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2 May 2018. I met a man on the train going to the Shibazakura Festival. He bragged about being a photography teacher and a photographer even though he had no website to show his work and credentials or even an Instagram account. He was interested in showing me his photos but indicated little interest in mine, which of course didn’t endear him to me. He did a lot of mansplaining, which of course also didn’t endear him to me. The overall feel I got from him was that he was The Man and I was of little account. He also bragged about having been to over 100 countries and that Nikko was his favourite place in the world. This was how I first heard of it. Not an auspicious beginning I admit but it was enough to pique my interest. I suspect the conversation would have been a lot easier if I had spent the hour or so we were together asking about him, and his life, and why he loved Nikko so much. But I didn’t. There were two too many competing egos for this to be a comfortable conversation, but I did learn about Nikko, and for that I’m grateful.

So I do a little research into Nikko and of course what comes up is the extensive UNESCO World Heritage Site consisting of two shrines and a temple, with a total of over 100 buildings. The star of them all, and the one that gets the most coverage, is the Tōshō-gū Shrine. I make that my goal.

Nikko is 140 kilometres north of Tokyo – three and a half hours by metro and two trains. I don’t meet anyone on these trains. I do a lot of staring out the window – at the vibrant spring-time green rice fields,

at newly planted rice fields,

at farmers planting rice,

at the way the rice fields go right up to the edge of the houses and villages using every last square inch of land,

and in places stretch right out into the far distance as if the whole world is a rice field.

It’s a soft beauty that intrigues and calms me. Of course there are roads and bridges and power lines and towns and much that indicates an industrialised modern country, but it’s the rice fields of rural Japan that sing to me as the train rolls by.

It’s Golden Week in Japan, which means everyone is on holiday and traveling around the country. At all the major tourist sites the crowds are legendary. On arrival in Nikko I discover that due to the line up of people there is a forty minute wait for the bus up to Tōshō-gū so I decide to walk knowing I’ll get there in just about the same time.

I walk through the town and arrive at the Shinkyo Bridge. The legend goes that when a saint tried to cross the Daiyagawa River two obliging snakes formed a bridge for him to walk across, and there they are before me, two bright red perfectly curved spans over the murmuring turquoise river, surrounded by a lush green forest.

I’m so poetic, I make it sound so lovely, and it really is, but at the same time I’m getting seriously annoyed with a couple of young girls who are on the bridge taking selfies in every pose imaginable, and just. won’t. move. I swear they think every pose, every pout, is worthy of a Vogue photo spread, and they need just one more, and one more, and just one more, to get the perfect shot. Finally they move on, and I stop pouting myself. I can see the snakes arcing uninterrupted across the river.

The Shinkyo Bridge, much more interesting than the much vaunted Togetsukyo Bridge in Arashiyama, which I didn’t bother to photograph, is the gateway to the shrines and temples of Nikko. From here I begin the long climb up a twisting stone staircase through a forested area, and out onto steep streets.

The plan is to hike up to Tōshō-gū, but I’m waylaid by the tiny but perfectly lovely Rinnoji Shoyo-en garden. It reaches out a gentle hand and pulls me in and I find myself almost alone in a place of quiet serenity.

After a time I leave the garden and keep walking – up and up and up. I’m in the ancient forest that surrounds the shrine complex

and even when I reach the entrance there are still more stairs.

Tōshō-gū Shrine is all about Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616),

the first shogun of the Edo period. The Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868.

The will of Ieyasu: Bury me at Mount Kuno, perform the last rites at Zojoji Edo, and finally, after a year, erect a shrine at Mount Nikko and pray for me.

So his son built the shrine in 1617 to house the deified spirit of his father, and to protect Edo (Tokyo) against evil influences. It was his grandson Iemitsu, the third Shogun, who created the shrine in the monumental scale seen today, and added a mausoleum to house his grandfather’s remains which were transferred from their original resting place. Ieyasu is enshrined at Tōshō-gū as the deity Tosho Daigongen, Great Deity of the East Shining Light, thus following a practice of earlier times, seen throughout the world, of making gods of warrior kings, or of kings themselves claiming to be gods.

