Ascending the Steps of Japanese Spiritual Culture in Nikko by Bonnie and Bill Neely

Last spring we set out on our first trip to an Asian country. We had traveled extensively in Europe, visited Central and South America, spent some time in Western Africa, and even gotten to New Zealand and Australia, but we had never ventured past Hawaii to Asia. Many travelers had impressed us with their enthusiasm about Japan and urged us to go there. Once we set our sights on Japan, we decided that instead of traveling in a tour or staying in the more Western Hotels we would attempt the journey on our own, staying in the Japanese Inns or Ryokans and travel by train, bus, and subway just as a majority of the Japanese people do. Our one draw-back was not knowing any Japanese beyond the word “arigato” or “thank you”. In other countries we had never experienced any real problems when we did not know the language, even in places that we drove on our own from one end of the country to the other, like Hungary and Finland with the strange spellings and almost no vowels in excessively long words. We could usually find someone with a little knowledge of English and the maps and signs used letters that we could make out and match up.

However, in Japan from our arrival at Narita Airport to our departure several weeks later, we were language challenged. If we had been a part of an English-speaking tour group or stayed in Western Hotels in the center of Tokyo or Kyoto, we would have not experienced any problem finding our way around or communicating our needs, but we would have missed experiencing a great deal of the spirit and uniqueness of Japan and the kind Japanese people.

We booked our rooms on the internet, picking a ryokan in the Northern Asakusa section of Tokyo, which was one of the older areas and near Ueno Park with its museums and gardens as well as Senso-ji Temple area. Our small ryokan was only a few blocks from a Metro stop on the Ginza line, which could take us to Ueno Station next to the Park and then on downtown to the Central part of Tokyo. Our room was ten feet by ten (the size of a monk’s room in a Buddhist monastery) with a futon , a small table, and a small storage area for bags and hanging clothes. Our private bath consisted of one room for bathing with a stool and shower nozzle beside a tub, which was nearly four feet deep. A separate smaller room was a water closet with the traditional Japanese squat toilet and slippers to wear only in that toilet area. We learned that Japanese soap and shower off outside the tub while the tub filled with steamy, hot water and then get into the tub for a delightful soak. Our accommodations were more than adequate since we were so busy sight-seeing that we were only there to sleep or relax, and best of all, the cost was about one-thrird of the more central Western Hotels. From this location we spent a few days exploring various parts of Tokyo.
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The Metro and JR train systems were great, but the map of the lines under and around Tokyo looks like a mess of multi-colored spaghetti and was very confusing, with words only in the Konji characters. We got lost a few times, but kind Japanese citizens would come to our aid and look at our map and either direct us with gestures and hand motions or guide us to where we needed to go inspite of the language problem. At the Asakusa tourist bureau, which is near the Senso-ji Temple area, we were encouraged to take at least a day trip by train up to the town of Nikko, which is a World Heritage Site to preserve the ancient Buddhist and Shinto Shrines and Temples. We had not planned to go to Nikko as we had not heard a lot about it from the different people and publications we had referred to in making our trip plans, but the helpers at the tourist bureau convinced us to give it a visit. We found that going to Nikko was one of the best days we spent in Japan and a place that we wished we had had a few more days to explore.

