In a book about Japan I saw a magnificent image of a forest. The kind of forest that legends are told about, where the light diffuses through tall pillars and in equal measure reveals and conceals its mysteries. This happened to be the forest of 13,000 cedars surrounding the infamous Tōshō-gū temple. In 1616, the dying Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu made his final wish known: "build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan." And so it was... for the most part.
We arrived in Nikko on one of the most celebrated days of the year, during the Tōshō-gū Grand Spring Festival. Our guesthouse host Kumiko was in a frenzy: “Let’s go, the festival starts!” And so she drove us through the town and up the hill to the temple, giving us a lightning speed tour, hollering “The festival, that way!” to passers by, then dropping us off in the thick of things.
Save for the camera-crazed crowds, the scene was like stepping back in time. As we craned our necks to see, samurai archers on horseback raced up the hill exploding wooden targets with their arrows. In fact, throughout the forest, every elaborately gilded shrine and gateway concealed yet another wonder: masked drummers, Shinto priests, armoured samurai, each participating in some time-honoured ritual mysterious to us.
After a day of all that, we returned to our guesthouse to share a delicious communal meal with Kumiko and the other guests and participated in a series of classic Japanese shenanigans. (Juggling lessons, bunny ears and more.)
The festival culminated the next day in a procession, 1000 men strong, which transforms the town’s bakers, bureaucrats and even inn-keepers into costumed samurai. Our host Sato stopped for a photo op with us (look for the red vest and mask, and next to him smiling Kumiko) while other townsfolk greeted their ‘heroes’ with boxes and boxes of bento lunch.