It was an early start for the long road trip to Nikko. It was also the second last day of the trip, which meant all our snacks were packed and we were all set to share the munchies during the 3 hour ride with our familiar guide Mikko さん. We were met with bright blue skies and cotton clouds dancing above the bright green rice paddies, the occasional rivulets and romantic by lanes disappearing up into the forested hills which is where most fairy tales are probably set.
We alternatively napped and snacked and got lost in the beauty outside our windows until we reached a rest house. You would think that restroom entrances don’t need to be cute to entice you to go in, but this one was with its origami mobiles swaying in the wind and fresh flowers arranged artistically at the washbasins. It was a quick 10 minute stop and we were off again past worlds we’d never know and people we’d never meet until we finally came to the famously mysterious vermillion lacquered Shinkyo Bridge or snake bridge, as it’s also called. The legend goes that a priest looking to cross the river Daiyo was aided by two snakes who magically transformed into the bridge we see today (okay so maybe this particular version of the bridge was reconstructed after several natural disasters, but it still counts). We were afforded only a momentary glimpse of the beautiful curve of red which stood out over the blue of the flowing river, before we pulled up at our destination – the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, also the final resting place of our very own villain turned repentant sinner Iyeyasu who had requested to be buried in Nikko. We had finally come full circle in the life of Iyeyasu.
The walk up to the shrine was simply divine. Water trickled down on either side of a gently sloping grey gravel path cutting through trees that touched a sky which had lost its vibrant blue, as though sombrely dressed for the occasion. I could have stayed there forever, but we had to move on until we reached a 5 storey pagoda standing tall before the main entrance to the temple, tinting a grey sky with vibrant reds and greens and tips of gold.
We gathered together, collected our tickets and climbed up through the Yomeimon Gate which lives up to its name Higarishino mon, the gate you’ll never get tired of looking at. The structure reminded me of the humble and demure Nijo Castle, yet this place was a glorious and gaudy tribute to Ieyaysu, filled with some of the most famous sculptures delicately carved – an elaborate and intricate labour of love. To this day, festivals take place commemorating the procession that had once carried Iyeyasu from Shizuoka to his final resting place in Nikko.
We were told to look out for three carvings in particular, which is rather difficult considering everything is covered with such beautiful carvings that everything looks like a masterpiece. The first one we were asked to spot was the famous 3 monkeys with their see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil mantra. And there they were, sitting on a beam over the entrance to the sacred stable in which stood a single tall white horse – a still and silent witness to the hordes of people flocking to the shrine. Despite all the people and all the constant chatter, I couldn’t help but thinking that he must be so lonely in the crowd. It’s a familiar feeling, and I pass on, unable to find the words to say I feel the same.
The next carving was of the imaginary elephants, not because they’re not really there, but because the artist who carved them had never seen an elephant before and had carved them based on what he had heard they looked like. It must have been quite the gamble, but he seems to have done rather well considering. I know I couldn’t draw an elephant even though I have seen one before. Sometimes it’s not the eyes in your head you need, but the ones in your mind.
The third sculpture came after we passed the storehouses and the ablution area and made our way to the entrance of the Inner Shrine. There sat a cat, peacefully asleep for all intents and purposes, in a beautiful field of peonies (which are incidentally considered as the king of flowers in Japan… fun fact). Except on the other side of the entrance directly behind the cat, is the carving of a sparrow. It’s an interesting carving, at once symbolizing harmony and at the same time conveying a sense of caution, that no matter how peaceful things appear, a cat can always eat an unsuspecting sparrow if so provoked. It’s an artistic reminder not to take advantage of someone’s good nature because everyone has another side to them that they’ve just been nice enough not to show you.
Like Nijo Castle, photography is not permitted inside the prayer hall which is where we went next, after having removed our shoes. There are a number of reasons why I’m a big proponent of no photography in places like these. For one, it’s a place of worship and tourists flashing their cameras about not only detracts from the experience of people who’ve genuinely come there to worship but is also disrespectful of the sanctity of the place (truth be told, I’m still waiting for a solution to be found for the haram). And then of course as a tourist you want to be able to truly appreciate the magnificent architecture and the solemn atmosphere and dated rituals, not limited by the scope of your lens.
We entered the prayer hall, lined with portraits of famous poets and their poetry, where prayers were in progress and watched silently as the priest bowed, clapped and bowed again, his small congregation obediently following. Amidst all the opulence, it was a gentle reminder of your place in the grand scheme of things. We filed back out, through the doorway guarded by ornate dragons and went to put on our shoes.
Our tour buddies helped me help ma down the steep flight of stairs painfully lacking a banister and we began the scenic walk back to the bus past tall trees and green brush covered with o-mikuji in a tangled mess of bad white fortunes. The only thing with a bad fortune appeared to be the trees though, with all that wasted paper tied to them like a bad joke.
Thanks to the beautiful weather and the long walk, we were now pretty hungry and looking forward to lunch at our next stop, Lake Chuzenji.
Missed Day 8 in Tokyo?
Stay tuned for Day 9 Part 2 in Nikko!