The Japanese say: „Nikko minai uchi-wa kekko-to iuna“ — who has not seen Nikko, should not talk about beauty. Nature has in fact contributed everything to make the region of Nikko, „the sun`s brilliance“, the most attractive scenery in Japan as is often claimed. The bearer of that name is not an urban settlement but a mountainous district of volcanic character about 600 m above sea level. In a narrower sense the Japanese consider Nikko to be the surrounding area of two villages in the valley of the Dajagawa, called Hachiishi and Irimachi, the former extends alongside a long straight road to the river shore.
In the center of the region and in a row of rising mountains stand the up to 2540 m high Nantai-san, also called Nikko-san, like the Fuji one of Japan`s holy mountains to whose tops the believers go on pilgrimages. A rare wealth in waterbodies enlivens the quietness of the woods, clear lakes mirror the surrounding heights, streams flow downstream, building small waterfalls of which about thirty can be counted in a surrounding area of 25 km. What however makes up the incomparable decoration of the landscape is the rich vegetation that covers mountain and valley in the form of huge giant trees, monumental Japanese cedars that consecrate the valley in their inviolate nature and their festive earnestness. In this valley, two of the most brilliant persons of ancient Japan are buried, the great Ieyasu and his nephew Iemitsu.
Attracted by the splendid nature many representatives of foreign states as well as Englishmen and Americans spend the hot season in the region of Nikko, so that the temple city also has resorts and the holy and the profane live together peacefully.
Unfortunately the weather was not favorable to me and about the charms of that region that had been described to me in the most vivid colors in words of ecstasy, I saw little, if not to say nothing. The rain poured down in streams, the fog hung low to the bottom of the valley obscuring the woods and mountains as if the holy places were to be hidden from foreign viewers who had come not to sacrifice and believe but to watch and enjoy. But not only nature, art too has contributed to make Nikko a landmark in Japan. These works we could enjoy despite the bad weather so that we started our tour early in the morning.
At first we entered a lovely temple garden to call a chief priest out of his house who was visibly surprised about such early visitors but finally composed himself and unlocked Sambutsu-do, that is the hall of the three Buddhas. It completely resembles the buildings we had already seen and is only distinguished by three gilded images of giant dimensions. One shows the goddess Kwan-on with her thousand hands, the second Amitabha and the third again Kwan-on with a horse head.
Greater interest produced a pillar outside the hall. Called Sorinto, it had been built in 1643 to keep away bad influences. It is 13 m high, produced out of copper in cylindrical form and is crossed in its lower third by two pairs of horizontal cross beam at right angle that rest on their ends on narrow copper pillars. The upper end of the middle pillar is decorated with a row of lotus flowers one above another from which hang small bells.
Under the fully covering canopy of touching branches of Japanese cedars we walked toward the temple mausoleum of Ieyasu. Deep silence, festive quietness prevails in the area of the dignified trees whose dense foliage does hardly permit a ray of sunlight to penetrate. The red brown trees straight as an arrow and measuring multiple meters in circumference contrasted with the delicate light green moss that covered the ground. While one is often disappointed by the view of much praised wonders of nature, here the opposite effect happened. I had not imagined, despite all descriptions, that the effect of these giant trees covering important areas would be as outstanding and was nearly overpowered by it.
Already in 767 the priest Shodo Shonin had built the first Buddhist temple here in Nikko and thus laid the foundation of the sanctuary of this place. But its real significance Nikko only reached since shogun Ieyasu was buried here in 1617. He had been placed among the gods by Mikado as an „eminence of the first rank, light of the East, great incarnation of Buddha“. The temple site consists of a complex of buildings and courtyards in terraces that are connected by stairs and gates. Through the branches of two rows of Japanese cedars we can see the gate that is over 8 m high and made out of granite and to which some broad steps lead. The prince of Chikusen had built those in 1618 with material taken out of his quarries. In the first courtyard the eye is captivated by pagoda glittering in bright red lacquer that rises up to five storeys and displays on the level of the lowest story images from the zodiac.
