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The wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen


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At Toshogu Shrine - monk and novice

As always, we slept comfortably on our futons at the Turtle Inn Annexe. Breakfast was included in our stay here, and we enjoyed coffee, fruit, an egg, and toast (including a delicious raisin bread) in the cosy dining area – simple but adequate.

We then set out to explore the main sights of Nikko, walking from the ryokan the 15 minutes or so on what was a grey but (for now) a thankfully dry day. Before entering the shrines we detoured to the nearby Shinkyo Bridge.

Shinkyo Bridge

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Shinkyo Bridge

This distinctive red bridge is something of a symbol for Nikko. It belongs to the Futarasan Shrine (not, as may seem more likely, the slightly nearer Tosho-gu) and is the oldest bridge built over a gorge in Japan. It dates originally (in this form) from 1636. In 1902, during restoration works it was destroyed by the river and it was reconstructed in 1904. The most recent restoration was in 2005.

It is 28 metres long and 7.4 metres wide and spans the river at a height of 10.6 metres above the water. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural property in December 1999.

This was the first bridge to be built over the Daiya river in Nikko, and its construction is linked to an interesting legend:

It is said that around the year 766, the Priest Shodo Shonin together with ten disciples tried to cross the Daiya river, at the place where today this bridge stands. They were unable to cross the river because of the strong currents, so the priest fell on his knees and prayed. Suddenly, the God of the River, Jinja-Daio appeared before him and said that he would help him to cross. The god released two snakes over the river, one red and one blue; their bodies transformed into a bridge and sedge sprouted on their back, allowing the party to cross. After they had crossed the river they looked back; Jinja-daiou and the bridge had already disappeared.

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Shinkyo Bridge

That’s why when it was rebuilt in the form we know today, during the time of Empress Meishō, it was considered sacred, and ordinary people were allowed only to look at the bridge, but had to cross the river on a different one nearby. Only the Empress, a few generals and Imperial messengers were allowed to use Shinko. This interdiction remained in place until modern times when, 40 years ago, the bridge was transformed into an open-air museum. And now everyone can cross it, for a fee of 500¥.

We didn’t do this ourselves but watched as a succession of proud Japanese tourists (some of them in traditional costume) solemnly strolled from the town end of the bridge to the shrine end, paused to pose for photos, and then strolled back again. You see, while you can nowadays walk across the bridge, you can’t actually use it as a means of crossing the river because the far end is closed (I assume to ensure that everyone pays their 500¥). So to cross the river you do still need to do as ordinary people did for centuries and use the parallel bridge that now carries the road traffic too.

Toshogu Shrine

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By the entrance to Toshogu


There is one sight that every visitor to Nikko comes to see, and that is the Toshogu Shrine. And rightly so. This flamboyantly ornamented, intricately carved, riotously coloured collection of buildings will blow your mind!

The shrine is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was Ieyasu who established Tokyo as the seat of government of a (more or less) unified Japan. A perhaps surprising choice for deification, he was brutal and bloodthirsty in pursuit of power; even members of his own family died at his hands. It was he too who established the trade monopolies that resulted in the almost total isolation of Japan from the rest of the world for over two centuries.

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Stone lantern

Ieyasu had expressed the wish to be deified after his death in order to protect his descendants from evil. He died in 1616 and his remains were originally buried at the Gongens' mausoleum at Kunōzan, but a year later were reburied here at Tosho-gu. It was his grandson Iemitsu who, in 1834, ordered the construction of the complex of 55 buildings we see today in order to fulfil Ieyasu’s dying wish:
‘Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan.’

He chose Nikko because of its location north of Edo. The north was considered the taboo direction, inhabited by demons. By placing himself there, Ieyasu hoped to protect Japan from evil and ensure long life for the Tokugawa government and eternal peace for the nation.

