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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)

Manic traffic, atrocious pollution, endlessly captivating

Day one India


View Rajasthan 2015 on ToonSarah's travel map.

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Delhi traffic

By any measure Delhi is an assault on the senses. The sound of car horns and auto-rickshaw bells fill the air; these vehicles weave endlessly in a manic dance; people ebb and flow between and all around them. The air is at times fragrant with the smells of spices; at other times choking with fumes. The heat beats down …

After a long overnight flight from London it really seemed as if we had landed on a different planet, not just a different continent. And I loved it! The energy, the colours, the constant buzz. And when we returned to Delhi at the end of our trip, and to the same hotel, it almost felt like coming home.
Delhi is India’s capital, its second largest city (by population) and had a rich history. At its heart is Old Delhi, founded by the Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan in 1639 and known originally as Shahjahanabad – the last of seven ancient cities in this immediate area. These include Qila Rai Pithora (the first to be recorded, in the 10th century AD), and Mehrauli, built by the first Muslim sultan, Qutubuddin, in the early part of the 13th century, whose Qutb Minar still stands and was one of the highlights of our brief visit.

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Our base here was the comfortable Suryaa Hotel, located in the New Friends Colony area of the city, not far from the Lotus Temple. We stayed here for the first few nights of our tour with Transindus, and again on our last night, and were impressed with their choice. The large marble lobby gave us a good first impression, which extended to our comfortable fourth floor room with a good-sized bed, lots of space, efficient A/C, a flat screen TV, bottled water, tea and coffee-making stuff, mini-bar, safe and plenty of storage. The bathroom had a bath with shower over, a good selection of toiletries and a hairdryer. All the staff we encountered or had dealings with were welcoming, helpful and courteous.

The hotel has a number of places to eat and drink – a buffet restaurant and bar downstairs, and an upmarket pan-Asian restaurant and cocktail bar on the top floor, plus a coffee shop in the lobby where we enjoyed a coffee and cake soon after arriving. The choice at breakfast is amazing - cereals, pastries, exotic juices, fruits, eggs cooked to order, ditto pancakes and waffles, all the regular hot items (bacon, sausage, tomatoes etc.) plus Indian dahls and curries and even Japanese miso soup, and loads more.

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Our room, and breakfast buffet

The hotel has a pool which we didn’t use but could see from our bedroom window – it looked a good size for a city hotel pool and seemed well kept. There’s also a gym and spa but I didn’t see those so can’t comment.

Even if you don't visit the top floor restaurant or bar it's worth going up there for the views, though it was very hazy when we did so. You don't see many famous sights (the aforementioned Lotus Temple is the main one) but you do get a good look at the circling eagles. A barman told us that these nest on the roof of the hotel, as do owls which can be seen here at night. We didn't get around to eating here but did have a nice dinner one evening in the downstairs bar (murgh malai kebab and tandoori vegetable platter) where the friendly barman let us have the Happy Hour "two for one" deal on our beers despite having arrived in the bar some 15 minutes after the offer period.

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From the hotel roof

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Veda

On arriving in Delhi we learned that dinner on the first night of our tour was included in the cost so that evening we met up with our guide, Rajesh, and driver, Mehar, to go to Connaught Place for a meal at Veda, one of a small (I think) chain of restaurants in India. Well, it may be a chain, but we were certainly impressed by the food here, as well as by the somewhat exotic décor - dark, rich reds, lots of gilt mirrors and ornate light fittings, plus a hammered metal ceiling reflecting the candles on the tables.

The website describes the cuisine as “a contemporary interpretation of classic Indian cooking”. We had a set meal and everything was delicious. The first course was two vegetable appetisers - fried spinach leaves topped with tiny noodles and cheese (a Veda speciality), and cauliflowers fritters. Then two meat appetisers - small pieces of mutton kebab and chicken tikka. The main event was a selection of dishes served with rice and chappattis. There was a chicken curry cooked with spring onion, a lamb curry, paneer (Indian cottage cheese) in a spicy tomato sauce, a black lentil dahl and another Veda special, crispy fried strips of okra (a sort of fusion of that classic Indian ingredient with the Chinese way of serving seaweed). Finally there was kulfi, the rich Indian ice cream. As I said, everything was delicious, but if I had to pick favourites it would be the cauliflower fritters, the fried okra and the paneer - all excellent.

Exploring the city

Although we only had a day in which to see something of Delhi we managed to pack in a fair amount, thanks in part to our excellent guide Rajesh and star driver Mehar.

