Seeing & Looking
On his travels through northern Japan, the poet Matsuo Basho made Nikko his 5th station stop. In 1689 he wrote a haiku about it:
O holy, hallowed shrine !
How green all the fresh young leaves,
In thy bright sun shine !
In his notes, Basho recorded that the word "Nikkoo" meant the bright beams of the sun. Basho's eternal sun light glowed along on the stairway handrail as we walked up the steps of Toshogu temple. The name of this building translated as “light from the East” and it symbolized the dawn of a new born nation: Japan, land of the rising sun.
PHOTOGRAPHING BEAUTIFUL NIKKO
We'd come to Nikko (NĒ -KŌ) to photograph its sites, to walk along the racing Daiya River, and explore old Japan. We stayed at the Nikko Kanaya Hotel and we left all our optical gear there but one camera and one lens we packed for a day's photographing. From Tokyo, we traveled about 120 kilometers to Nikko on the efficient Tobu-Nikko Line train. For the whole trip, I'd packed only a couple lenses, with wide and medium focal lengths, and left the tripod behind. Since Nikko’s humidity was hard on electronics, all gear traveled in Ziploc bags with moisture absorbing pads. With some exceptions, our cameras were welcome in most shrines and temples. We arrived in the winter when the mists settle around sacred temples and shrines around Mount Nikko.
NO PICTURES PLEASE
A sign outside the sunlit temple read “No pictures of the Buddha, please.” "Okay," I thought, at least it will be warm inside and my hands will stop shaking. After leaving our hiking shoes by the doorway near snow-and-moss-covered rocks, our sock-clad feet slid easily across the polished wood floor of the outer hall. Inside, we inhaled an ancient aromatic combination of incense, mildew and lacquer.
A priest named Jikaku built this temple, known as Sanbutsu-doh. “Doh” meant hall and “Sanbutsu” meant three Buddhas. We walked under the three 16-foot high wooden Buddhas. Each figure was smiling. These Buddhas were off-limits because their temple housed a hallowed mausoleum. Worshiped for over two thousand years, the Buddha figures are sacred representations of three local mountain peaks. Shivering, we kept the cameras turned off and just stared at the gold-leafed Buddhas.
THE GREAT UNIFIER TOKUGAWA IEYASU:
The Nikko Toshogu temple was built to immortalize Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) one of three "Great Unifiers" of Japan. At the temple entrance, the ornate gate has two Niō, wrathful and muscular guardians of the Buddha. These gate guardians were carved with fierce expressions that were meant to terrify evil doers. I was shaking as I photographed the open-mouthed guardian on the right side of the gate, the Misshaku Kongō, but my tremors came more from the freezing January chill than from statue-induced terrors.
We marveled at Ieyasu’s armor, swords and household objects in the temple collections. Some objects were marked with the Japanese katakana character for samurai and with Ieyasu's logo. This most famous Samurai (soon to be featured in an FX film based on James Clavell's novel and shot in Japan) this Shogun gathered builders and craftsmen from all over Japan to construct his mausoleum at Toshogu Shrine. A warrior and king, Iyeyasu Tokugawa's presence remains vibrant and his image is deified in many of the temples and shrines.
FROM SHINTO TO STAR WARS
There were many works of reverent art at Nikko. Shinto shrines, like Toshogu, were built throughout this UNESCO World Heritage Center, and art culture is central to the Shinto faith. The term Shinto comes from two words. “Shin” means gods. The second part, “tō,” means “way” or “art.” Think of Shinto as “way of life,” or “way of the Gods.” Shinto embodied a Japanese native belief system that cherished one’s ancestors and the spirits of nature called “kami.” Kami existed in both divine and earthly forces, including plants, animals, mountains, and stones. To Shinto believers, the world was good and people were good. While there was harmony in life, it was always threatened by evil spirits, who must be kept at bay. Does this sound familiar? Talking to park attendants, we learned that George Lucas based his Star Wars themes on the samurai culture in Japan. Mr. Lucas heard the Japanese word “jidai,” meaning “age” or “time period,” and he came up with “Jedi” for his Star Wars knights. One reason you would look all day was that many of the Yomeimon Gate's figures were parts of plays and story-telling theatrical scenes.
DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT EVIL
Bolstered by a can of piping-hot buncha tea from a Pocari Sweat soft-drink vending machine labeled "attakaii" for hot drinks, we strode to the nearby stable. The horse stable at Tokugawa Ieyeyasu’s masoleum was also a national treasure. It held the painted panel carvings of the Three Wise Monkeys over the stable doors. They embody the old saying “See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil.” Samurai were ferocious warriors when mounted on horseback and, in feudal Japan, horses were rare. Caring for a samurai's horse was a sacred duty. Horse caretakers were expected to be loyal to the samurai, like a squire to a knight. A Buddhist monk from China introduced the "see no evil' concept into Japan. The three monkeys’ poses demonstrated an ancient religious motto: “if we do not see, hear or talk evil, then we ourselves shall be spared all evil.” In Japan, the old monkey saying also shows a play on words. The Japanese word for monkey, saru, sounds like the word zaru that means the negative form of any verb ( i.e. “don’t”). The Japanese saying “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” means “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak.”
LOOK ALL DAY AND NOT TIRE
There is a gang of weird animals at Nikko. In feudal Japan, people’s imagination invented many evils. Then, as now, the temples’ carved animals were considered good luck charms to ward off evil spirits. Like the fierce gate guardians, Shinto shrine figures were there for protection. One temple gate, called the Yomeimon, named for a gate in Kyoto, had 508 figures on it. Its Japanese name, “higurashi-no-mon,” meant that you can look at each animal all day long until sundown and not tire of them.
Trying to stay warm, we kept moving from one shrine to another. In Nikko Park, an elderly woman attendant offered us 200 yen home-brewed fermented tea to ward off the chill. She told us we'd come too early in the year for sake. On the 13th of April, Nikko National Park has a 4-day festival called Yayoi Matsuri. Town residents parade decorated floats and sake is ladled out of the barrels and put in square wooden cups for everyone. Being practically minded, the sake brewers hold two festivals to pray for a good future crop and reward the work done to harvest the Fall rice crop.
We photographed large, colorful sake barrels, stacked up near the Roumon gate. The gate is part of Futarasan Shrine, which dates to the year 767. There are many varieties of sake. At Nikko, undiluted sake, or genshu, is a specialty. Crafted by the master brewers at the Tobu-Nikko station, tasty genshu sake can inspire anyone to write poetic haiku. As a master of haiku and one who often got drunk while sipping sake, Basho knew alot about sake:
waves smell of saké
BLESSINGS FOR CHILDREN & TRAVELERS
Leaving the cedar tree forest, we walked on Daiya river valley road. Along it, one hundred carved stone figures were labeled Bake Jizo (bah-kay-jee-zoh). The figures were protectors for travelers and children who came to Nikko. Digging through the frozen soil to repair a statue, maintenance workers toiled to enlarge the trail and protect the statues. I made of photograph of a live traveler seated in the middle of the Bake Jizo.
ETERNAL SUN LIGHT
We reached the end of photographing after several days at Nikko. Sunlight and sacred scenes had surrounded us. The enshrined presence of the Shogun was present everywhere we went. Nikko's racing river, misty mountains and the warmth of its residents made us want to return, at a time when we might toast Basho with a glass of undiluted sake. Meanwhile, the eternal Nikko sunlight keeps shining onto stone steps that are worn from the tread of centuries of reverent feet.
Last two Images
1. Kanji calligraphy, Matsuo Basho: ( The more I drink / the more I can’t sleep / night snow).
2. Sake barrels stacked at Nikko.
Photos and Writings by Jim Austin Jimages