Monuments to Tokugawa Might

Nikko (8 February 2016)

One of the most popular day trips taken from Tokyo is to Nikko. For some reason I was really not so keen on staying put in Tokyo even though I had barely seen Tokyo since I arrived there two days before. So on this day I joined a whole horde of other tourists in Nikko.

I had always have this impression that Nikko is a suburb of Tokyo and therefore highly accessible from central Tokyo. In fact, Nikko is a city in a neighbouring prefecture, Tochigi. There are a few ways to get to Nikko from Tokyo but since I had a JR rail pass I took a JR train from Tokyo Station to Utsunomiya and then transfer to the JR Nikko Line to get to Nikko. The whole journey took about 100 minutes.

The main sights of Nikko, which are a series of shrines and temples, are about two kilometres from the train station. It was a pleasant walk down the main street after which, upon seeing the Shinkyo Bridge, there was a little hill to climb up.

Shinkyo Bridge

From pictures, Nikko looked as if it were some rural settlement. In reality, Nikko is really quite urbanised although the shrines and temples are set apart from the rest of the city on a forested hill.

As I was approaching the hill, I saw a foreigner going up some flight of steps. I decided that I would go that way too. And I did not change my mind even when I saw said foreigner coming down soon after and going another way, all because I thought that  the first way seemed far more interesting. Once I reached the stairs however, I discovered almost immediately why the foreigner had changed her mind. The steps were covered in ice. Alright, maybe there would be less ice once I reached the top. But of course I could not see the top and it actually got icier. Maybe I should turn back, but how do I do that? Going down can be a lot more difficult than going up in some cases!

I still have no idea how I managed to get down those stairs in one piece, with a stoney wall just on one side with not much to cling onto and the ice slippery as hell.

The first temple reached by the safer way was Rinnoji. This is a Buddhist temple and Nikko’s most important. The founder of this temple was Shodo Shonin, the monk who had introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. The history of Nikko in fact seems to have begun with this temple and the first city was built around this temple.

Unfortunately for me, the main hall of the temple, the Sanbutsudo, was covered up as it was being restored. It could however still be visited although I felt like I was walking through a strange museum and not a temple. The pathways and exhibits in the hall had to be rearranged because of the restoration works.

Rinnoji all covered up for restoration

Shoyoen, a small Japanese style garden of Rinnoji

I got really impressed when I found Toshogu Shrine. This is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and the place where the famous “see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil” monkeys are found.

Those monkeys

I was however more captivated by the stunning decorations of the buildings in the shrine complex. Even the storehouses were elaborately done up. The fact that the shrine is being restored in some parts did not in any way affect its beauty. It was all really quite magnificent!

Pagoda of Toshogu

Storehouse of Toshogu (with the Sozonozo Elephants on the gable, apparently carved by someone who had never seen elephants before)

Before reaching Yomeimon Gate (under restoration at time of visit), the entrance to the main part of Toshogu

Although Edo (now Tokyo) was his base, Ieyasu chose to be buried in Nikko for two reasons. Firstly, Nikko is north of Edo and the Japanese traditionally believe that demons come from the north. Ieyasu wanted to be in the north to protect his country. Secondly, the abbott of Rinnoji at the time was his friend and therefore could be entrusted with his remains for burial.

Karamon gate to main shrine of Toshogu (my favourite part of the whole shrine)

Right door of Karamon gate

Left door of Karamon gate

The mausoleum was initially a relatively simple one but Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu, upgraded it into what can be seen today. Ieyasu is enshrined in Toshogu as Tosho Daigongen, the “Great Deity of the East Shining Light”.

Some of the other shrines in Toshogu

The apparently famous carving of the Nemurineko (sleeping cat) on the transom of the gate leading to Ieyasu’s tomb

Ieyasu’s tomb

A short walk away from Toshogu is the much more modest Futarasan Jinja. This shrine was founded by Shodo Shonin but it is Shinto. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko’s three most sacred mountains, Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro. The Shinkyo, about a kilometre away, is also a part of this shrine.

It should be added that for Buddhists the three sacred mountains are also considered to be the pure land of the Goddess of Mercy.

Approaching Futarasan Jinja

The haiden (worship hall) of Futarasan Jinja

There is a small garden-like area within the jinja which has more shrines and sacred places. While the main part of the jinja is free to visitors, this quaint little area charges an entrance fee of ¥200.

Within the little (paid) area of shrines and sacred places in Futarasan Jinja

One of the shrines in the paid area of Futarasan Jinja

Although I survived the ice-covered stairs earlier that day, I did not quite survive the ice-covered ground here. Some people say that the most dangerous place can be the safest one. In some cases, I think the reverse is true. Now how does a person who had survived thick snow and ice in much uneven ground slip and fall on flat ground which is covered with just some ice?

A sacred mound

A sacred spring

Ring tossing game outside a shrine (for testing one’s luck)

A second opulent mausoleum in Nikko belonged to Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu. The Taiyuinbyo is smaller than Toshogu, intentionally made so by Iemitsu because of the man’s respect for his grandfather. But the decor is no less magnificent.

Yashamon of Taiyuinbyo

Karamon gate to main shrine of Taiyuinbyo

(From left) haiden (worship hall), ainoma (chamber connecting honden and haiden), honden (building enshrining deified image of Iemitsu)

Both Toshogu and Taiyuinbyo contain a mix of Buddhist and Shinto elements. It used to be a common practice in Japan for elements of the two religions to be mixed in places of worship until the Meiji Period when they were intentionally separated. However, at the two mausolea, the mix was so complete that it was impossible to separate the two sets of elements entirely. I suppose that explains the five-storey pagoda in Toshogu, since pagodas are really quite Buddhist.

While Toshogu was made a Shinto shrine, Taiyuinbyo is now a sub-temple of Rinnoji.

I did come to Nikko expecting to see another overhyped tourist attraction. But I was surprisingly impressed. I will probably have to make another trip there when the restoration works are finally completed.

Nikko’s train station