From Sea to Sea, by Rudyard Kipling

No. 19

The Legend of Nikko Ford and the Story of the Avoidance of Misfortune

A rose-red city, half as old as Time.

FIVE hours in the train took us to the beginning of a ’rickshaw journey of twenty-five miles. The guide unearthed an aged cart on Japanese lines, and seduced us into it by promises of speed and comfort beyond anything that a ’rickshaw could offer. Never go to Nikko in a cart. The town of departure is full of pack-ponies who are not used to it, and every third animal tries to get a kick at his friends in the shafts. This renders progress sufficiently exciting till the bumpsomeness of the road quenches all emotions save one. Nikko is reached through one avenue of cryptomerias — cypress-like trees eighty feet high, with red or dull silver trunks and hearse-plume foliage of darkest green. When I say one avenue, I mean one continuous avenue twenty-five miles long, the trees so close to each other throughout that their roots interlace and form a wall of wood on either side of the sunken road. Where it was necessary to make a village along the line of march — that is to say once every two or three miles — a few of the giants had been wrenched out — as teeth are wrenched from a full-planted jawto make room for the houses. Then the trees closed up as before to mount guard over the road. The banks between which we drove were alight with azaleas, camellias, and violets. ‘Glorious! Stupendous! Magnificent!’ sang the Professor and I in chorus for the first five miles, in the intervals of the bumps. The avenue took not the least notice of our praise except by growing the trees even more closely together. ‘Vistas of pillared shade’ are very pleasant to read about, but on a cold day the ungrateful heart of man could cheerfully dispense with a mile or two of it if that would shorten the journey. We were blind to the beauty around; to the files of pack-ponies, with manes like hearth-brooms and the tempers of Eblis, kicking about the path; to the pilgrims with blue and white handkerchiefs on their heads, enviable silver-grey leggings on their feet, and Buddha-like babies on their backs; to the trim country drays pulled by miniature cart-horses bringing down copper from the mines and saki from the hills; to the colour and movement in the villages where all the little children shouted ‘Ohio’s!’ and all the old people laughed. The grey tree-trunks marched us solemnly along over that horrid bad road which had been mended with brushwood, and after five hours we got Nikko in the shape of along village at the foot of a hill, and capricious Nature, to reward us for our sore bones, laughed on the instant in floods of sunshine. And upon what a mad scene did the light fall! The cryptomerias rose in front of us a wall of green darkness, a tearing torrent ran deep-green over blue boulders, and between stream and trees was thrown a blood-red bridge — the sacred bridge of red lacquer that no foot save the Mikado’s may press.

Very cunning artists are the Japanese. Long ago a great-hearted king came to Nikko River and looked across at the trees, up-stream at the torrent and the hills whence it came, and downstream at the softer outlines of the crops and spurs of wooded mountains. ‘It needs only a dash of colour in the foreground to bring this all together,’ said he, and he put a little child in a blue and white dressing-gown under the awful trees to judge the effect. Emboldened by his tenderness, an aged beggar ventured to ask for alms. Now it was the ancient privilege of the great to try the temper of their blades upon beggars and such cattle. Mechanically the king swept off the old man’s head, for he did not wish to be disturbed. The blood spurted across the granite slabs of the river-ford in a sheet of purest vermilion. The king smiled. Chance had solved the problem for him. ‘Build a bridge here,’ he said to the court carpenter, ‘of just such a colour as that stuff on the stones. Build also a bridge of grey stone close by, for I would not forget the wants of my people.’ So he gave the little child across the stream a thousand pieces of gold and went his way. He had composed a landscape. As for the blood, they wiped it up and said no more about it; and that is the story of Nikko Bridge. You will not find it in the guide-books.

I followed the voice of the river through a rickety toy-village, across some rough bottomland, till, crossing a bridge, I found myself among lichened stones, scrub, and the blossoms of spring. A hillside, steep and. wooded as the flanks of the red Aravallis, rose on my left; on my right, the eye travelled from village to crop-land, crop to towering cypress, and rested at last on the cold blue of an austere hill-top encircled by streaks of yet unmelted snow. The Nikko hotel stood at the foot of this hill; and the time of the year was May. Then a sparrow came by with a piece of grass in her beak, for she was building her nest; and I knew that the spring was come to Nikko. One is so apt to forget the changes of the year over there with you in India.

