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A Shrine Fit for a Shogun
A look into the history of the World Heritage Site of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko
David Michael Weber (crossfire)     Print Article 
Published 2005-10-19 15:07 (KST)   
The Highly Ornate Yomei-Mon Gate of Toshogu Shrine
©2005 D.Weber
A two-hour train ride north of the thriving megalopolis of Tokyo lies the small mountain town of Nikko. A sleepy town of tourist shops, towering cedars, ornate shrines and elusive monkeys, Nikko makes a wonderful respite from the concrete jungle of Tokyo.

It's main claim to fame comes from its chief discorporate resident: the former Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. About 400 years ago, the founder of Tokyo chose Nikko to be the resting place of his spirit, and there craftsmen labored long years to construct for him a magnificent shrine unlike any other.

Inside the Toshogu Shrine Complex
©2005 D.Weber
The town of Nikko has been inhabited since the 7th century when a Buddhist monk named Daisho first came to establish a temple in the vicinity. Since then Nikko has always been seen as spiritual place for both Buddhism and the native Shinto religion. The three nearby mountains are believed to be Shinto gods and a shrine is dedicated to them near Tokugawa's elaborate structure.

Tokugawa Ieyasu: The man who would be Shogun

Tokugawa Ieyasu 1542-1616
A Patient Man

Tokugawa Ieyasu - warlord and scholar

If the bird doesn't sing,
I'll wait for it to sing.

Patience is the virtue most have come to recognize in Tokugawa Ieyasu. He bided his time while his enemies either destroyed themselves or eventually submitted to him. He was a warlord and scholar who valued learning as much as military skill. / David Michael Weber
Tokugawa Ieyasu was born in the turbulent era known as the Sengoku Period ("Warring States" 1477-1615). His family in the small Mikawa Province was in dire straits as they were surrounded by powerful enemies. Both his grandfather and father were killed in their youth like so many samurai in this era of continuous warfare. Tokugawa was brought up as a hostage in the powerful Imagawa family. In those early years of Tokugawa's life, none could have possibly imagined that a hostage lord of a small, oppressed clan would one day become the leader of the entire country. But such were the vagaries of fate of those times.

The famous "See No, Hear No, Say No Evil" Monkeys
©2005 D.Weber
The Imagawa clan of the area presently known as Shizoaka was ruled by Imagawa Yoshimoto. He spent long years fighting and scheming to become a potential candidate to rule Japan. In 1560, the only thing left to do was to march his large army into Kyoto and make a claim to fight in the name of the powerless Emperor and the defunct Shogun against their enemies. This meant anyone who wouldn't submit to the Imagawa. The only group that stood in his way was the outnumbered Oda clan led by -- at the time -- the highly disregarded Oda Nobunaga.

Imagawa, taking his easy victories against the Oda with too much confidence, settled down one day for an afternoon nap. He was rudely awakened by the sounds of fighting in his camp, which he assumed were his troops brawling.

He did not know that Oda had launched a surprise attack with very few men against the center of Imagawa's superior force. Imagawa was killed and his army scattered. In one fell swoop, Oda rose to the head of the list of superpowers, and Tokugawa was at last free to determine his own destiny.

Elephants as imagined by an artisan who had never seen one
©2005 D.Weber
Tokugawa had always been a visionary, which allowed him to survive for so long unlike many of his peers. Seeing that the winds were blowing in Oda's favor, Tokugawa joined with him in working to unite Japan. He also worked hard to build up his own domain of Mikawa. So successful was he in this that Tokugawa was able to challenge one of the most feared and respected warlord of the times, Takeda Shingen.

In 1582, Oda was killed by one of his own generals. Tokugawa made a harrowing dash back to his domain in order to raise his troops and avenge Oda's death. But, another man beat Tokugawa in taking revenge and went on to setting himself up in the position as Oda's successor. The man's name was Toyotomi Hideyoshi. He had been born the son of a lowly samurai/farmer. Even more so than Tokugawa, Toyotomi had huge obstacles to overcome in his long rise to the top from sandal bearer to one of Oda's chief generals.

Two years later, Tokugawa and Toyotomi tussled but without any decisive outcome. Both were too powerful at this time and both were too clever to waste their men and resources on a hopeless struggle. Tokugawa allied himself with Toyotomi and the latter continued the work his former master had begun -- uniting all of Japan under one banner.

in 1590, Tokugawa joined the great expedition against the last of the holdouts, the Hojo clan. With their defeat, Toyotomi proposed an extraordinary deal. He would give Tokugawa the former domains of the Hojo (primarily the Kanto region, or eastern Japan) in exchange for Tokugawa's old lands which were uncomfortably close to Toyotomi's sphere of power. To the surprise of many of his followers, Tokugawa accepted.

For his new capital, Tokugawa chose the marshy fishing village of Edo. In time, he would build this village into a thriving city which would centuries later be called Tokyo.

In 1598, Toyotomi died leaving only a small child as his heir. Before dying he set up a council of lords to administer his realm until his son came of age.

