FEB. 6, 2014
To the right of the path, a fast-rushing river, blue and white, sped through a secluded gorge, breaking into rapids over dark rocks and tumbling over the occasional waterfall. To the left, a long line of timeworn Buddhist statues sat with their backs to a steep wooded bank, inviting passers-by to share their contemplation.
Someone had been here. Many of the statues were dressed in red knitted hats and cloth bibs, and some held little piles of one-yen coins, left as offerings, in their moss-covered laps (at last! a use for this smallest of small change). But there was no sound other than the river, and no one in sight.
This serene glen, Kanmangafuchi, which in English goes by the forbidding name of the Kanman Abyss, is in Nikko, the temple town of the great shoguns. Tour buses roll up to Nikko’s dazzling shrines — Japan’s most lavish and elaborate — and re-enactors stage grand annual processions on its 400-year-old avenues. But Kanmangafuchi, a secondary attraction that doesn’t make it onto most day trippers’ agendas, is hidden and magical, a key to understanding why the shoguns built their monuments in this place and why Buddhist monks had put down roots hundreds of years earlier. Here, by the Daiya River, it was easy to feel the magnetism of the steep verdant hills, waterfalls, hot springs and volcanic mountains. Throw in a taste for the mystical, and Nikko would be a perfect place to seek enlightenment — or to enshrine yourself as a god.
An easy two and a half hours north of Tokyo by train, Nikko is a small mountain town at the edges of both a cultural Unesco World Heritage site — the 126-acre Tokugawa shrine complex — and a 443-square-mile natural reserve, Nikko National Park. The combination pulls in Japanese tourists by the millions. Yet relatively few Western travelers seem to be among the crowds, even though the list of those who have made the trip stretches back to Ulysses S. Grant, who arrived in 1879. Those who do come here often sign up for day trips organized by Tokyo-based tour companies, giving them enough time to see some high points of the intricate shrine art and architecture and not much else.
My first trip to Nikko, 20 years ago, was in winter, when the clear mountain air was crisp and new snow dusted the emerald branches of the 100-foot-tall cedar trees. Against that backdrop, the brilliant red lacquer facade of Rinnoji, the central Buddhist temple, made an unforgettable picture — almost as vivid in memory as the shocking chill of an unheated wooden floor on feet covered in thin socks (since, of course, shoes must be removed before going in to bow before the 28-foot-gilded statues of Buddha and Kannon).
On a recent fall visit, I walked uphill toward the shrines on ancient stone steps, full of anticipation, and was hit by a jolt of surprise. At the top, I found myself looking not at the three-story-high Rinnoji temple, but at a full-scale painting of it on a giant white plastic wrapper. The temple was inside, undergoing restoration in a project that began in 2007 and will move from structure to structure around the treasures of Nikko until 2021.
The restoration is not shutting down Nikko, I soon learned, or even this one temple. People were going up the still-exposed front steps and disappearing behind the wrapper, so I followed. Inside, one of the three tall statues of gods was missing, but the thousand-armed Senju-Kannon and the double-headed Bato-Kannon (a horse’s head is atop its human one) were there and as inscrutable as ever. For the full effect, it’s essential to walk as close to them as possible and look up. Their astonishingly lifelike eyes will look directly down into yours, not exactly menacing and not really friendly either, prompting thoughts about exactly what their intentions might be for your future.
Nikko’s shrines and temples, as they now appear, date to the 1600s, when the Tokugawa shogun Ieyasu decided Nikko was the right spot for his mausoleum, signifying his ascension after death to godly status (as planned, he was posthumously named a Buddhist deity). However inflated his self-esteem, Ieyasu was no run-of-the-mill warlord. Defeating rivals in battle, he unified Japan under his rule in 1600, and the country never fractured again. He also moved the capital from Kyoto, leaving the powerless emperor behind, to the coastal town that he called Edo and that is now Tokyo, setting up a court there that quickly transformed the town from a tiny fishing village into a metropolis. Later in that same century, another Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu, assembled the country’s greatest artisans and finest materials, commanded an outpouring of cash from the cowed nobility and did more building at Nikko.
The two Tokugawas left behind enough artistry to occupy an admirer for days, and I found most of it on view with little intrusion from the restoration.
