Nikko, Japan

Nikko, Toshogu: the Shrine and Mausoleum of the Tokugawa Shogun

Temple pediment adorned with two elephants over gold.
Muscle-covered lanterns from the Toshogu shrine in Nikko.
Jizo Narabi
One of many Shinto jizo Narabi statues on the outskirts of Nikko.
Bake Jizo
Sequence Bake Shinto Jizos Narabi in Kanmangafuchi.
golden roof
Detail of a golden roof of the Toshogu Shrine-Mausoleum in Nikko.
Mausoleum Library
Visitor at the library of the mausoleum-shrine of Tosho gu.
Sisters in traditional kimonos, visiting the Toshogu shrine.
Five Floors of History
The five-story Pagoda that precedes the entrance to the Toshogu mausoleum.
solemn ascent
Couple walks up the steps of one of Nikko's shrines.
Believers purify themselves at a fountain in the Toshogu mausoleum.
Priest speaks to a believer inside a temple in Toshogu.
Great Stone Torii
A large granite torii serves as a sacred portico to the Toshogu mausoleum.
A unavoidable historical and architectural treasure of Japan, Nikko's Toshogu Shrine honors the most important Japanese shogun, mentor of the Japanese nation: Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The penumbra of the cedar forest in which Nikko's historic core is hidden stands out beyond the wild flow of the Daiya River.

It is here that we join a platoon of Japanese pilgrims who are advancing with great determination. Further on, we pass a group of rural workers who do not react very much to the turmoil around their land.

We complete a wider path flanked by shrines and inns that continues to an imposing, unpaved alleyway that leads to the village's secular religious complex.

We entered the interior of the ToshoGu shrine determined to explore it with the reverence that its shogun Japan deserved Tokugawa Ieyasu.

On the other side of the entrance porch, we come across the Sanjinko, three sacred storage houses, one of them with embossed images of elephants created by an artist believed to have never seen the real creature.

To the left of the entrance is Shinyosha, the sacred temple that houses a carved white horse, this time more credible. This stable is adorned with various allegorical images of monkeys, also in relief.

In the most famous one, three of the primate figures advise by mime “don't hear evil, don't see evil, don't speak evil” and thus demonstrate the three principles of buddhism Tent.

We continue the tour.

Next, we find a granite fountain in which, according to Shinto practice, dozens of Japanese faithful compete for the golden spoons available to wash their mouths, after having already done the same with their hands.

Believers purify themselves at a fountain in the Toshogu mausoleum.

Soon after, we find the exuberant building of the sanctuary library, with more than 7000 scrolls and religious books. After a new portico and a flight of stairs, the drum tower and belfry emerge.

Nearby, there is the Honji-do, a hall known for having on the ceiling a painting of Nakiryu, a crying dragon.

There, from time to time, we hear monks slam two bars together to demonstrate the acoustics of the hall, specifically that the dragon roars when the sound is made under its mouth.

The next building to stand out is the Portico of Sunset (Yomei-mon), covered in gold leaf, intricately carved and painted with flowers, dancers, mythical animals and Chinese sages.

For posterity, the belief remained that, concerned that its perfection might arouse the envy of the gods, those responsible for the construction decided to turn the last pillar upside down.

We left behind the Jin-yosha that serves as a shelter for the portable shrines used during festivals. We arrive at the Main Hall and the Veneration Hall, which house paintings by the 36 “immortal” poets of Kyoto and a roof with a hundred dragons all distinct.

Gradually, we approach Sakashita-mon, an additional portico that opens onto an ascending path between huge cedars that finally leads to the grave of Ieyasu, as we expected, solemn.

The Japanese have a popular saying that you can't say “beautiful” (kekko) until Nikko was seen. That weekend, thousands took the expression literally and flocked to the city's sacred area determined to discover more about the country's soul and history.

In his company, we walked along the avenue that connects Tosho Gu to Futarasan – Nikko's oldest temple, founded by the hermit Shodo Shomin in 1619 – to the Taiyu-byo mausoleum.

A large granite torii serves as a sacred portico to the Toshogu mausoleum.

After the priority ToshoGu, visitors usually head to Futasaran to worship three Shinto deities: Okuninushi, Tagorihime and Ajisukitakahikone.

And discover Nikko's protective shrine, dedicated to the Nantai mountain which, at 2248m, contributes in large part to the region's climatic rigidity.

Couple walks up the steps of one of Nikko's shrines.

In the Taiyu-byo mausoleum, they pay homage to Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu Tokugawa (1604-51) who decreed that his tomb could not overshadow his grandfather's. As if that were possible.

For most Japanese today, Ieyasu Tokugawa is worthy of all the reverence we admire there and much more.

Born in 1541, the military man became a feared shogun and conqueror. Two years after Ieyasu came to the world, the Portuguese landed in what is now Japanese. The supremacy and territory of the various islands was disputed by warlords, leaders of rival clans.

In the context of these successive conflicts, it happened that, in 1600, the domination of almost all of present-day Japan was at stake in a single battle, that of Sekigahara. Two armies, both formed by diverse allied clans, fought it.

Ieyasu led the triumphant. Three years passed before their supremacy over the rival Toytomi clan and the other feudal lords of Japan (the daimyo) was undisputed.

Sisters in traditional kimonos, visiting the Toshogu shrine.

Today, the Sekigahara battle is said to be the unofficial dawn of the ultimate supreme shogunate. After that and until the Meiji Restoration – which, in 1868, ended the feudal period Edo (or Tokugawa) – the Japanese islands finally lived in peace.

Japanese nationality also began to gain expression.

Ieyasu, the founder of the dynasty and military and ideological mentor of this drastic evolution, was gifted with numerous posthumous tributes from descendants and subjects. Among them, there was the delivery of 15.000 artisans from all over Japan who worked two years on end rebuilding their last home.

The five-story Pagoda that precedes the entrance to the Toshogu mausoleum.

Let's return to the mausoleum. It didn't take us long to realize that the Taiyu-byo building at the Toshogu shrine contained several of the elements of the original model.

It turned out to be smaller and more intimate, with some additional mystery lent by the dozens of stone lanterns donated by the daimyo and by the gloomy shadow of the surrounding Japanese cedar forest that made up our access lane. Meiji matchmaker shrine, from Tokyo.

Cedars are, in fact, ubiquitous in Nikko's historic area.

There is an avenue that is a world record holder, registered in the Guinness book as the longest road in the world lined with trees, 35.41 km long and lined with 200.000 Japanese cryptomeria.

It is the only Japanese cultural property designated by the Japanese government at the same time as a Special Historic Site and a Special Natural Monument.

The place we moved to next, eager for some seclusion, is equally unique. We were slow to find it, delayed by linguistic incompatibility and dubious or dysfunctional indications.

When we finally catch a glimpse of Gamman-Ga-Fuchi's sublime collection of jizos, everything changes.

These Buddhist sculptures protecting children and travelers appear endlessly arranged in a fringe of forest on the banks of the Daiya River.

They insinuate themselves strangely rounded, cloned, covered in moss and swaddled by believers in red bonnets and bibs.

Bake-jizo, the long sequence, seems to have fun with anyone trying to count their counterparts, who claim to be countless. We start by trying the task. We quickly surrender to the reason of those jigs castrators. And to the boredom of counting.

Nikko, Japan

The Tokugawa Shogun Final Procession

In 1600, Ieyasu Tokugawa inaugurated a shogunate that united Japan for 250 years. In her honor, Nikko re-enacts the general's medieval relocation to Toshogu's grandiose mausoleum every year.
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