Nikko is a good place to go if you want to dispel the notion that all of Japan displays a Zen sensibility.
I made the 2-hour trip to Nikko yesterday. Along with Kamakura it’s probably the most historically important (and popular) destination with reach of an easy day trip from Tokyo.
I suppose the mere notion of deifying yourself makes a discussion of ostentatiousness unnecessary, but the Toshogu Shrine really is the most opulent place in Japan. It’s a remarkable display of sheer craftsmanship as well as wealth – artists from all over Japan were conscripted to work on the project (most of which was completed by Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu, who built himself a smaller but no less gorgeous shrine up the hill from the Toshogu). There so much detail and so much gold that it almost defies belief. The Shrine is probably best known for the “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no Evil” monkeys – yes, this is where that originated – and the “Sleeping Cat” carving, but there’s beautiful wood and metal work everywhere you look.
Nikko is a rather lovely place, about 1600’ in the mountains, and in addition to the Tokugawa Shrines it also possesses several other noteworthy Shrines and Temples, including Rinnoji. There’s also the mysterious and atmospheric “Bakejizo”, the stretch of footpath by the river which contains a long line of Jizo statues of unknown age and origin, and in varying states of decay. Legend holds that if you count them on the way out and the way back, you’ll get a different number – thus the name. I didn’t put it to the test.
A nice bonus – we got a bit of snow while I was there, my first experience actually being snowed on in Japan. Tokyo rarely gets snow and I don’t know if I’ll make it to the mountains, so this was a very nice way to cap the day.