Nikko – Religion, Japanese Style

Property 913 – Shrines and Temples of Nikko

I think it would be pretty easy to write a history of Europe and the Middle East based entirely around themes of religious discord. Leaving aside the actions of monarchs and the accidents of history, the big driver of history in that part of the world is the intractable hatreds of one variety of religion for another, and the conflict that arises when the two meet. We don’t even need to be talking about Islam vs Christianity – think about the Catholic/Protestant conflict from the late Middle Ages onwards and all the varieties of mystical confabulation in our own modern age.

Coming from a background of that kind of strife, it’s very refreshing to visit Japan. You see, Japan has two major branches of religion, neither of which feels like religion in the Western sense of holy books and iconoclasm. There is Shinto, the indigenous religion of Japan which focusses on nature worship, forest spirits, ancestors and the like. And then there is Buddhism, introduced to Japan in the 6th century CE, concerned with the the search for enlightenment and escape from one’s mortal shackles.

In any other place these two conceptions of the divine would have been mortal enemies. In Japan, there appears to have been a general understanding that they might be two sides of the same coin. Accommodations were made, and the two religions were combined in a uniquely Japanese way which respects the uniqueness of both, but does not allow for conflict. This concept is well-enough established to even have its own name – Shinbutsu-shūgō (神仏習合), “the syncretism of Kami and Buddhas”.

If you doubt that such a peaceful cohabitation is possible I invite you to visit Nikko, a couple of hours north of Tokyo by train.

Nikko 3
All. The. Moss.

Forest spirits and kindly Buddhas

Weather can make a big difference in your experience of a place.  I had always known this, but it was confirmed when I visited Nikko. It rained.  Not a little bit, but a lot.  And I visited in the middle of winter which meant that the rain was cold and soaked through my frankly inadequate clothes in a matter of minutes. My diary also tells me that I’d made the trip from Tokyo without the benefit of breakfast, which my juvenile physique was ill-equipped to handle.

In a less-civilised country, this would have been intolerable and thoroughly coloured my experience of the location. As it was, I remember being rather cold and damp but I was impressed nonetheless with the property. A friend of mine described Japan and the Japanese as being highly evolved, and I think he’s probably right – had there been more aggravations due to transport or hostility from other visitors, this would have been quite a dispiriting experience.

Nikko is a mountain village made famous by the large number of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples therein. They are all accommodated on the sides of the mountain in a scattered and disordered ramble. Unlike the orderly cemeteries near my home, there are no designated areas for one faith or another – all the buildings all tumbled together in a great pine-scented and rather damp forest.

Nikko 1
One of the most photographed bridges in Japan

The structures are all built up the side of a hill and incorporated into the surrounding forest. My main feeling when visiting of all this red-painted timber is of being utterly at sea, culturally speaking.  My visual vocabulary is quite Eurocentric, so I simply don’t understand most of what was going on at Nikko.  I could see that things were extravagantly gilded and rather damp, but I don’t really know what any of it meant.  Sometimes I had difficult separating the Shinto from the Buddhist elements.


How to build a temple

It is beautiful though. In particular the Shinkyo bridge is striking, a red streak of timber stretching over a lurid green gorge. I was also quite taken by the Gojunoto five-storied pagoda and the vast quantities of moss growing on everything that would stay still long enough. Walking around the site for a couple of hours feels like disappearing into a lost age, before being abruptly drawn back into the present by spying a blue-robed monk carrying a bright pink umbrella. 

Nikko 2
A very damp pagoda

The judicious use of gold on the icons and interior decorations speaks to an earlier time when the only light sources were the sun or a nearby fire. Gilding catches the light in a smoky space and makes it feel magical, and the detailing allows visibility of obscure details in low light. A monk in a damp grey robe rung a gigantic gong by striking it with a small log attached to a rope. The resonant bronze echoed through the forest until it disappeared, swallowed up by the pine needles and gentle, icy rain.

The overall effect is of an ancient pagan power, a little like the temples at Nara, but at a far more approachable scale. I’ve visited Christian churches where I’ve felt awed and uplifted; and Islamic mosques where I’ve felt intoxicated on complexity, but at Nikko I felt like I was one with the countryside. It was damp, it was smoky, it was seriously cold, but I felt strangely at home.

In Nikko the gods are all around. You just have to pay attention.

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