Archive | December, 2013

see no evil… only lots of beautiful shrines and temples

11 Dec

ImageLast weekend, friend CT came to visit me, and she likes visiting temples and historical sites just as much as me, and so we headed out to one of the most popular tourist destinations in eastern Japan, which just happens to be about two hours by train away from me, Nikko.  Nikko is the temple/shrine/mausoleum where Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan and started the Edo period of peace and prosperity in 1603, is enshrined as a Buddhist diety in the form of a Shinto kami… in other words, it’s a great example of the historical co-existence of Buddhism and Shintoism in Japan, as well as a beautiful place for sightseeing, as both the mountains and nature around Nikko are stunning.  The view off the mountains going to and from the Nikko shrine/temple site is really breathtaking, and while I didn’t get a chance to go, there’s also a famous waterfall at Nikko.  The buildings themselves host visually stunning relief sculptures in amazing detail, as well as beautiful colours and use of gold foil, and also is the home of two iconic images in Japanese culture, the three wise monkeys and the sleeping cat.

ImageEven most Americans have heard of the three wise monkeys whose poses teach us to “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil,” but a much fewer amount of people are aware of their origin.  While the moral involved was not completely new at the construction of Nikko, the use of monkeys (a play on words: in 1600s Japanese, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” was said, “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru” and “saru” or “zaru” means “monkey”!) was popularized by the sculpture at Nikko.  The three wise monkeys are part of a longer relief sculpture that goes around the top of the building, and each monkey represents an idea or stage of life, but for some reason, only those three monkeys got popular!  In the photo, the monkeys are the second panel from the left; click on the photo to enlarge it.

ImageUnlike the three wise monkeys, the sleeping cat is less popular in the West, possibly because it has less moral significance, but… come on, who doesn’t like a cute sleeping cat?  The carving of the sleeping cat (nemuri neko in Japanese) is a little hard to spot, in a rather obscure ledge over a doorway, but it’s one of the most popular sights at the temple.  It was carved by legendary Edo period artist Hidari Jingoro, who loved cats and whose work influenced the depiction of animals in Japanese sculpture at the time.  No one is exactly sure if the cat has a specific symbolic meaning, but I’ve heard it hypothesized that it might have been meant to represent the Tokugawa regime; peaceful (as shown by the sleeping) but ready to strike at any time (you can’t see it in the picture, but the cats front paws are tense).  Perhaps this isn’t the real meaning, but either way, Japanese tourists and foreign tourists alike seem to love this cute cat~

After our visit to the temples and shrines, we headed back into town and got a snack at the famous Meiji no Yakata coffee shop!  Meiji no Yakata is a famous historical restaurant located very close to Nikko’s Rinnoji temple, housed in a Western-style mansion that was formerly a vacation home for an American diplomat.  It’s famous enough for its cakes and pastries, however, that it also has another location, a small coffee shop with cheesecake, scones, and other treats right by Tobu Nikko Station.  Their cheesecake was really delicious, covered in a thin layer of what seemed to be lemon meringue, and the coffee also lived up to the store’s reputation!  It was a bit pricy, but well worth it for the scenic location and delicious food.

All in all, I had a great time at Nikko, but there was still a lot that I didn’t get to see, so I predict that I’ll be back sometime in the near future!