the details in white are carved in wood and painted, the rest is urushi (laquerwork) and metalwork. At the lowest level, just above the lintel is a panel which shows nobles queuing up to pay tributes to a seated emperor or shogun (I don’t know which). At the ends of the panels you see two musicians, one beating a drum, the other with a gong. Above them are panels representing more rarefied powerful beings. I loved the carving of the bull which you see here. The pillar on the side (with the ascending dragons) are topped by an ornate bouquet of flowers which could be the variety of chrysanthemum called the atsumono. The gate is loaded with symbolism which I cannot decipher. Is the chrysanthemum a reference to the emperor, or a symbol of longevity?
We arrived in Nikko late one night, checked into a hotel close to the railway station, and left early the next afternoon. We didn’t stay long enough to get more than a passing view of the charms of small town life in Japan. One of the most attractive folkways of Japan is how people keep everything looks so neat and tidy. A perfect example was this house with a small verandah: it’s attractive low wall bamboo-faced with four umbrellas neatly hooked over it. For me this was almost the epitome of Japanese living, a reflection of the tiny hotel rooms you find, with everything that you need tucked neatly into its space.
The little town of Nikko, with its population of about eighty thousand, has grown around a highway that passes through it. We crossed it to get a bus to take us to the Toshogu. Across the road from the bus stand was this lovely woodframe house. Nikko is at the edge of the Kanto plain, and gets quite a bit of snow, which explains the steep pitch of the roof. It was attractive enough that I crossed the road again, and walked into the store on the ground floor and picked up some rice crackers. It was a typical old-style mom-and-pop store. I rang a bell on the counter, and a lady came in from inside the house to take my money.
But every town, no matter how picturesque, will have a bit of grunge, or some misjudged “beautification”. Earlier we’d passed by a hotel which had a very 1960s design aesthetic on its walls. Only the vending machine was timeless Japan. The road sign left The Family puzzled. “Maybe neither of us can cross. I’m not the right sex, and you don’t have a hat.” Maybe it was left over from the 1950s. I like how the old is not discarded in Japan, but mended and used.
Some days are perfect for walks. For a week I’d been afraid that our single day in Nikko would be washed out by thunderstorms. But in the last two days the prediction had changed. When the day broke, I looked out at a cloud flecked sky, sunny and with a nip in the air. It was going to be a long day on foot, and it was the perfect weather for that. By the time the thunderstorm hit in the late afternoon, we planned to be on the train to Tokyo.
We were planning to take a bus to the Toshogu shrine, and then walk back in the afternoon through the town. But the wonderful weather changed our minds. We got off at the bus stop to the shrine, and then walked back along the Daiya river to the 17th century Shinkyo (sacred bridge). Thirty years after I’d first seen it, the bridge has been strengthened and you can buy a ticket to walk across it. We didn’t bother to do that. Standing on the bank of the river I look a photo of the tall grass next to us, the rushing stream, and the beautiful spring growth on the trees across from us.
The village of Nikko grew up next to an area considered sacred in the old Shinto belief, especially Mt. Nantai. Some day we will go back to visit the 8th century Futarasan jinja and hike its god, the mountain. The Toshogu shrine was built with some thought in this spot in the 17th century, thereby associating the godhood of Tokugawa Iyeasu with the other gods of the region. Standing by the rushing stream, in the narrow valley between hills, it was not hard to understand why the whole area must have seemed sacred to the people who live here.
So much of the mood of a scene depends on the light which you see it by. I pointed my phone to one side and caught the sunny sky, with the bright growth of spring. When I turned to take a view on the other side, clouds had slid across the sun, and a dark atmosphere had fallen across the same hills. After looking at the Shinkyo, we walked back up the slope to the Toshogu shrine. The sky remained wonderful throughout the morning.
A bit of mid-morning dango, and grilled fish on a skewer kept us going through the long walk inside the shrine. When we emerged, the storm clouds were peeping over the surrounding mountains. We walked to the neighbouring Rinno-ji, and the play of sunlight and clouds gave us a wonderful view of the main hall. The weather eventually broke with a crack of thunder and instant downpour, immediately after we’d boarded the train on our way out of Nikko. The sky and the gods of the mountain had been good to us.
Classical aesthetic theory talks of navarasa, the nine moods. Whether it was poetry or drama, music or painting, you had to identify the primary rasa, mood, of the work. Of course, the best works would be subtle, playing on your moods continually, moving you from here to there, and back again. I wondered whether I could identify the rasa in Nikko’s Toshogu shrine, the place which contains the remains of Tokugawa Iyesasu, the founder of the shogunate of Japan. The painting of the elephants that you see in the featured photo is clearly hasyarasa. It evokes joyful laughter. They are sometimes called the imaginary elephants because the artist clearly had never seen the beasts.
There’s no dearth of virarasa, courage, in the artistry of this world heritage monument. The shrine to the founder of the shogunate abounds in the imagery of the animal most closely associated with bravery: the lion. Here I show you a photo of a bronze lion rampant, sculpted at the base of one of the many ceremonial lanterns on the site.
Surprisingly, sringar rasa is also evoked in this shrine. Traditionally the mandarin duck with its striped head is taken as a symbol of familial love in the Japanese language of birds. Since I did not have a photo of the many depictions of these ducks, I decided that this pair could stand in for that rasa. To my eyes, the pair seems bonded.