Whether these 55 buildings can be considered a ‘small shrine’ is another matter! It took 15,000 workers to build them, but they did so in an impressive one year, five months! The shrine complex was registered as a World Heritage site in December 1999, and most of the individual buildings are designated as either ‘an Important Cultural Property’ or ‘a National Treasure’ by the Japanese government. Almost all are covered with an explosion of colour and every surface is carved – there are 5,173 carvings in total!

As we approached the shrine we saw a small procession. I have no idea of the purpose of this – there must have been a special event happening somewhere, but we never saw anything more of it.

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Procession at Toshogu Shrine

Also near here is a dragon fountain with a wonderfully expressive dragon!

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Dragon fountain, Toshogu

One thing to be prepared for when visiting Toshogu is the sheer number of other people doing the same! We arrived here first thing in the morning, hoping to beat the crowds who make the day trip from Tokyo, but already there were some bus trips there and by 10.00 AM it was heaving.

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Crowds at Toshogu

This is not to say you shouldn't go – it is magnificent and a ‘must see’ if in this part of Japan (and indeed worth journeying to from any other part of the country). But it's helpful to be prepared mentally for the crowds you will encounter; to accept that you will have to wait to enter the inner shrine and other significant buildings; to recognise that other people will get into your photos, tread on your toes and probably push past you in their eagerness to see certain things. Accept all that, wait your turn patiently, and you will be rewarded.

Toshogu Shrine: Ishidorii

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Approaching the shrine -
not too crowded, yet!

You enter the complex through a massive torii gate, Ishidorii. This pre-dates Toshogu, having been dedicated in 1618 by Kuroda Nagamasa, the feudal lord of Kyushu Chikuzen (nowadays Fukuoka Prefecture).

The torii is made out of 15 blocks of stone, instead of wood, which is more usually used for torii. This stone was transported by ship from Kyushu to Koyama and then manually hauled overland to Nikko. The cross rails are hollow to minimise their weight and help withstand the impact of earthquakes. Despite this, an earthquake in 1949 caused a joint of the crossbars to slip widely, but it was shifted back to its original position by an aftershock. The inscription at the top reads: ‘Tosho-daigongen’ (‘Divine designation of Ieyasu Tokugawa’).

The stone steps leading up to the Ishidorii are cunningly designed. Although there are only ten of them, an impressive false perspective effect is created by the fact that the staircase narrows toward the top, and the height of the steps also decreases as they ascend. Despite the fact that the Tokugawa Shogunate had officially closed its doors to the rest of the world, in practice they had some secret channels that were used to bring in information and ideas from other countries. This included importing the concept of perspective from European art, and the designer Kobori Enshu put this to good use here at Toshogu – not only in the design of these steps but also on the path between the big cedar trees. In the past, the further you went the shorter the cedars were cut, creating the impression of a long, narrow path.

Toshogu Shrine: the Five-storied Pagoda

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Five-storied Pagoda

Inside the Ishidorii the first building we came to, on the left, was the Five-storied Pagoda or Gojunoto. This is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government of Japan. The Gojunoto Pagoda was dedicated in 1648 by Sakai Tadakatsu, the feudal lord of Obama in Wakasa Province (present day Fukui Prefecture). But the one that stands here today was built in 1818 to replace that earlier one which was destroyed by fire in 1815.

The pagoda stands 35 metres high. It is carefully constructed to withstand earthquakes and strong winds. It has no internal floors and a central column is suspended by a chain from the fourth storey to support the ones below. This doesn’t rest on any foundations but instead is free to sway, thus functioning as a dynamic counterweight and also allowing for the wood to shrink or expand.

The pagoda’s five stories, from top to bottom, represent sky, fire, earth, water and wind, as well as the five Buddhas of wisdom. It is decorated with the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac on the first storey. You can go inside on payment of a small additional fee, but we opted not to, wanting to press on and see the main shrine complex before it got too crowded.

