Jinrikisha Days in Japan/Chapter 15

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Of all Japan’s sacred places, Nikko, or Sun’s Brightness, is dearest to the Japanese heart. Art, architecture, and landscape gardening add to Nature's opulence, history and legend people it with ancient splendors, and all the land is full of memories. “He who has not seen Nikko cannot say Kekko!" (beautiful, splendid, superb), runs the Japanese saying.

With its forest shades, its vast groves, and lofty avenues, its hush, its calm religious air, Nikko is an ideal and dream-like place, where rulers and prelates may well long to be buried, and where priests, poets, scholars, artists, and pilgrims love to abide. Each day of a whole summer has new charms, and Nikko’s strange fascination but deepens with acquaintance.

The one long street of Hachi-ishi, or lower Nikko village, ends at the banks of the Dayagawa, a roaring stream that courses down a narrow valley, walled at its upper end by the bold, blue bar of Nantaisan, the sacred mountain. Legend has peopled this valley of the Dayagawa with impossible beings—giants, fairies, demons, and monsters. Most of the national fairy stories begin with, “Once upon a time in the Nikko mountains,” and one half expects to meet imp or fay in the green shadows. Mound builder and prehistoric man had lived their squalid lives here; the crudest and earliest forms of religion had been observed in these forest sanctuaries long before Kobo Daishi induced the Shinto priests to believe that their god of the mountain was but a manifestation of Buddha. Everything proclaims a hoary past—trees, moss-grown stones, battered images, crumbling tombs, overgrown and forgotten graveyards.

Each summer half the Tokio legations move bodily to Nikko, and temples, monastery wings, priests’ houses, and the homes of the dwellers in the upper village are rented to foreigners in ever-increasing numbers. Nikko habitations do not yet bring the prices of Newport cottages, but the extravagant rate of three and even five hundred yens for a season of three months is a Japanese equivalent. Besides the foreigners, there are many Japanese residents and tourists—little men in hot, uncomfortable foreign clothes, with field-glasses strapped across one shoulder, and the freshest and tightest of gloves. The white-clad pilgrims throng hither by thousands during July and early August, march picturesquely to the jingle of their staffs and bells round the great temples, and trudge on to the sanctuary on Chiuzenji's shores within the shadow of holy Nantaisan.

Two bridges cross the Daiyagawa, and lead to the groves and temples that make Nikko’s fame. One bridge is an every-day affair of plain, unpainted timbers, across which jinrikishas rumble noisily, and figures pass and re-pass. The other is the sacred bridge, over which only the Emperor may pass, in lieu of the Shoguns of old, for whom it was reserved. It is built of wood, covered with red lacquer, with many brass plates and tips, and rests on foundation piles of Titanic stone columns, joined by cross-pieces of stone, carefully fitted and mortised in. Tradition maintains that the gods sent down this rainbow bridge from the clouds in answer to saintly prayer. Its sanctity is so carefully preserved, that when the Emperor wished to pay the highest conceivable honor to General Grant, he ordered the barrier to the bridge to be opened that his guest might walk across. Greatly to his credit, that modest soldier refused to accept this honor, lest it should seem a desecration to the humble believers in the sanctity of the red bridge.

Shaded avenues, broad staircases, and climbing slopes lead to the gate-ways of the two great sanctuaries—the mortuary temples and tombs of the Shogun Iyeyasu and his worthy grandson, the Shogun Iyemitsu. The hillside is shaded by magnificent old cryptomerias; and these sacred groves, with the soft cathedral light under the high canopy of leaves, are as wonderful as the sacred buildings. Each splendid gate-way, as well as the soaring pagoda, can be seen in fine perspective at the end of long avenues of trees, and bronze or stone torii form lofty portals to the holy places. The torii is a distinctively national structure, and these grand skeleton gates of two columns and an upward curving cross-piece are impressive and characteristic features of every Japanese landscape, standing before even the tiniest shrines in the Liliputian gardens of Japanese homes, as well as forming the approach to every temple. The stone torii and the rows of stone lanterns are mossy and lichen-covered, and every foot of terrace or embankment is spread with fine velvety moss of the freshest green. Although two hundred years old, the temples themselves are in as perfect condition and color as when built; and nothing is finer, perhaps, than the five-storied pagoda with its red lacquered walls, the brass trimmings of roofs and rails, the discolored bells pendent from every angle, and a queer, corkscrew spiral atop, the whole showing like a great piece of jeweller’s work in a deep, green grove.

