Nikko: Toshogu Shrine

September 7, 2011

The Uchida family took me to a World Heritage Site outside of Utsunomiya, by the town of Nikko (日光, “sunshine” or “sunlight”).  Toshogu is the most ornate shrine in Japan and also contains the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu.  We drove through the gorgeous Tochigi Prefecture, passing rice fields, orchards, and tall mountains to the north, reveling all the while in the dry clear air.

Planted in 1625, 200,000 cedar trees have dwindled in number to 12,400, but still line a 35 kilometer-long road, one of the longest avenues in the world, sunken into the rolling foothills and lined with stone walls.

We parked near a wooded area with a strong river rushing along below the lot.

As Nikko is a tourist town, omiyage stores had signs in numerous languages.

The Shinkyo Bridge is regarded as one of the three finest in Japan; its name literally means “sacred bridge”.

The shrine entrance was marked with a carved stone noting that this location is a World Heritage site.

A tiny stream babbled down the center of the steps leading to the shrines.

Schoolchildren wearing red hats, not unlike the Buddhas at Takao-san, took a tour of the shrine.

Cedar trees with small paper prayers tied onto their needles lined the walkways.

A tall structure guarded the entrance to one of the shrines.

A massive torii, standing next to even larger cedar trees, ruled over the entrance.

A tall pagoda loomed as tall as the nearby trees.

Tenbu, protectors of Buddhist law, kept watch over the entrance.

A stand of lanterns covered in moss sat on top of smooth river rocks.  Walking along the rocks produced a fascinating, almost watery sound as legions of tourists tread throughout the grounds of the shrines.

All the shrine buildings had gold ornamentation and elaborate carvings, richly adorned with color and fine detail, in contrast to the simplicity of Itsukushima’s plain buildings.

One of the most famous sets of carvings at the Toshogu shrine contained the story of a monkey who is raised by his mother, goes through some brooding periods, meets the girl of his dreams, and settles down to raise his own monkey child, who goes through his own emo childhood and the cycle repeats.

The child contemplates his independence.

Hear, speak, see no evil.

Looking up toward the sky with ambition.

Friends encouraging one another.

Lovesick monkey.

Two married monkeys going through the tidal wave of matrimony, and to the right, a pregnant mother monkey prepares to give birth to the next generation of primates prepared to educate humans on the tenants of Confucianism.

Housed under the portico containing the parable of the monkeys was a sacred horse, donated by the government of New Zealand as a token of goodwill.

Life as a sacred horse is pretty awesome, what with four meals a day, regular exercise, pasturing, and two and a half hours of service in the sacred stable.

Another torii was in line with the the mausoleum and Tokyo.

More gilded roofs.

Birds, flowers, and other creatures adorned the walls of the temple.

Uchida-san pointed out four columns: three have the curls pointing up, while the fourth has curls pointing down; it was either an unintentional mistake, or a reminder that us humans are inherently flawed, so we have to leave our artwork and creations imperfect.  You see the same deliberate mistakes in Navajo rugs.

More carvings, dragons, lions, and figures.

Another shrine with sake.

The sleeping cat looks awake from one angle, and asleep from another, sort of a Japanese Schrödinger’s feline.

Birds roosted in numerous corners.

Fire of all sorts graced the tops of lanterns.

Shrine roofs.

Flora carvings.

The trees were incredibly tall at this shrine, probably four hundred years old.

Lions were everywhere.

The fine details of the shrine were everywhere, small and prevalent.

The personal philosophy of Lord Tokugawa was offered for sale, as a good luck charm for a household or business.

We left the shrine, admiring the trees, mossy lanterns, and details of the compound.

A dragon-shaped fountain marked the final portion of the Toshogu shrine.

More photos of the Toshogu Shrine are here.

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