Sitting in a solemn line on the banks of the river were fifty or sixty cross-legged images which the untrained eye put down immediately as so many small Buddhas. They had all, even when the lichen had cloaked them with leprosy, the calm port and unwinking regard of the Lord of the World. They are not Buddhas really, but other things — presents from forgotten great men to dead-and-gone institutions, or else memorials of ancestors. The guide-book will tell you. They were a ghostly crew. As I examined them more closely I saw that each differed from the other. Many of them held in their joined arms a little store of river pebbles, evidently put there by the pious. When I inquired the meaning of the gift from a stranger who passed, he said: ‘Those so distinguished are images of the God who Plays with Little Children up in the Sky. He tells them stories and builds them houses of pebbles. The stones are put in his arms either that he may not forget to amuse the babies or to prevent his stock running low.’

I have no means of telling whether the stranger spoke the truth, but I prefer to believe that tale as gospel truth. Only the Japanese could invent the God who Plays with Little Children. Thereafter the images took a new aspect in my eyes and were no longer ‘Graeco-Buddhist sculptures,’ but personal friends. I added a great heap of pebbles to the stock of the cheeriest among them. His bosom was ornamented with small printed slips of prayers which gave him the appearance of a disreputable old parson with his bands in disorder. A little further up the bank of the river was a rough, solitary rock hewn into what men called a Shinto shrine. I knew better: the thing was Hindu, and I looked at the smooth stones on every side for the familiar dab of red paint. On a flat rock overhanging the water were carved certain characters in Sanskrit, remotely resembling those on a Thibetan prayer-wheel. Not comprehending these matters, and grateful that I had brought no guide-book with me, I clambered down to the lip of the river — now compressed into a raging torrent. Do you know the Strid near Bolton — that spot where the full force of the river is pent up in two yards’ breadth? The Nikko Strid is an improvement upon the Yorkshire one. The blue rocks are hollowed like soapstone by the rush of the water. They rise above head-level and in spring are tufted with azalea blossom. The stranger of the godlings came up behind me as I basked on a boulder. He pointed up the little gorge of rocks, ‘Now if I painted that as it stands, every critic in the papers would say I was a liar.’

The mad stream came down directly from a blue hill blotched with pink, through a sky-blue gorge also pink-blotched. An obviously impossible pine mounted guard over the water. I would give much to see an accurate representation of that view. The stranger departed growling over some hidden grief — connected with the Academy perhaps.

Hounded on by the Professor, the guide sought me by the banks of the river and bade me ‘come and see temples.’ Then I fairly and squarely cursed all temples, being stretched at my ease on some warm sand in the hollow of a rock, and ignorant as the grass-shod cattle that tramped the further bank. ‘Very fine temples,’ said the guide, ‘you come and see. By and by temple be shut up because priests make half an hour more time.’ Nikko time is half an hour ahead of the standard, because the priests of the temples have discovered that travellers arriving at three p.m. try to do all the temples before four — the official hour of closing. This defrauds the church of her dues, so her servants put the clock on, and Nikko, knowing naught of the value of time, is well content.

When I cursed the temples I did a foolish thing, and one for which this poor pen can never make fitting reparation. We went up a hill by way of a flight of grey stone slabs. The cryptomerias of the Nikko road were as children to the giants that overshadowed us here. Between their iron-grey boles were flashes of red — the blood-red of the Mikado’s bridge. That great king who killed the beggar at the ford had been well pleased with the success of his experiment. Passing under a mighty stone arch we came into a square of splendour alive with the sound of hammers. Thirty or forty men were tapping the pillars and steps of a carnelian shrine heavy with gold. ‘That,’ said the guide impassively, ‘is a godown. They are renewing the lacquer. First they extract it.’

Have you ever ‘extracted’ lacquer from wood? I smote the foot of a pillar with force, and after half a dozen blows chipped off one small fragment of the stuff, in texture like red horn. Betraying no surprise, I demanded the name of a yet more magnificent shrine across the courtyard. It was red lacquered like the others, but above its main door were carved in open work three apes — one with his hands to his ears, another covering his mouth, and a third blinding his eyes.

‘That place,’ said the guide, ‘used to be a stable when the Daimio kept his horses there. The monkeys are the three who hear no wrong, say no wrong, and see no wrong.’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘What a splendid device for a stable where the grooms steal the grain!’ I was angry because I had grovelled before a godown and a stable, though the round world cannot hold their equals.

