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The Shoguns & Nikko – How three Samurai shaped Japan
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The Shoguns & Nikko – How three Samurai shaped Japan

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Nikko was founded in the 8th century by Shodo Shonin, a Zen Buddhist monk before there was any bakufu or shogun in Japan.  The first shogun was Minamoto Yoritomo, appointed by the emperor, Go-Toba, on August 21, 1192.  Although the emperor officially remained the head of the nation by title, Minamoto Yoritomo was responsible for overseeing the day to day welfare of the nation.  Minamoto Yoritomo began a shogun samurai lineage which held complete power.  At the same time, the imperial household performed royal duties resembling contemporary heads of state, and similar to modern-day monarchs, beginning in Japan in the Heian era residents and continuing to today, taxes have been levied to support their lifestyles.  This system continued until 1867 when Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito, the 122nd Emperor of Japan, took ultimate control as the head of state; he outlawed the samurai way of life and humiliated the samurai by banning them from carrying their most sacred symbol, the katana, as well as the samurai clothing and hairstyle (the topknot).  

The newly appointed posts similar to governors or premieres from a western-style governing body, including the police, military, and the imperial court, viewed all samurai who refused to conform to the new Japanese western lifestyle as enemies to Nippon.  The emperor and his underlings executed all those that opposed his rule, as depicted in the movie “The Last Samurai” with Tom Cruise and Ken Watanabe.  Going back a few hundred years, the Sengoku period in Japan, which encompasses nearly 500 years, is a time where the samurai were needed to keep the peace.  Unfortunately, it’s also known for near-constant civil war, social upheaval, and political intrigue starting from the end of the fruitful Heian era to the beginning of the peaceful Edo period.  Paradoxically, the entire planet was going through turmoil, plagues, holy wars, crusades, and disease due to global famine, and one of the causes of this famine was our sun which was at a solar minimum for over 500 years, causing a Little Ice Age, crops failed on a global scale, climate change.  

Forty shoguns, from 1192 to 1867, ruled Japan, but most people outside Japan know only one shogun, the subject of James Clavell’s 1975 novel “The Shogun,” Tokugawa Ieyasu, the leader of Japan’s last and infamous bakufu family.  Tokugawa Ieyasu, the former warlord, was the first shogun of the Edo period appointed by the emperor Go-Yozei, who appointed Tokugawa Ieyasu the historic title of shogun (Japan’s commander in chief) to confirm his pre-eminence; Japan was then united under Tokugawa Ieyasu’s control.  This is the unembellished version of Tokugawa Ieyasu rising to power as the shogun, but there were several other daimyos (feudal lords in shogunal Japan) that played a key role in the unification of Japan leading to the Edo period, and there were three vanguards who brought peace to feudal Japan, and they were inextricably linked.  The three great unifiers of Japan are Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, and Tokugawa Ieyasu.  Tokugawa Ieyasu was a patient and strategic daimyo.  First, he watched his lord, Oda Nobunaga, who would have been appointed shogun if he had not been assassinated in 1582 in Kyoto by one of his mid-ranking generals, Akechi Mitsuhide, who had close ties to the imperial household. To this day, there are many theories but no hard facts as to why Mitsuhide assassinated his lord.  Oda Nobunaga’s death stoked fears that the country would once again slip into nationwide civil war, so Tokugawa Ieyasu and all of Oda Nobunaga’s generals mobilized to seek samurai justice, and the second in command, Shibata Katsuie, was in the hunt yet far behind Toyotomi Hideyoshi.  Tokugawa Ieyasu, all Oda Nobunaga’s generals, and family, some of who had also been hunting Akechi Mitsuhide, received letters and official reports that Toyotomi Hideyoshi, a mid-level general, had hunted down and terminated his command after 13 days of him being self-appointed shogun.  By ending Akechi Mitsuhide’s fortnight of rule, Toyotomi Hideyoshi elevated himself to the elite level of the Oda clan.  Rather than the rightful heirs, Shibata Katsuie or Oda Nobunaga’s sons, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, seized the reins of power.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s meteoric rise to Taiko of Japan was a rags to riches story.  He had been introduced into Oda Nobunaga’s life in his early adulthood while the young and flamboyant Oda Nobunaga was on an outing training with his samurai from his home province Owari, Gifu Prefecture. While returning to his castle, Toyotomi Hideyoshi approached him and his samurai. He pleaded to enter Oda Nobunaga’s service.  After a brief introduction and interview, Oda Nobunaga was so amused that he allowed the young Toyotomi Hideyoshi to accompany him to his castle and appointed him the position ‘sandal bearer.’  Part of Oda Nobunaga’s amusement was Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s obvious desperation to make something of himself as well as his looks.  Oda Nobunaga referred to Toyotomi as ‘Kozaru’ or little monkey, and he would do so for all their time together from that point.  

