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Delicious descriptions from Downunder: Isabella Bird on Nikkō in Japan

August 24, 2011
Woodwork on temple in Nikko, Japan

Carved birds and animals at Toshō-gū Shrine, Nikkō, Japan

This is one of those Delicious Descriptions that is from Downunder but is not of Downunder, if you know what I mean. It’s actually of Japan – as you observant readers will already know given the title of this post – and it comes from Isabella Bird‘s Unbeaten tracks in Japan to which I referred in my first Japan trip post in May.

One of Bird’s first stops after leaving Tokyo was Nikkō, now designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site for its astonishing complex of shrines and temples. It was, it appears, no less astonishing in the late 19th century than it was for us when we visited it in 2006. Bird spends quite a few pages describing it, but I thought I’d share this one for now:

The shrines are the most wonderful work of their kind in Japan. In their stately setting of cryptomeria, few of which are less than 20 feet in girth at 3 feet from the ground, they take one prisoner by their beauty, in defiance of all rules of western art, and compel one to acknowledge the beauty of forms and combinations of colour hitherto unknown, and that lacquered wood is capable of lending itself to the expression of a very high idea in art. Gold has been used in profusion, and black, dull red, and white, with a breadth and lavishness quite unique. The bronze fret-work alone is a study, and the wood-carving needs weeks of earnest work for the mastery of its ideas and details. One screen or railing only has sixty panels, each 4 feet long, carved with marvellous boldness and depth in open work, representing peacocks, pheasants, storks, lotuses, peonies, bamboos, and foliage. The fidelity to form and colour in the birds, and the reproduction of the glory in motion, could not be excelled. (Letter VIII)

It is, as Bird says, simply marvellous, full of wonderful details that you can spend hours wandering around. However, during Bird’s stay:

there were two shocks of earthquake; all the golden wind-bells which fringe the roofs rang softly, and a number of priests ran into the temple and beat various kinds of drums for the space of half an hour.

Nikkō apparently means “sunny splendour”, and it sure is that – but how vulnerable it is.

7 Comments leave one →
  1. August 24, 2011 6:39 pm

    this sounds lovely, would really like to visit.

    • August 24, 2011 6:46 pm

      Welcome Laura. It is beautiful, and can be done on a day trip from Tokyo though better to spend a night or two (or more as Bird did!) there.

  2. August 25, 2011 3:59 am

    Wow. And gorgeous photo too 🙂

    • August 25, 2011 9:00 am

      Thanks Stefanie … it is isn’t it? I had a few to choose from including some famous ones from Nikkō including The sleeping cat and The three wise monkeys. And then the hugely colourful pagoda … oh, I’d better stop because it truly is “marvellous”.

  3. August 25, 2011 2:24 pm

    I would like to describe that undersground tunnel at the temple/shrine in Nagano:

    “It was very, very black.

    The end.”

  4. August 25, 2011 2:24 pm

    (And now I would like to correct my typo – UNDERGROUND.)

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