Wandering around Japan marveling at the sights is a lot of fun, but eventually you want to actually understand what it is you are seeing. Also, the Japanese people we meet are constantly telling us that it is very confusing for foreigners who do not understand the language to travel outside of Tokyo; and after standing in front of numerous subway and train maps where all the words are written in Kanji and Katakana, I do not doubt that this is true. Consequently, when we decided to go to Nikko, we thought it would be best to take an organized tour with an English speaking guide. This turned out to be a good decision because we learned a lot and we wouldn't have had a clue what we were looking at if we were stumbling about on our own. Also, the guide was very amusing although at times I am sure she did not mean to be.
The shrine complex at Nikko is surrounded by a forest of tall trees with brilliant green leaves. It consists of several Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples and is also the mausoleum of the first Tokugawa shogun. The buildings are covered with beautiful guilded carvings.
Our guide explained that about 50% of Japanese people say they are Buddhist and 80% say they are Shinto. This is not a mathematical impossibility because Shintoism deals with everyday life and Buddhism deals with the afterlife so practicing both religions is not a problem. There are countless Shinto Kami or dieties, and throughout a person's life he will pray to whichever one can help him at the time. A Kami may be a natural object, a guardian of a particular area or group of people, a historical figure, or even an abstract creative force. Our guide explained how to purify ourselves at the water which is always outside the shrine and how to direct the smoke of the incense which is always burning toward us.
Unfortunately, the rain that day was unrelenting. We trudged through the site dodging umbrellas and trying not to be too irked by the other people on the tour, some of whom were quite annoying. We continued on to scenic Lake Chyzenji which was so socked in with fog that we could not see it. After a delicious Japanese lunch with the best tempura I have ever eaten, we carried on to Kegon Falls which bears a striking resemblance to the most beautiful view in the world up in the mountains of Kauai which is always covered with fog whenever we try to see it.
All things considered, it was a fun day.