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Pagoda details

Beyond the pagoda you come to the ticket office, and to the official entrance to the shrine, the Omotemon Gate. We bought our tickets which, when we visited in October 2013, cost 1,300¥. I had seen references to a combination ticket for this and the other shrines but at the time of our visit that was suspended as the various sites hadn’t been able to agree a price. I’d also read that there was a supplementary payment to see some parts of Toshogu (such as Ieyasu’s mausoleum and the famous ‘sleeping cat’) but our tickets covered the whole complex.

Toshogu Shrine: Omotemon

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Omotemon - one of the guardian deities

This is the first of a series of impressive gates that mark the route through the Toshogu complex to its most sacred spots. It is also known as Niomon, a reference to the two guardian deity statues, Deva Kings, positioned on the left and right – Nioh means a guardian of Buddha. These were removed to the Taiyuin Mausoleum (part of Rinnoji Temple) by order of the Meiji government. At this time the gate took the name of Omotemon, meaning simply ‘front gate’. The Nioh, which are each four metres tall, were restored to their positions here in 1897 but the newer name stuck, for the most part.

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Omotemon - gilded elephant

On the far (inner) side of the gate the equivalent niches are occupied by statues – a lion and a kirin (a mythological creature, usually paired with the lion), while golden elephant-like creatures adorn the passage-way on that side. There are many other animal carvings too, including giraffes, tigers and leopards. The whole is a riot of colour and a wonderful foretaste of what is to come.

Proceeding through the gate (where our tickets were checked) we arrived in an open area with a number of buildings around the perimeter.

Toshogu Shrine: Sanjinko

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Shimojinko, the Lower Sacred Storehouse

Three of the buildings in the open area beyond the Omotemon are known as the Sanjinko or Three Sacred Storehouses. To our right was Shimojinko (Lower Sacred Storehouse), in front of us Nakajinko (Middle Sacred Storehouse) and to the left of that Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Storehouse). These are used to store the various harnesses and 1,200 costumes used in the Procession of a Thousand Samurai (Sennin Musha Gyoretsu), held each year in May and October. They also store the equipment for Yabusame contests (archery on horseback) which take place at the same time. The Sanjinko are open for viewing for one week each before the Spring and Autumn Festivals – I think we had unfortunately just missed the latter.

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Kamijinko

All three storehouses are designated Important Cultural Properties and all are ornately carved, but the most striking and consequently most photographed is Kamijinko. Large carvings of elephant adorn its gable. They are known as the ‘Imaginary Elephants’ because the artist, Kano Tanyu, would never have seen the real thing. He drew them from his imagination having heard accounts and descriptions, and really didn’t do a bad job under those circumstances – just think how hard it would be to conceive of an animal that looked like an elephant if you had never come across any, or any picture of one! OK the ears and tails are weird, but apart from that it’s pretty close.

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'Imaginary elephant', Kamijinko

Facing the middle and upper storehouses across this space is one of the best known of Toshogu’s 55 buildings, the Sacred Stable.

Toshogu Shrine: Shinkyu

In contrast to the other buildings in this part of the complex, such as the storehouses described in my previous tip, the Shinkyu or Sacred Stable is relatively plain – probably the least adorned building in Tosho-gu. Yet it contains its most famous single carving, that of the Three Wise Monkeys:
‘See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil’.

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Sansaru: the three monkeys

In fact, there is a frieze of eight monkey carvings. This frieze is known as a Sansaru and its panels function something like a picture book, telling the story of a monkey’s upbringing and way of life. Other images show scenes such as a mother caring for a youngster; a young monkey on his own, newly independent; a pair of monkeys; and a pregnant monkey. But everyone wants to see and to photograph this one, and you will have to wait your turn. Remember my warning about the crowds that flock to Toshogu? Well, most of them are here to see this!

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Sacred horse

The monkey has been treated as a guardian of horses since early times and at one time there would have been a monkey actually kept in the stable. Today there is no live monkey, but the stable is home to two sacred white horses. Or rather, a temporary home, as the horses live ‘off site’ and merely visit each day, for two and a half hours, taking it in turns to serve the shrine in this way. We were here as one arrived so had a good chance to take photos before he settled into the stable for the day.

