Moss temples and famous Buddhist monkeys

We’d had a long rest in Tokyo and it’s a great place to be, but our feet were getting itchy again. We had some misgivings about moving on - a lot, to tell the truth - but it was time to go. But we’d been stopped so long - had we forgotten how to travel?

Nothing to worry about. It’s Japan, and Japan might be the easiest country in the world to travel around. The little town of Nikko was the first destination of our week-long whirlwind tour of the country. The schedule on the private rail company’s website had been hard to read, and it was the weekend as well, so when we got to Tokyo’s Asakusa station the train I’d hoped to catch turned out to be an express for twice the price. Our rail pass didn’t start until the next day and neither of us wanted to pay the extra, so we waited for the slower train and got to Nikko an hour and a half later than planned - which messed up the rest of the day, as it turned out.

The little six-car train followed in the shadow of the shinkansen tracks to Utsunomiya. It took a long time to leave Tokyo, but the countryside started appearing in little flashes sooner than I expected, and gave way to little buffer-zone towns full of bright green rice paddies. I still don’t know who owns those rice paddies. You see them everywhere, from the trains - vacant lots in the middle of neighbourhoods, planted with rice. Everything looked so clean, orderly and settled. I can see how it might be a bit stifling to live here but after India I still can’t get enough order.

After Utsunomiya we departed from the main rail line and headed out into green dripping hills forested with bamboo. It’s such a distinctive landscape. Things got a little more run-down the further we got - poorer, more rural. I can’t help thinking that this might be a more genuine Japan than the glittering showpieces of the cities.

Nikko is a small touristy town. It’s quaint, and it’s empty. Nobody actually lives here. Everything only exists to serve the UNESCO-listed heritage sites of the temples and the tourists that they draw. It’s charming despite that, though. By the time we finally found the hostel and managed to check in, I was getting edgy since the temple sites all closed at six. The hostel held up the high standards of all Japanese hostels, but climbing a long curving flight of slick, polished wooden stairs in a heavy, awkward pack wearing indoor slippers is not an experience I’d care to repeat - we both thought we’d break our necks.

We had lunch at a friendly but overpriced yakitori restaurant by the station, then let for the temple area. Time was getting very short so we took the bus, but the ride ended up being only five minutes so we could have walked. By the time we reached the temples it was two o’clock and we couldn’t decide whether or not to get the combination ticket that covered all the temples. There were only a few hours and we’d really have to hustle to make it worth the painful ¥1000 price tag. We did buy it, and we did hustle, and we did see very nearly everything.

The Toshogu temple was and gaudily overdone. Lots of red lacquer, Chinese decorations and elaborate carvings. The garishness of the buildings was mitigated by the calm loveliness of the grounds, the traditional stone lanterns, and the trees being swallowed slowly by the moss. I especially loved the little arrangements of one big rock and five little rocks that looked like turtles.

Sheryl loved the painted lintel carvings of demonic-looking elephants with burning red eyes and fangs, and we both enjoyed the cartoony ceiling painting of the “Crying Dragon” with his sly googly eyes. A monk stood beneath him, clapping two pieces of wood together, demonstrating that if you stood in exactly the right spot the crazy acoustics of the building made the echoes sound like a high-pitched roar.

There were a few other attractions in the temple. The Hundred Dragon Ceiling of the Hall of Worship was worth seeing - each one was different. We didn’t bother paying extra to see the famous lifelike wooden Nemuri-neko (sleeping cat) statue. I figured if it was so realistic then, well… I’ve seen cats before, and they’re free.

The centerpiece of the temple was certainly the famous carving of the monkeys in their See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak No Evil poses. I learned then that this very temple is the source of the famous image. It’s only one of a dozen or so carved murals illustrating various tenets of Buddhism. To be honest, I’d never really thought of the No Evil monkeys as having come from anywhere. Live and learn.

The Rinnoji temples, too, were fascinating. The Hondo building had three 8-metre skinny wooden Buddhas covered in gold leaf. Its Hall of Statues clearly showed the cross-pollination between Hinduism and Buddhism. Many of the artifacts looked, to our India-trained eyes, like distorted versions of Indian temple carvings.

Oddly, one of my favourite sights was the sacred Shinkyo bridge outside of the temple complex proper. We came upon it accidentally while walking back to town. It’s beautiful, arched and red-lacquered, rising out of the river mists at dusk. Both ends were closed off, unfortunately, but we were able to admire it from the utilitarian concrete bridge downriver.

We weren’t able to see quite everything we wanted to, but we felt we’d done well and rewarded ourselves on our walk back with okonomiyaki for dinner. Call me trashy, but it’s one of my favourite Japanese foods. The place we stopped gave you the batter mixed up with your ingredients and let you cook it yourself on a hot-plate set into the table. We must have looked like helpless foreigners, despite the essential simplicity of the task, because the older lady taking orders took over and started to cook for us. The lid hadn’t been screwed onto the bottle of oil on our table, though, and when she tried to dribble a little onto the grill it all came gushing out. An old woman with mother-in-law written all over her came screeching and scolding out of the kitchen and carefully scraped up and saved all the spilled oil. Our waitress let scarpered and let us take the blame, which I thought was a tad unfair. Japanese are always assuming every foreigner is a clumsy, clueless idiot and it’s hard enough to get any respect without being framed!

Chris Liberty - Dispatches from a Gentleman Adventurer
Being the internal dialog of a vagabond who chased his own tail across five continents for 4 years and 2 days from May 2008 to May 2012, in search of something that never really became clear.
This travelogue comprises 16,426 photographs and 402,515 words in 307 dispatches written from 335 places in 52 countries on 6 continents around the world.
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