Sunday, December 14, 2008

Nikko under the snow

The beauty of Japan is sometimes hard to grasp. Just like a bitter vegetable or a glass of red wine, you sometimes need to taste it several time to really appreciate, besides Tokyo (東京) old concrete the small charming gardens and neighborhoods. Even Kyoto (京都), the historical capital mixes centuries-old temples with pachinko parlors and crappy flats. There are however some pure instants of fleeting beauty : cherry blossoms in a remote countryside, a temple lost in the forest, or a neighborhood garden set alight by autumn colors at dawn. I was lucky enough to visit Nikko temples (日光) during a snowfall.
The town of Nikko is at the foot of the North Kanto (関東) mountains, around one hundred kilometers from Tokyo. Recorded history starts there in the 8th century when a monastery is founded by a famous Buddhist monk. It became a famous training center for monks before going back to obscurity until the 17th century, when it is chosen for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), the general who succeeded in unifying Japan. He was buried there in 1617, and it is during that year that his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光) started the construction of the shrine and the mausoleum that is still visited today.
Even without the additional charm of a snowfall, Nikko is with Kamakura (鎌倉) a must-see historical sites in Tokyo surroundings. Its style is atypical in Japan: most of the monuments dears to the Japanese hearts have a plain style. They use beautiful raw materials and elegant composition. Nikko temples on the other hands have exuberant colors and overloaded decorations by the finest craftsmen of the time. This may be why some Japanese people despise them. Anyways, the contrast between those finely carved monuments and the beautiful cedar forest is very pleasant. The impression is probably closer from the Palatine chapel in Palermo than from the Zen gardens of Kyoto, but one can spend hours to admire the details of the bas-reliefs, with a thought for the fifteen thousands workers who had been building the monuments for two long years. And anyways, 5 minutes of Japanese television will convince anyone that the country culture is also made of bright colors fighting each other.
The main monument is Toshogu (東照宮,) it hosts the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and is located in a nice forest that can become very atmospheric in the fog or, as in this beautiful morning, under the snow. The temple is reached by a long path with a 5 storey pagoda on the left. Its structure is very ingenious: the main axis of the pagoda does not touch the ground, so that it can be used as a counterweight in case of an earthquake. A similar solution is now used in modern high-rise buildings. Back to the Nikko alley, with the trees covered of snow and the foggy atmosphere, one would not be surprised to see a horde of wolves or maybe an Oni, a local ogre, appear from behind the trees. After reaching the first door of the monument, one can see the famous 3 monkey carved in wood, representing the Buddhist precept of ‘see no evil, hear no evil, tell no evil”. A picture of them is included in every Japanese guidebook, and, just like Mona Lisa, I must confess I was slightly disappointed by the crows and their relative small size.
However, the other buildings of the complex are outstanding, and, in this snowy morning, the bright colors seem ever livelier surrounded by the white snow. The contrast between the smooth carvings of the bas-relief and the rugged texture of fresh snow is striking. And any ray of sunlight will transform the temples in a baroque orgy of colors that would perfectly fit to Mozart’s requiem. The first monumental door is the Youmeimon(陽明門). It is the most decorated, and the legend has it that one of the pillar was mounted upside down as the craftsman was afraid the gods would be jealous of such a perfect masterpiece. The wall just right of the door is decorated by superb colourfull carvings surrounded by stone lanterns. Going up a stairs, visitors enter the inner shrine through the beautiful Koreimon (唐門).
A small path on the right leads to the inner shrine (Okusha奥社) through a long and mysterious stair in the forest. Even if the architecture is less impressive, the feeling of entering the holiest place, the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, is worth the ascent. The mausoleum is very Japanese in its simplicity, quite a surprise after the exuberant decoration of the Toshogu.
The Toshogu temple is the main reason to come to Nikko, but other historical sites are worth the visit: the Rinnoji temple (輪王寺) and the futarasan (二荒山), in the vicinity of Toshogu. Nikko is also surrounded by beautiful mountains: Chuzenji lake (中禅寺湖) appeared when a lava flow closed the valley, the famous Kegon falls (華厳の滝) and the Senjogahara swamps(戦場ヶ原) are very pleasant from June. The region is certainly worth a two or three days trip.
You may want to continue your reading by this story about Autumn in Japon.
Practical Information

The temples are at the end of Nikko main street, on the hill just the other side of the river. From Nikko station, you should turn right and walk around 30 minutes. Alternatively, you can board the bus from platform 1 or 2 up to Shinkyo station (神橋) (Y190, 1.60 Euro).

You can make the trip more pleasant by boarding the limited express « Tobu Spacia » which will allow you a VIP crossing of Tokyo’s never-ending northern suburbs (1h50, Y2720, 22.60 Euro). You may have to change trains at Shimoimaichi (下今市). The trip is more pleasant and the seats more comfortable than in the standard service from the Tobu line (東武伊勢崎線快速, 2h04, Y1320 11 Euro departure every hour).

Travelers with a generous budget may want to spend the night in the « Classic Hotel »Nikko Kaneya (日光金谷ホテル). The others may also stay at the nearby Kinugawa-Onsen (鬼怒川温泉) hot springs popular resort, a few minutes train away(from 20 to 30 minutes, train change in Shimoimaichi, Y300, 2.5 Euros).

The town also has a JR station, with a less convenient service (45 minutes from Utsunomiya宇都宮)

The Nikko Tourist Association site ( offers detailed information in English.

1 comment:

alyssa low said...

Hi! VERY informative post! :D thank you!

i'm planning to visit nikko sometime in november or early december... and i would love to catch snow there! do you know when the best time to visit there would be?

like, would 25th november be a god time for snow? (i'm only staying till the 2nd or 3rd of december) :(

thank you so much! :)