There’s a large Shinto shrine to the god of nearby Mount Nantai (shoes off, please, to go inside); ornate gates and big, scary statues guarding flights of steps up to the mausoleums of both grandfather and grandson; a walkway flanked by 100 large stone lanterns; a five-story pagoda; even a “sacred stable.” Anyone looking for the familiar spare Japanese aesthetic will be disappointed. Elaborate, Chinese-influenced decoration is everywhere: gilding, metal work and, especially, intricate wood carving. It was the style of the time, a sort of Japanese Baroque, and Nikko is its highest expression.
Isabella Bird, the Victorian travel writer whose books kept her English audience rapt, wrote in “Unbeaten Tracks in Japan”: “The wood-carving needs weeks of earnest work for the mastery of its ideas and details.” I didn’t want to stay that long, but I understood her reaction. The carving is in 3-D: brightly painted wooden friezes of flowers and plants; cranes, peacocks, dragons, elephants; and the Three Wise Monkeys (See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil), a charming and famous piece that everyone stopped to gawk at. A group of 9- or 10-year-old schoolchildren with bright yellow hats (billed caps for the boys and small rain hats for the girls) were especially appreciative but seemed to have even more fun running up and down the moss-edged steps where their handlers soon led them.
Nikko is a great place for exercise. On this trip I walked all day for two days, exploring museums, gardens and a downtown with souvenir shops and a public hot-spring bathhouse. (Buses are available for those who want to walk less.) Like everyone else, I took pictures of the crescent-shaped red Sacred Bridge over the Daiya River that is Nikko’s signature image.
I wandered in the tatami maze of the sprawling 100-room Japanese-style Imperial Villa, now a museum, where Akihito, Japan’s current emperor, was sent for safety by his father, Hirohito, during World War II. You can see the entrance to a bomb shelter in the gorgeous garden. (It wasn’t needed. Nikko and its treasures were never bombed.) The villa, built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is near the Kanman Abyss, and the emperor Taisho, Akihito’s grandfather, wrote a stylized poem about walking there and getting his sleeves wet from the rapids’ spray. The poem is inscribed on a stone monument at the gorge, one of several such literary monuments in Nikko.
Outside town is another experience, accessible by bus. A corkscrew of a road leads up to the alpine Lake Chuzenji and the high Kegon waterfall; along the way, monkeys inured to the slow-moving traffic sit in trees or run along the road, hoping to score a handout. And then there are the hot springs. In Japan, Nikko is almost as renowned for its nearby hot-springs resorts as for its shrine.
I stayed close to the shrine and retired at night to the Kanaya Hotel, an old European-style place where expats and diplomats took holidays from steamy Tokyo in the days before air-conditioning. The list of guests includes Eleanor Roosevelt, Indira Gandhi and Frank Lloyd Wright. When Ms. Bird stayed there in 1878, the building was a small guesthouse and the host was the original Mr. Kanaya. “I almost wish that the rooms were a little less exquisite,” Bird wrote, “for I am in constant dread of spilling the ink, indenting the mats, or tearing the paper windows.”
Today’s incarnation falls short of the “Japanese idyll” she described, but it is lovely, historical and beautifully situated on a slope almost directly above the Sacred Bridge. I found the Kanaya relentlessly European, but with a Japanese twist. The high-ceilinged corridors and my huge room, with an antique desk and view of a garden and a mountain peak, made me think of the fine old inns that still survive in the American Northeast. But here there were yukatas, the cotton kimonos for lounging that are common in Japan, laid out for the guests. Service was delicate and perfect, in the best Japanese style.
Dinner at the restaurant was a white-tablecloth and French-wine affair with steak on the menu and a “Downton Abbey”-worthy array of silverware at each place setting. Although the staff and all the other diners were Asian, there wasn’t a chopstick in sight. Here, I thought, if anywhere in rural Japan, I might have a chance of getting a cup of decaf coffee after dinner. But the waitress, an older woman in a neat black dress who had up to this time anticipated my every desire, told me apologetically that there was none, and when I refused tea as a substitute, seemed genuinely stricken.
I assured her that I could make do with water. But in a few minutes she reappeared, looking hopeful, with an offer: Could I take instant? I could. It arrived grandly — shining crystals in a stemware dessert glass — and proved to be the best instant coffee I had ever tasted. I smiled, she smiled, and all was well.