The stairs that continues at some distance is crowned by the Ni-o-mon, the gate of the two kings with rich and in part artful illustrations of lions, tigers, unicorns, tapirs and fabulous animals that serve here in part as guards in part in their mythical function. Stepping out of the gate we are on the first terrace surrounded by an intensely red colored wooden wall and are truly struck by the harmonic total impression of the stylish buildings, the rich variety of artistic details, the splendor of the colors, the vivid motion and noble quietness of the decoration that all flow together. In three exceptional buildings with pleasing forms all the necessary objects for the religious ceremonies to honor Ieyasu as well as those used by the shoguns and the temple treasures are kept, while another splendidly decorated building houses the collection of Buddhist writings. A cistern dates from 1618 and supplies the holy water intended for washings. It has been chiseled out of a piece of granite and is protected by a roof that rests on twelve granite pillars.
A small courtyard whose front is closed off by a stone balustrade and which is reached by a stairs contains no fewer than 118 bronze lanterns, each of which a piece of art, donations of daimyos and other noble donors whose names are preserved for eternity on the lanterns. Another number of bronze lantern and candelabras — some of those are said to be from Korea, others from the Netherlands — are noticeable by their size as well as their rich artistic decoration.
Through the second large temple gate called Jo-mei-mon we arrived in the third temple courtyard. This gate deserves to be labeled as a jewel of the Japanese art of building and decoration. Here masters of their trade worked together to combine the huge with the delicate in order to set an enduring monument to the skills of their time that astonishes us and commands our admiration. A richly ornamented, curling roof resting on gilded dragon heads protects the gate that is borne by mighty pillars covered by tiny geometric designs and painted white. The capitals of the pillars show unicorn heads while the cross beams around the gate carry dragon heads and in the middle there is a fight between two dragons depicted.
A building of the courtyard contains a stage for the Kagura dances, another one the Goma-do, an altar to burn incense while a third holds the three sedan chairs that apparently are used on each 1 June by the three god spirits of Ieyasu and two other great man raised to divine status and are then carried around in a festive procession. On the dance stage one of the female dancers bowed deeply without pause and was probably willing to perform a sample of their art with her colleagues that we had already encountered in Nara. The borders and walls of the terraces are covered by artfully created stone reliefs showing all kinds of birds and plants.
Through the Chinese gate or Kara-mon we approached the main temple whose swing doors are decorated with arabesques in gilded relief. Guided my multiple priests we entered, having put on wool slippers over our shoes, the interior of the temple that has vestibules at both sides that are exceptional by their masterfully executed wood carvings and paintings on a gold foundation as well as rich ornaments. The praying hall of the temple is very simple and contains the Gohei and the mirror in the background. Also in Ieyasu’s temple mausoleum government measures in 1868 have displaced Buddhist rites by Shintoist ones so that all the symbols and tools of the former have been removed from the praying hall.
The holiest of holies to which leads a path through the praying hall is closed off by a gilded portal. In view of this, we enjoyed the preferential treatment shown to a traveller who was not a simple tourist in the country but the latter does not have to endure many inconveniences connected with traveling in an official capacity. Seeing the sanctuary is strongly frowned upon, no foreign foot is said to have entered this holiest of spaces. Before me however the gates opened up. I confess that I experienced a special satisfaction, that I was overcome with a sentiment of traveler’s pride at the thought to be able to view a sight no European has seen so far and perhaps will never be. I will be thankful to my brave friend Sannomiya to the rest of my life that he knew to unlock these hidden masterworks of human art and fantasy .
The sanctuary is divided into multiple rooms one of which contains an altar with the golden Gohei and the metal mirror. The artful images of Buddhist beliefs are covered by cloth. An understandable historic interest is awakened by a suit of armor of the brave shogun kept there. It is very simply equipped and covered in black lacquer that had protected the man who had been raised to the state of a god. He had created the power of his house in the turmoil of battles. In a weak candle light we could see the undecorated iron dress until the priests illuminated the mysteriously dark room with a few lanterns and our sight fell upon a richly gilded shrine. The priests prostrated themselves in front of it, touched the ground with their front and finally opened some kind of tabernacle where behind a curtain as the last cover was the Sanctissimum — a painted figure showing Ieyasu in a sitting position. This image of a god may not awake any religious emotions. Instead the works of the shrine that contains the idol, the decoration of the walls and the doors I found very charming. My only regret was that the circumstance of the lack of the necessary illumination to examine these gems of Japanese art more closely that were presented proved difficult so that we had to make do with an overall impression.
