Sunday, 13 April 2008

Day 4 Part 1 - Nikko (日光) Rinnouji Temple (輪王寺)

Today was the first day that we ventured outside of Tokyo, and was to be our first experience boarding a Shinkansen.

Our itinerary was to visit the shrines and temples of Nikko (日光) - a town nestled in the mountains of the Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県) about 140km north of Tokyo. This includes a shrine dedicated as the mausoleum and resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康) - the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, and the person on which James Clavell's novel Shogun was based upon.

All the major shrines and temples are located within the Nikko National Park (日光国立公園), classified as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nine of the structures are classified as National Treasures of Japan, and many of the others are classified as Important Cultural Properties. The oldest buildings date back 1200 years.

Getting there require good familiarity with the Japan rail system. Luckily, my Sharp Zaurus PDA comes preinstalled with a rail and plane electronic timetable and trip planner, and it told us the best way to get to Nikko is by catching a train from Shinjuku to Omiya (大宮駅), then catching the Shinkansen from Omiya to Utsunomiya (宇都宮), and then taking the local JR Nikko line to Nikko. All in all, including waiting time at interchange stations, the trip took nearly three hours, so even though we started at 8am by the time we arrived at Nikko Station it was almost 11am.

At Omiya Station we caught our first glimpse of a Shinkansen arriving at the platform. The train looks almost impossibly sleek, and stops so precisely there are markings on the platform indicating exactly where the doors to each carriage would open at. We later noticed this was also true of suburban trains but this precision is impressive for such as fast train.

Inside the train it felt like we were on board an airplane, with similar looking seats.

At Utsunomiya we we had to wait for nearly thirty minutes, and there was an interesting (fake) flower display at the antiseptically clean station:

We later found out Utsunomiya is famous for their gyoza dumplings, which explained why we could purchase boxes of dumplings at the station.

From Utsunomiya to Nikko we were on board an older style carriage and the ride was slightly bumpy. We only saw 1 group of Westerners - they were speaking French so we didn't really chat with them.

When we arrived at Nikko Station, I realise that few foreigners visit this place without guided assistance, as there were almost no English displayed anywhere. Even the tourist brochures available were all in Japanese. I finally figured out how to buy a bus ticket to get us to the National Park.

It was also very cold and misty the entire time we were at Nikko. I don't know if that was normal, but it certainly added a sense of mystery and ghostliness to the entire visit. The weather ranged from damp and wet to outright heavy rain, but most of the time there was a slight drizzle. I kept thinking back to the time I caught a really bad cold when I was in the UK which took weeks to recover from and I hoped I won't have to repeat that experience. Luckily I didn't, but I was sniffling and had a mild temperature that night.

The bus passed through a picturesque red lacquered bridge - the Shinkyo Sacred Bridge (神橋) - but unfortunately I could not take out the camera in time, and stopped right outside a copper statue of Holy Man Shoudou (勝道上人) the founder of the earliest temples and shrines at Nikko and established Nikko as a destination for mountainous worship. Nearly everyone got off at this bus stop so we followed the crowd.

This copper statue of him was built in 1955 to honour his contribution to the area, and the foundation rocks are shines bluish-black in the wet as can be seen in the photo:

A massive green copper dragon bowl fountain is in front of the statue:

Closeups of the dragon:


After a short walk up the street, we reached a huge bus parking area and saw our first temple, the majestic Three Buddhas Hall (三仏堂) behind a pine tree (and partially obscured by mist):

The Three Buddhas Hall of course contained the magnificent golden statues - which I did not take a photo of, but here's an image from the web:

I found out later that the hall has been relocated no less than three times since construction to various locations in Nikko. The current location was a result of a law passed during the Meiji period requiring Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines to be physically separated - this was a huge problem at Nikko where historically there has been close symbiosis between the temples and the shrines from the two religions. At that time there wasn't even enough money to rebuild this hall and the Emperor Meiji himself felt sorry for the financial hardship caused by his decision to separate the two religions that he contributed to the reconstruction cost.

Here we have a large party of worshippers ascending the stairs to the temple:

There is a kongozakura cherry tree right outside the hall which itself is classified as a national monument, We were fortunate to see it starting to blossom:

In front of the hall is a hot incense copper stove and a souvenir shop:


And a curious stone monument which I can't find any descriptive commentary either on the guidebook or the Internet:

We purchased tickets to see the temples and shrines. Next to the Three Buddhas Hall is the Holy Fire Temple (大護摩道):

Outside this building are a number of interesting sculptures/monuments - many of which were relocated to their present locations as a result of the Meiji law to separate shrines and temples. First is the Shourou bell tower (鐘楼) - this bell is rung on New Year's Eve to announce to the coming of the new year:

And large copper lantern with bells on top called the (糸割符) - commissioned by local farmers when the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu gave them permission to trade in silk:

There is also a large stone lantern:

And this impressive stone pillar is the Sourintou Tower (相輪とう) - built as a copy of the Treasure Tower in the Hieisan Temple and as a symbol of world peace.


The Japanese seem to love making wishes - these are fortune slips tied to a string - you buy the paper, write your wish, and then tie them in the hope the wish will come true:



You can also write a wish on a wooden tablet and hang them on a noticeboard - these are public wishes since anyone can read them - often people write "get well" messages to those who are sick on them:

Stone pagoda:

And finally a small shrine:

Map of the area:

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Full album on Picasa:
[2008-04-13] Japan - Nikko

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