Nikko, Kii & Hiraizumi

The Cultural Sites II: Shrines and Temples of Nikko Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, and Hiraizumi - Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land

Nikko Sacred Sites, Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range, Hiraizumi

Mark Brazil

Japan's twelve Cultural World Heritage Sites range in form and architectural style, but they all raise the appreciation of Japanese Buddhist architecture, and indigenous Shintoism to an international level.

The first two designated, Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area in 1993, and the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine in 1996, were joined three years later by the Shrines and Temples of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture in 1999, and that site's relatively close proximity to Tokyo has meant it has been a perennial favourite not only with national visitors, but international visitors too.

Several more years were to pass until the next two locations falling into this definition of religious-oriented sites were designated, the Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range in 2004, and Hiraizumi - Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land in 2011.

Both sites, from an international perspective at least, require more of an effort to reach, the former being located in and the second in Iwate Prefecture, sadly now most famous for being within the region of Japan affected by the multiple natural and un-natural disasters of 11 March 2011.

Shin-kyo Bridge, Nikko
Sacred Shin-kyo Bridge, Nikko, spans the Daiya River. Its simple elegance was, during feudal times, only to be crossed by the emperor. Considered one of the most beautiful structures in Japan, here it seems to disappear naturally into the misty forest.

Shrines and Temples of Nikko (1999)

Nikko, in Tochigi Prefecture, combined with the mountains, lakes and hiking trails beyond at Oku-Nikko, around Nantai-zan and Chuzenji-ko make for an ideal break away from a hectic life in Tokyo, or as a stop on the way north from the capital for visitors.

The temples and shrines of Nikko have been sacred for centuries, and part of their visual appeal is not only their stunning Edo Period architecture and decoration, but also their harmonious landscaped setting on a hillside within mature Cryptomeria forest (planted early in the 17th century) reflecting Shinto veneration of sacred mountains and forests. The decorations are unusual in containing a considerable number of natural references to birds, mammals and flowers.

The Daiya River, Nikko, rushing with white water after heavy rains.

Beginning as a sacred Shinto site, it was a Buddhist monk who erected the first structure here towards the end of the 8th century, and by the 12th century it had become a particularly significant sacred site, although it was abandoned in the 16th century. Its choice as the location for the mausoleum of the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, the deified Tokugawa Ieyasu, brought it back into the limelight and gave it a symbolic role tied to the sovereignty of the nation.

The site is shared between Shintoism and Buddhism and its numerous religious buildings reflect the styles of different historical periods dating back to the early 800's, with some as recent as the early 1600s. The sweeping roofs, the imposing gates, the wooden architecture are all impressive in their grandeur and in their setting, but the detail of the decorations demand attention and require time to enjoy.

From the mon (family crest) of the Tokugawa family, three stylized hollyhock leaves within a circle, to animals aplenty, the decoration, artwork and sculpture is absorbing. Most famous of these include: the bronze crane atop a turtle (a potent multiple symbol of longevity with the crane deemed to live for 1,000 years and the turtle for 10,000); a black and white sleeping cat; an elephant (carved seemingly by an artisan who had heard tell of them, but had never seen one); and the world famous trio of monkeys, their hands raised to cover respectively (from left to right) the ears, the mouth and the eyes.

Nikko has been protected by national law since 1897 ensuring its preservation. Today it ranks as an immensely popular visitor site, guaranteeing its continued restoration and conservation.

Nikko Monkeys.
At Toshogu Shrine, nature symbols are common, here the monkey paired with the ancient pine.

Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004)

The Japanese landscape, from Kyushu to Hokkaido, is dominated by its forested mountain ranges. Traditional Shinto belief considered the mountains (along with rocks, trees, waterfalls) as sacred, the home of the gods, and the provider of water, and that lingering respect serves to explain why development was largely restricted to lowland areas along the foothills of mountains leaving the lowlands for rice cultivation, and the mountains themselves were shunned.

That fundamental pattern of development can still be seen in modern Japan, and while urbanization and industrialization have spread out considerably across the lowlands, they have yet to overwhelm the mountains. Off-limits until relatively recently, except to Shinto priests, the mountains were the realm of the gods and the focus of Japan's indigenous nature worship.

Today, of course much has changed and access to the mountains is open to the adventurous and the hardy, but strike out for a high peak and more than likely you will find a small shrine located there or just below the summit. Pilgrim routes such as today's Kumano Kodo wended their way between shrines set at the bases of sacred mountains and one such is in the Kii Mountain Range on the Pacific coast of Wakayama Prefecture. This area of rugged mountains, wonderful forested landscapes with its streams, waterfalls and lush greenery contains shrines dating back to the early 9th century, and sacred sites fusing the ancient tradition of Shinto with the 'modern' (since the 8th century) influences of Buddhism.

Nikko, Tochigi.
An iconic image from Nikko is that of the three monkeys.
Nikko, Japan.
Rain turns the rooftops of the shrine and the surrounding forest into a brooding landscape.

Three sacred sites are recognized as making up the WHS in the Kii Mountains: Yoshino and Omine, Kumano Sanzan, and the most famous of the trio Koyasan.

A web of tracks and trails extends through these 1,000-2,000 m high mountains, the paths of hikers and pilgrims connecting peaks and places of ancient sacred worship. The fundamental aspects of the mountains, their ruggedness combined with their serenity, their unpredictable weather and their natural beauty all conspire to create a powerful atmosphere of sanctity. The three parts of the WHS represent a tradition of reverence that dates back to prehistoric times. They had become renowned sacred sites by the 12th century (perhaps even the 11th) and to this day attract worshippers from far and wide attracted to the sacred rocks, trees, waterfalls, shrines, temples, statues, and stupas.

Koyasan, south of Nara, is the still active monastic centre for an important Buddhist sect known as Shingon-shu, which was introduced to Japan in the year 805 by the priest Kukai (known after his death as Kobo Daishi); Kukai and his followers began construction at Koyasan in 816 having received permission from Saga, the 52nd Emperor of Japan.

Pilgrim routes in the Kii Mountains seem to date back to the 9th and 10th centuries, thereafter more and more sites were consecrated in the area as samurai, aristocrats and even the imperial family wished to become benefactors of temples, and by the end of the 12th century the area had attained a reputation as the foremost sacred site in Japan. As Japan's infrastructure of roads steadily improved more pilgrims came, and today's modern transport system makes it an even more readily accessible area.

Hiraizumi - Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011)

Where Christians aspire to reach Heaven after death, for Buddhists their aspirations were towards a Pure Land after death and for nirvana during life. These concepts became intertwined with Japan's indigenous nature worship, or Shinto, and were reflected in elements of garden design.

At the Hiraizumi - Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land WHS in Iwate Prefecture, the gardens in Hiraizumi on sacred Mt Kinkei reveal the then on-going fusion between Shintoism and Pure Land Buddhism through their symbolic use of water, rock, plantings and their incorporation of landscape beyond the garden, elements that were to influence gardens elsewhere in Japan. The political decline of the area led to much of it being destroyed in 1189, but astonishingly a 12th century temple survives.

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Text + images by Mark Brazil

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