Nikko World Heritage Site

Nikko World Heritage Site
Nikko, Japan

Nikko, Japan

Breakfast included. Hostel owner, and ex stoner (it was just a guess, but confirmed on my ride home this evening), Scout makes bread at night, then today made his version of French toast with small bacon, fruit and some juice. Plus coffee, but I demurred – in restaurants I’ve been drinking tea whenever it’s put in front of me, but coffee is a step too far. After fabulous breakfast Scout gave Vera and I a lift to town. I have no idea where anything is, so when they set off in pursuit of the bus that has just left, I stayed in the car, and in answer to the question “do you want to hop out at shinji bridge?” I said yes, assuming that was a good place to be. Next to the world heritage site, as it turned out, so that at least made some sense. There are several temples here, and the names refuse to stick in my head, so having entry and location explained doesn’t do me much good. I left to find my own way round.

Two storey pagoda, outside covered by a sheet carrying a picture of its normal appearance.
Renovation, that’s what you need.

I bought a ticket for Toshogo shrine, though I’ll confess to not knowing whether that is a major one or not. There are renovations taking place to some of the temples, so they’re not selling joint tickets, though why not just reduce the price I don’t know – you can still go into the renovated areas, just not see everything. Wandering in to a temple with “special opening for public” I sat in the back of a ceremony. Now my total ignorance of what is going on is embarrassing, though the thoughtful/conciliatory side of me thinks that part of the power of any cult or group comes in having arcane rituals, the secrets of which are slowly revealed as you are drawn in, and that’s a transparently exclusive thing to do. Stuff the club that wants to hide its members behind a cloud of “oh no, we do it like this, because that is how it was once decided it should be done”. Nonetheless, in a bid to not be gratuitously offensive (this time – nothing wrong with a bit of offence), the following is brought to you in curious incident of dog in the nighttime style.

Ornate gateway of a temple, gilded  edges everywhere

“No photographs please. Okay. I walked in to the darkened temple interior, to find it wasn’t so dark as it had appeared from outside. Spectators were ushered to the right, and took a seat. All was calm, one monk facing a fire and chanting while his helper smiled and looked beatifically upon the crowd. There were about 10 people in the congregation, behind some railings. Now the back to me monk picked up wooden tear shapes and moved his other hand once across, once up and down while raising his voice and getting a bit angry with it. That piece was put down after a final “shto!” noise, while the fire cracked and then he got angry at a new piece. Meanwhile the other monk smiled at the people so they wouldn’t get nervous about him being so angry. Each of them came to the spare monk to receive their own wooden bit with kanji characters. One each, then back to their seat to sort things into their carrier bag. After a while the monk ran out of tear things to be angry with and started commentating on a horse race none of us could see. Once the race was over he waved his arms rhythmically and got a bit cross again, before moving to sit a little further from the fire, but still with his back to us. The other monk disappeared then, with one of the blue men who guarded the door running over to him and talking urgently. Probably claiming his winnings from the race. The main monk did some more commentary, though I’m sure he couldn’t see the screen from where he was, so perhaps he was just redoing some of it for the highlights. Then he turned and stood up. Now the main monk made sure people had their head down as he came to them in turn and waved his hand left-“shto!”-right-“shto!”-and up in a final stroke of “see how easily I could take you if they would only give me a sword”. For some of the people, once he had for angry with them and pretended to cut off their heads, they were moved by the spare monk to seats off to one side, their spirits found wanting. Others would not go to the other seats and stood at the back. When he had done everyone, the main monk calmed right down and talked normally, I think he said something like “and let that be a lesson to you all”. I managed to slip out with just a little bow, no one seemed to be angry with me at all.”

I emerged and went into the temple proper. Several buildings, lots of stone lanterns and greenery all around. Sadly by now that greenery was being nourished by heavy rain, so I sat and read for a while, with plenty of company. Eventually I seemed to wait them out, as the crowd waiting were not replenished even though the rain hadn’t stopped or slowed significantly. No stamina. Or it was lunchtime. I used another portion of the ticket to see the ‘Sleeping cat’ and had the chance there to really feel like a tourist – here there was plenty of the activity known as ‘walking, only slower’. This was not for the view, you understand, but for the climb up some steps. Lots of steps, I’ll grant you, but the people involved weren’t all aged or infirm. at the top I saw what it had to offer but by now it really was raining heavily. Many of us sheltered and I again had full benefit from the kindle. This, then, I read later, is Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Mausoleum, the point of Toshugo shrine.

From there the last major sight was the inner shrine (Yakushido). Shoes off and in you go, fantastically pretty. In the shrine proper was a monk, who I thought was there for crowd control, but actually he was to be my second guide. The second of whom I understood not a word, of course, but there was one very cool demo that was only improved by not knowing what he was up to. I’d heard a loud chinking noise on the way in, now he wandered away from the centre of the shrine and banged two big pieces of wood together (no more 10 inches long, inch and a half wide, I’d say). They made a satisfying clink noise, as I’d heard before. Then he came back to the centre and banged them again. This time the noise reverberated round the whole place. Fabulous. At this point, given the option, I’d have switched on my ability to understand Japanese, mind, to learn what this was for, but as an acoustic demo, brilliant.

Sign on a rock, saying 'World Heritage Site'
World Heritage Site.

There’s only so much religion I can take. I end up with a combination of irritation, annoyance and nausea. 150 years since the Enlightenment… I’ll leave that there, and move on, which is what I was minded to do. I did walk up to a couple more of the temples as the location is stunning. But I then walked back to Nikko itself. The hostel site bills it as the third largest city in Japan, working against the tourist image they portray, that Nikko is a small town. It is sprawling, for sure, with a lot of greenery between settlements (all of which are part of Nikko), and barely a building over 3-4 stories high. I’m not sure what I’d make of it. The train from Tobu-Nikko to Shimo-Imauchi takes 9 minutes, and the latter is the centre of Nikko – this is a huge yet sparse city, all at the same time.

After a wander round the slightly crumbly centre, I hopped on the train, calling Scout for my lift and dived back into peaceful hostel life, with the river roaring past, for the evening. Zen hostel is the name, in the middle of not very much up in the mountains, so the deal is that you travel to a nearby station and call Scout to let him know where you’re arriving while he drops everything to come to you. The place is stunning, perched above a river (hence the roaring) and with a shrine 4.2 km away. I had chapter and verse on the distance having mentioned my intention to go for a run last night. I got out for one eventually, in the last of the daylight, but ran past the shrine in daylight and decided to push on to the 30 minute mark. That allowed me to overcook it on the time front, running back in the gloaming on a barely lit mountain road. It wasn’t actually anywhere near as precarious as that might sound, with cars approaching from both directions only once. I decided to hop off the road. Carefully. I was still glad when it was done, 8 miles in and shower time. The shower ‘rooms’ are enormous – the place is built on hot springs as were, so the entire 10 ft high basement is divided into two with showers either side. The acoustics were treated to whatever songs I could think of, quite the treat for them.

The Great Gatsby “Everyone suspects himself of at least one of the cardinal virtues” “…peering toward the bleared windows from time to time as if a series of invisible but alarming happenings were taking place outside.”

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