From Tokyo’s Asakusa station, which lies at the final stop at the North end of the Ginza line, we left on the earliest morning train to Nikko. The train trip was very comfortable, with the passengers having a large selection of foods, snacks and beverages to purchase from the attending hostess. After leaving the city, the wall-to-wall housing began to fall away to houses with gardens and small rice paddies and then to small country villages surrounded by farming fields. Very large rice paddies came all the way to the doors of the homes and were tended by farmers navigating along the raised dikes on bicycles. The closer we came to Nikko the more mountainous the terrain became.
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Nikko has two train stations. The JR station is the oldest in Eastern Japan and was designed by the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright in 1915. The main street of the town runs from the train stations and is lined with shops, restaurants, and inns. If you are just on a day trip, it is best to get one of the buses that take you up to the temple areas. There is a bus pass the visitor can purchase that will allow a number of stops to the sights in the area, even up the sacred Mount Nantai to Lake Chuzen-ji in Nikko National Park that lies to the Northwest of Nikko. We bought our passes and got a bus schedule and boarded a bus that took us up to the temple area and the gates of Rinno-ji Temple. Along the road to the temple area we passed the marvelous Shinkyo Bridge over the Daiya River, which we would later return to and cross back into town on foot. The Tourism Office had said we could walk to the temple area, but we were glad we took the bus once we saw the uphill walk just to get to the temple gates, not to mention that you are continually climbing stairs upward from one temple building to the next. The precincts of the temples are not built to accommodate wheelchairs or people that have problems climbing stairs. We watched a few wheelchairs being pushed by two people up steep inclines paved with cobble stones that were anything but smooth, and the pushers had to keep stopping to catch their breath.
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Rinno-ji Temple is the first temple to be founded at Nikko in the year 766 AD. We ascended the stairs under the Granite Torii or gate and were taken in by the feeling of tranquil beauty of the colorful buildings and gardens spaced up the hill and surrounded by tall conifers. The central attraction or focus of Rinno-ji is Sanbutsu-do hall. This is the largest hall at Nikko and contains the gilt images of Amida Buddha, the Senju (thousand-armed) Kannon, and Bato (horse-headed) Kannon. Within the complex is the Sorinto, which has 1,000 volumes of Buddhist scriptures and is a major symbol of world peace. There is also a stroll garden with the traditional pond with stone arching bridges and stone lanterns. Even with the large number of people moving around, a sense of peace and sanctity prevailed.
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Farther uphill we entered the Granite Torii to the Tosho-gu Shrine. The complex is a series of levels that move the visitor up and up until reaching the final courtyard of the Honden, or inner sanctuary building. The whole Shrine is an amazing and somewhat overwhelming site. Over 15,000 artisans worked for two years in creating this architectural feat of intricate paintings, carvings, gold leaf, stone work, and lacquering. After entering the main entrance, our eyes were pulled skyward by the Five-Storied Pagoda with each story representing an element—earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven. Stairs then lead out of this level up to the first inner gate that is guarded by two Nio figures. The courtyard of this level contains the sacred stable building on which is carved and painted an animal series that contains the three wise monkeys (hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil). The Sacred Fountain is in this area, covered by an ornately styled roof. Climbing more stairs we moved between the drum tower and the bell tower and on to the incredible gilt Yomeimon Gate with its 12 carved columns, the entrance to the courtyard of the inner sanctuary or Honden.
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The craftsmanship and artistry of the walls and roofs of this courtyard create a feeling of awe and veneration. One last flight of stairs and we reached a final small gate entered before reaching the sanctuary called the Haiden, which stands in front of the Honden, or inner sanctuary. Engulfed by the work of ancient artists and craftsmen and surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountains and huge, centuries old trees deeply inspired us and brought new meaning to why this was a place of pilgrimage.
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The final Shrine that we visited was an even steeper and longer climb. The Taiyunin-byo Shrine was finished in 1653 and is the mausoleum of the powerful third Shogun who closed Japan to foreign commerce and isolated it for over 200 years. The entrance is marked with lines of stone lanterns donated by feudal lords over the years and is the beginning of two long flights of stairs up to the courtyards that encircle the inner sanctuary. The Shrine has the feeling of a castle and is much less ornate than Tosho-gu Shrine. The setting is much more of a fortification in a mountain forest and awed us with the stone work and the size of the Japanese cedar trees that surround the complex. The Shogun’s ashes are in a tomb beyond the sixth and final gate and after more stairs than we cared to count. (On return we counted over 1,800 stairs!) Even though out of breath and running out of time before having to catch the bus that would take us into Nikko National Park and up Mount Nantai to Lake Chuzen-ji, we were exhilarated by the experience of our ascent through this Buddhist sanctuary.
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We returned to a bus stop in time to catch the bus that took us up Mount Nantai’s curving road through Nikko National Park and stayed on the look out for the monkeys that the tourist office had said we might see. Unfortunately, we did not encounter any but found the ride up the mountain beautifully scenic. The day had turned windy and colder by the time we reached Lake Chuzen-ji, so we opted to head for the viewing area for Kegon Falls, the highest in Japan, cascading some 315 feet into a gorge. At the shops nearby we sipped hot tea as we took in the lovely view of the falls and surrounding mountains.
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On our return to Nikko we got off the bus near the Shinkyo Bridge and for Good Luck we walked across, taking in the beauty of the rapids in the Daiya River as it flowed toward town. The main street, restaurants and shops were only a short walk from the bridge, and we spent the last hour before boarding our train back to Tokyo enjoying a late lunch and shopping. Nikko is a wonderful place to visit but we needed more than one day to really take it all in. We had missed Futara-san Shrine, Takinoo Shrine, the Nikko Botanical Gardens, the Urushi (lacquer) Museum, the Ganman-ga-fuchi Pools, just to mention a few of the other sites to see. Hiking in the Nikko National Park would also have been a wonderful experience.
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