Different horses have served the shrine over the years but they must always be white. A notice outside the stable explained more about the current horses and their role:

‘Toshogu Shrine owns two sacred horses. One is ‘Kotuku’ meaning ‘White Heron’ in the New Zealand native Maori language. He is the third sacred horse donated by the New Zealand Government as a token of goodwill and friendship between the two countries. He is the only horse donated from overseas serving at a shrine in Japan at present.

The other horse is ‘Fukuisami’, meaning ‘good luck and bravery’ in Japanese. He is the second sacred horse donated by the Japanese Racing Association to the Toshogu Shrine.

Each of these sacred horses takes turns serving the Shrine in this sacred stable for only two and a half hours a day. They spend the rest of the time, attended by a dedicated stablemaster and master horseman, at a nearby modern stable which is attached to an outdoor practice ground.’

Toshogu Shrine: Omizuya

Beyond the Shinkyu we came to the Omizuya or Cistern / Water Purification Building (‘mizu’ means water). Here the faithful purify the body and mind by washing their hands and rinsing out their mouth before worshiping the enshrined deity. The basin was dedicated in 1618 by Nabeshima Katsushige, feudal lord of Kyushu-Saga. It has been maintained in its original form without alteration since its construction in 1636 except for a few small structural changes.

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Omizuya

Today, there is an Omizuya, or Chozuya as they are also known, in most of the shrines in Japan. But originally worshippers would simply wash their hands and mouths in a natural river or spring. The Omizuya here at Toshogu was the first to be built specifically as the place of purification for worshippers. The significant techniques introduced for the first time in its construction include the installation of an aqueduct from the water source near the Takino-o-jinja to its water basin. In addition, a siphon mechanism was implemented as part of the water-supply system, which was an innovative approach at that time in Japan. Today however the water is supplied through contemporary metal piping.

The basin is 1.2 metres wide, 2.6 metres deep, and 1 metre high. The ornate roof is decorated with sculptures of flying dragons. The dragon has wings to control the water. The roof is shaped like waves, echoing the water below. You can see from the richness of the ornamentation that it has fairly recently been restored. This was part of a 15 year project undertaken by a Mr. Yoshihara Hokusai, who rediscovered the ancient Kano school technique of Mitsuda-e, a paint mixing and application technique resistant to UV light and water, which had been lost in the Meiji era. Unfortunately Mr. Hokusai died in 1988 having failed to teach his 35-step process using 7 colours to any apprentice, though he did teach craftsmen how to apply the paint.

Toshogu Shrine: Kyozo

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Kyozo

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Kyozo details

One more building stands in this vicinity. The Kyozo or Rinzo is a revolving library holding 7,000 sutra or sacred texts. Revolving sutra libraries were invented in China and were later brought to Japan. They offer several advantages. Firstly, they allow priests and monks to select the required more quickly. Secondly, the act of walking around or turning something is important in Buddhism because the wheel is the international sign of that faith. And finally, it was believed that simply by rotating the shelves around the central pillar the faithful would benefit from the learning contained in the texts of the sutras without actually reading them. Unfortunately we found that it isn’t possible to go inside this kyozo to see the mechanism or the sutras.

Toshogu Shrine: Yomeimon

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Crowds at Toshogu, with the Karadō-torii in the background

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The shrouded Yomeimon

After exploring the various buildings that lie just beyond the Omotemon, among increasing crowds (the day-trippers from Tokyo had clearly started to arrive), we proceeded through the Karadō-torii, the first bronze torii in Japan, to what many consider to be Toshogu’s greatest glory, Yomeimon.

The flamboyantly carved, riotously coloured Yomeimon is also known as Higurashino-mon, ‘the gate, where people spend all day long to look’, or the ‘Gate of the Setting Sun’ because one could gaze upon it all day and never tire. Unfortunately for us, when we visited (October 2013) there was very little to look at, as Yomeimon was under restoration, and under wraps. Its more than 500 carvings of animals (real and mythical), people (children playing, sages and wise men), flowers and leaves were all hidden from our view, and we certainly had no reason to spend all day looking at it, even if we had had the time to do so!