The stunning natural setting has been regarded as sacred throughout the centuries, even before Iemitsu built the grand and lavish “palace” that is Tōshō-gū Shrine. There are many buildings, most extravagantly decorated with gold leaf, and splashed with colour and countless carvings, in an ornate style not usually seen in Japan.

Walking through the stone Torii gate I first come to the magnificent five-story pagoda

and a row of traditional stone lanterns with caps of moss.

There is a courtyard area before me

flanked by the Kamijinko, or Upper Storehouse,

the bell tower,

and the Yomeimon Gate, the imposing entrance to the shrine. One does not pass lightly through such a gate.

Opposite the storehouse is the Suibansha – a place for washing the hands and mouth before entering the sacred area on the other side of the Yomeimon Gate

Also in the vicinity is another storehouse, as sumptuously decorated as the first. In the peak of the roof, against a backdrop of gleaming gold are the Sozonozo Elephants, carved from imagination by an artist who had never seen an elephant.

Nearby is the Sacred Stable, the only building that is not covered in gold leaf and paint.

The carved frieze shows the allegorical life of a monkey in a series of scenes

including what may be the first depiction of the Buddhist principle to “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”.

It was believed that the monkeys came to life on New Year’s Eve and dressed up as Shinto priests to pay homage to their companions, the sacred horses, in the stable.

Among the more than forty buildings in the complex is the sumptuous edifice that houses the sacred mikoshi,

which play host to the deities of the shrine, including of course Ieyasu. During the Edo period the Shogunate held regal processions between Edo and the shrine in Nikko, which are re-enacted in present day festivals. During the Reitaisai, or Grand festival, every May, the mikoshi are paraded through the town along with 1200 attendants including priests, musicians, shrine maidens, and hundreds dressed as warriors in armour. The ancient traditions are continued both physically and spiritually. The honouring of the gods, the honouring of Ieyasu, is as strongly felt today as ever.

Recently I went to a huge mall to buy some shoes. It was a post holiday-season weekday and the mall was very quiet. I looked around feeling into the energy of the place, this temple to consumerism. I mentioned it to Don. His comment was that malls suck the life out of you. This almost empty mall, all bright and white and shiny was without a soul. It sucks the life out of you because it has none of it’s own, except a mute slithering avarice enticing you to buy.

But Tōshō-gū! Now there’s a place with soul. Not just the soul of Ieyasu, but the soul of reverence and devotion and respect. Perhaps Iemitsu’s creation of this extravagant gilded “palace” to his grandfather’s spirit came in part from hubris and a desire to show off his wealth and power, but I think it must also have come from a place of reverent homage, and that this has continued throughout the centuries with the twice yearly enactments of the processions that take the deities in their gilded mikoshi out into the community.

There were hundreds of people at Tōshō-gū the day I went – foreign tourists like me, school children

and many many Japanese people. Some no doubt were there to see the beautiful ancient buildings, but I suspect many were on a kind of pilgrimage, a chance to show their reverence and devotion to the celebrated, deified Ieyasu, the first great Shogun of the Edo period. Tōshō-gū, and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, is the heart and soul of Nikko.

It’s only later that I realise that my “friend” on the train was almost certainly not talking about Tōshō-gū when he said that Nikko was his favourite place in the world. I’m now fairly certain he was talking about hiking in the spectacular countryside of this part of Japan. I kind of wish I’d done that. So if you’re drawn to see Tōshō-gū give yourself a couple of days and do a little hiking in the area as well. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.

Next post: Japan wrap-up.

All words and images by Alison Louise Armstrong unless otherwise noted
© Alison Louise Armstrong and Adventures in Wonderland – a pilgrimage of the heart, 2010-2019.