Someone told me that Nikko is the place every Japanese person wants to visit at least once. After visiting there twice in different seasons I came to understand why, but I had no idea how their words would resonate on my feeling that this post does not do justice to Nikko’s importance to the Japanese.
In Nikko, all roads lead to the complex including the Toshogu, Futarasan and Taiyuin shrines and it is from this complex that today’s images are drawn. Words that may typically be used to describe Japanese temples and shrines such as subtle and understated do not apply here. There is nothing understated about these shrines. Quite the opposite, yet still their underlying message is that of reverence and respect for those honoured here.
Toshogu is the dominant shrine, as evidenced by the buildings of the Taiyuan Shrine being oriented to face Toshogu as a mark of respect for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa era. As well as being the driving force behind the construction of Toshogu Shrine to honour his grandfather, Iemitsu (the third shogun) is perhaps better known as the shogun who closed Japan to foreign commerce and isolated it from the rest of the world for 200 years.
The tree-lined path to Toshogu Shrine is dominated by Ishidorii (pic 1), a granite torii gate that majestically draws one forward. In my humble opinion, it must surely rank among Japan’s most significant torii. To the left of Ishidorii is the five-storey pagoda (pic 2), where the storeys represent, in ascending order, the elements of earth, water, fire, wind and heaven.
Toshogu’s most famous attraction is perhaps the Sacred Stable (pics 3 and 4), or more specifically the story of stages in a monkey’s life told through a series of carvings on the walls of the building. Since early times in Japan, monkeys have been regarded as guardians of horses, hence their significance to the stable building. The most famous carving is, of course, that of the three wise monkeys, whose message of “hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil” has been an aspirational refrain of parents through the ages.
Other structures of interest include my favourite, the relatively subdued Rinzo or Holy Sutra Library (pic 5), which houses a collection of valuable Buddhist scriptures; the heavily decorated Yomeimon Gate (pic 6) flanked on each side by statues of the first shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, whose presence remains imposing (pic 7); and the designated national treasure – the Karamon Gate (pic 8).
The heavily wooded setting makes for pleasant walking and throughout the grounds one finds areas of interest such as small roadside shrines (pic 10) and many stone and metal lanterns (pic 9) donated by feudal lords. To walk these grounds with someone steeped in Nikko history would be a pleasure, though the stories behind each building and object may require a lifetime of walks.
Although not as grand as the Toshogu Shrine, the Taiyuan Shrine is no less interesting. Prior to climbing several sets of stairs and passing through a series of gates, one finds The Cistern for Holy Water (pic 11). Water from a nearby stream is channeled down through a system of gutters into a solid granite basin so perfectly aligned that the water evenly overflows each edge. Visitors stop here for purification before proceeding to the Nitenmon Gate, which can be seen in the background.
Taiyuan is built on a fairly steep slope, thus opening up vistas such as those shown (pics 12 and 13) at various points during the climb. Reaching the upper level, one finds the largest building (pic 14), with this view showing the Ainomo or connecting chamber between the Haiden (sanctuary) and Honden (inner sanctuary). Adjacent to the Honden is the Koukamon Gate (pic 15), the final gate behind which lies the Okunoin – the tomb of the third shogun Iemitsu. Neither the Koukamon Gate nor Okunoin are open to the public.
Finally, walking back to central Nikko, one passes the Shinkyo Bridge (pic 16), regarded as one of the three most significant bridges in Japan. The bridge across the Daikyo River was originally built in 1636 (rebuilt 1907) for the use of the Shogun and imperial messengers.
A visit to these sites is at first a visual assault on the senses, such is the splendour and grandeur one encounters. However, the true value is felt by slowing down and allowing Nikko to seep into one’s senses. One can then begin (only begin) to understand why it is so revered by the Japanese people.
(Please click on any of the following images for an enlarged view.)