This also of course meant I could take no photos of the carvings, but a quick image search online will show you, as it has me, what we missed out on.

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The Kairo

Either side of Yomeimon is the Kairo or corridor, which extends to the right and left. It is decorated with flower and bird carvings that are considered among the best in Japan. All the carvings are single-panel openwork painted in vivid colours.

Toshogu Shrine: Shinyosha

Once I had seen my fill of the Kairo we passed quickly through shrouded Yomeimon to reach the upper level of the complex and one of my favourite buildings here, the Shinyosha. I liked it, I think, because of its more intimate scale and its exquisite animal carvings.

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Shinyosha details

Known in English as the Portable Shrine House, and designated an Important Cultural Property, the Shinyosha houses the three portable shrines used in the Sacred Processions which take place in the spring and autumn (May 18th and October 17th).

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Portable shrine

These shrines are also sometimes called sacred sedan chairs, because it is believed the deified spirits ride in them. The spirit of Ieyasu rides in the central shrine. It carries the crest of the Tokugawa family which you see all over Toshogu (either side at the top). This is known as Mitsuba-aoi (three hollyhocks in a circle). The right hand shrine is for the spirit of Hideyoshi Toyotomi, while the left hand one is for Yoritomo Minamotono.

Each shrine weighs 800 kilograms and is carried in the procession by 55 people. In the past they weighed much more – 1120 kilos – but this became too much for people to carry. The old shrines are displayed in the Treasure House of Toshogu Shrine which we didn’t manage to fit into our itinerary (it lies just outside the complex and a small additional fee is payable if you’d like to visit).

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Roof of Shinyosha with outer wall beyond

Toshogu Shrine: Karamon

There was one more gate for us to pass through before reaching the inner shrine, and thankfully this one, the Karamon or Chinese Gate, was fully visible.

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Karamon

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Above the gate

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Pillar detail

In contrast to the flamboyant colours of most of Toshogu’s carvings, this is predominately, and exquisitely, finished in white and gold. On either side are pillars painted with dragons and above the gate are 27 figures – characters from the Chinese legend ‘The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’. The man in the centre, sitting on the chair, is the Emperor Shun. The crane logo once used by Japan Airlines was derived from one of the carvings on this gate. It also features over 400 carvings of small flowers.

Above the portal are two bronze figures known as tsutsuga, a mystical animal that protects all buildings. The tsutsuga is a ferocious creature, much stronger than a tiger. His legs are fastened with gold rings to prevent him escaping and thus withdrawing his protection from the shrine.

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Tsutsuga, Karamon

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Karamon detail

The Karamon may be small compared with Toshogu’s other gates (just three metres wide and two metres deep) but it is perhaps the most important, leading as it does to the inner shrine. During the Edo period, only feudal lords and aristocrats were admitted through it to worship at the shrine, and even today, only guests of the nation can enter during important festivals. The rest of us must go in by an entrance on the right-hand side of it to visit the Honsha or inner shrine.

Toshogu Shrine: Honsha

The main shrine or Honsha is not one but a connected series of buildings. It is permitted to enter these, but not through the Karamon. Instead there is an area on the right where you remove your shoes and place them in a cubby hole before proceeding to follow the line of worshippers and visitors down five copper steps and into a small chamber, the Ishinoma or Stone Passageway. This connects the Honden (main hall of the shrine) with the Haiden (place of prayer). Today its floor is covered with tatami but in the past it was stone, hence the name. This space is important because it links the world of the gods (in the Honden) and the human world (the Haiden).

