Sunday, December 6, 2009


Grab a cup of coffee ... this entry is a long one.

After our side trip to the pottery town of Mashiko last week we headed for Nikko. As we made our way towards Nikko, we could see the mountains in the distance. It was a race against the sun for us - what looked on the map to be a short distance and an easy route ended up for us to be a marathon drive of stop lights and nearly missed turns. There is a bit of excitement about driving here - aside from the whole other side of the road thing. It's the constant vigilance the navigator needs to maintain. We were following what looked like to be the equivalent of a state road back home - you know, the kind that has the state road route number at every intersection and then shortly after an intersection another marker letting you know that yes, you did make the correct turn and you're on the right road. Well, I'm sure the Japanese must be clued in, but for 2 Americans we still haven't quite figured out their system.

Most of the ride went something like this:

Jeff (navigator) "you want to take a right coming up here ... I think"

Jane (driver) "where? here? I don't see the route number!"

Jeff "no wait, go straight"

Jane "no, I think you're right, I see the route number! We're supposed to turn."

Jeff "no - go straight!"

Jane "no, look - between the trucks going by, you can see the route number on the telephone pole (it was about the size of an index card)"

Jeff "right, I see it, o.k. turn right!"

Thank God the kids were all connected to technology and had their head phones on. Mitchell and Walker were probably just wishing they could beam themselves the hell out of this car, and Wrenn, in the way back, was trying hard to fight off motion sickness from all the stopping from traffic lights.

We finally reach Nikko, but in the dark. We went through what looked like some really beautiful forests but the roads were very narrow and it was dark and I was trying to stay focused on not getting sideswiped by oncoming traffic. When I say narrow, I mean really, really narrow. At one point I flipped the switch to have the side view mirrors fold in because the on coming traffic (trucks - clearly much more comfortable traveling at high speeds on narrow winding roads in the dark than I) seemed to be uncomfortably close when they passed by (why is it we suck in our breath when vehicles come so close to us? It's not like we actually believe we will somehow make the car skinnier ... just something to ponder).

We arrived at the Turtle Inn Annex, our first Ryokan - a Japanese style hotel and slept on tatami mats and futons. It was a nice place, very clean and English friendly and I would recommend a stay there. It turns out to be a popular place with the Yokosuka crowd as I ran into two people that I know that were also up for the weekend. If you'd like to see the Turtle Inn visit:

It was a clear night and quite chilly – I think all of us wished we had packed a few extra layers as we walked to the closest restaurant (Chinese!). Along the way we could hear rushing water. I love that sound – when we went to the Mt. Fuji Fire Festival we heard it as we walked along the streets. It speaks of nature and power to me – the rushing water coming down from the mountains. After dinner we returned to the ryokan and with not much to do we decided to call it an evening. FYI - if you are thinking of trying out a ryokan you need to adjust your western mindset – if we had wanted to watch the tv, we would have had to feed coins into a slot. There were no reading lamps to hang out and read in “bed” by. We were all lamenting the fact that we had not thought to bring our Uno cards. As one friend here said, staying at a ryokan is like paying $300 for the privledge of camping inside. Don’t get me wrong – we liked where we stayed and yes it was pricey – you just have to know what you’re in for and adjust your western expectations.

Temple or Shrine?

For the Westerner, it may at first be hard to distinguish between a Shinto Shrine and a Buddhist Temple. I suppose for someone coming to the states from Japan it may be something like trying to figure out what the difference is between a Baptist Church and a Greek Orthodox Cathedral. In Japan about 84% of the population follow Shinto and Buddhist teachings. Disclaimer: I am putting out a disclaimer right now - I am not a student of world religions nor am I an authority of Japanese religion. The information below is only as good as what I was able to glean from the internet and a couple of books I have on Japan and it is given in the spirit of trying to help my friends and family follow along on our journey in Nikko. If you would like to know more, these two websites were most helpful in my research: and


Shinto is the native religion of Japan and almost everyone in Japan at some point in their life is involved in a Shinto ritual. Newborn children are presented at a shrine and most marriage ceremonies in Japan are at a Shinto Shrine. Shinto beliefs are based on "The Way of the Gods" - rooted in animist folk religion it stresses the importance of harmony between humans and nature. It has no doctrine or scriptures, instead worshippers are moved by awe and reverence. The shrines are usually located in beautiful natural settings but the buildings are usually modest traditional Japanese style, the grounds feature large expanses of gravel. The priesthood is a hereditary post serving the community by maintaining the shrine. A Shinto shrine is recognizable by the torii (the distinctive Japanese gate), which is there to act as part of the barrier to separate our living world and the world the kami (gods/nature spirits/spiritual presence) live in. There are often two guardian animals placed at each side of the gate and they serve to protect the entrance.


