Friday, September 24, 2010

Nikko (Part 2): Of Cute Cats and Tokugawa Shoguns

I am not too sure why, but we do a lot of climbing everytime we are in Japan. Quite possibly because Japan is one of the most mountainous countries in the world and the highest erm, "slope" we have in Singapore is probably Bukit Timah Hill or Mount Faber. While watching an episode of "Japan Hour", I jokingly told Samurai that I wanted to climb to the summit of Mount Fuji to see the sunrise, but honestly, after all my climbing experience in Kyoto, my legs shudder at the very thought of climbing anything - period.

Unfortunately I was unable to avoid another knee numbing climb at Nikko. Really, what was wrong with all these shoguns who wanted to be buried at the summit of anything? To be closer to their gods? After waking up so damn early for our day trip and our Chuzenji sojourn, I was looking forward to an easy stroll amidst the World Heritage Tokugawa temples and shrines, not a 2 hour StepMaster exercise.

I should have been warned when, after an earthquake shaking lunch (literally), we had some difficulty finding the entrance of the cluster of temples and shrines which includes the most famous Toshogu Shrine (mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu), Taiyunbio (mausoleum of Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu), Rinnoji Temple (most important Buddhist temple in Nikko), and Futarasan Shrine (dedicated to Nikko's sacred mountains.) After about 20 minutes of mindless walking around, we finally realised that we have to get up a flight of stairs where an obscure stone tablet heralded the entrance of the World Heritage Sites, as below:

Looking for this stone tablet was difficult!

And a little bit more climbing brought us up to Rinnoji Temple and Toshogu Shrine. Samurai T, who was already quivering with excitement at finally visiting the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, strode immediately towards Toshogu (after we bought the combination tickets for 1,000 yen for entry to all four sites). And, what do you know? It was another uphill, albeit gentle, slope.

Entrance of Toshogu, notice the upward slope behind

Toshogu is remarkable in its architecture which some considered gaudy, but which I found to be one of the most intricately decorated shrines I have ever visited. The site of the Toshogu shrine complex spreads far and wide (and upwards too) amidst a cedar forest where the trees grow to amazing heights which only let flickers of daylight in. Hence it was surprisingly cool to walk around even in summer although it was an absolute pain to take good pictures under the low light conditions. The multitude of buildings includes an awesome looking pagoda too.

The pagoda and the cedar trees make a most mysterious setting at Toshogu

One of the "must see" things at the Toshogu complex are the lavish carvings on the buildings. One of the most famous carvings, where you will also encounter a large crowd of curious tourists are "The Three Monkeys" i.e. "Speak no evil, hear no evil, do no evil". So of course I had to squeeze my way to the front to take a picture.


The other national treasure within the shrine unfortunately is at the entrance of Tokugawa Ieyasu's mausoleum (Okusha Inner Shrine), where we had to pay an additional 500 yen (!!) per pax to enter (yes, this is on top of the general entrance fees). Since it would be absolutely stupid to come all the way here without paying our respects to the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, we dutifully contributed more money to the Japanese economy. This "national treasure" was surprise! not Tokugawa's grave but the carving of a "Sleeping Cat" at the entrance of the Inner Shrine. I have no freaking idea why it is a designated national treasure, but everyone who walked past the entrance will take a picture of it.

The expensive Nemuri Neko (Sleeping Cat) at the top of the doorway

Something about a sleeping cat meaning that it will not eat the sparrow hence signifying peace for the nation. But whatever it was, it was moderately cute although you only get one glance because there were a zillion other people behind you waiting to get in. So we moved forward to our next destination to FINALLY visit Tokugawa Ieyasu's resting place, and to my greatest dismay, I was greeted by an incredibly long flight of stairs to reach the bloody place. It was a 20 MINUTE climb!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I almost wanted to tell Samurai T to go ahead without me. Urgh. What urged me on was the fact that I paid 500 yen to get in, and that there were old Japanese ladies tottering up the stairs ahead of me. I could only thank my lucky stars that I did not have to contend with excruciating heat as I climbed.

Imagine my dismay when I saw this......

Gritting my teeth to the point of cutting my own tongue we finally arrived where his body lay. Ok, nothing spectacular. And I was too tired to feel awe at the fact that we were at the grave of one of Japan's greatest historical leaders.

Ta-dah! The final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu

The idiot man who made me climb like mad - Ieyasu

Thankfully, the march down was a zillion times easier than walking up. Next we stumbled our way to the Futarasan Shrine - by this time our jet lag had seriously started to kick in and I was crazy exhausted. A few pictures here and there to say "I've been here" but I honestly cannot remember most of the things I saw after Toshogu. My brain had already shut down.

Entrance to Futarasan Shrine

A spring pool at Futarasan which is supposed to make you wise after drinking. No we did not drink because I think I am intelligent enough - haha.

Thinking back I had a feeling that we might have skipped Rinnoji Temple because we were too tired to explore further, either that or I had amnesia. After Futarasan, we made our way to Taiyunbio, mausoleum of Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu. However, when I realised that we had to climb a gazillion stairs to reach his grave too, I told the Samurai to go ahead without me because I could not even crawl if threatened with death by torture. There was apparently a little seen portrait of Iemitsu displayed at the Inner Shrine at the top. Samurai T went up halfway, decided it was too bloody high a climb, and returned back to ground after shooting a couple of pics. For a historian to give up seeing another historical site and a special relic, well, that just about summed up how dead tired we were by then.

One of the buildings at Taiyunbio. The carvings are almost as ornate as the ones at Toshogu.

Entrance to Taiyunbio at the bottom - where I waited for Samurai. Many more flights of stairs behind that gate, mind you.

At LONG LAST, it was time to return to the Nikko train station. As there was still some time before our train departed, we rested our poor legs at a quaint little cafe opposite the station enjoying our tea and cheesecake - it was bliss. I did not think we were so tired even at Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto. Samurai T snored his way back to Tokyo I think. I was too nauseous to sleep unfortunately. It was a very fruitful day trip, but we totally over-estimated our stamina, so the end of the day was something to forget (except for the delicious cheesecake). 

The Nikko train station was just across the road from the cafe! Lovely lovely place.


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