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The three wise monkeys
The three wise monkeys look a little worse for wear. I would have thought that being shielded from evil would have had some kind of rejuvenating effect. But apparently not. Still, for more than three hundred years these apes have been seeing no evil, hearing no evil and speaking no evil. Not doing anything for that long gets tiring.
This rather unassuming wood carving at a temple in the Japanese town of Nikko has a lot to answer for. It wasn’t meant to be anything special – it’s one of eight carvings that are meant to represent the cycle of man – but this is the image which has spawned all the others you’ve ever seen.
Although the philosophy behind the monkeys had existed vaguely in Buddhist teachings well before this carving, it had never been visualised with monkeys before. Somehow this carving caught the imagination of the people and it spread across the world to become the iconic symbol we know today.
It’s not the reason people come to Nikko, though. In fact, many people would just walk past the carving without realising it was there if it wasn’t for a slightly greater concentration of photographers gathered around it. Nikko is a magnet for culture-seekers because of the astounding collection of temples it boasts – and have been included on the World Heritage List.
The town itself feels like a ski resort in summer… which it kind of is. But what I mean is that the visitors come for the day to walk in the hills or visit the religious sites but they don’t set up base for longer than eight hours or so. The few hotels near the train station all have vacancies and in the evenings most restaurants are either closed or empty. It’s during the day that there are queues out the doors for the popular lunch joints.
Up on the hill where the temples are gathered, there’s a steady crowd of sightseers but there are enough complexes sparsely-placed enough that you can enjoy yourself without worrying about the crowds.
The first shrine was built in 776 and more were built right up until the 16th century when the area was abandoned. It means there’s a mix of architectural styles that show the evolution of Shinto against the backdrop of Buddhism in Japan. The Japanese have a saying that roughly translates to “you haven’t seen beauty until you’ve seen Nikko” and it’s true. These magnificent buildings nestled in the lush green forests are truly stunning.
This shrine is in honour of the Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. It’s the most important and, consequently, most ornate of all the complexes at Nikko and features several buildings and gates. 15,000 artists help ceate it and it’s gilded with more than 2 million sheets of gold leaf. It’s also the home to those monkeys.
This is a small wooden temples near the Toshogu Shrine that is famous for an image of a painted dragon on the ceiling. Unfortunately I wasn’t allowed to take photos of it inside so you’ll have to imagine what a roaring dragon looks like.
This shrine is actually a collection of smaller shrines, each with their own unique style. Some are under a grove of trees, others on a group of rocks, or next to a creek. It’s the oldest of the temple complexes still standing and isn’t as grand as the others but it has a serenity that the others lack because it is intertwined with the nature around it.
Rinnoji Temple (Sanbutsudo)
Unfortunately this temple is under restoration at the moment but the Nikko authorities have kindly put a picture of what the temple looks like on the enormous structure which is covering it. Still, the best things are the treasures which are housed inside and you can still go in and see all of them. There’s no photography allowed so you’ll just have to believe me when I tell you the highlights are the golden Buddhas.
Rinnoji Temple (Taiyuin)
To visit this temple, you need to climb up a lot of stairs. It’s set up on a hill and the approach up the steps and through the gates is an experience in itself. At the top a smallish but elegant temple set amongst the trees is waiting for you. It’s quieter than the other complexes around Nikko because it’s the furthest away from the entry points and the stairs put many people off.