Jama Masjid

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Steps up to the mosque

We started our explorations at the massive Jama Masjid mosque. This is one of the largest (some sources, and our guide, say the largest) mosques in India. It was built by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan (most famous for another building, the Taj Mahal) between 1644 and 1656. It is said to have taken 5,000 workers and cost a million rupees to build, which must have been a huge sum in those days. It is certainly on an impressively grand scale. The huge courtyard can accommodate more than 25,000 worshippers. Its surrounding walls are pierced by three great gates (most visitors enter through the north gate) and on the west side is the main mosque structure, built of red sandstone and white marble, with three white marble domes and two 40 metre high minarets.

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Entry is free but there is a fee of 300 IR per camera to take photos and you'll be charged for every camera you are carrying, including smartphones, even if you don't plan to use them all. All visitors, including non-Muslims, are allowed inside as well as out, and photos can be taken everywhere, but the mosque is closed to non-Muslims at prayer time. And don’t even consider a visit here if you aren’t able to climb steps, as the mosque sits on an elevated sandstone platform and there are 39 steps up to the northern gate. You must leave your shoes at this main entrance so wear socks you don't mind getting grubby or borrow a pair of the slippers available. Women in trousers or with short sleeves are also asked to put on a gown.

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Tourists in slippers, and me in my gown (with Rajesh)

Once inside, take your time to wander round the courtyard, which is a buzz of both tourist and worshipper activity. We were advised not to photograph Muslim women but told that otherwise no one would mind, and in fact that seemed to extend to some of the women too. Bowls are set out to feed the many pigeons, and the seed they spill is carefully swept up. Locals and tourists mill around and it could be any city square, until you approach the prayer hall where a more respectful and devout atmosphere prevails. Even here though, a man sitting reading the Koran in one corner saw my camera and beckoned me over with a “welcome to take photos” gesture. So do pay that camera fee, as you will surely get some memorable shots here.

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Chandni Chowk

The mosque lies in Old Delhi, surrounded by the vibrant streets of Chandni Chowk market. The name Chandni Chowk is used for a specific street in Old Delhi, but also for the maze of alleys that surround it. This is the market place for Old Delhi, dating back to the 17th century when it was, so it is said, designed by the daughter of Shah Jahan with a canal (long since covered over) running the length of the street which reflected the moonlight. But if the mention of moonlight suggests peace and tranquillity, think again. Today’s Chandni Chowk is a complete assault on the senses – narrow lanes strung with electric cables, a cacophony of sound from horns (as everywhere in Delhi), a riot of colour, the scents of perfumes and spices in the air. On the pavements are people washing, cooking, cutting hair. Each narrow alleyway is lined with small shops specialising in certain goods - wedding saris in one, fruit and vegetables in another. Nai Sarak specialises in text books and calendars, Chawri in paper and stationery and Dariba Kalan in jewellery.

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We took a cycle rickshaw ride which is possibly the best way to see the madness close-up but without being totally sucked into it. Our driver pointed out some of the more interesting goods on sale, a small Jain temple tucked in an alleyway, even at one point monkeys (macaques) on a roof above us. Make sure you hold on to your possessions as you ride, and keep arms and hands inside the frame of the rickshaw - it's a bumpy ride and your driver will squeeze through the narrowest of spaces. Despite the bumps however, and the need to hang on, I did manage to shoot a few snippets of video that I hope give just a little flavour of the experience.

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Presidential Palace complex

From Old Delhi we drove to the Presidential Palace, where we stopped briefly to admire the architecture and the views (very hazy) all the way down the Rajpath (the King’s Way) to the India Gate two kilometres away.

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Presidential Palace

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The palace is the work of Edwin Lutyens, whose original plans were for a classically European building (he had little respect for the local architectural traditions which he once dismissed as “Moghul tosh”). Fortunately he was over-ruled and added features such as Rajasthani-inspired sandstone window grilles (known as jaalis), statues of elephants and cobras. He also lost an argument about the placing of the Palace, which he had intended to sit at the edge of Raisina Hill, and had to move it back to accommodate the buildings that now flank it on either side. This means it is not visible from the foot of the hill – something he considered a fault but which I felt gave the building an interesting element of surprise as you crest the hill and see the scale of the complex of buildings that greet you.

You approach along a wide avenue, Rajpath (the King’s Way), which links the palace to the India Gate two kilometres away. Either side of this avenue are the north and south buildings of the Secretariat, designed by Herbert Baker. It was these structures that caused Lutyen’s design for the plateau to be modified and the palace moved back from the edge. Today they house various government offices and ministries including Finance and Foreign Affairs.