Iyeyasu, founder of Yeddo, successor of the Taiko, and military ruler in the golden age of the arts in Japan, was the first Shogun buried on Nikko’s sacred hill-side, and It was intended to make the mortuary temple before his tomb as splendid as the crafts of the day permitted. His grandson, Iyemitsu, was the next and only other Shogun interred at Nikko, and his temple fairly rivals that of his ancestor.

At each shrine rise broad stone steps leading to the first and outer court-yards, where stand the magnificent gates, exquisitely carved, set with superb metal plates, and all ablaze with color and gilding. The eye is confused in the infinite detail of structure and ornament, and the intricacy of beams and brackets upholding the heavy roofs of these gate- ways. Walls of red lacquer and gold, with carved and colored panels topped with black tiles, surround each enclosure, and through inner and outer courts and gate-ways, growing ever more and more splendid, the visitor approaches the temples proper, their soaring roofs, curved gables, and ridge-poles set with the Tokugawa crest in gold, sharp cut against the forest background. At the lowest step his shoes are taken off, and he is permitted to wander slowly through the magnificent buildings on the soft, silk-bordered mats. Richly panelled ceilings, lacquered pillars, carved walls, and curtains of the finest split bamboo belong to both alike, and in the gloom of inner rooms are marvels of carving and decoration, only half visible.

Both temples were once splendid with all the emblems and trappings of Buddhism, redolent with incense, musical with bells and gongs, and resounding all day with chanted services. But after the Restoration, when the Shinto became the state religion and the Emperor made a pilgrimage to Nikko, Iyeyasu’s temple was stripped of its splendid altar ornaments, banners, and symbols, and the simple mirror and bits of paper of the empty Shinto creed were substituted. In the dark chapel behind the first room there remains a large gong, whose dark bowl rests on a silken pad, and when softly struck fills the place with rising and falling, recurring and wavering, tones of sweetness for five whole minutes, while

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Ito stands with open watch and warning finger, and the priest bends low and drinks in the music with ecstatic countenance. Iyemitsu’s temple was spared, and there stand the rows of superb lacquered boxes containing the sacred writings. There, too, are the gilded images, golden lotus-leaves, massive candlesticks, drums, gongs, banners and pendent ornaments, besides the giant koros, breathing forth pale clouds of incense, that accompanied the rites of the grand old Buddhist faith.

Each temple has a fine water-tank in its outer court; an open pavilion, with solid corner posts supporting the heavy and ornate roof above the granite trough. Each basin is a single, huge block of stone, hollowed out and cut with such exactness that the water, welling up from the bottom, pours over the smooth edges so evenly as to give it the look of a cube of polished glass. The fountain at the Iyemitsu temple was the gift of the princes of Nabeshima, and its eaves flutter with the myriad flags left there by pilgrims who come to pray at the great shrine. All about the temple grounds is heard the noise of rushing water, and the music and gurgle of these tiny streams, the rustle of the high branches, and the cawing of huge solitary rooks are the only sounds that break the stillness of the enchanted groves between the soft boomings of the morning and evening bells. The noise of voices is lost in the great leafy spaces, and the sacredness of the place subdues even the unbelieving foreigner, while native tourists and pilgrims move silently, or speak only in undertones, and make no sound, save as their clogs clatter on stones and gravel.

It is impossible to carry away more than a general and bewildered impression of the splendid walled and lanterned courts, the superb gate-ways, and the temples themselves, but certain details, upon which the guides insist, remain strangely clear in memory. Over the doors of the stable where the sacred white pony is kept are colored carvings representing groups of monkeys with eyes, or ears, or mouth covered with their paws—the signification being that one should neither see, hear, nor speak any evil. In one superbly-carved gate-way is a little medallion of two tigers, so cunningly studied and worked out that the curving grain and knots of the wood give all the softly-shaded stripes of their velvet coats and an effect of thick fur. One section of a carved column in this gate is purposely placed upsidedown, the builder fearing to complete so perfect and marvellous a piece of workmanship. Above another gate-way curls a comfortable sleeping cat, which is declared to wink when rain is coming, and this white cat has as great a fame as anything along the Daiyagawa.

The strangest hierophant in Nikko is the priestess who dances at the temple of Iyeyasu. She looks her threescore years of age, and is allowed a small temple to herself, where she sits, posed like an altar image, with a big money-box on the sacred red steps before her, into which the pious and the curious toss their offerings. Then the priestess rises and solemnly walks a few steps this way, a few steps that way, poses before each change, shakes an elaborate sort of baby’s rattle with the right-hand, and gesticulates with an open fan in the left-hand. The sedate walk to and fro, the movements of the rattle and fan constitute the dance, after which this aged Miriam sits down, bows her head to the mats, and resumes her statuesque pose. She wears a nun-like head-dress of white muslin, and a loose white garment, like a stole, over a red petticoat, the regular costume of the Shinto priestesses. She seems always amiable and ready to respond to a conciliatory coin, but the visitor wonders that the cool and shaded sanctuary in which she sits, with nearly the whole front wall making an open door, does not stiffen her aged joints with rheumatism and end her dancing days.


