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Ieyasu Tokugawa, His Thoughts on Peace and the Sculptures of Kunozan Toshogu

Ieyasu Tokugawa, His Thoughts on Peace and the Sculptures of Kunozan Toshogu

Kunozan Toshogu in Shizuoka City was built according to the last will and testament of Ieyasu Tokugawa, the shogun who opened the Edo period.

The majestic shrine, which was constructed around the same time as the Nikko Toshogu, was beautifully carved by master craftsmen of the time.

Kunozan Toshogu, which could easily be called a museum of craftsmanship, makes me wonder if they didn’t just gather every person in Japan with skilled hands to construct it. Everything is so detailed!

Mr. Naofumi Totsuka, a curator of the Kunozan Toshogu Museum, kindly explained the meaning of the sculptures and designs to us. They are not only a beauty to behold, but also contain Ieyasu’s wishes and philosophies.

Kunozan, the first Toshogu in Japan, was built in Shizuoka City 19 years before the one in Nikko. The gorgeous shrine is designated as a national treasure and features delicate, beautiful sculptures and tightly-packed drawings on jet-black lacquer.
I wonder how many craftsmen must have worked on it.…… Just thinking about it is overwhelming.

As well as admiring its beauty, understanding the thoughts and feelings that have been poured into the sculptures and patterns is an important part of worshipping Kunozan Toshogu. Mr. Totsuka explained the thoughts and hopes of Ieyasu Tokugawa which fill every corner of the shrine.

■Romon (Two-Story) Gate

Romon (Two-Story) Gate of Kunozan Toshogu
The vermillion gate, designated as an important cultural property (Romon). Built in 1617, 3rd year of Genwa Era.

Mr. Totsuka:Many people ask if the long-nosed animal in the middle is an elephant, but it’s actually a Baku.

The baku is an imaginary animal, which is said to feed on dreams.

Baku have been described as dream-eating animals, but in Chinese belief systems they are the children of dragons, and are worshipped as spirit beasts.

−−Why is eating iron and copper a symbol of peace?

Mr. Totsuka:In times of war, copper and iron are used in guns and swords, so baku run out of food. It means that when those metals are not used for war, the world is at peace and the baku can eat. For Ieyasu, choosing a baku over strong looking animals such as dragons and lions was ideal. Also, there are actually 4 baku depicted on the Romon. Only one of them is a different color from the others, so try and find it.

■ Worship Hall

“Shiba Onko Breaking a jar”


Mr. Totsuka:
The sculpture most seen by worshippers, the “Sima Wengong (Japanese: Shiba Onko) breaking a jar ” is placed in a visible location in the worship hall. An old story says: ‘Once upon a time, a child playing hide-and-seek fell into a large jar for water. That water jar was extremely important, and while many other children were unsure whether it was okay to break it or not, Shiba Onko broke the jar without hesitation and saved his friend’. It teaches the importance, or value of life.

−−Alongside the baku, there are many other symbols of the wish for peace.

Mr. Totsuka: On the sides of the picture “Shiba Onko breaking a jar”, we find Laozi, Mencius, Confucius and a representation of the saying ‘A horse from a gourd.’ This saying expresses the idea that something is shocking or unexpected.

I think that Ieyasu Tokugawa wanted to communicate these 3 ideas: to place importance on life, to study life, and, in life, to expect the unexpected.

While you can see a large number of these teachings from the outside, the inside of the worship hall, which in the Edo period could only be accessed by the most elite such as aristocrats and top-level samurai, features elegant decorations of celestial maidens and flowers. Even now, it’s not open to the public, but can be accessed for prayer or wedding occasions.


Even now, it’s not open to the public, but can be accessed for prayer or wedding occasions.

■ Tile Crest of the Shrine

Mr. Totsuka:There’s actually something quite rare on the outside as well. As you can see, the tiles are decorated with the coat of arms of the Tokugawa clan, but there is in fact one spot facing a different direction. Can you see it?

−−I have no idea.

Mr. Totsuka:Look, over there. In the 2nd layer from the top, there are some smaller tile crests in a line. Within the crests depicted on the right hand side, there’s a single one facing a different direction.

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−−I have no idea!

−−The craftsmen of the Edo period were so detailed in their work, even with their mistakes…I’m sorry, but, if you hadn’t told me where it was, I never would have realized.

Mr. Totsuka:I think that this wasn’t a mistake, but rather a measure taken to purposefully make the shrine incomplete. If something is finished, all that is left for it is to collapse. I’m sure it’s a kind of good luck charm.

−−Wow, the craftsmen of Edo were so stylish!  To so cunningly sneak in the famous saying “Always be incomplete”!

While I’m sure that each design in Kunozan Toshogu, so full of carvings, has its own meaning, just thinking about it makes me want to look up to the heavens. Why not pay a visit to this wonderful place, and explore these designs for yourself?

How to get to Kunozan Toshogu

See also
Trip Ideas for Kunouzan Toshogu Shrine Visits and Strawberry Picking

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