Here there was in fact an abundance of decoration of the shrine, the walls and doors by painting, gilding and carving. The developed artistic wealth of motives and their perfected representation seems overwhelming at first but arranges itself into a complete harmony at a closer look, to a genial quietness. Ieyasu, who has performed great deeds as a human by shaping the history of his country for the next three hundred years, has created miracles as an idol as his memory has inspired to such a high level of artistic performance that we were seeing.
From the place that surrounds the image of god we walked to that which contains the ashes of the dead, climb more than 240 stone steps covered by moss and stand at the grave of Ieyasu. A high stone pedestal carries a bronze urn that contains the remains of the shogun. In front of the pedestal are symbols on a stone altar, an incense burner, a vase with lotus flowers and other flowers as well as a large crane standing on the back of a tortoise and holding a page in its beak as a candlestick — everything valuable works of bronze. A stone balustrade surrounds the grave site. The entrance leads through a massive bronze gate guarded by two lions. Earnest is the place that Ieyasu himself had selected as his grave site and the noble simplicity of the grave is touching. Art which had been highly celebrated in the buildings at the foot of the grave seems silenced as if those that had made the pilgrimage up here should not be disturbed from thinking about the dead by decorative illustrations.
Again we returned to the main temple to enjoy the impressive effect that the harmony of the architectural structure of the temple site with the scenic surrounding and the majestic woods are producing — and the magic of this effect is still increased by the deep quietness at the grave monument of this forceful warrior to which today the rain poured down in a melancholic way.
The temple treasure that we also paid a visit contains like other rooms of the same kind valuable devotional presents of notable people, thus weapons, armor, saddleware, all kinds of tools for festive processions, prayer rolls, furthermore a scroll of more than 50 m with images of the history of the country or the gods. A special mention is merited for the ancient Kakemonos, that show falcons in realistic natural scenes that have been taken from falcon hunts that apparently are still happening in Japan. In earlier times it is said to have been possible to buy some objects kept in the temple treasury from greedy bonzes by using money and good words — and naturally more from the former than the latter. When this mischief had caused much attention due to the great dimension it had grown into, a precise inventory of the temple treasures was undertaken to curb such activities.
After the temple grave of Ieyasu the two other temples that we rushed through more than visited closely did not produce the same level of interest.
The head priest of one of the temples who greeted us in a splendid purple dress had once been a mighty daimyo in the Northern provinces and had placed himself in the fight between the Mikado and the shogun on the latter’s side. Defeated and bereft of his land, the daimyo was shown mercy and he was assigned the position of head priest as some sort of pension as well as a title of count.
The second temple site, the mausoleum of Iemitsu, built in part into a deeply cut valley, in part on a ledge of a mountain is situated close to the grave site of Ieyasu and is much less brilliantly equipped but still remarkable as here Buddhism has won and thus the full installation that this sensuous cult requires is still present. The temple guards posted at the temple gates represent a great collection of the most horrible grotesque faces. We can see here a red and a green devil, two audacious golden kings and two human figures that are horribly created using the full variety of the rich Buddhist fantasy. The red colored one represents the god of thunder who carries gilded clubs in the hand and slung across the back carries a band with nine flat drums out of which flashes spark. The other monster in a light blue color represents the god of wind and looks at us with crystal eyes and a Satanic expression, sitting on a block of stone and keeping a bag of wind slung across its back shut with its hands. Bronze votive lamps indicate the veneration that Iemitsu enjoyed.
From here I drove directly to Nikko or more precisely to Hachiishi and crossed once more the foaming Daja-gawa whose shores were connected by two bridges. One serves the common traffic while the other, Mihashi, is reserved for the Mikado and is opened only twice annually for pilgrimages. At the spot where the Buddha priest Shodo Shonin is said to have had a miraculous revelation more than a thousand years ago the bridge was built and rests, shining in red lacquer, on stone pillars inserted into the rocks.
