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The Temples Of Nikko

( Originally Published Early 1900's )

In the heart of the large island of Niphon and in a mountainous and wooded region, fifty leagues from Yokohama, is hidden that marvel of marvels-the necropolis of the Japanese Emperors.

There, on the declivity of the Holy Mountain of Nikko, under cover of a dense forest and in the midst of cascades whose roar among the shadows of the cedars never ceases, is a series of enchanting temples, made of bronze and lacquer with roofs of gold, which look as if a magic ring must have called them into existence among the ferns and mosses and the green dampness, over-arched by dark branches and surrounded by the wildness and grandeur of Nature.

Within these temples there is an inconceivable magnificence, a fairy-like splendour. Nobody is about, except a few guardian bonzes who chant hymns, and several whiterobed priestesses who perform the sacred dances whilst waving their fans. Every now and then the slow vibrations of an enormous bronze gong, or the dull, heavy blows on a monstrous prayer-drum are heard in the deep and echoing forest. At other times there are certain sounds which really seem to be a part of the silence and solitude, the chirp of the grasshoppers, the cry of the falcons in the air, the chatter of the monkeys in the branches, and the monotonous fall of the cascades.

All this dazzling gold in the mystery of the forest makes these sepulchres unique. This is the Mecca of Japan; this is the heart, as yet inviolate, of this country which is now gradually sinking in the great Occidental current, but which has had a magnificent Past. Those were strange mystics and very rare artists who, three or four hundred years ago, realized all this magnificence in the depths of the woods and for their dead...

We stop before the first temple. It stands a little off to itself in a kind of glade. You approach it by a garden with raised terraces; a garden with grottos, fountains, and dwarf-trees with violet, yellow, or reddish foliage.

The vast temple is entirely red, and blood-red; an enormous black and gold roof, turned up at the corners, seems to crush it with its weight. From it comes a kind of religious music, soft and slow, interrupted from time to time by a heavy and horrible blow.

It is wide open, open so that its entire facade with columns is visible; but the interior is hidden by an immense white velum. The velum is of silk, only ornamented in its entire white length by three or four large, black, heraldic roses, which are very simple, but I cannot describe their exquisite distinction, and behind this first and half-lifted hanging, the light bamboo blinds are let down to the ground.

We walk up several granite steps, and, to permit my entrance, my guide pushes aside a corner of the Veil: the sanctuary appears.

Within everything is in black lacquer and gold lacquer, with the gold predominating. Above the complicated cornice and golden frieze there springs a ceiling in compart ments, in worked lacquer of black and gold. Behind the colonnade at the back, the remote part, where, doubtless, the gods are kept, is hidden by long curtains of black and gold brocade, hanging in stiff folds from the ceiling to the floor. Upon white mats on the floor large golden vases are standing, filled with great bunches of golden lotuses as tall as trees. And finally from the ceiling, like the bodies of large dead serpents or monstrous boas, hang a quantity of astonishing caterpillars of silk, as large as a human arm, blue, yellow, orange, brownish-red, and black, or strangely variegated like the throats of certain birds of those islands.

Some bonzes are singing in one corner, seated in a circle around a prayer-drum, large enough to hold them all...

We go out by the back door, which leads into the most curious garden in the world: it is a square filled with shadows shut in by the forest cedars and high walls, which are red like the sanctuary; in the centre rises a very large bronze obelisk flanked with four little ones, and crowned with a pyramid of golden leaves and golden bells;-you would say that in this country bronze and gold cost nothing; they are used in such profusion, everywhere, just as we use the mean materials of stone and plaster. -All along this blood-red wall which forms the back of the temple, in order to animate this melancholy garden, at about the height of a man there is a level row of little wooden gods, of all forms and colours, which are gazing at the obelisk; some blue, others yellow, others green; some have the shape of a man, others of an elephant: a company of dwarfs, extraordinarily comical, but which express no merriment.

In order to reach the other temples, we again walk through the damp and shadowy woods along the avenues of cedars, which ascend and descend and intersect in various ways, and really constitute the streets of this city of the dead.

We walk on pathways of fine sand, strewn with these little brown needles which drop from the cedars. Always in terraces, they are bordered with balustrades and pillars of granite covered with the most delicious moss; you would say all the hand-rails have been garnished with a beautiful green velvet, and at each side of the sanded pathway invariably flow little fresh and limpid brooks, which join their crystal notes to those of the distant torrents and cascades.

