We’ve wanted to go there ever since we first looked into Japan. It never made it into our itineraries because it was so far out of the way and we couldn’t work it into our existing travel plans.
The third time’s the charm though. We made it a point to go visit Nikko, and it was totally worth it. Nikko was badass!
We always eschew tours of any kind, especially guided ones, but this was the second time in the same trip that we discovered how much we were missing by not partaking in at least an audio tour. You can rent an MP3 player and a map from the kiosk at the front. When you visit each site, you touch the tip of the player to the location on the map and you hear an audio explanation of the item’s significance and history. I think the cost for this was something like $5.
Nikko is perhaps most famous for the fact that it is the site of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s official final resting place (not to be confused with any of his other, more temporary, resting places). There are quite a few shrines and temples in Nikko but we did not have enough time to see them all; we only saw Toshogu, the main attraction.
Toshogu Shrine Complex
Toshogu is kind of a catch-all; it is the colloquial term for any site in which Tokugawa Ieyasu had been enshrined. He had been enshrined all over Japan, including in Ueno (Tokyo), Okunoin (Koyasan) and other places before coming to a final rest at Nikko, where his remains are interred.
Making things more confusing, Toshogu Shrine is both the name of the shrine and the entire shrine complex that people come to see (and the one whose grounds house Tokugawa’s remains). The complex consists of a few gates, storehouses and mini-shrines that lead up a dark, mossy path to Tokugawa himself.
The pagoda (Gojuno-to).
Pagodas are incredibly earthquake-resistant; the wood is flexible and not held together by nails, which allows the entire structure to bend and sway with winds and shakes, but also leaves it highly vulnerable to fire. Like everything else in the country, this pagoda was destroyed by fire 200 years ago and rebuilt.
Pagodas are a Buddhist construct that originated in India and made their way east through China and Korea. With rare exception, they always have an odd number of stories. Five-storied pagodas are unique to Japan so they’re the ones you’re most likely to encounter in Japan.
Each of the five stories represents a different element (Earth, Water, Fire, Air and Heaven). In pagodas with any other number of stories (generally found outside of Japan), they mean whatever the hell the builder wanted them to.
Where there are five stories, the common term for the structure is goju-no-to (lit: “five stories of pagoda”). Sometimes pagodas have three stories. These are known as sanju-no-to (lit: “three stories of pagoda”).
There is an antenna-looking thing at the top of every pagoda that are easily overlooked. These are called sorin. There are any number of “tiers” to these too, with each of them representing some spiritual or superstitious tenet of Buddhism. They also attract and channel lightning through the pagoda for dissipation into the ground; one wonders if this is the reason everything in Japan seems to have caught fire at some point or another.
The front gates (Omote-mon).
Once inside, you can pick up the audio tour player, and have the last opportunity to use the restroom.
This series of buildings stores all the ceremonial equipment that gets pulled out on occasion for the major processions. At the time we visited, we couldn’t go inside or anything.
The sacred stables (Shinkyusha).
Supposedly one can tour the stable on certain days; we did not get to do so though. It didn’t look big enough to house a horse, but what do I know.
The fountain (Omizuya).
Apparently the back of the roof has a flaw– one side is shorter than the other. One reason given is that it made way for a tree that used to grow next to the water basin. The other is that it was done on purpose because perfection would anger the gods.
I’d entertain the former reason, but every time I hear about deliberately introducing flaws into works with religious significance so as not to anger the gods, I call bullshit. We’ve heard the same thing about flaws in Amish quilts and Lutheranism (which is a myth), we’ve heard the same about Persian rugs and Islam (also a myth), and I’ve heard the same about Native American art (unverified). The Native American story is likely bullshit too given that it’s always mentioned in the same breath as two other debunked myths, so it’s guilt by association as far as I’m concerned.
The fountain is way too ornate and the design decisions too deliberate to be excused under the wabi-sabi school of thought (which appreciates imperfections due to natural weathering, not intention) so I’m chalking these flaws up to someone designing it this way for their own personal reasons, or they fucked up and didn’t want to commit seppuku over it. If at first you don’t succeed, redefine success.
The main gates, also known as Yomeimon, look amazing in pictures. We weren’t able to see it in person because the whole thing was being renovated at the time.
The outside corridors.
These are considered a work of art in and of themselves, being some of the most intricate and highly-complicated carvings in all of Japan! There’s a belfry(?) and some other structures, all with very elaborate woodwork.
One of the mini-shrines, Honjido Hall, exhibits a continual Buddhist prayer session in Japanese. At the end of it, they will give a brief summary in English. The cool part about it is the dragon painting on the ceiling. When the priest claps two wooden blocks together anywhere in the room, it makes the dull clack you’d think it would. But when he does the same under the dragon’s face, a shimmering metallic echo resonates through the hall. This is called the “Crying Dragon.”
No photographs were allowed in this hall.
Kara-mon Gate and the main shrine hall.
The gate (karamon) barring entry to the main shrine hall (gohonsha) was certainly something to see. Painted with white chalk, it is adorned with miniature carvings of wise men and other important figures.
It says a lot about Japan that photographs are allowed in and around most religious sites, excepting only the most sacred of spaces. It’s always disappointing when venues restrict photography on the grounds that the imagery is sacred, yet they’ll sell that very imagery on postcards and in art books.
Before entering the shrine hall, you do have to remove your shoes. We did so but it was way too cold to be running around in socks.
One small structure off to the left houses palanquins.
The sleeping cat (Nemurineko).
To reach the path to Tokugawa’s shrine, you must first pass through a particular gate. Above this gate is a carving of a sleeping cat, known as nemurineko.
It is said this cat is the embodiment of sunlight (nikko). I don’t understand the cryptic Japanese interpretation of things like this. It looked like the embodiment of a sleeping cat. Maybe it’s a play on words (nikko/neko = sunlight/cat). The cat is on the sunnier side of the gate, so there is that.
The other side of the gate has a similar carving of sparrows. Under normal circumstances, we expect cats to eat birds, but in this case with the cat being asleep, cat and bird can co-exist. It’s supposed to represent nationwide peace. One wonders what happens when the cat awakens.
At the top of all the stairs, there is a small rest area with vending machines and some benches to sit. “Neat, I can grab a Coke or a Boss or something.”
No such luck– the vending machines stocked only canned green tea. Before I had a chance to wonder who the hell services and maintains vending machines at the top of a mountain, the answer presented itself.
Though there was tea, at this point there are no bathrooms nearby.
Flanking the gate are two more spiritual guardians who eat souls and spit out fire, in addition to the two koma-inu (“lion dogs”) who stand watch. I’ve heard these creatures are unique to this shrine and not found anywhere else in Japanese mythology but I could be wrong.
Tokugawa’s tomb takes on a curious shape. It is technically a pagoda, though one with only one story (meets the odd-number requirement). Called a hoto, or “treasure pagoda,” its contents are certainly timeless.
Directly next to Tokugawa’s tomb is a tree that has been shaved for incense for hundreds of years.
On the way out we stopped by a gift shop but I don’t think we bought anything. It was crowded because it was the only heated place in Toshogu so I excused myself and took pictures of garbage, moss and mailboxes.
On the way out we tried to follow the same path the bus took in, but we got lost and came across this neat-looking bridge. Without a clue is always the best way to travel. Maybe this is part of Futarasan?