Even today, if you ask any Japanese person who has any historical knowledge, they are all aware of Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s physical appearance and his nickname.  After Toyotomi seized Japan, the emperor bestowed the title of Taiko, or prime minister not shogun because of his family lineage, and that led to an uneasy truce between the powerful Daimyo Tokugawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi. However, Tokugawa Ieyasu still respected Toyotomi Hideyoshi as his lord even though he would prove to be a far more patient man than his Taiko.  Tokugawa Ieyasu then watched his rival pass peacefully on September 15, 1598.  Toyotomi Hideyoshi chose his only son, a five-year-old, as heir to his rule.  Because the child was too young to rule independently, Toyotomi Hideyoshi arranged for five senior ministers to share the role of regent for his young son, but all the regents battled amongst each other for supremacy, and eventually, it led to the Battle of Sekigahara.  

The Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 is considered the next chronological milestone leading to several hundred of years of peace and prosperity, which photographers today in the modern age take for granted because they enjoy the spectacle bereft of the historical context.  However, for myself, on my first visit to Nikko, I spent my entire day from morning to twilight observing and photographing the Twilight Gate to understand why it had received the nickname.  That was over 20 years ago, and, as a historian and visual artist, I know that a photo with a complete description comes from knowing your subject in-depth, so I began my quest to understand the motivations from Nikko’s construction and to be able to share the entirety of Nikko’s grandeur with clients and friends who can still their minds, experience the beginner’s mindset, and enter a meditative state where everything beyond the viewfinder fades away to allow visual artists to capture the grandeur of the 103 buildings that constitute the Nikko UNESCO World Heritage Site and hear your inner voice which is synonymous with the illumination that the concierge of the Zen-Meditative forest offers, which opens paths, exposes truths, and provides photo opportunities that you had never realized were possible, but I have found that few are ready to visualize the insight of Zen-Buddhism. Back to the shogun and the Battle of Sekigahara.  It was the decisive battle of two warring factions; one backed Tokugawa Ieyasu, the other Hideyoshi’s lineage embodied in the continued rule of his son. The future of Japan was decided over six hours with the swords and effort of more than 150,000 samurai, with the numbers being nearly identical between the two warring factions.  Mostly everyone bowed to Tokugawa Ieyasu with one notable exception, Hideyoshi’s son. After returning to Osaka Castle, Toyotomi Hideyori made overtures that he would be compliant to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s rule. Still, Tokugawa Ieyasu saw echoes of the relationships that propelled him to his current seat of power. He knew that once he passed away that the fuse of conflict would be lit again, and his family would be in mortal danger, so he had to do away with Hideyoshi’s family line.  That lead to the siege of Osaka Castle, from 1614 – 1615.  From that point, he felt he left his mark and had officially succeeded in destroying the Toyotomi lineage, which he hadn’t done in Sekigahara. He knew that if Hideyori took control of Japan, the country would again fall into civil war. The emperor gave Tokugawa Ieyasu the title shogun in 1603, and the bakufu controlled over 300 regional daimyos who all maintained residences in Tokyo, in which they had to live with their families residing in their home prefectures.  Only the most trusted daimyo would be allowed to live in their personal fiefdom.  Under Tokugawa Ieyasu’s watchful eye, Japan entered the Edo Period and enjoyed peace and prosperity until 1868. Now you possess the same amount of knowledge and perhaps even a bit more than the average Japanese person because they don’t retain details from their high school classes, so if you ever meet or talk to a Japanese person, they will be blown away by your extent of knowledge. One of the most disliked subjects in Japanese schools is their history, and I have found that over 90% of tour guides at castles, shrines, cities, and other places around Japan are byproducts of that same dislike as they have a shallow depth of historical  knowledge.  As a historian, this always shocks me. They’re unable to fathom or comprehend the pure samurai heart and soul at the core of their history. Instead, they only read off prepared statements that lack any sense of the samurai spirit and Zen Buddhist Shinto Samuraism.  As a footnote, there were thousands of samurai who were Christians, but Tokugawa Ieyasu enforced an existing ban against Christianity, which remained in place until 1873.