At a height of one hundred, or two hundred metres, we arrive at the entrance of something which seems to indicate magnificence: above us on the mountain in the medley of branches, walls taper upward, while roofs of lacquer and bronze, with their population of monsters, are perched everywhere, shining with gold.

Before this entrance there is a kind of open square, a narrow glade, where a little sunlight falls. And here in its luminous rays two bonzes in ceremonial costume pass across the dark background: one, in a long robe of violet silk with a surplice of orange silk; the other, in a robe of pearl-grey with a sky-blue surplice; each wears a high and rigid head-dress of black lacquer, which is seldom worn now.

(These were the only human beings whom we met on the way, during our pilgrimage.) They are probably going to perform some religious office, and, passing before the sumptuous entrance, they make profound bows.

This temple before which we are now standing is thatof the deified soul of the Emperor Yeyaz (Sixteenth Century), and, perhaps, the most marvellous of all the buildings of Nikko.

You ascend by a series of doors and enclosures, which become more and more beautiful as you get higher and nearer the sanctuary, where the soul of this dead Emperor dwells...

At the door of the Palace of the Splendour of the Orient we stop to take off our shoes according to custom. Gold is everywhere, resplendent gold.

An indescribable ornamentation has been chosen for this threshold; on the enormous posts are a kind of wavy clouds, or ocean-billows, in the centre of which here and there appear the tentacles of medusae, the ends of paws, the claws of crabs, the ends of long caterpillars, flat and scaly, - all kinds of horrible fragments, imitated in colossal size with a striking fidelity, and making you think that the beasts to which they belong must be hidden there within the walls ready to enfold you and tear your flesh. This splendour has mysteriously hostile undercurrents; we feel that it has many a surprise and menace. Above our heads the lintels are, however, ornamented with large, exquisite flowers in bronze, or gold: roses, peonies, wistaria, and spring branches of full-blown cherry-blossoms; but, still higher, horrible faces with fixed death's-head grimaces lean toward us; terrible things of all shapes hang by their golden wings from the golden beams of the roof; we perceive in the air rows of mouths split open with atrocious laughter, and rows of eyes half-closed in an unquiet sleep.

An old priest, aroused by the noise of our footsteps on the gravel in the silence of the court, appears before us on the bronze threshold. In order to examine the permit which I present to him, he puts a pair of round spectacles on his nose, which make him look like an owl.

My papers are in order. A bow, and he steps aside to let me enter.

It is gloomy inside this palace, with that mysterious semi-twilight which the Spirits delight in. The impressions felt on entering are grandeur and repose.

The walls are of gold and the ceiling is of gold, supported on columns of gold. A vague, trembling light, illuminating as if from beneath, enters through the very much grated and very low windows; the dark, undetermined depths are full of the gleamings of precious things.

Yellow gold, red gold, green gold; gold that is vital, or tarnished; gold that is brilliant, or lustreless; here and there on the friezes and on the exquisite capitals of the columns, a little vermilion, and a little emerald green; very little, nothing but a thin thread of colour, just enough to relieve the wing of a bird and the petal of a lotus, a peony, or a rose. Despite so much richness nothing is overcharged; such taste has been displayed in the arrangement of the thousands of diverse forms and such harmony in the extremely complicated designs, that the effect of the whole is simple and reposeful.

Neither human figures nor idols have a part in this sanctuary of Shintoism. Nothing stands upon the altars but large vases of gold filled with natural flowers in sheaves, or gigantic flowers of gold.

No idols, but a multitude of beasts, flying or crawling, familiar or chimerical, pursue each other upon the walls, and fly away from the friezes and ceiling in all attitudes of fury and struggle, of terror and flight. Here, a flock of swans hurry away in swift flight the whole length of the golden cornice; in other places are butterflies with tortoises; large and hideous insects among the flowers, or many death-combats between fantastic beasts of the sea, medusae with big eyes, and imaginary fishes. On the ceiling innumerable dragons bristle and coil. The windows, cut out in multiple trefoils, in a form never before seen and which give little light, seem only a pretext for displaying all kinds of marvellous piercings: trellises of gold entwined with golden leaves, among which golden birds are sporting; all of this seems accumulated at pleasure and permits the least possible light to enter into the deep golden shadows of the temple. The only really simple objects are the columns of a fine golden lacquer ending with capitals of a very sober design, forming a slight calix of the lotus, like those of certain ancient Egyptian palaces.