Buddhism is a religion and a philosophy encompassing a variety of traditions, beliefs and practices that are largely based on the teachings of Siddhartha Gautama, commonly known as Buddha (Enlightened One). Of the 300 million Buddhists worldwide, about a third of them are Japanese. According to the teachings of Buddhism all life is suffering, the cause lies in attachment, desire and ignorance - the remedy is found is abstinence, righteousness, learning and meditation - the steps along the path to enlightenment. There is also Karma - where the path or conduct you choose in this life determines the quality of your reincarnation in the next life. After death, those who have attained enlightenment break the karmic cycle of suffering and enter nirvana, a blissful state of higher consciousness. Buddhism was brought to Japan over 14 centuries ago, and there are several different sects but the Zen philosophy may have had the most influence on the culture of Japan that is still apparent today. Zen's focus is on austere self-discipline, frugality, and hard work. Especially appealing to the samauri, it gained wide popularity through the 15th-17th centuries. The Zen philosophy brought innovations to calligraphy, poetry and painting; invented the tea ceremony and reinvented the art of flower arranging (see previous blog entry on Ikebana).


The Shrines and Temples of Nikko are a designated World Heritage Site by UnESCO (United Nations Educations, Scientific and Cultural Organization). They are a sacred site and known for its architectural and artistic genius from the Edo period. The shrines and temples, along with their envionment are an outstanding example of a traditional Japanese religious centre. The Shinto perception of the relationship of man with nature, in which mountains and forests have a sacred meaning and are objects of “veneration” in a religious practice that is still very much alive today. For more about this World Heritage Site visit:

Tosho-gu Shrine

This complex consists of more than a dozen Shinto and Buddhist buildings set in a beautiful cedar forest. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. Ieyasu was the first shogun to unite Japan, and his Tokugawa shogunate ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. The significance of this site to the history of Japan cannot be underestimated, in one blog I read on the site it gave the analogy of Americans visiting the homes of George Washington and/or Thomas Jefferson. Initially the mausoleum for Ieyasu was a simple complex, following the request of Ieyasu at the time of his death, but just over 20 years after his death Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu, had a much different idea. He enlisted some 15,000 craftsman who used more that 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf in the lavish decoration of the complex. There are more than 5173 sculptures in Toshogu Shrine complex.

The Nikko Shrines and Temples are in an cedar forest – beautiful ancient cedars surround you as you walk through the complex. Even with the crowds, there was a peaceful serenity to the place, with the Shinto beliefs of harmony between humans and nature apparently taking hold. It was a brisk morning, the scent of the cedars and the faint smell of insense in the air, and a bright blue clear sky – it was a perfect morning to enjoy the Tosho-gu Shrine. Jeff and I both commented about how we wished we knew more about what we were looking at - and it wasn't until we were driving out of town that we saw the visitors information center that I'm sure had a lot of useful information for English speakers. Sigh. Next time we'll know better. Most of what follows is what I found out after we came home - and then had the aha moment of why so many Japanese were standing in a group all taking pictures. Luckily, I followed along and took pictures too!

Ishidorii – Torii Stone Gate

The Ishidorii is one of the best three stone-made torii gates in Japan, but it is the biggest among the stone-made torii gates in Edo period.

The Five Storied Pagoda

Located just past the Ishidorii (Stone Gate), there are no floors inside – each story is connected directly.

Omotemon and Nioh

The Nioh, which are 4 meters high, are put on either side of the Omotemon. The Nioh is a pair of Deva Kings, and are guardians of Buddhism.