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A green and mossy staircase, a greener and mossier balustraded walk, leads up and along the crest of the hill to the final knoll, atop of which stands the simple bronze urn containing the great Shogun’s body. A more still and solemn, a more peaceful and beautiful resting-place could not be imagined, and the peculiar green twilight reigning under the closely-set cryptomerias, with those long stretches of stone balustrades and embankments, which the forest has claimed for its own and clothed in a concealing mantle of the greenest moss, subdue the most frivolous beholder to silence and seriousness.

On that velvety-green stair-way leading to Iyeyasu's tomb I met, one day, a scholar of fine taste and great culture, a man of distinction in his native West. “I am overwhelmed with the beauty and magnificence of all this,” he said. “I must concede the greatness of any religion that could provide and preserve this, and teach its followers to appreciate it.”

Afterwards, almost on the same step, a dear missionary friend stopped me, with eyes full of tears. “Oh!” she sighed, “this fills me with sadness and sorrow. These emblems and monuments of heathenism! I see nothing beautiful or admirable in those wicked temples. They show me how hard it will be to uproot such heathen creeds. I wish I had not come.”

A woodland path leads around the foot of the great hill on which the Shoguns’ tombs are built, a path laid with large flat stones and set with a rough curbing of loose rocks and bowlders, covered—by the drip and damp and shade of centuries—with a thick green moss. This silent footway leads past many small temples, stone-fenced enclosures, moss-covered tombs and tablets, tiny shrines behind tiny torii, and battered, broken-nosed, and headless Buddhas. Half- hidden tracks, in that gloomy and silent cryptomeria forest, rough-set staircases, roads plunging into the deep shadow of the woods entice the explorer to ever-new surprises. At deserted and silent shrines heaps of pebbles, bits of paper, or strips of wood painted with a sacred character attest the presence of prayerful pilgrims, who have sought them out to register a vow or petition, Tiny red shrines gleam jewel-like in the far shadows, and fallen cryptomerias make mounds and ridges of entangled vines among the red-barked giants still standing. Above a water-fall, all thin ribbons and jets of foam, are more old temples, where pilgrims come to pray and tourists to admire, but where no one ever despoils the unguarded sanctuaries. In one of these buildings are life-size images of the gods of thunder and the winds. Raiden, the thunder-god, is a bright-red divinity with a circle of drums surrounding his head like a halo, a fierce countenance, and two goaty horns on his forehead. Futen, the god of winds, has a grass-green skin, two horny toes to each foot, and a big bag over his shoulders. A fine heavy-roofed red gate-way and bell-tower distinguish another cluster of temples in this still forest nook, their altars covered with gilded images. One open shrine, which should be the resort of jinrikisha men, is dedicated to a muscular red deity, to whom votaries offer up a pair of sandals, beseeching him for vigorous legs. The whole place is hung over with wooden, straw, and tin sandals, minute or colossal. Then down through the wood, past a hoary graveyard, where abbots and monks of Nikko monasteries were buried for centuries before the Shoguns came, one returns to the Futa-ara temple and Iyemitsu’s first gale-way.

In our wanderings we once happened upon an old and crowded graveyard, with splendid trees shading the mossy tombs and monuments. The stone lanterns, Buddhas, and images were past counting, and one granite deity, under a big sun-hat, had a kerchief of red cotton tied under his chin. His benevolent face and flaming robes were stuck all over with tiny bits of paper, on which the faithful had written their petitions, and the lanterns beside him were heaped with prayer-stones. A Hindoo-looking deity near by sat with up-lifted knee, on which he rested one arm and supported his bent and thoughtful head.

A hundred stone representatives of Buddha sit in mossy meditation under the shadow of the river bank, long branches trailing over them and vines clambering about their ancient brows. Time has rolled some from their lotus pedestals, beheaded others, and covered them all with white lichens and green moss, and Gamman, as this row of Buddhas is named, is the strangest sight among the many strange sights of the river bank. Custom ordains that one should count them, and no two persons are believed to have ever recorded the same number of images between the bridge and Kobo Daishi’s open shrine.

