The polychromatic beauty of gilded bugs and beasts

A menagerie of colorful, playful creatures is the first thing that catches the eye at the Ueno Toshogu, a venerable shrine in Tokyo dedicated to the Edo-period shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu.

By Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Ueno Toshogu shrineUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Riches beyond gold

Originally erected in 1627, the Toshogu shrine honors the memory of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate that marked the start of the Edo period. The current shrine was rebuilt in 1651 in the gongen-zukuri style, similar to the Nikko Toshogu, in which the Worship Hall (haiden), Offertory Hall (heiden), and Main Hall (honden) are all connected under the same roof by an intermediate hallway. The black-lacquered façade has been blanketed in a generous helping of gold leaf, earning the nickname, “The Golden Shrine.” Proceeding under the Karamon Gate, past the winding Sukibei Wall, and arriving at the Main Hall – all nationally-designated Important Cultural Properties – the shrine dazzles not only for its opulent gold, but also for the collection of vibrant, polychromatic creatures that cavort on the shrine grounds.

Shrine structureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The lavish Main Shrine is coated in wall-to-wall gold leaf.

Mantis sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Rare praying mantis

The shrine is encircled by a latticed wall called a sukibei which delineates the inner precinct, separating the sacrosanct and secular worlds. Colorful carvings of plants and animals adorn 257 openwork panels, including a very rare representation of a praying mantis perched on the upper part of the wall. The creatures are a fine example of the “ikeshikisai” technique. After gold leaf is applied, the carvings are painted with gradient layers of mineral pigments, leaving slivers of gold peeking out to achieve a uniquely 3D effect. Moreover, this incredibly extravagant concealment of real gold was not saved exclusively for the loftier dragons and phoenix figures, but applied to each and every carving.

Boar sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Wild boars frolic.

Mouse sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A jocular rat.

Sukibei wallUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Flora and fauna come to life in stark relief on the Sukibei Wall.

Mouse sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Restored with the help of Ueno Zoo

An ambitious restoration project was undertaken on the wall from 2009 to 2013. When the team removed the later red iron oxide topcoat in order to check what lay hidden underneath, they discovered that the original color had been stripped by restorers of generations past. Before returning the wall to its former glory, the team first had to identify the precise species of each creature in order to meticulously plan an accurate color scheme. Birds reportedly posed the greatest challenge. The team enlisted the help of the neighboring Ueno Zoo, which provided access to its aviary. Admiring the freshly painted plumage of the birds that roost along the wall, one can almost hear the faint refrain of birdsong.

Mouse sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Warbling white-eyes peer with their namesake pale round peepers.

Kestrel sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Gallant kestrels, members of the falcon genus.

Java sparrow sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Java sparrows were first imported into Japan in the early Edo period.

Catfish sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Scallops and catfish... only in Ueno

Another unique aspect of the Ueno Toshogu’s latticed wall is the aquatic motif found on the lower panel, which predominately depicts fish, shells, and other sea and lake life. One theory posits that the designs were devised as a crowd-pleasing nod to the people of Ueno, who would have been more familiar with the sea than their counterparts in Nikko. In any case, the true motivation has long since been forgotten. It’s said that Kano Tenyu, a foremost painter of the Kano school, oversaw the ornamentation work at Ueno Toshogu. But it’s interesting to see how his vision was interpreted differently by each carver, resulting in alternately realistic or more graphical depictions of the turtles.

Shell sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Shellfish, seabirds, and other seaside motifs adorn the lower panel of the Sukibei Wall.

Tiger mother and child sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

The curious case of the tigress and her cub

Immediately to the right of the visitors’ entrance is a mysterious stone panel depicting a mother tiger and her cub. The carving has no official name and is apt to be overlooked. Truth be told, no one has the slightest clue who made this panel, when, or why. Upon closer inspection, we can see an adorable scene, a cub drinking its mother’s milk. Perhaps the panel is an homage to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who was born in the year of the tiger, and noted for his devotion to family.

Karamon gateUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Karamon Gate, kaleidoscope of creatures and craftsmanship

The Karamon Gate is a highlight of any visit to the Ueno Toshogu. Featuring undulating gables on all four sides, the ornate gate resembles something one might instead expect to find in China. But it turns out this architectural style evidently originated in Japan. The gate features arabesque and tortoiseshell motifs finished with layers of whitewash, a pigment made from shells, creating a contoured texture that was coated in gold leaf and further painted. When viewed from above, the designs appear to jump out and shimmer.

