Into the abyss

After the wonders of Nikko we head to the impressively named Kanmangafuchi abyss.

Kanmangafuchi is also known for its row of about 70 stone statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who cares for the deceased.

This particular group of Jizo statues is alternately called “Bake Jizo” (Ghost Jizo), “Narabi Jizo” (Jizo in a line) or “Hyaku Jizo” (100 Jizo).

They are amazing! Each statue is subtlety different and clad in distinctive red caps and bibs .

As well as the serene line of little dudes, we also get a great view of the river in full spate.

Recent heavy rains meant that the water rushed and boiled in a most spectacular way.

Even with all its violence and turmoil the water is still a mesmerising shade of blue.

It might have been a drizzly day but the river still has a magical, magnetic, feel to it.

We get up close to the swirling waters naturally! And get rather soaked for our troubles.

Back on the banks we take another leisurely stroll amongst the mossy statues.

In Japan, the colour red is associated closely with a few deities in Shinto and Buddhist traditions, and statues of these deities are often decked in red clothing or painted red.

These particular statues are Jizō – the guardian of travellers, the hell realm, children, and motherhood.

Everywhere in Japan, at busy crossroads, at roadsides, in graveyards, in temples, and along hiking trails, you can find statues of Jizō Bosatsu.

They are often decked out in clothing, wearing a red or white cap and bib, protected by scarfs, or piled high with stones offered by bereaved parents.

According to legend, children who die prematurely are sent to the underworld for judgement.

They may be pure souls, but they have not had the chance to build up good karma, and their untimely death caused great sorrow to their parents, and so they must undergo judgement.

They are sent to Sai no Kawara – the riverbed of souls in purgatory -where they are forced to remove their clothes and to pray for salvation by building small stone towers, in the hopes of climbing out of limbo into Buddha’s paradise.

But hell demons constantly scatter their stones and beat them with iron clubs.

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However Jizō comes to the rescue, often hiding them in the sleeves of his robe. Therefore Japanese parents try to improve their child’s chance of redemption.

They do this by dressing statues in the hope that Jizō will cloth the dead child in his protection. They will also place stones on the statue in order to help their children perform their tower building penance.

Final details

A last look now at the sumptuous shrines and temples of the UNESCO World Heritage site at Nikko.

Toshogu Shrine, one of the main sites at Nikko, is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868.

Ieyasu is enshrined at Toshogu as the deity Tosho Daigongen, “Great Deity of the East Shining Light”.

Initially it was a simple mausoleum but Toshogu was enlarged into the spectacular complex seen today by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu during the first half of the 1600s.

Nikko is very different from other shrine complexes in Japan.

The ornate wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf that decorate the buildings is seldom seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture.

Detail is everywhere from the subtle patterns of shutters to the beautifully ornate multi layered roofs.

Outside of the shrine complex modernity intrudes once again with the man sizing up a vending machine in a random car park! Seventeen ice was one of our favourites . . . .

We’re drawn to stalls selling a variety of food on sticks. Easily identified are salted fish but I am not sure whether the white things are marshmallows or mochi.

Next up we’re off to Kanmangafuchi Abyss to admire the line of statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who cares for the deceased.

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!

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!