This pair of dwārpālas, the nio in Japanese, illustrate two more of the rasa. I think they are each in rudra rasa, the angry mood. The one on the left has his mouth open to make the sound ā; the one on the right has his mouth closed to make the sound n. These are the syllables of the beginning and the end. Even in these times when the proprieties of visiting the shrine are forgotten by the numerous tourists, passing between the beginning and the end must bring the sense of passing time to anyone who cares to live an examined life. To many the sense of time passing brings a sense of fear, which is the mood of the bhayanaka rasa.
The Omeimon, the entrance gate to the shrine, is perhaps the most elaborately carved gate of all in Japan. This is clearly in adbhuta rasa, due to the sense of amazement it produced in me although it wasn’t the first time I’d seen it. I enjoyed seeing the details again through the eyes of The Family, who was now seeing it for the first time.
I was sure that I could find all nine rasas in the shrine. But perhaps the meanings of two of them become clearer if I take you to Hiroshima. There are wars and atrocities all the time, but when you take a walk around the circle of hell, the area of Hiroshima which was vaporised at the instant when humanity became a world-killing species you realize how terrible that instant was. Perhaps all the atrocities since then are just echoes of this. You circle hell and your steps come back near the center to find a statue of Kannon bearing paper cranes surrounded by azaleas. That is the mood of sadness, karuna rasa.
But this is a sadness streaked with disgust, vibhatsyarasa. In your circuit you may have seen many things which you would like to put a stop to. For me it was the incident behind this memorial which stands where a group of school girls was clearing flammable wooden debris of houses when they were annihilated by a surge of energy which proceeded from a point 580 meters above them. Their bodies, and those of about six hundred of their schoolmates, instantly separated into the elements they were made of and mingled with the air. Still, eighty years after that we have no treaty banning nuclear weapons. Instead we have a system of aparheid called the nuclear non-proliferation regime which means that only a few can make costly mistakes on our behalf.
We take a few deep breaths and we come back to Nikko Toshogu. This is the core of the shrine, where the body of Tokugawa Iyeasu was interred in the cask you see at the back. The chatter and buzz of human voices stills as the river of tourists rounds this square. This is the mood of calmness, shanti.
After that first day walking around Tokyo, I had a week of work before some more tourism. This work week introduced me to the pleasures of bento (this was 1990, and the box had not yet spread through the US), vending machines which gave out cans of hot tea (in four flavours: matcha, Darjeeling, Oolong, and Assam), and karaoke, which had then just taken over Japan. Finally, on the weekend, I joined a busload of my colleagues for a trip to Nara.
We rolled through crowded highways towards the town of Nikko. What I knew about it was that it had the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the person who unified Japan after decisive battles starting in 1600 CE. There was more to Nikko than this, as I discovered when we stopped at the 97 meters high Kegon waterfall. Autumn had coloured the forest in lurid colours. One of my colleagues told us the story of a young man who committed suicide here in the early years of the 20th century after carving a poem into a tree trunk. He was able to show me an English translation of the poem later. I thought it read like something that Camus could have written.
We got back into the bus and drove on to Lake Chuzenji. The traffic was bad. Alain, sitting next to me, said “This road trip is a nightmare.” We spent the rest of the halting progress talking about the grammatical gender of dreams and nightmares in French. Chuzenjiko was beautiful in this season, when the surrounding forests had turned into a lovely gold. But we had lost too much time in the bad traffic, and we had to move on to the main sight.
I’d already seen a shrine to the Meiji emperor, so I had a picture in mind of a Shinto shrine. But the Toshogu shrine was much more than that. The huge complex has beautiful wood carvings, and a lot of gold. That, and the location made it stunning. I spent a long time wandering through the warehouse area and came to a carving of the three monkeys, a theme which I’d thought of till then as Indian. The Kathasaritsagar was collected in the 11th century, but the stories may have been in circulation for centuries before that. Perhaps some were taken to China by Xuanzang four centuries earlier, and eventually entered Japan.
This was my first inkling of the long hidden connections between many different Asian cultures. Stories of elephants had clearly been carried from India with Buddhism. I saw these wonderful carvings of what must have been imaginary beasts to the Japanese woodworkers who made them. It reminded me of the strange lion carvings which I saw in various parts of India where no lion had been seen in historic times.
The main part of the shrine begins with the Yomeimon, one of the most decorative gates I’ve ever seen. Today I would have taken many more photos of the gate. But I see only this one photo in my album. I remember that this was taken with a roll of 100 ASA Fujicolor which I’d inserted into the camera the previous night. The 24 shots had to last me the whole day, and there were so many details which caught my eye!
This carved wooden peacock on the Yomeimon was one such detail. I liked the beautiful colour of the wood quite as much as the intricate work. The gate was rebuilt in 1818 CE after a fire. There is a lot of such rebuilding in Japan, and there must be a well developed branch of restorative art. I wonder how much creativity each restoring artist is allowed. How much of this peacock is the work of the original woodcarver, and what has each restorer added?
My memory tells me that once I passed the gate I walked through a long avenue surrounded by tall trees with seasonally colourful leaves. But I only have a photo of this place: presumably where Ieyasu was interred. My intention to capture his shrine was waylaid by my impulse of capturing the colours of the leaves, the result is the photo you see above; my final photo from Nikko.
I was going to leave Japan after another day of work, so this also turned out to be my last photo from Japan on that trip.