Silver Week in Nikko Day 1: Gold and Dragons

Once every few years, the stars align and the two Japanese public holidays in September fall on a consecutive Monday and Wednesday–in this case, Monday September 21st (Autumn Equinox Day) and Wednesday September 23rd (Respect for the Elderly Day). And the Japanese have a terrific rule that says if two public holidays fall a day apart, then the day in between must also be a public holiday. (What a great rule, right? We should all learn from the Japanese). Hence, I had a holiday on Tuesday the 22nd for absolutely no reason. This rare 5-day weekend has been recently dubbed “Silver Week,” and everyone in Japan was on the move.

I chose to spend the first three days of Silver Week in Nikko, Tochigi with two friends, J and S.

There’s a famous Japanese saying that proclaims, “Don’t say “magnificent” until you see Nikko.” And after just one hour in Nikko, I was wholeheartedly ready to agree. I don’t know quite what it is about the place, but I felt very alive there.

After a morning of traveling, my friends and I spent Saturday afternoon exploring the main site of Nikko: Tosho-gu Shrine. To briefly summarize Tosho-gu: in the middle of an ancient cedar forest, there lies a huge complex of over a dozen ridiculously ornate buildings and pagodas (picture lots of gold leaf and hundreds of scrupulous dragon carvings) built in the 1600s to honor one deceased shogun. Clearly, the shoguns of Japan were buried in style.

Tosho-gu is also the place to find the famous three wise monkeys, a carving popularized by the emojis. Otherwise known as “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil,” the philosophy behind the monkeys predates Tosho-gu temple by centuries. This carving is actually one of 8 depicting the stages of life… but as you can guess, all the tourists gravitated to the three monkeys with hands over their eyes, mouth, and ears. My friends and I included.

One of the coolest parts of Tosho-gu Shrine, though, was the Hall of the Crying Dragon. Photography isn’t allowed inside, but apparently someone was a rebel because I managed to find three pictures of it on Google. Basically, a magnificent blue-grey dragon with a white underbelly is painted on the ceiling, and if you stand directly underneath the dragon’s mouth and clap two pieces of wood together, the hall’s acoustics create a shrill, spine-tingling sound that was believed to be the cry  of a dragon. However, if you move just a foot away from the spot under the dragon’s mouth and clap the pieces of wood again… nothing. That shrill dragon’s cry can only be heard in one spot in the room, and trust me, it’s pretty damn awesome to hear it.

Nikko Crying Dragon

To make a long story short, the Tosho-gu Shrine was so impressive that my friends and I  felt very accomplished despite it being the only thing we saw that first day in Nikko. In fact, Tosho-gu was the only shrine or temple that we visited during our whole stay, even though it is just one of many famous temples in the area. I think we got our fill of gold leaf and dragons for a while, though, so I don’t feel too bad about missing the others. Plus, Ibaraki isn’t so far from Nikko… I’ll be back.



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