Since 1950, when the first President of a now independent India took up residence here, it was renamed as the President’s Palace or Rashtrapati Bhavan. In area this was the largest residence of a Head of State in the world until the Presidential Complex of Turkey was opened on 29th October 2014. It has 340 rooms spread over four floors and covers 200,000 square feet (19,000 square metres).

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Dominion Column

Like the Palace, Baker’s designs for the Secretariat buildings include Indian elements and are made from the same cream and red sandstone. The columns in front of these are known as Dominion Columns and were gifts from Canada, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa. At the time it was expected that India would, like these countries, soon become a British Dominion, but instead it was to win independence within 18 years from the date of the buildings’ completion.

Although we didn’t have time to visit the museum inside the palace, this made an interesting photo stop, and came with a bonus. Although Chris has never owned or ridden a motorbike himself, his father was great biker and Chris has inherited something of his affection for the great makes such as BSA and Royal Enfield – the latter being originally a British company but made in India since the 1950s and exclusively there since 1971. He was very happy when the owner of a classic Royal Enfield bike, parked in front of the Presidential Palace, let him pose with it for some photos – and no, this wasn’t a “pose in return for payment” staged photo opp! We were also interested to learn that the beautiful ornamental iron gates in front of the palace were copied by Lutyens from some he saw in Chiswick, very near our London home.

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India Gate

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At the opposite end of the Rajpath to the Presidential Palace, and two kilometres away, is the India Gate. This was built in the 1920s as a war memorial to commemorate the soldiers of the British Indian Army who died in the First World War and in the Third Anglo-Afghan War. In all, more than 13,300 names are inscribed on the gate. Like the Presidential Palace it was designed by Edwin Lutyens (who also designed London’s Cenotaph and 65 other war memorials in Europe on behalf of the Imperial War Graves Commission which also commissioned this) and has the appearance more of a victory or triumphal arch than a memorial.

The gate is 42 metres in height and has a shallow bowl at the top which was intended to be filled with burning oil on anniversaries although this is rarely done. Near the top on each side is inscribed “INDIA” and beneath that, all in capitals,

“TO THE DEAD OF THE INDIAN ARMIES WHO FELL HONOURED IN FRANCE AND FLANDERS MESOPOTAMIA AND PERSIA EAST AFRICA GALLIPOLI AND ELSEWHERE IN THE NEAR AND THE FAR-EAST AND IN SACRED MEMORY ALSO OF THOSE WHOSE NAMES ARE RECORDED AND WHO FELL IN INDIA OR THE NORTH-WEST FRONTIER AND DURING THE THIRD AFGHAN WAR”

Beneath the arch (added in 1971) is a small black marble plinth with a rifle capped by a war helmet, and bounded by four eternal flames, which serves as India’s tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

In my photos you can also see the canopy that stands some 150 metres further east, which was also designed by Lutyens and once covered a statue of George V in his coronation robes. This was moved in the 1960s to Coronation Park. The canopy has since stood empty, although there was talk at one point of installing a statue here of Mahatma Gandhi. This never happened, and it seems to me unlikely now that in will, given the ambivalent attitude that we were told now prevails in India towards the once universally acclaimed hero.

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By day and by night

Raj Ghat

After our brief photo stop at the India Gate, we drove to Raj Ghat, the site of the cremation of Mahatma Gandhi in January 1948, which serves as a permanent memorial to him. A black marble plinth marks the actual spot of the cremation, at one end of which burns an eternal flame. It is set in peaceful gardens with paths that allow visitors to walk past and pay their respects, although when we were there the peace was somewhat disrupted by the several groups of boisterous schoolchildren visiting the site. Several other memorials to prominent figures are located nearby, including former Prime Ministers Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi, but we only visited this one.

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Indian visitor, and souvenir stall

We were somewhat surprised to learn from our guide that Gandhi is not so much respected among Indians these days. Many feel that his policy of non-violence was too restrained and they admire more active revolutionaries such as Rani Laxmi Bai, Bhagat Singh and Subhas Chandra Bose. But from what I observed, many more Indians than foreigners seemed to be visiting this shrine and doing so with great respect, so it seems opinion may be divided on this, as on so many political matters.

With so much to see on our packed day out in Delhi it makes sense to continue in a second entry ...

Posted by ToonSarah 10:13 Archived in India Tagged buildings people mosque market city tomb delhi street_photography Comments (5)

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