Toshogu Shrine

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The Tōshōgū Shrine at Nikko was built in 1617 as a mausoleum for the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, who put an end to the Sengoku civil war period (14671568) and laid the foundation for the 250-year period of peace leading up to the Meiji Restoration of 1868.

Having unified the country and established his capital in Edo (modern Tokyo), Ieyasu continued to be concerned about the nation even after his retirement. He died April 17, 1616, at the age of 75. Just fifteen days before his death he left his closest associates with the following will: “I wish to be buried on Mt. Kuno in Suruga [his birthplace] and, after a year has passed, to be removed to Nikko. There my soul may rest forever and become the tutelary deity of the Bakufu [Shogunate Government].”

All was done in accordance with his will. He had chosen Nikko because it is north of Edo. The north was considered the taboo direction, inhabited by demons. By placing himself there, he hoped to protect Japan from evil and ensure long life for the Tokugawa government and eternal peace for the nation. When enshrined at Nikko, Ieyasu was deified by the imperial court with the spirit name of Tōshō Daigongen (“Great Avatar Shining in the East” or “Incarnation of the Bodhisattwa Illuminating the East”).

Although Ieyasu had requested “a small shrine,” and this was what was initially built, the third shogun, Iemitsu (Ieyasu’s grandson), almost completely destroyed the shrine and rebuilt it into today’s gorgeous site. Most of the existing buildings were built during this period. Some 15,000 craftsmen were employed in its construction, most of them coming from Kyoto and Nara, where there was a great flowering of architecture at that period. According to contemporary expense reports, it cost roughly ¥55 billion (US$200 million) in today’s currency and required 450,000 man-days over the course of one year and five months (November 1634 to April 1636) to complete the construction. The shrine complex contains 500 kg of gold and 370 kg of silver.

The building of Tōshōgū represented the climax of the Gongen-zukuri style of Japanese shrine architecture; strictly speaking, this style (named for Tōshō Daigongen) describes a shrine in which the honden (the sanctuary inhabited by the enshrined spirit or kami) and the haiden (the “oratory” or hall of worship) are joined by a passage called the ishinoma (stone-floored room) to form an H shape. It should be noted, however, that the term Gongen-zukuri is also sometimes extended to refer to any shrine style characterized by elaborate ornamentation. Skills of the highest level available at the time were applied to the architectural decoration of this shrine, especially in carving and coloring. Eight of the buildings at the shrine have been designated as National Treasures, and an additional 34 are Important Cultural Properties. For a splendid article on the construction of Tōshōgū and its master carpenter, Kohra Munehiro, visit this site.

It should be noted that “Tōshōgū” is a general term for a shrine devoted to Tokugawa Ieyasu (Tōshō Daigongen); the Tōshōgū Shrine at Nikko is merely the most celebrated and noteworthy example. The “two shrines and a temple at Mount Nikko” inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage Site list in 1999 include, in addition to Tōshōgū, the Futārasan Shrine (devoted to worship of the three sacred mountains at Nikko) and the Rinnoji Temple, whose history dates back to 766.

The most notable aspect of the Tōshōgū Shrine at Nikko is its carvings, which total 5,173. The most heavily carved portion is undoubtedly the Yomeimon Gate, but the Karamon Gate alone has 611 carvings, 400 of which are flowers. each 7cm x 9cm.

During the Edo period there was a saying, “Don’t say Kekko [magnificent] until you've seen Nikko.” To see the Nikko Tōshōgū, people traveled for four days on foot, finding Nikko magnificent indeed and worshiping there. Today, tourists outnumber worshipers, but they still find it magnificent.

As can be gathered from the photographs that follow, we visited Tōshōgū on a rainy day. I don’t recall that it was actually raining while we were there, but it had rained earlier, and the ground was wet and messy. To the best of my recollection, by the time we got to Tōshōgū, I was beginning to feel I’d had a surfeit of temples and shrines, and this one was too much to take in. There was a walk of some considerable distance from the buses to the shrine entrance, with Kyoko talking ninety to the dozen as usual, and I’m sure I missed quite a few vital points, but I seem to recall being pretty unsure what I was looking at, and obviously I wasn’t motivated to take very many pictures.