We entered a temple, or a tomb, I do not know which, through a gateway of carven pillars. Eleven of them bore a running pattern of trefoil — the apex pointing earthward — the twelfth had its pattern reversed.

‘Make ’em all the same — no good,’ said the guide emphatically. ‘Something sure to come bad by an’ by. Make one different all right. Save him so. Nothing happen then.’

Unless I am mistaken, that voluntary breaking of the set was the one sacrifice that the designer had made to the great Gods above who are so jealous of the craft of men. For the rest he had done what he pleased — even as a god might have done — with the wood in its gleaming lacquer sheath, with enamel and inlay and carving and bronze, hammered work, and the work of the inspired chisel. When he went to his account he saved himself from the jealousy of his judges, by pointing to the trefoil pillars for proof that he was only a weak mortal and in no sense their equals. Men say that never man has given complete drawings, details, or descriptions of the temples of Nikko. Only a German would try and he would fail in spirit. Only a Frenchman could succeed in spirit, but he would be inaccurate. I have a recollection of passing through a door with cloisonnée hinges, with a golden lintel and red lacquer jambs, with panels of tortoiseshell lacquer and clamps of bronze tracery. It opened into a half-lighted hall on whose blue ceiling a hundred golden dragons romped and spat fire. A priest moved about the gloom with noiseless feet, and showed me a pot-bellied lantern four feet high, that the Dutch traders of old time had sent as a present to the temple. There were posts of red lacquer dusted over with gold, to support the roof. On one post lay a rib of lacquer, six inches thick, that had been carved or punched over with high relief carvings and had set harder than crystal.

The temple steps were of black lacquer, and the frames of the sliding screens red. That money, lakhs and lakhs of money, had been lavished on the wonder impressed me but little. I wished to know who were the men that, when the cryptomerias were saplings, had sat down and spent their lives on a niche or corner of the temple, and dying passed on the duty of adornment to their sons, though neither father nor child hoped to see the work completed. This question I asked the guide, who plunged me in a tangle of Daimios and Shoguns, all manifestly extracted from a guidebook.

After a while the builder’s idea entered into my soul.

He had said: ‘Let us build blood-red chapels in a Cathedral.’ So they planted the Cathedral three hundred years ago, knowing that tree-boles would make the pillars and the sky the roof.

Round each temple stood a small army of priceless bronze or stone lanterns, stamped, as was everything else, with the three leaves that make the Daimio’s crest. The lanterns were dark green or lichened grey, and in no way lightened the gloom of the red. Down below, by the sacred bridge, I believed red was a joyous colour. Up the hillside under the trees and the shadow of the temple eaves I saw that it was the hue of sorrow. When the great king killed the beggar at the ford he did not laugh, as I have said. He was very sorry, and said: ‘Art is Art, and worth any sacrifice. Take that corpse away and pray for the naked soul.’ Once, in one of the temple courtyards, nature dared to rebel against the scheme of the hillside. Some forest tree, all unimpressed by the cryptomerias, had tossed a torrent of tenderest pink flowers down the face of a grey retaining wall that guarded a cutting. It was as if a child had laughed aloud at some magnificence it could not understand.

‘You see that cat?’ said the guide, pointing out a pot-bellied pussy painted above a door. ‘That is the Sleeping Cat. The artist he paint it left-handed. We are proud of that cat.’

‘And did they let him remain left-handed after he had painted that thing?’

‘Oh yes. You see he was always left-handed.’

The infinite tenderness of the Japanese towards their children extends, it would seem, even to artists. Every guide will take you to see the Sleeping Cat. Don’t go. It is bad. Coming down the hill, I learned that all Nikko was two feet under snow in the winter, and while I was trying to imagine how fierce red, white, and black-green would look under the light of a winter sun I met the professor murmuring expletives of admiration.

‘What have you done? What have you seen?’ said he.

‘Nothing. I’ve accumulated a lot of impressions of no use to any one but the owner.’

‘Which means you are going to slop over for the benefit of the people in India,’ said the Professor.

And the notion so disgusted me that I left Nikko that very afternoon, the guide clamouring that I had not seen half its glories. ‘There is a lake,’ he said; ‘there are mountains. You must go see!’

‘I will return to Tokio and study the modern side of Japan. This place annoys me because I do not understand it.’

‘Yet I am the good guide of Yokohama,’ said the guide.

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Last updated Saturday, March 1, 2014 at 20:38