Photographers have Shodo Shonin and Tokugawa Ieyasu to thank for Nikko, Japan’s Greatest Architectural achievement of splendor, for, without them, Nikko would resemble the 70% of Japan which in unpopulated, untamed refuges where wildlife is abundant. The shrines and temples of Nikko form a single complex composed of 103 religious buildings within two Shinto shrines, the Toshogu, the Futarasan-jinja, and one Buddhist temple, the Rinno-ji, all of which combined form one recognized UNESCO World Heritage Site.  If you visit Nikko on your own, you will need about a week to photograph just the highlights.  If you are seeking the true, adventurous, authentic, untold stories of the spirit of Japan and the shogun, you’re going to need at least six months of travel throughout Japan, not just Nikko but castles and other power points relatively unknown to anyone beyond the locals in that prefecture, and there are 47 prefectures across Japan.  I have found Zen-Buddhist Monks, Shinto priests, and artisans, such as painters and photographers know these spots due to their majestic beauty and the energy that resides in and around them. You have to be there to understand it, and the concierge of the Zen-forest is always my guide and could be yours as well.  Whether you were aware of it or not, everyone has visited a power spot.  It could have been a moment of clarity, dizziness, or a moment of spiritual healing from the medicine Buddha or even dejavu.  Clarity takes different forms for different souls. Some read about it, but reading it is not living it.  It’s like reading a camera review instead of personally testing the equipment and drawing your own conclusions.  Most camera articles are focused on promoting sales, and, in my opinion, they are often rife with exaggeration.  I test equipment for camera makers, but to write a complete review, I need to use the equipment in all four seasons, in all conditions to write a full review, but most reviews rely on a day or a week of use as the basis for their review. [WHAAAT?]

The uninitiated to Japan are under the impression that, if you’re coming to Japan for the authentic, untold stories of the spirit of Zen Buddhism, meditation, bushido, and the samurai elite, and to learn of the shogun, shrines, temples, and historical architecture and power spots, Kyoto is the best place for this experience. However, I’m here to tell you that Nikko should remain in your itinerary. Japan’s former capital, Kyoto, can be cut because it has been reduced to a tourist hot spot sadly similar to what has occurred in Iceland, despite the number of power spots located in Kyoto such as the most famous bamboo grove in Japan, Arashiyama, where culturally insensitive tourists such as Logan Paul are scrawling their initials into bamboo trunks. Geishas in Kyoto were being encroached upon so aggressively to the point where some tourists unlawfully entered the homes of geishas and maikos (an apprentice geisha) for a photo op thinking they were entering a business when it was the geisha or maiko’s residence.  A number of these individuals were subsequently arrested and deported.  A new law was then enacted with strict punishments for people who harassed geishas for any reason, specifically to take selfies and photos.  This is why I don’t do my group Kyoto photo workshop any longer, but I still do private, authentic Kyoto tours, and I arrange to stay in a temple as my colleagues from NatGeo and I did 20-40 years ago.  My Kyoto tours include one or two traditional Japanese garden parties, which include 2 – 3 geishas with an assistant maiko who aids each geisha in their performances and serving.  The festivities start as the sun goes down, and the ordinary tourists retreat to their hotels while we continue into the wee hours, and then a sunrise photo op and sleep for the remainder of the day.  

The typical cost for a night’s entertainment for my Kyoto private photography group, including geishas, reaches $10-15,000 or even higher depending on the client’s tastes and preferences.  Kyoto’s suburbs or Nara is more a daytime destination for a Kyoto photo tour.  

