Few other things show your devotion to Ieyasu Tokugawa like getting up at the buttcrack of dawn on your day off and committing yourself to a few hours of hard, manual labor. And that was exactly what we did today.
Yes, it was the Toshogu cleanup day today.
Every year during Golden Week (a whole bunch of public holidays one after another at the end of April - beginning of May), the good people of Nikko are commanded to sacrifice one member of the household for community service at the Shrines and Temples of Nikko World Heritage complex.
The job consists of cleaning the stone area surrounding the shrines and temples, which is actually a lot more involved than it seems to the uninitiated. Every stone needs to be lifted, turned over to dry, the dirt and debris under the stone has to be picked up and then the stone is replaced, preferably upside down to make sure that it dries and that no funny, green stuff starts growing on its surface.
Sounds like fun, doesn't it? And if you've ever been to the shrines in Nikko, you know there is a whole lot of stones there. And every single one of them needs to be flipped over.
The whole process is very organized. The area is divided into sections, the sections are numbered and each section is assigned to a different city district. And then each district decides how many "volunteers" will be asked to attend the "stoning".
And if there are still not enough people, various organizations get their members involved.
The call came in late last night. One district was short a few pairs of hands and would we please, could we please, be so kind and, of course, no obligation to say "yes", and it's entirely voluntary, and it would only be a couple of hours, at the most, and we give you free lunch afterwards, so please be at Toshogu at 7:30AM, thank you so much and see you tomorrow.
At 7:30AM Route 119 (Nikko kaido) was already backed up as far as you could see. And the parking lots by the shrines were full.
We were led to a secluded area at the back of Toshogu, shown to our section, given baskets and got to work. Important districts (like the ones where a former local politician lives, for example) are assigned smaller sections and in more private areas - away from gawking tourists. And we happened to be helping such a district. Hey, it pays to be friends with a former local politician.
(The districts alternate every year between Toshogu and Taiyuin. Last year "our" district" worked at Taiyuin, so this May it was Toshogu's turn.)
By 10AM we had bruised knees and sore backs, but the work was done. Actually, we did such a good cleaning job we already were asked to participate again next year at Taiyuin. For our efforts, in addition to free lunch, we also got gas money and the freedom to roam around Toshogu without any pesky tickets and entrance fees.
Here is an article published in the local paper (in Japanese) about today's cleanup.
Summary in English:
3000 volunteers cleaned debris between the stones called "Kuriishi kaeshi (栗石返し)" in Nikko's Toshogu and Taiyuin. 370 years of this tradition takes place before the spring festival (May 17 and 18). Approx. 4.68 million of stones called Kuriishi were transferred from Togawa (砥川), one of the tributaries of the Kinugawa river. Kuriishi was chosen due to its characteristics of lower degree of water content within the stone and therefore its ease of drying. "That is why spreading stones in Toshogu and Taiyuin protects prestigious historical buildings from humidity," one official says.
The amount of debris cleaned today requires 5 trucks capable of carrying 2 tons (2000 kg) of weight.
And this is what it looked like live (a short video):