Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Nikko's Shrines

For foreigners visiting 'heritage' monuments in Japan there ought to be a caveat - "Keep your expectations low; actual sites may be substantially different from the calender pictures you may have seen!".

Perhaps my opinions have been coloured by monuments and temples in India, but in Japan there does seem to an inverse relationship between hype and reality . In 2007, I had gone to see the famous temples of Kyoto loaded with maps and guidebooks. The golden pavilion at Kinkaku-ji had turned out to be an ornate, gilded house sitting by a little pond and the 'silver pavilion', Ginkaku-ji was just one of the many cottage set amidst a pretty little garden. At the same time, the unglamorous Todaiji temple at Nara not only had an imposing presence but also the calm, meditative atmosphere one expects to see in a grand place of worship.

It was deja vu at Nikko. The temples - most of them 'National Treasures' that had been created between 1600-1800 AD to deify military dictators (Shoguns), were just over-decorated, modest-sized buildings, set on a nice hillside.

We had reached Nikko using the private Tobu line from Asakusa, Tokyo. The "Heritage Bus-Pass" (Yen 1200) we picked at Tobu-Nikko station dropped us at Omotesando, from where a short uphill walk brought us in front of the Rinno-ji Buddhist temple. A flight of stone steps takes you to the temple entrance and another set of stairs brings you below the ground level from where you look up to see three large gold-lacquered images eyeing you - Kannon (goddess of mercy & compassion), Senju (1000-armed Kannon) and Amida Nyorai.

Further up the slope from Rinno-ji is the Tosho-gu Shinto shrine, built to deify Tokugawa Iyeyasu (1543-1616), a military leader was largely responsible for unifying the warring fiefs of Japan. Apparently it took 15,000 artisans two years to finish the construction. But somehow the whole place looked garish and loud compared to Taiyuin-byo which enshrines Iyeyasu's grandson, Iemitsu(1604-51). I loved Taiyuin's quieter setting amidst towering cedars; the little cobbled courtyard where a square patch of melted snow betrayed the presence of a underground pump; and the cool wooded steps leading to a fragrant prayer chamber that had a calm meditative 'presence'.
In India grand sites sit in a sea of mediocrity - to reach Taj Mahal in Agra or the magnificent temples of South India, you have to wade through noisy, ugly & chaotic urban debris. In Japan it seems to be just the opposite - you glide through a super-efficient transportation system, forested mountains, neat stations & streets, and walk past magnificent old trees to see places that are, well, perhaps not worth the trouble.


Portraits of Nikko painted by the Russian painter, Vasily Vereshchagin (1842-1904):

"Entrance to a Temple in Nikko" (oil on canvas)
"Shinto Temple in Nikko" (oil on canvas)

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