Although this plan is too small to be really readable, it does give a general impression of the layout of the shrine grounds. One begins at the bottom with steps leading to the stone torii, then proceeds up the path, through the Omote-mon into the walled precinct, past numerous outbuildings to the Yomei-mon, and then through the Kara-mon into the inner precinct (Honsha).

This stele at the entrance to the site bears the chrysanthemum crest of the Tokugawa family.

The Ishidorii (Stone Torii) is one of only a few stone remnants of the original 1618 shrine. It is 9.2 meters high and 13.2 meters wide, with pillars of 3.6 meters in circumference. It is made of 15 blocks of stone, instead of wood, which is the material usually used for torii. The center section bears Ieyasu’s divine name, Tōshō Daigongen.
The Ishidorii has a unique structure well designed to resist earthquakes; the primary top rail (Kasagi) and the secondary top rail (Shimaki) are hollow in order to minimize the weight, and a pair of grafted stone columns is set firmly to support them. In fact, the crossbars shifted out of place in an earthquake in 1949 but were set back in place by an aftershock. The Ishidorii is one of the three finest stone torii in Japan and is the largest made during the Edo period.
The stone steps leading up to the Ishidorii are ingeniously designed. Although there are only ten steps, an impressive false perspective effect is created by the fact that the staircase narrows toward the top, and the height of the steps also decreases as they ascend. The tenth step contains the Terifuri-ishi or weather forecast stone. When the color contrast between brown and blue becomes stronger, it is a sign of bad weather to come.

The Gojūnotō (Five-Storied Pagoda) is off to the left after you pass through the Ishidorii. It was originally contributed by Tadakatsu Sakai, governor of Obama, in 1650. It was destroyed by fire in 1815 and rebuilt in 1818 by a descendant of Tadakatsu. The pagoda is 36 meters high and doesn’t actually have five stories in that there are no floors inside. In order to make the tower stable enough to resist wind and earthquake forces, the center pillar is suspended on the fourth story and held 10 cm above the ground, thereby functioning as a dynamic counterweight that maintains the center of gravity. The suspension also accommodates size fluctuations due to changes in humidity. A bas-relief frieze on the first story depicts the twelve signs of the zodiac and cardinal directions.

Entrance to the walled shrine precinct is through the Omotemon (Front Gate), originally called Niō-mon. The Niō are the pair of Deva Kings who occupy the niches on either side. Under the Meiji government, the Niō (who are guardians of Buddhism) were relocated to the Taiyuin Mausoleum (part of Rinnoji Temple), and the gate was renamed Omotemon. The Niō were restored in 1897. The 82 carvings on the gate include a Chinese lion and a tapir; giraffes and tigers face the passage. The second tiger from the right, instead of stripes, has spots like a leopard; during the Edo period, the leopard was considered a female tiger.

Niches on the back of the Omotemon contain Chinese lions or Fu-dogs.

After passing through the Omotemon, one comes to an L-shaped group of three sacred warehouses (Sanjinko), which store 1,200 costumes for the Procession of a Thousand Warriors (Sennin Musha Gyoretsu) that takes place each May and October. The warehouses also store the equipment for Yabusame (archery on horseback). The Sanjinko are open for viewing for one week each before the Spring and Autumn Festivals. The warehouse pictured here is the Upper Sacred Warehouse (Kamijinko).

Carved on the gable (pediment) of the Kamijinko are two elephants. Because the chief painter, Tanyu Kano, had never seen real elephants, the ears and tails of the animals are not anatomically correct; therefore the carvings are referred to as Sōzōno-zō (“imaginary elephants”).

This is the Shinkyu-sha (sacred stable). I didn't take this picture (I had to steal it) because I was too busy trying to absorb what Kyoko was saying and figure out whether or not she was joking when she explained that the horses were not currently in residence (Kyoko was prone to little jokes, and this sounded a lot like an excuse about a department store Santa’s reindeer). I was relieved to learn that in fact horses are present in the stable from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. every day except when it is rainy or snowing. Since we were clearly within the 10–2 window, presumably it was the rain that kept them away. The sacred horses (two) must be white, and these horses also participate in the biannual samurai-style 1,000-person procession. I believe the stable also serves as a carriage house, housing portable shrines used in processions.

