The World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko

The third day of our holiday brought us to Nikko, an historic town set in the mountains about and hour and half north of Tokyo. After a long train journey punctuated by lunchtime soba noodles, we arrived in Nikko in the early afternoon, found our hotel and set out to explore the town. Nikko is a small town which appears to be trying hard to capitalise on its rich heritage and abundance of shrines and temples. It was very noticeable how many more westerners were around in this area, particularly Europeans. Although I have been to countries before where I am comparatively pale or do not speak the language, Japan is the first place in which I have truly felt like a foreigner. And I don't mean I am on the receiving end of suspicion or hostility, but I am aware of standing out. Young children stare at us with wide eyes and elderly people look me up and down with intense curiosity. I find many aspects of the culture to be completely unfamiliar, having no equivalent in the UK, not to mention the different alphabets and language. But everyone is enormously welcoming and friendly, and it is clear that the intention of all the additional courtesies is to put people at ease. However it made it all the more noticeable that Nikko is more of a "tourist town" than anywhere else I have been so far.
The main street is nothing particularly special. There were a higher number of cafés than I have seen elsewhere, I expect as a result of the European influence. I even had a piece of chocolate cake one day! But at the top of the highstreet the road reaches a T junction where there is a beautiful red wooden bridge, exactly what springs to mind when you think of traditional Japanese scenes. I admit, the main road does detract a little from the bridge, but happily that doesn't show up in the pictures, and it's certainly not the only famous sight in the world that loses some of its glory first-hand. Over the bridge, we followed the steps up through a pretty wooded path to a large area of shrines and temples. Most of them were closed by this time, but it was very peaceful and pretty and we made up our minds to be there early the next morning. We meandered back into town, had a fairly western style dinner of grilled sausages, chicken and chips in a local cafe and then turned in early.

In keeping with our plans, we were all at the gates of the shrine by 8.20 the next morning, allowing us to glimpse many of the temple buildings before the crowds and avoiding the hottest part of the day. The main attraction was a complex of storehouses, stables, bell towers and shrines, leading up to a huge temple building at the top of the hill. We first passed the stable, which features a series of woodcarvings depicting scenes from the famous story of the 3 wise monkeys, which I thought I knew. It turns out "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" are the mother monkey's wishes for her children as they go off independently. The subsequent scenes show the monkeys falling in love, making mistakes,  even experiencing despair but ultimately having fulfilling long lives.
Eager to keep ahead of the massing crowds, we pushed on past two huge wooden towers housing an iron bell and an enormous drum, and through the gates to the main temple. This temple was considerably more ornate than any I have seen previously in Japan, and featured a lot more colours, white paint and gold leaf than I have seen before. The whole temple was surrounded by a low, apparently purely ornamental wooden wall carved with beautiful coloured birds and flowers. The effect of the white paint here combined with the intricate carvings was really quite striking. We were able to go inside the temple although not take photographs. As at all temples we have been to, we first had to remove our shoes and place them on a shelf to avoid damaging the wooden floors and tatame mats. Although it is a little inconvenient, I find that removing my shoes adds to the experience as it highlights the difference in culture but also feels respectful and is even rather comfy! The inside of the temple was simple and basic, as they often seem to be. There are few, large rooms with minimal furniture, seperated by sliding wooden panels. The exposed beams which form the main structure of the building are dark brown wood but the wall panels are made from white plaster, which makes the inside seem fairly light and airy.
Another part of the temple, up several stone staircases, is the tomb of Ieyasu, a hugely important figure in Japan's history, responsible for uniting the myriad small regions of Japan and founding the 250-year rule of the Tokugawa Shogunate. After the mountain climb of two days before, I couldn't honestly say I felt the climb up and down those stairs was worth it, but in the interest of completeness we all visited the tomb. Finally, at the bottom of the stairs there is a carving of a sleeping cat, which is absurdly small considering it is heralded a national treasure. It is very cute though. See if you can spot it in the picture!


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