Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, by Isabella L. Bird

Letter 8

The Beauties of Nikko — The Burial of Iyeyasu — The Approach to the Great Shrines — The Yomei Gate — Gorgeous Decorations — Simplicity of the Mausoleum — The Shrine of Iyemitsu — Religious Art of Japan and India — An Earthquake — Beauties of Wood-carving.

KANAYA’S, NIKKO, June 21.

I have been at Nikko for nine days, and am therefore entitled to use the word “Kek’ko!”

Nikko means “sunny splendour,” and its beauties are celebrated in poetry and art all over Japan. Mountains for a great part of the year clothed or patched with snow, piled in great ranges round Nantaizan, their monarch, worshipped as a god; forests of magnificent timber; ravines and passes scarcely explored; dark green lakes sleeping in endless serenity; the deep abyss of Kegon, into which the waters of Chiuzenjii plunge from a height of 250 feet; the bright beauty of the falls of Kiri Furi, the loveliness of the gardens of Dainichido; the sombre grandeur of the passes through which the Daiyagawa forces its way from the upper regions; a gorgeousness of azaleas and magnolias; and a luxuriousness of vegetation perhaps unequalled in Japan, are only a few of the attractions which surround the shrines of the two greatest Shoguns.

To a glorious resting-place on the hill-slope of Hotoke Iwa, sacred since 767, when a Buddhist saint, called Shodo Shonin, visited it, and declared the old Shinto deity of the mountain to be only a manifestation of Buddha, Hidetada, the second Shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty, conveyed the corpse of his father, Iyeyasu, in 1617. It was a splendid burial. An Imperial envoy, a priest of the Mikado’s family, court nobles from Kivoto, and hundreds of daimiyos, captains, and nobles of inferior rank, took part in the ceremony. An army of priests in rich robes during three days intoned a sacred classic 10,000 times, and Iyeyasu was deified by a decree of the Mikado under a name signifying “light of the east, great incarnation of Buddha.” The less important Shoguns of the line of Tokugawa are buried in Uyeno and Shiba, in Yedo. Since the restoration, and what may be called the disestablishment of Buddhism, the shrine of Iyeyasu has been shorn of all its glories of ritual and its magnificent Buddhist paraphernalia; the 200 priests who gave it splendour are scattered, and six Shinto priests alternately attend upon it as much for the purpose of selling tickets of admission as for any priestly duties.

All roads, bridges, and avenues here lead to these shrines, but the grand approach is by the Red Bridge, and up a broad road with steps at intervals and stone-faced embankments at each side, on the top of which are belts of cryptomeria. At the summit of this ascent is a fine granite torii, 27 feet 6 inches high, with columns 3 feet 6 inches in diameter, offered by the daimiyo of Chikuzen in 1618 from his own quarries. After this come 118 magnificent bronze lanterns on massive stone pedestals, each of which is inscribed with the posthumous title of Iyeyasu, the name of the giver, and a legend of the offering — all the gifts of daimiyo — a holy water cistern made of a solid block of granite, and covered by a roof resting on twenty square granite pillars, and a bronze bell, lantern, and candelabra of marvellous workmanship, offered by the kings of Corea and Liukiu. On the left is a five-storied pagoda, 104 feet high, richly carved in wood and as richly gilded and painted. The signs of the zodiac run round the lower story.

The grand entrance gate is at the top of a handsome flight of steps forty yards from the torii. A looped white curtain with the Mikado’s crest in black, hangs partially over the gateway, in which, beautiful as it is, one does not care to linger, to examine the gilded amainu in niches, or the spirited carvings of tigers under the eaves, for the view of the first court overwhelms one by its magnificence and beauty. The whole style of the buildings, the arrangements, the art of every kind, the thought which inspires the whole, are exclusively Japanese, and the glimpse from the Ni-o gate is a revelation of a previously undreamed-of beauty, both in form and colour.

Round the neatly pebbled court, which is enclosed by a bright red timber wall, are three gorgeous buildings, which contain the treasures of the temple, a sumptuous stable for the three sacred Albino horses, which are kept for the use of the god, a magnificent granite cistern of holy water, fed from the Somendaki cascade, and a highly decorated building, in which a complete collection of Buddhist Scriptures is deposited. From this a flight of steps leads into a smaller court containing a bell-tower “of marvellous workmanship and ornamentation,” a drum-tower, hardly less beautiful, a shrine, the candelabra, bell, and lantern mentioned before, and some very grand bronze lanterns.