There is an eta village just below Nikko, peopled by these outcasts, who follow their despised calling of handling the carcasses of animals and dressing leather and furs. Their degradation seems to result not more from that Buddhist law which forbids the taking of animal life, than from the legendary belief that they are the descendants of Korean prisoners, long kept as executioners and purveyors for the imperial falcons. Colonies of etas lived for centuries without part or lot in the lives of their high-caste neighbors. After the Restoration, the power of the great nobles was curtailed, and with the gradual freeing of the lower classes from the tyranny of caste the eta became a citizen, protected by law. Prejudice still confines him to his own villages, but when he leaves them salt is no longer sprinkled on the spot where he stands to purify it.

The most harrowing situation of the old romances was the falling in love of a noble with a beautiful eta girl. Now the eta children attend the Government schools on the same terms as their betters. But this liberality was of slow growth, and in one province, where the stiff-necked parents withdrew their children because of the presence of these pariahs, the governor entered himself as a pupil, sitting side by side with the little outcasts in the same classes, after which august demonstration of theoretical equality caste distinctions were allowed to fade.

Nikko becomes a great curio mart each summer, the curios having, naturally, a religious cast; and bells, drums, gongs, incense-burners, images, banners, brocade draperies, and priestly fans make a part of every peddler’s pack, each thing, of course, being certified to have come from the sacred treasuries near by. The souvenirs, which the most hardened tourist cannot resist buying, are the Nikko specialties of trays, cups, boxes, and teapots of carved and lacquered wood, and of curious roots, decorated with chrysanthemums or incised sketches of the Sacred Bridge. The Japanese eye sees possibilities in the most unpromising knot, and the Japanese hand hollows it into a casket, or fits it with the spout and handle that turn it into a teapot. All the village street is lined with these wooden-ware shops, alternating with photograph and curio marts.

Visitors to Nikko always buy its yuoki, a candle made of chestnuts and barley-sugar, which comes in slabs an inch square and six inches long, wrapped in a dried bamboo sheath, and put in the dainty little wooden boxes which make Japanese purchases so attractive. It is like a dark-brown fig-paste, and has a flavor of marrons glaces and of maple-sugar. Flocks of children, with babies on their backs, hover about the yuoki shop in upper Nikko, and if the tourist bestows a box on them, their comical bobs and courtesies, their funny way of touching the forehead with the gift during all the bowing, and the rapture with which they attack the bar of sweets express most eloquent thanks.

When rain or fatigue prevented our making any outdoor excursions, the village street furnished us with an all-day occupation. A mossy and abandoned rice-mill faced us across the road, with a tiny cascade dripping down from the leafy hill behind it, feeding its overshot wheel, and dropping by dwarf water-falls to the side of the road, whence it ran down the slope to add its singing to the water chorus that makes all Nikko musical. Pack-horses, farmers, pilgrims, and villagers went picturesquely by, each pedestrian tucking his kimono in his belt to shorten it, and holding a vast golden halo over his head in the shape of a flat, oil-paper rain umbrella.

A small garden separated our summer home at Nikko from our landlord’s house, and from early morning, when his amados thundered open, until dark, when they rumbled shut, the whole conduct of Japanese household life lay before us. Our neighbors came out of doors betimes. A bucket of water from a tiny cascade filled the broad, shallow copper wash-basin, in which one by one they washed their faces. Meanwhile the kettle boiled over the charcoal fire, and some child ran down to a provision-shop for a square slab of bean-curd, which, with many cups of tea, a little rice, and shreds of pickled fish, composed their breakfast. Then the futons were hung over poles or lines to sun; the andons, pillows, and big green tents of musquito-nets put away; the tatami brushed off, and the little shop put in order for the day.

The women washed and starched their gowns, pasting them down on flat boards to smooth and dry; sewed and mended, scrubbed and scoured in the narrow alcove of a kitchen all the morning; while the children trotted back and forth with buckets of water to sprinkle the garden, wash the stones, fill the bath-tubs, and supply the kitchen. The rice, after being washed and rubbed in the cascade, was soaked for an hour and then poured into the furiously boiling rice-pot. The brush fire under the stone frame of the kettle was raked out, and when the steam came only in interrupted puffs from under the cover, this was lifted to show a pot full to the brim of snowy-white grains. A soup had meanwhile been stewing, a fish had been broiled over charcoal, and, with tea, the noonday dinner was ready. At some hour of the day offerings of rice and food were mysteriously placed on the steps of the tiny shrine to the fox-god, chief ornament of the farther garden. Towards sundown came supper, and then the lighting of the lamps. Shadow-pictures on the shoji repeated the actions and groupings within, the splash of water betrayed the family bath, and when all, from grandfather to baby, had been boiled and scrubbed, the amados banged, and the performance was over until sunrise.