Deeper into Nikko

As we wander further into the beautiful world heritage site of Nikko we’re overwhelmed by the decoration and religious details.

Below is the Mizuya, a stone building sheltering the water basin used for purification before entering the temple buildings.

Below are more details of the Kyōzō, the shrine’s storehouse for sutras or holy scriptures.

I love the weathered deep red contrasting with the old gilt detailing around the windows and the roof rims.

Below are a wall of wooden prayer sticks and a verdigris temple bell. All the colours are muted and misty on the grey day that we visit, adding an extra air of mysticism.

Beautiful carvings line the walls of the inner courtyard close to the second gate of the complex known as Yomeimon.

The richly decorated Yōmeimon is also known as “higurashi-no-mon.” The name means that one could look at it until sundown, and not tire of seeing it.

However, as Tokyo prepares for the Olympics in 2020, the gate was sadly covered in scaffolding so we couldn’t get much of a view! Above are the only two glimpses we got!

Above and below are details from the final gate of the complex, known as Karamon, the Chinese gate, it leads into the Haiden.

A full-fledged Shintō shrine is typically a two-part structure: the Haiden, or oratory, before which worshippers say prayers and the Honden, or inner sanctum, the main dwelling of the shrine’s deity.

Plus there’s an enjoyable wall of ornate Sake barrels for me to happily snap away at too.

There’s plenty more to be seen in the Nikko complex so watch this space!

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Moss strewn and mysterious

The UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples of Nikkō includes 103 buildings and the stunning natural setting around them.

The buildings belong to two Shinto shrines (Futarasan Shrine and Tōshō-gū) and one Buddhist temple (Rinnō-ji)

Above is Ishidorii, the imposing stone Tori gate at the entrance to the temple complex.

Torii literally means Bird Perch and shrines always have Torii gates  to demarcate the sacred area inside the shrine.

Once inside the temple complex, one of the first things we find is Gojūnotō a colourful, ornate five storied pagoda. It’s a beautiful gilded spectacle with layer upon layer of decoration.

The brightly painted red Outer Gate (Omotemon) is complete with huge statues of the guardian gods.

These two huge Niō or Kongōrikishi statues are two wrath-filled and muscular guardians of the Buddha and can be found at the entrance of many temples in the form of huge wrestler-like statues.

Here’s another view of the Outer Gate and its gigantic guardians.  On one side are Niō statues and on the other side are Chinese Lions (Karajishi).

One of the most striking sights for me in Nikko is the veritable army of lanterns or tōrō that are to be found dotted around the site.

Whether wrought iron or weathered stone covered in moss, they are a sight to behold.

Below are the famous Hear no Evil, See no Evil, Speak no Evil Monkeys carved into the Shinkyū – the Stable for sacred horses.

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Below are details from Kami-jinko, an ornate storehouse in the Toshogu Shrine, other beautifully decorated storehouses include Shimojinko and Nakajinko.

The colourful details are intriguing, especially the interesting interpretations of elephants!

As usual there is a plethora of colourful wooden Ema wishes to be found swaying in the breeze.

Below is  the temple’s Kyōzō – in Japanese Buddhist architecture this is a repository for sūtras (scriptures) and chronicles of the temple history.

You can also see more examples of tōrō – the lantern, in particular the type known as dai-dōrō (platform lantern) which are used along the approach of a shrine or temple.

Thanks to Wikipedia I now know that in its complete, original form, like the pagoda, the dai-dōrō represents the five elements of Buddhist cosmology.

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The bottom-most piece, touching the ground, represents chi, the earth; the next section represents sui, or water; ka or fire, is represented by the section encasing the lantern’s light or flame, while fū (air) and kū (void or spirit) are represented by the last two sections, top-most and pointing towards the sky.

The segments express the idea that after death our physical bodies will go back to their original, elemental form.

So much more to see! This might take a few posts . . .