From this court another flight of steps ascends to the Yomei gate, whose splendour I contemplated day after day with increasing astonishment. The white columns which support it have capitals formed of great red-throated heads of the mythical Kirin. Above the architrave is a projecting balcony which runs all round the gateway with a railing carried by dragons’ heads. In the centre two white dragons fight eternally. Underneath, in high relief, there are groups of children playing, then a network of richly painted beams, and seven groups of Chinese sages. The high roof is supported by gilded dragons’ heads with crimson throats. In the interior of the gateway there are side-niches painted white, which are lined with gracefully designed arabesques founded on the botan or peony. A piazza, whose outer walls of twenty-one compartments are enriched with magnificent carvings of birds, flowers, and trees, runs right and left, and encloses on three of its sides another court, the fourth side of which is a terminal stone wall built against the side of the hill. On the right are two decorated buildings, one of which contains a stage for the performance of the sacred dances, and the other an altar for the burning of cedar wood incense. On the left is a building for the reception of the three sacred cars which were used during festivals. To pass from court to court is to pass from splendour to splendour; one is almost glad to feel that this is the last, and that the strain on one’s capacity for admiration is nearly over.

In the middle is the sacred enclosure, formed of gilded trellis-work with painted borders above and below, forming a square of which each side measures 150 feet, and which contains the haiden or chapel. Underneath the trellis work are groups of birds, with backgrounds of grass, very boldly carved in wood and richly gilded and painted. From the imposing entrance through a double avenue of cryptomeria, among courts, gates, temples, shrines, pagodas, colossal bells of bronze, and lanterns inlaid with gold, you pass through this final court bewildered by magnificence, through golden gates, into the dimness of a golden temple, and there is — simply a black lacquer table with a circular metal mirror upon it.

Within is a hall finely matted, 42 feet wide by 27 from front to back, with lofty apartments on each side, one for the Shogun and the other “for his Holiness the Abbot.” Both, of course, are empty. The roof of the hall is panelled and richly frescoed. The Shogun’s room contains some very fine fusuma, on which kirin (fabulous monsters) are depicted on a dead gold ground, and four oak panels, 8 feet by 6, finely carved, with the phoenix in low relief variously treated. In the Abbot’s room there are similar panels adorned with hawks spiritedly executed. The only ecclesiastical ornament among the dim splendours of the chapel is the plain gold gohei. Steps at the back lead into a chapel paved with stone, with a fine panelled ceiling representing dragons on a dark blue ground. Beyond this some gilded doors lead into the principal chapel, containing four rooms which are not accessible; but if they correspond with the outside, which is of highly polished black lacquer relieved by gold, they must be severely magnificent.

But not in any one of these gorgeous shrines did Iyeyasu decree that his dust should rest. Re-entering the last court, it is necessary to leave the enclosures altogether by passing through a covered gateway in the eastern piazza into a stone gallery, green with mosses and hepaticae. Within, wealth and art have created a fairyland of gold and colour; without, Nature, at her stateliest, has surrounded the great Shogun’s tomb with a pomp of mournful splendour. A staircase of 240 stone steps leads to the top of the hill, where, above and behind all the stateliness of the shrines raised in his honour, the dust of Iyeyasu sleeps in an unadorned but Cyclopean tomb of stone and bronze, surmounted by a bronze urn. In front is a stone table decorated with a bronze incense-burner, a vase with lotus blossoms and leaves in brass, and a bronze stork bearing a bronze candlestick in its mouth. A lofty stone wall, surmounted by a balustrade, surrounds the simple but stately enclosure, and cryptomeria of large size growing up the back of the hill create perpetual twilight round it. Slant rays of sunshine alone pass through them, no flower blooms or bird sings, only silence and mournfulness surround the grave of the ablest and greatest man that Japan has produced.

Impressed as I had been with the glorious workmanship in wood, bronze, and lacquer, I scarcely admired less the masonry of the vast retaining walls, the stone gallery, the staircase and its balustrade, all put together without mortar or cement, and so accurately fitted that the joints are scarcely affected by the rain, damp, and aggressive vegetation of 260 years. The steps of the staircase are fine monoliths, and the coping at the side, the massive balustrade, and the heavy rail at the top, are cut out of solid blocks of stone from 10 to 18 feet in length. Nor is the workmanship of the great granite cistern for holy water less remarkable. It is so carefully adjusted on its bed that the water brought from a neighbouring cascade rises and pours over each edge in such carefully equalised columns that, as Mr. Satow says, “it seems to be a solid block of water rather than a piece of stone.”