Ascending dragon and Descending dragonUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Dragons rise and fall

The Karamon Gate’s posts are flanked by dragons said to have been carved by the acclaimed Edo period artisan Jingoro Hidari from Harima province. Legend has it that the dragons come to life at night and drink water from the nearby Shinobazu Pond. Echoing the Japanese saying, “The nobler the man, the lower his head bows,” the dragon carving on the right has its head pointed down, jaws locked on a jewel in a representation known as a nobori-ryu, an “ascendant dragon.” The dragon with its head pointed upward is still chasing after enlightenment, which is represented by the orb-like jewel in Buddhist traditions.

Golden pheasant bird and Lady Amherst's pheasant sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Pheasants strut old world craftsmanship

Two pheasants have taken nest beneath the ornate roof, the Lady Amherst’s pheasant and the golden pheasant, both native to the high mountains of southwest China. According to the Calssic of Mountains and Seas, an ancient Chinese compendium of mythic geography and beasts, the feathers of the golden pheasant were used in ancient times as a talisman to ward off fire. The incredibly detailed carving has been lauded as the pinnacle of Momoyama period decorative craftsmanship.

Sculpture of a drum bird, a roosterUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

An ancient lesson from Chinese mythology

The inside of the gate features a traditional pine, bamboo, and plum design, along with a rooster perched on a taiko drum. As Chinese legend has it, the emperor placed a drum in front of the palace’s gates as a gauge of public opinion. When the townspeople were dissatisfied with the emperor’s governance, they would angrily bang the drum. When his reign was just, the drum would fall silent. As a result, the rooster who nested on a silent drum came to represent peace and a wish for harmony in the land.

Sculpture of a drum bird, hen and chickUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Intricate latticework pairing the symbolic white plum and rooster on a taiko drum with red plum, hen, and chick.

Under the roof of the shrine where noble flora and fauna are carvedUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Guardians of 110,000 sheets of gold

Even more carvings can be found underneath the Main Hall’s eaves. At the time of the renovation, approximately 110,000 sheets of 15-square-centimer Kaga gold leaf were used. Shishi watchdog carvings are installed at all four corners of the structure to ward off evil, alongside phoenixes, hibiscus, bellflower, peonies, and other more high-brow subjects than were found on the pedestrian Sukibei Wall. 

The guardian lion sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Shishi, guardian lion dogs, watch over each corner of the Main Shrine.

Inside the shrine 1Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Lions by a master lie wait behind hidden doors

In contrast to the colorful shrine exterior, to step into the Main Hall is to be transported into a separate, rarefied world of ink-black lacquer and gold leaf. The paintings of lions are particularly precious, as they were created by Kano Tanyu himself. These masterpieces were almost touched up during the restoration, but the plan was shelved over fear that the vigor of the artist’s brushstrokes would be lost as a result of the intervention. Instead, the team settled on replacing the gold leaf and lacquer in the hall sans color to create a more subtle atmosphere that complements the patina of the aged paintings.

Inside the shrine 2Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture

Each passageway has three doors, one each for Tokugawa Ieyasu, Todo Takatora, and Tenkai, who are enshrined in the temple.

Phoenix sculptureUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A regal phoenix glistens in the shadows.

The door of the shrineUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Carved doors featuring wheels of dharma suggest a syncretic blending of Shinto and Buddhist influences typical of the time.

Karashishi drawn by Kano TanyuUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

Masterful lions sprung from the brush of Kano Tanyu. 

Eiyo Gongen's raccoon dogUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A deity with a mischievous past

Near the Main Hall is another small shrine named the Eiyo Gongen Sha, inside of which sits the wooden figure of a tanuki raccoon dog, wrapped in a surplice, its little nose pointed up toward the sky. Legend has it that the carving was not originally an object of devotion, but was only later relocated to the shrine in the Taisho era, after causing a series of misfortunes wherever it was placed in the homes of powerful feudal lords and their harems. In the modern era, it has become a symbol of good fortune, especially for students hoping to ace their entrance exams.

The giant camphor treeUeno, a Global Capital of Culture

A sacred tree and a lucky tanuki family

A 25-meter-tall camphor tree has long watched over the Toshogu. At an estimated 600 years old, the ancient tree is the oldest and largest in all of Ueno Park. Worshipped as a shinboku, the sacred tree is also the home of a wild tanuki family, which lives among the tree’s roots and roams the grounds at night, according to the shrine’s priest. Perhaps they are the physical incarnation of the tanuki deity enshrined at the Eiyo Gongen Sha...? Inspired by the milieu of fantastic creatures, one can’t help but get lost in reverie at the Ueno Toshogu.

Credits: Story

Courtesy of Implementation Committee for New Concept "Ueno, a Global Capital of Culture” (Ueno Cultural Park)

Photos: Koichiro Matsui (excluding photos marked with an asterisk) 
Text: Miho Sauser

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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