Nearing Nikko

After the excitement of our first ever bullet train ride we arrive in the small town of Nikko.

Nikko itself is a fairly average Japanese town, nothing too unusual (EXCEPT IT’S IN JAPAN!)

We’re actually heading to Nikko National Park, a scenic place of natural beauty and ornate shrines.

We meander through the town until we reach one of the first tourist hot spots.

The red bridge across the swollen river at the gateway to Nikko National Park is Shinkyo – The Sacred Bridge.

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It crosses the Daiya River and belongs to the Futarasan Shrine and is known as one of the three most beautiful bridges in Japan.

The bridge was registered as World Heritage in December 1999. Shinkyo measures 28 meters long, 7.4 meters wide, and stands 10.6 meters above the Daiya River.

After admiring the striking red structure for a while we head onward to our destination.

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It’s a grey day but that only seems to make Nikko even more mysterious and lush.

Ancient stone shrines are coated with verdant green moss and twists of paper wishes adorn the trees.

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Before we reach the first shrine, its presence is signalled by the obligatory wooden stalls selling good luck charms and amulets.

Certain amulets are known as omamori (お守り) They contain a small prayer inside a decorative silky cloth, they are stamped with the site’s name, and hang from a thread.

They’re for  putting on or in your phone, purse, wallet, home wall or pocket.

Above and below you can also see detail of a kumade, a wide rake made of bamboo, traditionally used to sweep the fallen leaves or grains.

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During the Edo period, people started decorating kumade with good luck charms and selling them at shrines, to help “raking in” success, wealth, safety and happiness.

Below are some more multi coloured omamori, just waiting to provide wealth, wellbeing or other good luck to a shrine goer.

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We’ve reached the magical site of Nikko now so prepare to be inundated with decorative shrines and mossy details!

Biting the bullet

Finally it’s come to the defining Japanese moment that the train geek man has been waiting for for months . . .  our first bullet train!!

These super slick, pointy nosed, high speed beasts criss-cross Japan at jaw dropping speeds.

There’s no time for dilly dallying, hence the sight of cleaners lined up ready and waiting for the train to arrive. They then dive on and whizz around tidying up before exiting and bowing to the waiting passengers.

Bullet trains are also known as Shinkansen trains and can reach up to 320 km per hour – that’s 200 miles per hour.

Trains can be up to seventeen cars long. With each car measuring 25 m / 82 ft in length, the longest trains are 400 m  end to end, that’s quarter of a mile!

As with everything in Japan, trains stations and timetables run like clockwork.

The florescent stripes you can see on the floor indicate first and second class queues.

But even more organised is the fact that the floor also shows the exact spot that your carriage will stop at.

You simply stand there and wait . . the Japanese are almost as fanatical about queuing as us Brits!

I am particularly fascinated to see that the train seats rotate themselves around to make sure that people are always facing in the direction of travel!

Below is a short video of the super speedy cleaners in action whisking around and sprucing up the carriages during a quick stop before we board.

We actually spotted a railway cleaner “waxing on and waxing off”! no word of a lie!

 

Throughout the trip we rattle around on bullets several times and we bought a Japan Rail Pass to save money.

For any train buffs out there, in total our bullet train trips were:

  • JR Shinkansen TOHOKU from Ueno Station to Utsunomiya Station, we then transferred to the JR Nikko Line to get to Nikko National park
  • Shinkansen HIKARI train to Nagoya and then we transferred to the Ltd. Express (wide view) Hida to Takayama.The wide view Hida has deep windows that give you a panoramic view of the stunning scenery.

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  • Ltd. Express (wide view) Hida from Takayama to Nagoya
  • Shinkansen HIKARI from Nagoya to Shin KobeShinkansen_Hikari
  • Shinkansen SAKURA 553 from Shin Kobe to Hiroshimasakura
  • Shinkansen HIKARI 460 from Hiroshima to Shin Osaka
  • Shinkansen HIKARI 504 Shin Osaka to Kyoto
  • Shinkansen HIKARI 531 Kyoto – Shin Osaka.