Sanjinko – Three Sacred Warehouses

Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Warehouse), Nakajinko (Middle), Saijo (Sacred Rest Room),

Imaginary Elephant

There are two big sculptures of elephant on the gable of the Kamijinko. However, ears and tails are different from the real elephant because the chief painter, Tanyu Kano had not ever seen the real elephant when he painted. Therefore, those sculptures were called the Imaginary Elephant.

Shinyosha (Sacred Stable)

There are 8 panels that contain sculptures of monkeys which express the ways of life. The most famous of which is the “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.” Monkey spirits were once believed to protect horses.

Karadou-torii – Bronze Gate of Torii

The Karadou-torii was the first bronze Torii in Japan. In today’s currency the grandson of Shogun Iemitsu spent 200,000,000 yen to have it made. There are Lotus flowers carved on the foot of the pillars, which is unusual since the lotus relates to Buddhism (vs. Shinto).

Yomeimon Gate (Gate of Sunlight)

The Yomeimon gate is designated as a national treasure with more than 400 gilt carvings divided up into categories of sages, immortals, chinese children, animals, imaginary animals, flower, birds and patterns. There is apparently a law for the arrangement of these carvings. The photos just do not do this masterpiece justice. On a beautiful fall morning, with the sun glinting off of the gold it was a breathtaking site.

Kitouden (Prayer Hall)

In 1872, the Meiji government ordered Buddhist temples to be separated from Shinto shrines, but this building was excused from the order. One of the uses today is for wedding ceremonies and as I was walking back from the Okusha Inner Shrine a group of us were stopped to let a wedding party pass by - now how cool is that?! In this beautiful setting I had the opportunity to see a Japanese bride dressed in the traditional white wedding kimono called shiromuku (white kimono robe). Maybe it was the setting, the kimono, but I thought she looked beautiful.

Sleeping Cat

The master craftsman, Jingorou Hidari carved the Sleeping Cat which lies at the entrance of Okusha Inner Shrine and is designated as a National Treasure. There is a sculpture of a sparrow on the backside of the Sleeping Cat. The sparrow will be eaten if the cat is awake. However, the sparrow and the cat co-exist, meaning that the nation wide chaos is over and a peaceful society now exists. Sorry folks, I did not get a picture of this because I did not know the story until I did my blog research - it just means I'll have to go back when friends or family come to visit.

Rinnoji Temple

Rinnoji Temple is not a name of the building, but it is the generic name of Buddhist temples in Nikko. The central building of Rinnoji Temple is the Sanbutsu-doh Hall. Sanbutsu can be translated as three Buddhas. In fact, three images of Buddha are enshrined inside. The temple's main building, the Sanbutsudo, houses large, gold lacquered, wooden statues of Amida, Senju-Kannon ("Kannon with a thousand arms") and Bato-Kannon ("Kannon with a horse head"). The three deities are regarded as Buddhist manifestations of Nikko's three mountain kami ("Shinto gods") enshrined at Futarasan Shrine. You are not allowed to take photos of the Buddha’s inside the temple – so you’ll have to take my word for it, they were quite impressive.

We made our way through most of the complex, visiting the Futarasan Shrine and the Rinnoji Taiyun Temple and you can see the slideshow that has photos from these two areas. It was a long day, and after a seemingly endless amounts of walking (I counted just over 120 steps up to the Rinnoji Taiyun Temple – darn, why didn’t I have my step counter on?!) we decided to stop at a restaurant on our way out of town. Glad we did because it was probably the best meal we’ve had so far in Japan.

Hippari Dako

Hippari Dako is a little, teeny restaurant with only 3 tables, located on the main street and if someone hadn’t told me about it we probably would have passed it right by. It appears to be a favorite among westerner’s by the walls that were covered with business cards from people who have come from all over the world. Jeff and I had the vegetarian tempura which was awesome, Mitchell had the Udon Noodle Soup, Wrenn the Gyoza (dumplings) and Walker the Chicken Yakitori. All the plates were empty – so that would be a first for us here in Japan – a resounding 5 thumbs-up from the Cleary’s.

With a 4 hour drive ahead of us, we headed home, hoping against all odds that Tokyo traffic wouldn’t be too painful. It was a great trip, I think we all appreciated the beauty of shrines and temples of Nikko and would highly recommend a visit here. Till next time, sayonara.

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