At certain times of the day, the crowds in Nikko are the same size or larger as the beaten path locations in Kyoto.  However, in Nikko as much as in Kyoto, you need an experienced professional Japanese cultural guide or a professional photography workshop leader that knows Nikko to help you make the most of your visit and not the garden variety pro guide.  When I am leading my private or group Nikko photography workshop tours, I know when to be on the beaten path and when to leave it. My clients and I will arrive at precisely the right times to enjoy Zen-Gardens, beautiful lakes, mountain hermitages, and spectacular waterfalls, specifically one of Japan’s largest and most spectacular waterfalls, Kegon no taki, with no visitors to interfere with your photographic experience. Timing is of the essence.  From spring to fall, my wake up calls for my clients are 45 minutes to an hour before sunrise, and everything has to be perfectly timed with no mistakes, but there can be a wrench thrown into the works, occasionally embodied in a tour bus, but I have a back-up for my back-up, and I lead my clients to an equally amazing location nearby. Nikko’s shrine complexes and structures are in a natural Zen setting. The buildings belong to two Shinto shrines, the Futara-san shrine and the Toshogu, and one Buddhist temple Rinno-ji.  To provide insight into Nikko’s treasure trove and photograph, it requires years of diligent study. It just so happens that I have spent over 20 years studying and exploring Nikko and its surrounding areas cataloging hundreds of hours documenting the sights of Nikko.  It’s not just the shrines and temples of Nikko that captivate me.  Tokugawa Ieyasu chose Nikko because it was close to his main fiefdom in Tokyo, and it’s a power point and is originally known as a place revered for mountain and nature worship or forest-bathing, Zen-Buddhism, and is the holiest and most revered location in all of Kanto plain. Tokugawa Ieyasu selected Nikko as his mausoleum because it was one of his favorite places to visit.  He spent years in Nikko, especially during the summer, to escape Tokyo’s stifling heat, which often eclipses 40 ℃ with oppressive humidity.  As a contrast, Nikko’s position in the highlands provides it with much cooler summer temperatures, and Nikko’s upper plateaus hold some of the most beautiful waterfalls, freshwater fishing, and breathtaking natural landscapes.  When two clients and now friends, Gary and Niki Kohn, laid eyes on the same sights that Tokugawa Ieyasu, all the shoguns of the Edo period, and pilgrims up to present-day also enjoyed, Gary’s comments on Nikko’s beauty from his published article on the site ‘Woman Around Town,’ a New York Press Club award-winning online magazine were that all his photographs possessed an “ethereal, mystical quality that evoked Japan’s ancient days.”  Nikko retains the majesty of its historical origins and reveals itself to those who do their research and entrust a proper professional guide or photo workshop leader such as myself to show them around.  I guarantee my clients who often become lifelong friends; they will experience the authentic Japan that 95% of tourists, including Japanese residents, never see.

The photo opportunities across Nikko are overwhelming, and if I had to explain Nikko visually, historically, and culturally, the information would fill several volumes of texts. And the moment you arrive in Nikko, you will most likely be pointing your camera everywhere, unable to filter the sensory overload from the Nikko UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrine Complex, and this is not including the lower and upper plateaus. However, on a Nikko Photo Tour, my clients and friends also explore the upper and lower plateaus and enjoy the same waterfalls, Zen-Meditation, and Hanami that shoguns, emperors, and pilgrims did before them. Tourists who visit Nikko don’t know anything beyond the middle plateau and a brief introduction to upper plateau sights such as Kegon no Taki and Chuzenji-ko among others because they are listed in all the tourist guide books, what I call a tourist manual to keep you on the beaten path and deaf to the call of the Zen-Forest Concierge.  Simply walking through Nikko taking snapshots in an attempt to take in the entirety of Nikko, you could easily fill a few 128gb memory cards in a day.  