 

 

 

For Sakes sake . . .

Another of my Japanese obsessions is the beautifully ornate Sake barrels often found displayed close to shrines.

There is a particularly impressive Sake barrel display close to the entrance of Meiji Jingu Shrine in Shibuyu.

When displayed near a Shinto shrine, such barrels are called kazaridaru, which means “decoration barrels.”

The barrels on display are empty of wine but they do have plenty of spiritual significance.

In some of Japan’s oldest texts the word used for sake is miki, written with the characters for ‘god’ and ‘wine.’ People would go a shrine festival and be given rice wine to drink.

These days, the word miki is reserved for rice wine used in Shinto rites and festivals and drinking it is an act of symbolic unification with the gods.

Therefore Shinto shrines and sake manufacturers have a win win relationship where the shrines conduct rites to ask the gods for the prosperity of the brewers, and the brewers donate the Sake that shrines need for ceremonies and festivals.

Brewers will tend to provide a single bottle, or an empty barrel for display as it’s the kimochi (gesture) that’s important.

Empty barrels received as donations are stacked and bound together, then fixed with rope to a simple frame to keep them from falling over.

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A brief note about the shrine itself – Meiji Jingu Shrine  is a Shinto shrine located in a 175 acre forest. The peaceful forest has around 120,000 trees of 365 different species and is a great people watching spot.

The shrine is dedicated to the divine souls of Emperor Meiji and his wife, Empress Shoken.

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High jinks in Harajuku

Next up on my must see list was the quirky shopping and sights of Tokyo’s stylish teens – Harajuku.

So after watching the human chaos at Shibuyu crossing we head through the bustling streets towards the style mecca of Harajuku.

We know we’ve arrived when we spot the cartoony flowers marking the entrance to Takeshita Street.

Takeshita Street was inspiration for Gwen Stafani’s song “Harajuku Girls” and introduced the wider western world to the concept of the wild and wacky street styles of the area.

Sadly the majority of these outlandish style mavens seem to have moved on from the area, possibly tired of tourists such as myself eager to catch a glimpse of the gaudy butterflies.

However the street still throbs with gaudy garments, neon lights and cutesy cartoons.

Whether you’re after badges, boas wigs or stripy socks, Takeshita Street can provide for your multi coloured needs.

The shops on this street are often indicators for broader trends that develop, and some are known as “antenna shops,” which manufacturers fill with prototype products for test-marketing.

Takeshita Street is where I first fall in love with the  Daiso 100 Yen shops!  Now, since Brexit, the pound has tanked meaning that Japan was eye wateringly expensive.

But fear not –  Daiso is there for all your quirky, touristy, souveniry needs. From traditional tea pots and cups to cute little cat post it, it is a joy!!

Here’s a selection of my purchases . . . some may say I got a “little” carried away . .  . .

Then we head to a local park to check out the colourful Sake bottles (more of that later) before heading back to catch to street as dusk falls.

I’ll leave you to enjoy this incredibly Kawaii dessert! Could it actually get any cuter?!!

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Shibuya Scramble!

A quick hit and run post here folks!

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It would be a shame, nay a sacrilege, to come to Tokyo and not take a walk across the famous intersection outside Shibuya Station AKA the Shibuya Scramble!

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Rumoured to be the busiest intersection in the world (and definitely in Japan), Shibuya Crossing sends literally hundreds of people hurtling from side to side each time the lights turn red.

On sunny afternoons or clear evenings, the surrounding shopping area is packed with students, young couples and commuters.

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When the lights turn red at this huge, busy junction, they all turn red at the same time in every direction.

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Traffic stops completely and pedestrians surge into the crossing from all sides, like so many marbles escaping from out of a box.