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Entrance to the Honsha

From here you are directed by the attendant nuns or monks up a further five copper steps to enter the main hall or Honden. This is considered the most sacred place in Toshogu. It consists of three rooms: the Gejin (outer room), the Naijin (inner room) and the Nainaijin (inner room of the Naijin, therefore the innermost room). The divine spirit of Ieyasu is enshrined in the Nainaijin in the golden shrine Gokuden. This building is said to be a perfect realisation of the Gongen-zukuri style of Japanese religious architecture. (Gongen=incarnation, Zukuri=construction). Built in 1636, it has not undergone any alteration apart from the replacement of the roofing materials in 1654 and of the stone foundations of the Honden in 1690. Of course, photography is not allowed inside so you must be content, as I was, with a few shots taken from outside.

Toshogu Shrine: Nemuri-Neko

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The sleeping cat

To the east of the Honsha is the Kuguri-mon, the entrance to the inner shrine or Okumiya. And above this entrance is the second of Toshogu’s famous little carvings, although unlike the Three Wise Monkeys this one, the sleeping cat or Nemuri Neko, is perhaps mostly famous only in Japan rather than worldwide. Attributed to Hidari Jingorou, this carving of a cat dozing while surrounded by peonies is supposed to be a personification of peace – peace for Ieyasu and for the nation. On the far side of the panel are carved a couple of sparrows (sorry, I forgot to get a photo of these) and the fact that they play so happily and so close to the sleeping cat is seen as a sign that Japan is at peace. Also, the cat is bathed in sunlight which is said to be a depiction of Nikko (nikko means sunlight in Japanese).

Next we walked under the sleeping cat, being careful not to disturb him, to visit the inner shrine.

Toshogu Shrine: Ieyasu's tomb

At the Kuguri-mon (the gate with the sleeping cat) our tickets were checked again, but there is no additional charge to visit Ieyasu's tomb – unless you count the penance of climbing the 200 stone steps to be a charge! These ascend through the forest (so there would be plenty of shade on a hot day, I imagine) to a small complex of structures that surround the actual burial place of the Shogun. At its heart is the small pagoda-like tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa. You pass through a torii gate guarded by two bronze Komainu (dog and lion-like creatures) and circle the tomb.

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Torii guarding Ieyasu's tomb

At one side is a sacred cedar tree, Kano Sugi, which has stood here protecting the shrine area for many years. It is said that if you pray facing a hole in its trunk your prayers will be answered, and a small stall sells Kano Suze, small bell-like charms in the shape of a cedar seed.

The tomb itself, Okusha-houtou, is of bronze – a replacement for an earlier stone one that was damaged by earthquake in 1683 (and which itself replaced the original wooden structure). Ieyasu’s coffin is within, but while he is buried here his deified spirit resides in the inner sanctuary of the main shrine below, in the golden shrine Gokuden in the Nainaijin or innermost room of the Honden.

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Ieyasu's tomb

In front of the tomb are a vase, incense burner and candlestick in shape of a crane, gifts of Korea. The atmosphere is more restrained and more tranquil than in the main shrine far below. Here among the trees you understand that Ieyasu Tokugawa’s wish for a ‘small shrine’ has indeed been fulfilled, and his grandson’s exuberant designs have not intruded totally on his longed-for peace.

Descending from here we stopped for a rest and a hot coffee from a vending machine in a small shelter (one of the few places on the site where eating and drinking are permitted) before taking a few final photos and then bidding farewell to Toshogu.

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Young tourists at Toshogu

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Novice nun

Many of the day trippers only have time to visit Toshogu, which is so huge that it can easily occupy the best part of their limited time in Nikko, but starting early meant that we left here by late morning, with plenty of time to take in some more of Nikko’s sights.

But as this entry is already very long I will save what we did during the rest of this busy day for my next entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 05:57 Archived in Japan Tagged bridges shrines nikko architecture japan temple tomb toshogu Comments (8)

More wonders of Nikko

Japan day sixteen continued


View Japan, Essential Honshu tour 2013 on ToonSarah's travel map.