We could spend days in admiring separately each panel, each pillar, each minute detail; the least little piece of the ceiling, or the walls would be a treasure for a museum. And so many rare and extravagant objects have succeeded in making the whole a composition of large quiet lines; many living forms, many distorted bodies, many ruffled wings; stiff claws, open mouths, and squinting eyes have succeeded in producing a calm, an absolute calm, by force of an inexplicable harmony, twilight, and silence.

I believe, moreover, that here is the quintessence of Japanese Art, of which the specimens brought to our collections of Europe cannot give the true impression. And we are struck by feeling that this Art, so foreign to us, proceeds from an origin so different; nothing here is derived, ever so remotely, from what we call antiquities-Greek, Latin, or Arabian - which always influence, even if we are not aware of it, our native ideas regarding ornamental form. Here the least design, the smallest line, - everything-is as profoundly strange as if it had come from a neighbouring planet which had never held communication with our side of the world.

The entire back of the temple, where it is almost night, is occupied by great doors of black lacquer and gold lacquer, with bolts of carved gold, shutting in a very sacred place which they refuse to show me. They tell me, moreover, that there is nothing in these closets; but that they are the places where the deified souls of the heroes love to dwell; the priests only open them on certain occasions to place in them poems in their honour, or prayers wisely written on rice-paper.

The two lateral wings on each side of the large golden sanctuary are entirely of margueterie, in prodigious mosaics composed of the most precious woods left in their natural colour. The representations are animals and plants: on the walls are light leaves in relief, bamboo, grasses of extreme delicacy, gold convolvulus falling in clusters of flowers, birds of resplendent plumage, peacocks and pheasants with spread tails. There is no painting here, no gold-work; the whole effect is sombre, the general tone that of dead wood; but each leaf of each branch is composed of a different piece; and also each feather of each bird is shaded in such a way as to almost produce the effect of changing colours on the throats and wings.

And at last, at last, behind all this magnificence, the most sacred place which they show me last, the most strange of all strange places, is the little mortuary court which surrounds the tomb. It is hollowed out of a mountain between whose rocky walls water is dripping: the lichens and moss have made a damp carpet here and the tall, surrounding cedars throw their dark shadows over it. There is an enclosure of bronze, shut by a bronze door which is inscribed across its centre with an inscription in gold, - not in the Japanese language, but in Sanscrit to give more mystery; a massive, lugubrious, inexorable door, extraordinary beyond all expression, and which is the ideal door for a sepulchre. In the centre of this enclosure is a kind of round turret also in bronze having the form of a pagoda-bell, of a kneeling beast, of I don't know what unknown and disturbing thing, and surmounted by a great astonishing heraldic flower: here, under this singular object, rests the body of the little yellow bonhomme, once the Emperor Yeyaz, for whom all this pomp has been displayed...

A little breeze agitates the branches of the cedars this morning and there falls a shower of these little dry, brown needles, a little brown rain on the greyish lichens, on the green velvet moss, and upon the sinister bronze objects. The voice of the cascades is heard in the distance like perpetual sacred music. An impression of nothingness and supreme peace reigns in this final court, to which so much splendour leads.

In another quarter of the forest the temple of the deified soul of Yemidzou is of an almost equal magnificence. It is approached by a similar series of steps, little carved and gilded light-towers, doors of bronze and enclosures of lacquer; but the plan of the whole is a little less regular, because the mountain is more broken...

A solemn hour on the Holy Mountain is at night-fall, when they close the temples. It is even more lugubrious at this autumnal season, when the twilight brings sad thoughts. With heavy, rumbling sounds which linger long in the sonorous forest, the great panels of lacquer and bronze are rolled on their grooves to shut in the magnificent buildings which have been open all day, although visited by nobody. A cold and damp shiver passes through the black forest. For fear of fire, which might consume these marvels, not a single light is allowed in this village of Spirits, where certainly darkness falls sooner and remains longer than anywhere else; no lamp has ever shone upon these treasures, which have thus slept in darkness in the very heart of Japan for many centuries; and the cascades increase their music while the silence of night enshrouds the forest so rich in enchantment.

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