He probably knew it was doomed from the start. After two years of incessant scheming, conspiracies and treacheries, hostilities finally came to a head. Tokugawa fought and defeated his rivals at the Battle of Sekigahara, undoubtedly one of the most decisive battles in the history of Japan. At long last, the once hostage lord became the undisputed ruler of Japan. In 1603, he was named Shogun by the Emperor.

Tokugawa retired his office in 1605 in favor of his son. However, in true Japanese fashion in which retired lords ruled, Tokugawa still maintained his authority until his death in 1616. He lived long enough to oversee the destruction of remaining rival factions gathered under the banner of Toyotomi's heir. He left behind him a peaceful country united under a stable, though at times a bit totalitarian, government that would last about 250 years.

Toshogu Shrine

Dragons sprouting from Yomei-mon Gate
©2005 D.Weber
Nikko was chosen by Tokugawa himself as a final resting place. It wasn't that he had any particular liking for the place but in the Chinese tradition of feng shui, Nikko served as the perfect place for Tokugawa's spirit to act as a guardian spirit over the city of Edo and the Tokugawa Shogunate. A simple austere shrine was built the year following his death.

The elaborateness and enormous cost of the shrine that was later built there would have shocked the frugal spirit of its occupant. Tokugawa was a bit of a miser who ate and dressed simply most of his life and expected others to follow suit. The shrine was built on the order of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Shogun and grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Lemitsu adored his grandfather. Since his grandfather had a hand in securing his position of Shogun, this should come as no surprise. Lemitsu never really had a head for accounting and spent his money freely in sharp contrast to his spendthrift father and grandfather. He spent lavishly on his grandfather's shrine employing a staggering number of workers who labored long and diligently to create the Toshogu Shrine. Toshogu comes from Tosho Daigongen, the name given to Tokugawa Ieyasu after death when he became defied as a Shinto god.

The stories of the lives of Chinese Sages as depicted on Yomei-mon Gate
©2005 D.Weber
Over 4 million craftsmen and laborers were employed for a period of more than 20 years to construct the shrine compound. They crafted dragons, monkeys, imaginary elephants, Chinese holy men, Buddhism and Shinto elements, and much more to adorn the twenty-something structures that make up the Toshogu Shrine.

The shrine complex contains 500 kilograms of gold and 370 kilograms of silver. It is a far cry from the traditional model of Shinto shrines. Just up the road from Tokugawa's shrine, is a somber, less expensive version of Toshogu: Taiyuin-byo, the shrine dedicated to Iemitsu. He would not allow his shrine to eclipse his grandfather's, and yet ascetics tend to prefer Iemitsu's austere shrine to that of his grandfather's ostentatious one.

Principle shrine building of the Toshogu Shrine
©2005 D.Weber
There is an epidemic of lanterns both stone and metal that crowds the complex numbering over a hundred. Some lanterns were gifts from the various lords of Japan. But a few came from Korea and Europe, reflecting Tokugawa's adeptness in foreign relations, something his descendants were not so keen in developing.

The entrance torii (the traditional gate of Shinto shrines) is the largest stone torii gate in Japan at 9 meters high and 13 meters wide. The second torii was the first bronze torii to be constructed in Japan. At its base the lotus flower of Buddhism can be seen showing the harmonious mixture of Shintoism and Buddhism beliefs that exists at the Toshogu Shrine and within Nikko itself.

The most decorative and expensive piece in the entire compound is Yomei-mon, an inner gate festering with dragons, Chinese sages, birds and strange legendary creatures. The general creed of "less is more" in Japanese art was completely and utterly disregarded on Yomei-mon as more than 400 carvings cover the gate. Over 100,000 craftsmen worked on Yomei-mon alone with an unlimited budget. In former times, common people were not allowed to pass this gate and even Imperial envoys were required to change clothing before passing through.

Mysterious Sleeping Cat of Nikko
©2005 D.Weber
For Japanese visitors one of the most cherished sights to see at Toshogu is the small but delicate carving of a sleeping cat above the entrance to Tokugawa's remains. The structure is a riddle because cats are rarely depicted in shrine carvings.

Twice a year a large parade ceremony known as Sennin Musha Gyoretsu ("Procession of a Thousand Warriors") is made in honor of the grand procession that took place four centuries ago when Tokugawa's remains were transferred from Shizouka to Nikko. Over a thousand participants dressed as various soldier-types from the Edo Period (1615-1867) march down from the large stone torii gate and back again. With them, they carry the mikoshi (portable shrine) that contains the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Though Tokugawa Ieyasu died nearly 400 years ago, his life and his legacy remain vivid in modern Japan. Every year millions visit his shrine to pay respect or to simply gasp in astonishment.

Procession of a Thousand Warriors goes through the Toshogu Torii Gate
©2005 D.Weber
©2005 OhmyNews
A native Tennesseean, David M. Weber is currently at the grammatical grindstone cranking out gerunds, dangling modifiers and perfecting tenses as an English teacher in Japan. In his travels, he has hiked the Inca Trail, been mugged in Mexico City, broke his leg in Switzerland, attempted to bike through Mexico and failed, climbed Pyramids in Egypt and Mexico, drank great quantities of beer at Oktoberfest and gambled at Monte Carlo.
Other articles by reporter David Michael Weber

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