Futarasan

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Torii gate at entrance to Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone, leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families. We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

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Futarasan

Several local families with small children, some of them dressed up in traditional costume, were clearly here for a celebration. The festivities were focussed on a building to the right of the shrine itself and one mother there was more than happy for me to photograph her children, even encouraging them to pose for me.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name the first and most prominent of these.

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Torii gate at Futarasan

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Futarasan

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Nun at Futarasan

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Carving detail, Futarasan

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Torii gate detail, Futurasan

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Entrance to paid area

You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there was a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display.

There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue and some old sacred trees. We found this the most peaceful part as few people other than us seemed minded to pay that small fee.

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Portable shrine

Modern Buddha statue

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Stone lanterns at Futarasan

When we left the shrine we encountered another local family group just outside and again there was no problem with us taking some photos. We then followed the rickshaw as the children were taken for a ride along the path between here and Toshogu, escorted by their proud parents and stopping at intervals for more photos, both by their own photographer and a few other tourists who had by now joined us. A woman nearby during one of these sessions, who I think may have been a family member, was kind enough to explain to me what was going on.

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Children's festival at Futarasan

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With the proud parents

She told me that it is the custom in Japan for children to be taken to a shrine to be blessed on reaching three, five and seven years of age. In the past, the lack of medical expertise and knowledge meant that to get through infancy was something to be celebrated, and each milestone on the journey was marked in this way. Today when childhood mortality is thankfully much less of an issue, the custom of thanking the spirits for the good health of a child remains.

It seems that this family must have one child at each of these ages: a boy of five and girls of three and seven. The seven year old was very solemn, like a little lady – clearly after two previous such celebrations she must have considered herself an old hand and responsible for keeping her younger siblings up to the mark!

Lunch time

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Kishino

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My soup at Kishino

At the far end of this path the rickshaw turned back to Futarasan and we turned our attention to lunch. After a long morning exploring Toshogu and Futarasan we were ready for something to eat, and in the grey and chilly weather, preferably something warming. I’d spotted a sign near the entrance to Toshogu that had looked promising so we headed over there to explore.

Kishino is part gift shop, part restaurant. You enter the latter through the former, so it was a good job they had those signs outside or we would never have realised we could eat here! It’s not very big and we were lucky to get one of only two free tables. We were promptly brought glasses of water and an English language menu which included various noodle dishes and a few other options. From this Chris chose the curry rice while I opted for soba noodles with yuba – the local delicacy made from sheets of bean curd skimmed from the surface when making tofu. The yuba in my photo is the coiled omelette-looking stuff floating on the top of the soup.

The dishes were nothing special but they were filling and warming on a chilly day. The service was brisk, understandably since they want to turn tables in such a popular location, but friendly, and we were able to use the spotless toilets here too.

Fortified, we were ready to carry on to our final sight in this part of town, Rinnoji.

Rinnoji Temple

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Protective structure at Rinnoji Temple

It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh.

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Model Sanbutsu on display at Rinnoji Temple

In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

We were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) the one below which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or ‘Kannon with a horse’s head’ (so I probably should not have photographed it!).

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Bato Kannon(?) at Rinnoji Temple

As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

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View of Nikko from the top of Rinnoji Temple

There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (‘short excursion around the pond’). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too, but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

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In the grounds of Rinnoji Temple

Exploring the town

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Statue near the Shinkyo Bridge

After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town. As we started to walk along the main street of the town we were in search of somewhere we could get a drink and a short rest after climbing the ten storeys of the Rinnoji restoration structure. We found what we wanted at Hippari Dako, a tiny place on the west side of the main street at the Shinkyo Bridge end. There are only three tables inside and a fairly limited menu (in English at least) but that wasn’t a problem for us as we only wanted a drink. I had an orange juice, Chris a coffee, and both were fine.

The most distinctive feature of Hippari Dako is its décor. The interior walls are covered with business cards, notes from happy customers, photos, banknotes etc etc. I added a VT card with my details to their collection! The owner was very happy for us to take photos of all of this, but declined Chris’s request to be in a photo herself.

