Frozen moments from the infinity that is time

Nikko (Toshogu & Taiyuan Shrines)


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.)

Author: johnliddlephotography

Photography reflects how I see the world around me. I respond to images that interest me, which can be anything ... people, places, colour, texture ... anything at all. By sharing my photos through this blog I know that viewers will see based on their life experiences. That is the wonder of photography ... one image ... many interpretations.

4 thoughts on “Nikko (Toshogu & Taiyuan Shrines)

  1. John,
    As improper as this may sound (I confess), I’ve probably used up my admittedly modest store of words to even begin to describe this deliciously enjoyable journey (it’s not quite virtual or ‘only-in-my-head’, your photo musings, since I catch myself easily envisioning the walk with every word revealing the next step). These photographic walks (as here, through enchanting Nikko) where you lead your readers by the hand are absolute treats in more ways than one.

    Love all the accompanying photographs. Such an awe-inspiring torii gate! And may I ask if the Rinzo or Holy Sutra Library is open for public viewing, as well? It sure looks and sounds terribly inviting, just like the gorgeous Shinkyo Bridge that leaves one wishing for more of this blessed place.

    I can only agree with your view that walking these blessed trails with someone who is more informed of its historical contexts, rich culture and stories of people who have walked the grounds before us would only make it all the more meaningful and enjoyable so as to approach a fuller appreciation of such gorgeous and sacred places as Nikko.

    Also, reading of the instrumental role of shoguns like Tokugawa Ieyasu and Iemitsu reminds me of the time I first encountered the stories of these icons while walking through Kyoto with a very thoughtful and gracious guide we had met through Walk Japan as well as in my readings of the historical background for and during the trip.

    Thank you as always for these awesome posts that bring sweet and timely cheer, my friend.
    Do take good care, too♥

  2. Thank you B,
    I’m pleased you enjoyed the photographic walk and I hope you will be able to visit Nikko at some point for your own Nikko experience. When that happens I look forward to similarly enjoying your walk through Nikko.

    Unfortunately the Holy Sutra Library is not open to the public and even though the building is rather plain (by Nikko standards), it attracted me like no other. I am thinking of doing a follow-up post to highlight building details, which will certainly feature the Holy Sutra Library again. The Shinkyo bridge is also closed to general pedestrian traffic, but can be accessed for a fee. I thought about walking over the bridge, but I prefer to let my imagination think of it as still restricted to its original use for the Shogun and imperial messengers.

    There is no question that visiting these shrines added perspective to my extremely limited understanding of the shoguns entombed there. Iemitsu’s construction of the Toshogu Shrine for his grandfather Ieyasu was fundamentally an act of familial love and one wonders if his decision to isolate Japan was a similar act of national love. Whatever his reasons, his actions have shaped Japan as we know it today.

    In closing, let me say that I doubt your store of words is modest and even if that is so, like a good chef with few ingredients your word-craft will always shine through. Take care.


  3. Thank you for the thoughtful replies, as always, John.
    Getting to read your photographic musings always keeps me inspired to look forward to another trip to enchanting Japan in the near future.

    I think libraries are endlessly enchanting places that hold endless mystery and wisdom (besides the stories of fallibility alongside courage and humility) of ages past and I can imagine why the Holy Sutra Library remains a charm. I am definitely looking forward to your follow-up post on the architectural delights of Nikko.

    Ah, what a lovely interpretation (of Zen-like acceptance, too) of the bridge as well as the possible parallel in Iemitsu’s motivations to isolate the familial and the national space based on love, albeit different forms of it. How interesting – and very true, how even while we ponder over his reasons centuries on, the fact remains that the choices made by the elders inevitably shape the course of the future generations regardless of the land or people.

    Thank you for your generous words and for the gorgeous compliment of ‘a good chef [who can shine] even with sparse ingredients.’ I must confess I am nowhere quite there – although it is beautiful inspiration all the same, to keep entrusting my words and thoughts in the hearts and minds of dear souls.

    It also reminds me of a saying (in Tamil) which goes something like this in transliteration: ‘Even a blade of grass serves well (the original word used in the proverb is ‘as a weapon’) for a smart person’ which is used whenever one intends to point out that a resourceful or dextrous person will always find a way to succeed even with sparse resources at hand.

    Do take good care too, my friend.

  4. Hi John,
    I hope all is fine in your neck of the woods.
    Take care and stay well, too.

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