SYNOPSIS:  The cult of the emperor — where two of the Tokugawas rest as gods…  About some of the few gaudy Baroque shrines and temples which once littered the Edo landscape.  About the three famous monkeys and an even more famous cat, and a lot about rain…


When my camera started to malfunction and to fog up from the inside at about 5 PM in the middle of a forest where I had decided to go for a hike — am I crazy?, I am in a downpour! — I almost got mad.  I had been biting my tongue about being soaked up to my knees, cold and wet to my bones, and aching all over — all in the name of… duty, I guess.  I was here for one day.  If I would not see these sights today, my already tight schedule would fall apart.  I could not afford that.  Nikko was important.  But I definitely could not afford to sacrifice my camera.  Not for anything!

I had gotten out of the hotel in a downpour.  I knew there was not much hope.  There were no clouds; there was a solid dark gray, low blanket of rain in the making, hanging over Nikko.  It started yesterday when I was hanging out in the kimono shop with the American ladies.  If it let up during the night I would not have noticed.  Today, there was no hope for improvement, period.

Many others must have felt the same.  Once you come all the way out here, you can’t just turn around because of rain.  So, onward soldiers!  There were many, many, many of these soldiers.  In the States or in Germany that would be unthinkable.  Rain is a great deterrent  for sightseeing; not so here.  I don’t even want to picture the places I saw today filled with tourists, when there is actually a good day!

Any picture you see that I took with few or no people in it cost me an extra 10 minutes in the downpour.  For comparison, I inserted a few “this is the reality” type of image versus the ones I painstakingly took without people.  The reassurance mantra I mumbled all day went something like this:  It does not matter if your pictures are all rainy, what matters is that you look at and experience this.  There are many images on line.   I should have just given up even taking pictures.  I could have been that much happier.

Nikko is the epitome of gaudy.  And that is one reason why it is so appealing and so much fun to visit for tourists.  I had pictured it as fun and had been looking forward to it.  Because of the rain, it was no fun.  But it was still impressive.  To think that Edo (now Tokyo) must have been filled with this opulence!

Nowhere does the difference between the austere aristocratic, indigenous, Shinto taste (as exemplified by the shrine at Ise) and the extravagant, militaristic, Chinese influenced, Samurai/Shogun taste become more clear.  The Tokugawa clan was after all the “newly rich”, the ones who came out of nowhere and found themselves in the middle of power and riches.  Now what?  Showing off seems to be the universal answer in a situation like this.  It took a while for these military brutes to develop a finer, more subtle taste.   And in prolonged peace periods they did just that:  develop the tea ceremony, scale down outward opulence for sophisticated and more subtle displays of taste and wealth.  But here they are still in full outward swing.

At Nikko this phase is preserved.  In many other parts of Japan is has been destroyed by war, natural disasters, fires, change of power.  As always, there is much, much more in depth material online that you can look up.  I cannot even come close here.

What is also preserved at its finest is the total merging of Buddhism and Shintoism, the famed Japanese syncretism which was outlawed by the Meiji government.  Because of the changing attitudes under the Meiji much of the evidence for this practice was destroyed or “cleaned up”.  Not in Nikko.  I had the hardest time to figure out if I was in a Buddhist temple or a Shinto shrine.  Buddhist images existed next to Torii gates; in all temples you have the typical ablution tank, the bell to “wake up the gods” and other Shinto features.  But then… there are Buddhist images, too.  It is maddeningly hilarious.

At one point the idea developed that kamis (Shinto spirits) are actually the souls and reincarnations of Buddhist deities.  And it is in this vein, that the first Tokugawa shogun, the famed Ieyasu and his grandson have been buried here at Nikko.  Reportedly, 127,000 craftsmen built this shrine…

Everyone has heard of the three wise monkeys who “see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil”.  This idea is actually a Buddhist idea that originated in China.  I wonder if there are famous depictions of this theme anywhere.  The one here at Nikko at the sacred stables is definitely one of the most famous ones.  But who has heard of the sleeping cat?   It’s a national treasure because it is created by legendary master Hidari Jingoro and all the Japanese line up to take a picture of it.  There seems to be more than stories behind the carving, one of which is that the cat was to ward off mice, because it is situated near the gate leading to the grave of Ieyasu.  It is not aggressive even though there are sparrows nearby.  But it is on guard.  With this symbolism it is also meant to be a sign of peace which Ieyasu is believed to have ushered in.

Two main shrine complexes, one temple and dozens of minor sites all in one city, could keep you busy for days.  Instead of getting home as fast as I could — as I really should have after all this cold and wet, I decided to rough it and to take one of the hiking trails back, through the Guinness world book of records’ largest forest of old cedar trees!  15,000 trees are recorded in a 35 km long avenue which were planted and maintained by monks of these shrines hundreds of years ago.  About 50 die every year of natural causes, diseases, pollution, or lightning …

Focusing on that hot shower and that warm bed I would have in good time, I made it home.  The pictures turned out not all awful even though many of them clearly show the streak marks of rain.  My camera seems to have recovered, too.  And so went the day in UNESCO town Nikko.  Tomorrow, the weather is supposed to be OK.  Stable.  Not great, but no rain.

Sometimes, life is not fair!  Good night.

4 comments so far

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  1. So glad that you and your camera made it and a hot shower was hopefully awaiting you at the end of your adventure. We have been soaked and cold as well and I remember turning to Bill and laughing while telling him “I did not know that I loved you this much”. Wet is wet!

  2. Having toured European cathedrals where opulence is an understatement, these colorful and ornate shrines seem just right for my palate. We’ve had two days of rain and mugginess, ideal conditions to instill a sense of camaraderie in your soggy predicament. Good to know that you’re inland enough to avoid the tidal surges and mudslides. Hang in there.

  3. Typhoon…but you are not in Nikko today…so wondering if typhoon has affected the area where you currently are.

    • The Typhoon likely will affect all areas of Japan but mainly with ungodly amounts of rain. I am mainly in cities, no landslides to fear. But there are lots of people in the mountains. Those will get their dose of trouble. ET