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In Hippari Dako

Refreshed, we wandered on down the main street. We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring this and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

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Shops in Nikko

Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

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Above a door

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Shop keeper

After enjoying all the shops etc along the street we reached the bottom, by Tobu Nikko Station. We went inside to make some enquiries at the ticket office. Our return ticket to Tokyo tomorrow specified an afternoon train. But we saw that bad weather (worse than today’s occasional drizzle) was forecast and thought that it would be better to spend our last day in Japan in the city, where there were more options for indoor activities, than here in Nikko. So we enquired in the ticket office about taking a morning train instead, and were able to change our tickets and seat reservations without any problem – apparently you are allowed one free alteration, which is very helpful.

We then continued on to see Nikko’s other station.

JR Nikko Station

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JR Station, Nikko

Which station you arrive at in Nikko depends on the route you take from Tokyo. We had travelled yesterday from Shinjuku to Tobu Nikko Station, but other routes bring you to the other one, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station.

In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here. But this station doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful ‘guest room’ used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside of the station, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

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Nikkoji beer

Heading back up the main street we stopped for an early evening drink in the Little Wing café and were pleased to find that they served the local pilsner style beer, Nikkoji, as we'd been keen to try it. We found it pleasant enough though not really any different to other Japanese lagers, all of which are very palatable but unremarkable. It was maybe a little less fizzy than some of the others however, so depending on how you like your lager (personally I like a bit of a head) you may want to give this a try. The ones we tried were bottled and I’ve read that the draught is better so that’s something to look out for. You should also look out for the same brewery’s Premium Ale as I’ve read good reviews of that (it wasn’t available in the Little Wing), and I gather that they also sometimes have seasonal brews, such as dark, amber and special ales.

We had a very pleasant half hour or so here, enjoying the beer and a chat with a local guy at the next table, who had lived and worked for some years in California and thus spoke very good English. He was killing time over a coffee while waiting to pick his son up from football practice and was glad of the chance to refresh his English skills in a conversation with us.

But after a while we decided to move on in search of dinner as I’d read that restaurants in Nikko close early, as they cater mainly to the day trippers I assume. This is very true, and we were lucky to find a meal!

Kanaya Hotel Restaurant

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In the Kanaya Hotel

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Carving detail, Kanaya Hotel

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Crab croquettes

The guidebook I was using said that this restaurant was open till 20.00, unlike many in town, so we headed there for an early (for us) dinner at about 18.30, only to be told on arrival that they were about to close. I asked the waitress if she knew of any other restaurant nearby that would still be open, explaining that we were hungry and wanted dinner. She immediately offered to let us eat there after all! But perhaps for this reason, the service was probably the speediest we have ever experienced, with the waitress positively scurrying to take our order and bring us our drinks and food.

We had a table to one side of the attractive old room, which is ornamented with colourful woodcarvings, although the old world atmosphere is somewhat marred by the harsh fluorescent lighting. The menus we were given were in English and offered a choice of set dinners, with the cuisine a blend of Japanese and Western. I had the crab croquettes in a tomato sauce with rice, Chris had the hamburger in ‘Japanese style’ (which proved to be with grated radish on top). The croquettes were quite tasty and Chris’s burger was OK too. The set meal price included a cup of soup (quite nice, with strips of yuba) and a small salad, and we also had a large beer each. But we didn’t try our waitress’s good nature or patience by attempting to order dessert, so after paying the bill we headed back to the Turtle Inn Annexe, as Nikko had clearly shut down for the night (at about 19.30).

There we made sure of another session in the lovely onsen, listening to the river flow past outside – a great way to relax after a very busy day of sightseeing in Nikko.

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Shinkyo Bridge at night

Posted by ToonSarah 06:06 Archived in Japan Tagged people children food nikko architecture beer japan culture temple shopping restaurants shrine customs Comments (6)

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