My introduction to Nikko starts before the rooster crows. My clients and I are in the vehicle while there is just a sliver of light, and 15 minutes later, we are walking through a bamboo grove. Suddenly it opens into a Zen-Forest under the auspices of the same Concierge of the Zen-Forest who guides visitors to Mt. Fuji and other power points across Japan. My clients are filled with wonder as we explore in and around the bamboo forest; it’s so secluded and sacred that tourist scrawling or etchings into the trunks are unthinkable.  Everyone pays their respect to the seven lucky gods who are carved into a rock face across from a freshwater stream, opposing a temple and moss-covered Zen-Garden.  The Buddhist temple itself is a brilliant red that distinguishes it from its natural surroundings. Pre-dawn or dusk is the best time of day to capture the rich, vibrant, natural colors of the Zen-Garden and its natural forested settings, and the brilliant, red shrine buildings with moss-covered stone fences around the resting place of the most sacred of Zen-Buddhist Monks.I believe one to be the spirit of the concierge of the zen-forest.  After a 30 minute visit there, we’re off to capture the golden hour at the historical entranceway to Nikko, the Shinkyo sacred bridge, just as the day’s first light illuminates the ancient pathway.  Following that, we all return to the hotel with enough time for breakfast and hot springs, and 10 minutes before Rinno-ji is opening, we enter.  A sound piece of advice that you should remember for your visit to Nikko is to be at Rinno-ji well before opening time, and I’ll also share a little bit of a mystery about the torii gates. The question of whether the introduction of torii gates that are traditionally wooden and stand from a meter to 40 meters tall, arrived in Japan along with Buddhism or with the Kofun Mounds and the Sumerian culture remains unanswered.  Torii are usually placed at the entrance of Shinto shrines, but there are examples in Japan where these gateways are present at Buddhist temples, which is the case of Rinno-ji in Nikko. The torii are commonly colored in tangerine oranges and fire reds, contrasting with the sacred green trees, and Rinno-ji’s breathtaking garden needs to be photographed without tourist interruption.  A geisha muse can be arranged if you so desire.  You may only have from 10 to 30 minutes, so you must make the most of the time spent there.  From 8 am – 1 pm, all my movements are calculated by the ebb and flow of the tourists, which includes school trips, among other types of visitors.  Everyone is carrying a camera, and tripods are allowed most of the time, but during periods of heavy tourist traffic, they have been banned.  It’s rare, but it does happen.

Here are a few locations where you should take your time when tourists are milling about and check angles, walk around the buildings and structures to truly capture the majesty of these Nikko UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrine Complex buildings. Toshogu, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Rinno-ji, “Higurashi-no-mon” (Twilight Gate), and “Yomeimon,” the (Sunlight Gate) are some of the more appealing locations for individuals in search of hidden treasures leading to gallery-quality photos.  Rather than a theme park focused on childish diversions, Nikko offers you a lavish splendor that borders on needlessly extravagant, but everywhere you turn, there are eye and camera candy all sourced from historic Japanese architectural splendor.  I’ve already discussed Rinno-ji and the Twilight Gate at length, but I want to share a little more information about Nikko.  Nikko’s Toshogu buildings are lacquered and decorated with vibrant colors, and the pillars and other structures are covered in a multitude of carvings. The carvings are not simply design elements; they are expressions of spirituality (Reiju Holy Spiritual animals) as well as scholarly and philosophical mystical beings. The Yomeimon is called the (Sunlight Gate, because it faces south) and is named one of the twelve gates of the Imperial court. Built in 1636 and maintained throughout the years, it stands in a condition equal to that at the time of its original construction.  Also in Nikko, are over a hundred beautiful structures, they are architectural and decorative masterpieces set in a serene natural old-growth forest. A Nikko photo tour is fun, educational, and a mesmerizing spiritually humbling journey through time. Shinto and Buddhist practices are active throughout Nikko dating back to the 8th century.

If you’re searching for aesthetically pleasing simplicity, join me in Japan, and you will understand how Japanese dogma has made “Zen,” a household word known around the world.

Blain Harasymiw (Hair-some-you) is a pro photographer historian, Buddhist, who is educating Matthew Diaz because his knowledge base for Japanese samurai history was essentially zero before starting the article.  This made this collaboration particularly challenging but, at the same time, edifying.  Blain and Matthew hope to see you in Japan in 2021 or 2022.

Blain Harasymiw

July 2020

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