The Ornate Four-Legged Gate

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?

The blue hour in Asakusa

Fire, earthquake, war and growth have ensured that looking for ancient buildings in Tokyo is a fool’s errand. Still, Senso-ji is worth a visit; it is the temple with the oldest tradition in Tokyo, and already had a thousand year history when Tokugawa Iyeasu designated it the main temple of his clan. Shops which always spring up around temples were organized into rows around the street called Nakamise-dori in the late 19th century CE. In 2012 the Asakusa Culture and Tourist Information Center was built at the other end of this street to a design by Kengo Kuma. By contriving to look like, and function as, several old-style buildings piled on top of each other, this high rise blends into the neighbourhood, in line with the architect’s philosophy.

Thoroughly exhausted after a day of walking, we sat in the observation deck of Kuma’s wonderful high rise and waited for the sun to set. As dusk fell, the area came alive with lights. I took a few photos of shoppers in Nakamise-dori as The Family concentrated on the fascinating spectacle of the Tokyo Skytree on the other side of the Sumida river. We’d waited long enough, and it was time now to walk to the temple and see it close up.

But as I stood at the road waiting to cross I saw something that is hardly ever visible in the tropics: the wonderful blue hour of spring. When the sun is sufficiently far below the horizon, the sunlight scattered through the ozone layer is absorbed to give the lovely colour of the sky that you see in the gallery above. The sun hits the horizon at a slant, and the ozone layer is thicker, away from the tropics, giving a long period at dusk with this beautiful sky.

As the sky grew darker we passed the first gate, the Kaminarimon, with its single giant lantern, walked through the Nakamise-dori, where the shops were closing, past the double-storied second gate, the Hozomon, with its three lanterns and two giant sandals, into the forecourt of the temple, where tourists were busy getting their fortunes told. There was a queue of people still waiting to get to the temple. We walked around, looked at the five storied pagoda of the Asakusa shrine next to the temple, the lovely small garden to one side, in front of which two young men did a wonderful synchronized dance as a girl took their video against the lit-up temple, and the panels on Nakamise-dori which told the story of the founding of the temple. There is a lot to see here, and you need to either keep some time aside for Senso-ji, or come back again and again.

Around the world in 30 days (2)

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.