In the small city I turned to buying furs of which there was a great selection here and which also has cultural historical connections as before the changes of 1868, those that treated leather and other raw materials etc. besides others were counted, in contrast to the Heimin or members of the common people, as Etas or unclean, that is a despised caste outside of the rest of society that had to live in special places or parts of a city — a position that probably is due to Buddhist influence. Below them only stood the Hinin, the non-humans, a class of poor people only created under the Tokugawa that were only permitted to live on uncultivated land.
Among the raw hides in stock I found also some that might be unknown at home, thus furs of the Japanese antilope, of monkeys, bears of Yeso island, two species of badgers, otters whose species seemed to be different from those at home, seals and large squirrels. Also furs of martens varying between chrome yellow and ocher as well as original slippers made out of fur. Soon a heavily burdened rickshaw made its way with the goods bought to our hotel. As the paths in the surrounding area of Nikko have been restored to good condition at great cost in consideration of my announced visit, as I was told, I did not want to see this sacrifice made in vain and decided despite the pouring rain to undertake a drive to the waterfall called Urami-go-taki.
Of the much praised scenic beauty we unfortunately saw nothing due to the rain and had to make do, peeking out from our umbrellas, with the meadows and woods close by in their fresh green. The woods were composed of various species, thus oaks too and maples. Small hamlets and villages that looked sad in the rain lay on the route.
Our rickshaw runners had covered a very difficult laborious piece of slippery road without a bed when they stopped at a tea house from where we started an upward march on foot to a romantic gorge. Soon we could hear the roar of the waterfall and finally are in a valley bottom enclosed by high rocks. Here a mountain stream roars out at a height of 15 m in a splendid cascade over a wall of rock down into a funnel-like basin. Due to the important slope above the wall of rock and the vertical position the water mass pours down in a wide arc, so that it is possible to walk under the waterfall and behind it without being exposed to a greater danger than of being touched by a fine spray. Urami-go-taki is not one of the wonders of its kind but offers at least in its narrow gorge a worthwhile spectacle, namely because the earth sends out small streams out of countless folds, cuts and gaps that quickly descend over the rocks to the bottom of the valley.
Behind the waterfall stands a Buddha statue, at which the native tourists tend to leave their carte de visite in order to provide testimony about the astonishing event of their presence for posterity. The local vanity seems to exist not only at home but also in the Far East, but in a form that is much more tasteful than the usual disfiguring marks on walls and rocks. It thus would be strongly advisable for our travelers and tourists to adopt the Japanese custom.
During the return drive I stopped at a small villa that was charmingly situated at the shore of the roaring Daja-gawa. The villa was owned by Sannomiya and served as his summer quarter. I spoke with his wife who had lived for quite some time in Vienna and was speaking German perfectly.
Driving past an avenue of 100 stone Buddhas we returned to Nikko to do some shopping and then roll through a splendid alley of Japanese cedars that I had seen only in the darkness of the night the day before. Passing under these trees one feels a whiff of a proud past. Remarkable are namely the numerous twin trees that have grown together up to the top third of their height.
A much praised landscape that has the bad habit to show itself occasionally dressed in rain resembles a human of good reputation who has been caught making a mistake and stands to be completely damned by sharp tongues. I will be fairer to Nikko. It behaved like a beauty who knowing her charms and effect likes to present a sulking face — and Nikko has been sulking at me continuously. Still I was charmed, despite the incomplete impression I have received, and may imagine the full magic that the holy ground of Nikko may produce in the brilliance of a beautiful summer day.
In the evening we did what was the most opportune: We did let our mood be spoiled and assembled to a happy dinner that was spiced up by funny stories told by ship captain Kurvaka of the Japanese entourage who unfreezing more and more told them in a comic mix of French, English and Japanese words. Finally, Jupiter pluvius allowed us to burn off some fireworks just as the cute musumes were serving black coffee.