The temples of Iyemitsu are close to those of Iyeyasu, and though somewhat less magnificent are even more bewildering, as they are still in Buddhist hands, and are crowded with the gods of the Buddhist Pantheon and the splendid paraphernalia of Buddhist worship, in striking contrast to the simplicity of the lonely Shinto mirror in the midst of the blaze of gold and colour. In the grand entrance gate are gigantic Ni-o, the Buddhist Gog and Magog, vermilion coloured, and with draperies painted in imitation of flowered silk. A second pair, painted red and green, removed from Iyemitsu’s temple, are in niches within the gate. A flight of steps leads to another gate, in whose gorgeous niches stand hideous monsters, in human form, representing the gods of wind and thunder. Wind has crystal eyes and a half-jolly, half-demoniacal expression. He is painted green, and carries a wind-bag on his back, a long sack tied at each end, with the ends brought over his shoulders and held in his hands. The god of thunder is painted red, with purple hair on end, and stands on clouds holding thunderbolts in his hand. More steps, and another gate containing the Tenno, or gods of the four quarters, boldly carved and in strong action, with long eye-teeth, and at last the principal temple is reached. An old priest who took me over it on my first visit, on passing the gods of wind and thunder said, “We used to believe in these things, but we don’t now,” and his manner in speaking of the other deities was rather contemptuous. He requested me, however, to take off my hat as well as my shoes at the door of the temple. Within there was a gorgeous shrine, and when an acolyte drew aside the curtain of cloth of gold the interior was equally imposing, containing Buddha and two other figures of gilded brass, seated cross-legged on lotus-flowers, with rows of petals several times repeated, and with that look of eternal repose on their faces which is reproduced in the commonest road-side images. In front of the shrine several candles were burning, the offerings of some people who were having prayers said for them, and the whole was lighted by two lamps burning low. On a step of the altar a much-contorted devil was crouching uneasily, for he was subjugated and, by a grim irony, made to carry a massive incense-burner on his shoulders. In this temple there were more than a hundred idols standing in rows, many of them life-size, some of them trampling devils under their feet, but all hideous, partly from the bright greens, vermilions, and blues with which they are painted. Remarkable muscular development characterises all, and the figures or faces are all in vigorous action of some kind, generally grossly exaggerated.

While we were crossing the court there were two shocks of earthquake; all the golden wind-bells which fringe the roofs rang softly, and a number of priests ran into the temple and beat various kinds of drums for the space of half an hour. Iyemitsu’s tomb is reached by flights of steps on the right of the chapel. It is in the same style as Iyeyasu’s, but the gates in front are of bronze, and are inscribed with large Sanskrit characters in bright brass. One of the most beautiful of the many views is from the uppermost gate of the temple. The sun shone on my second visit and brightened the spring tints of the trees on Hotoke Iwa, which was vignetted by a frame of dark cryptomeria.

Some of the buildings are roofed with sheet-copper, but most of them are tiled. Tiling, however, has been raised almost to the dignity of a fine art in Japan. The tiles themselves are a coppery grey, with a suggestion of metallic lustre about it. They are slightly concave, and the joints are covered by others quite convex, which come down like massive tubes from the ridge pole, and terminate at the eaves with discs on which the Tokugawa badge is emblazoned in gold, as it is everywhere on these shrines where it would not be quite out of keeping. The roofs are so massive that they require all the strength of the heavy carved timbers below, and, like all else, they gleam with gold, or that which simulates it.

The shrines are the most wonderful work of their kind in Japan. In their stately setting of cryptomeria, few of which are less than 20 feet in girth at 3 feet from the ground, they take one prisoner by their beauty, in defiance of all rules of western art, and compel one to acknowledge the beauty of forms and combinations of colour hitherto unknown, and that lacquered wood is capable of lending itself to the expression of a very high idea in art. Gold has been used in profusion, and black, dull red, and white, with a breadth and lavishness quite unique. The bronze fret-work alone is a study, and the wood-carving needs weeks of earnest work for the mastery of its ideas and details. One screen or railing only has sixty panels, each 4 feet long, carved with marvellous boldness and depth in open work, representing peacocks, pheasants, storks, lotuses, peonies, bamboos, and foliage. The fidelity to form and colour in the birds, and the reproduction of the glory of motion, could not be excelled.

Yet the flowers please me even better. Truly the artist has revelled in his work, and has carved and painted with joy. The lotus leaf retains its dewy bloom, the peony its shades of creamy white, the bamboo leaf still trembles on its graceful stem, in contrast to the rigid needles of the pine, and countless corollas, in all the perfect colouring of passionate life, unfold themselves amidst the leafage of the gorgeous tracery. These carvings are from 10 to 15 inches deep, and single feathers in the tails of the pheasants stand out fully 6 inches in front of peonies nearly as deep.

The details fade from my memory daily as I leave the shrines, and in their place are picturesque masses of black and red lacquer and gold, gilded doors opening without noise, halls laid with matting so soft that not a footfall sounds, across whose twilight the sunbeams fall aslant on richly arabesqued walls and panels carved with birds and flowers, and on ceilings panelled and wrought with elaborate art, of inner shrines of gold, and golden lilies six feet high, and curtains of gold brocade, and incense fumes, and colossal bells and golden ridge poles; of the mythical fauna, kirin, dragon, and howo, of elephants, apes, and tigers, strangely mingled with flowers and trees, and golden tracery, and diaper work on a gold ground, and lacquer screens, and pagodas, and groves of bronze lanterns, and shaven priests in gold brocade, and Shinto attendants in black lacquer caps, and gleams of sunlit gold here and there, and simple monumental urns, and a mountain-side covered with a cryptomeria forest, with rose azaleas lighting up its solemn shade.

I. L. B.

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Last updated Wednesday, March 12, 2014 at 13:31