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Despite the multitudes, people somehow many to negotiate the swirling chaos without seeming to even look up from their phones. We weren’t quite so slick – video evidence is somewhere, but I appear to have lost it temporarily!

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You can observe this moment of organised chaos, as we did, with a bird’s eye view from the second-story window of the Starbucks in the Tsutaya building on the crossing’s north side.

You’ll have to be patient to get a window seat as it’s one of busiest branches in the world and everyone wants to get a glimpse of the throng below.

P1110442The intersection is a popular location for movies and media taking place in Tokyo. It’s appeared in the films “Lost in Translation” and “The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift,”

It’s also a popular place for photographers to grab snaps of contemporary Tokyo in all its colourful, frenetic glory.

Shinjuku Gyoen

Shinjuku Gyoen is one of Tokyo’s largest and most popular parks.

Close to Shinjuku Station, the park boasts spacious lawns, ambling little walkways and paths and peaceful scenery that provides a welcome green oasis of calm in the heart of the relentless city.

The garden has more than 20,000 trees, including approximately 1,500 cherry trees which bloom from late March to early April.

I imagine that is an incredible sight – another excuse to go back and see it for ourselves!

Shinjuku Gyoen is comprised of three very different types of gardens.

The oldest is a traditional Japanese landscape garden featuring large ponds dotted with islands and bridges. There is also a French style and English style garden too.

There’s a large greenhouse with lots of tropical and subtropical flowers, cactus and other flora to admire.

Shinjuku Gyoen originated during the Edo Period (1603-1867) as a feudal lord’s Tokyo residence.

Later it was converted into a botanical garden before being transferred to the Imperial Family in 1903 who used used it for recreation and the entertainment of guests.

Of all the gardens it is naturally the traditional Japanese one that attracts us the most.

With its little bridges and stone pagodas it is the archetypal image of Japan that I had hoped to find.

Feeling refreshed and invigorated we head off to our next destination – the Shibuya Scramble crossroads! But not before I find a few ways to cool down!!

Sayonara Shinjuku

Here’s one last neon whirl around Shinjuku’s flashing lights and garish nightlife.

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I’m missing the frenetic city again! The temptation to book flights and head back is increasing with every photo I post!

A last look at Godzilla is a kitschy reminder of the wealth of cultural influences that Japan has gifted to the world.

And if anything sums up the zany, colourful craziness of Tokyo it’s this unlikely pair of tiny dancers!

Golden Gai

Next on our nighttime tour of Shinjuku is Golden Gai. This quirky little slice of Tokyo nightlife is a rabbit warren of bars – almost like a shanty town for inebriation!

Below are a couple of pictures of Golden Gai from above showing just how crammed in it is and how ramshackle the little businesses are.

 

In the dingy labyrinth of the Golden Gai you can see glimpses of Tokyo’s more down to earth, locally-minded nightlife.

It’s made up of a network of six narrow alleys, connected by even smaller passageways just wide enough for a single person to squish through. Over 200 tiny shack like bars  and clubs  are shoe horned in.

It’s a magnet for locals and tourists alike with its tiny rat run alleys and miniature drinking establishments.

Golden Gai has architectural importance as it has escaped the relentless development that has wiped away much of the city’s traditional architecture and layout.

It’s a window into the relatively recent past of Tokyo, when large parts of the city had extremely narrow lanes and tiny two-story buildings.

The number of people who can squeeze into each establishment ranges from about five to thirty. Each bar has it’s own theme and unique style.

Whether it’s old Hollywood glamour, psychedelic 70s rock or the best of British pop and punk, there’s a drinking den to suit any style.

Most of the bars accept visitors now, but some still only welcome regular customers – if in doubt check to see if there’s a price list or anything written in English before entering.

Not everywhere is welcoming and friendly to outsiders however . .  . and be prepared for eye watering cover charges on top of anything you order.

It’s worth taking an hour to browse around this colourful little part of Tokyo. It might be cramped, dingy and expensive but it’s definitely an experience!