The Shinkyu is unusual for Tōshōgū in being unpainted except for a carved frieze. The frieze consists of eight panels illustrating the life and education of a monkey. From early times, monkeys were regarded as guardians of horses, conducive to their health, and consequently it was customary until the Muromachi period to keep monkeys in the stable. Kyoko told us that monkeys are still sacred in Nikko, protected by the government, and are now (like the deer in Nara) a considerable nuisance, stealing from residents’ kitchens, even taking food out of their refrigerators.The most famous of the panels in the frieze is that of the San-saru (three monkeys). The monkeys are taught in childhood to “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil,” a message that has been widely propagated (and parodied) in many forms.

Approaching the fabulous Yōmeimon, one passes through the Karadō-torii (bronze gate), the first bronze torii in Japan. Shogun Iemitsu spent the equivalent of ¥200 million in today’s currency for this gate. Curiously, a lotus flower (a Buddhist symbol) is carved at the foot of the pillars.

Jeff’s shot of this approach gives a better overall view of the shrine.

The Yōmeimon (Sunlight Gate, so called because it faces south) is named for one of the twelve gates in the imperial court in Kyoto. It is also popularly called “Higurashi-no-mon” (Twilight Gate) because a person can stand from dawn to dusk looking at all its carvings, of which there are more than 500. Of these, 194 are carvings of 30 kinds of imaginary or mythical creatures, called reiju (holy or spiritual animals). Tanyu Kano and Kano Yasunobu painted two dragons on the ceiling of the passage; one is going up to the sky, the other coming down to the ground. The gate is 11.1 meters high, 7 meters wide, and 4.4 meters deep. In former times, common people were not allowed to pass through this gate, and even imperial envoys were required to change clothes before passing through.

The Yōmeimon (seen here on a sunny day) is generally regarded as the pièce de résistance of Tōshōgū and is designated as a National Treasure. Built in 1636, it has been maintained through repeated roofing and painting repair to keep it in a condition equal to that at the time of original construction, including its decorative sculpture and other decorative members. It is the most elegantly decorated among the shrine buildings of Tōshōgū. Its 508 carvings were created by some 130,000 craftsmen with an unlimited budget. But it is not perfect: in order to avoid angering the gods with the presumption of perfection, one of the gate’s twelve white columns is deliberately placed upside-down; this is called mayoke-no-sakabashira (evil-averting inverted pillar).

This model of the Yōmeimon was created in the nineteenth century and exhibited at the Japan British Exhibition in  1910 at the Great White City, Shepherd's Bush, London. It has been restored and is now part of the collection of the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

This statue of Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a daimyo of the Sengoku civil war era who unified Japan, also the builder of Osaka Castle, occupies the right (east) side of the Yōmeimon.

The other (west) niche is occupied by a figure representing Yoritomo Minamoto, the founder of the Kamakura Shogunate in 1192.

As in the Omotemon, the niches on the back side of the gate contain Chinese lions or Fu-dogs.

The Karamon (Chinese Gate) is a small treasure, painted with white powder. The pillars are decorated with dragons, while the upper side of the gate has carvings of characters from the Chinese legend “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.” The crane logo once used by Japan Airlines was derived from one of the carvings on this gate. Although the gate is small, it is the entrance to the most important building, the Honsha (Main Shrine). During the Edo period, only feudal lords or aristocrats were admitted. Even today, only guests of the nation can enter during important festivals.

Jeff’s wide-angle photo gives a better idea of the buildings in the Honsha behind the Karamon.

I snapped this picture as we were leaving Tōshōgū, just because I thought the bright red building was so pretty. For months I searched futilely for information about what it was, finding no such building pictured at any site about Tōshōgū or indicated on any plan of Tōshōgū. Finally by chance I learned that it is the Sanbutsodō (Hall of Three Buddhas) of the Rinnoji Temple. The history of Rinnoji dates back to 766, when Priest Shoto, the founder of Nikko mountain worship, built Shihonryuji Temple near the Shinkyo Sacred Bridge.  This temple prospered as a mecca of mountain worshippers coming in large numbers for religious training. Rinnoji became an important religious center following the death of Ieyasu Tokugawa and the construction of Tōshōgū Shrine.

Note that much of the information above was taken from a Nikko Tourist Association site. It is entirely possible that my translation of the English on its pages is faulty.