Don’t miss Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine World Heritage site

Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine World Heritage Site is a fantastic experience on many levels. If you think you’ve already seen a temple or two, rest assured not much else in all Japan compares to the variety here.

Toshogu Shrine view to Yomeimon Gate
Onwards and upwards Toshogu Shrine keeps revealing more © Owain Price

Toshogu Shrine just keeps unveiling wow-factor surprises that get better the further you go into the magnificent complex of 55 buildings set in beautiful old sugi (Japanese cedar) forest winding up the slopes of a hill behind Nikko town. Paths and stairways follow the natural contours of the hill to lead you ever onwards and upwards, a design to increase the solemnity and depth of the feelings experienced by pilgrims 400 years ago that continues to inspire visitors today.

Most of these buildings are now either designated as Japanese National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

On the top, after a final climb of 207 stone stairs each made from a single large stone cut to shape, is the final resting place of the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. For those who came in late, Ieyasu was the Samurai lord hero who finally united the warring country at the start of the 16th Century. In death he was honored as a Shinto deity, Tosho Daigongen.

Shinkyo (Sacred Bridge) gateway to Nikko's Toshogu Shrine World Heritage complex
The Sacred Bridge (Shinkyo) has been the gateway to Nikko’s shrines since 1636 © Owain Price

Coming up from town, the first key site is the Shinkyo (Sacred Bridge) over the swift crystal clear waters of the Daiya River, which has stood here since 1636. Stop for a look.

Sanbutsudo Hall, Nikkosan Rinno-ji Temple, Nikko Toshogu Shrine World Heritage complex
Sanbutsudo Hall is the largest wooden structure in the whole site © Carmen Price

Nikkosan Rinno-ji Temple

The road winds on up to Nikkosan Rinno-ji Temple, which dates back over 1,200 years to the first temple on the site. The site was first developed in the 8th century, growing from humble beginnings to become one of the most important religious sites in the country. It was a classic example of the uniquely Japanese fusion of the Shinto and Buddhist traditions called shinbutsu shugo. So inside the main Sanbutsudo Hall, the biggest wooden structure in Nikko, are enshrined the Buddhist manifestations of Nikko’s three sacred Shinto mountain gods (kami) for Mt Nantai, Mt Nyoho and Mt Taro including Senju-Kannon (Kannon with a thousand arms) and Bato-Kannon (Kannon with a horse head) with big statues.

The Main Hall’s repairs are scheduled to be finished in 2021, but there is a viewing platform in the meantime.

The stonework, woodwork, metalwork and setting are impressive. Behind the temple is a large solid bronze Sorinto (Buddhist stupa) dating from the early 17th century, and beside it a classic wooden gong tower.

Nikko Toshogu Shrine

Rinnoji is impressive. Then you stroll on, up an avenue lined with majestic old trees, to the Ishidorii (Stone Torii Gate). Dating back to 1618, when it was dedicated by the feudal lord of Kyushu Chikuzen (present day Fukuoka Prefecture), Kuroda Nagamasa, the 9m high gate features 1.2m diameter uprights. The massive stones for the gate were transported by ship all the way from Kyushu to Koyama, then manually hauled overland to Nikko.

The whole project is calculated from historical recorts to have cost the equivalent ¥40 billion in today’s values, and was largely completed within 17 months from 1636. An army of carpenters, stonemasons, other craftsman and labourers were employed.

Past the gate is when a succession of wow-factor structures and features start to appear. On your left, the Gojunoto Pagoda classic 5 storey pagoda. The construction features a centre pillar that is hung from the 4th floor, so it’s not load bearing and allows it to absorb earthquakes. Unfortunately it didn’t make the pagoda fire proof: originally dedicated in 1648 by Sakai Tadakatsu, the feudal lord of Obama in Wakasa Province (Fukui Prefecture today), it was destroyed by fire in 1815, but rebuilt in 1818 by a descendent of Tadakatsu.

The 5 storey pagoda at Nikko Toshogu Shrine
The 5 Storey Pagoda © Carmen Price

Continuing on you pass the Omotemon (Front Gate) and the Sanjinko (Three Sacred Storehouses), and another impressive Torii.

The further you go the more impressive it gets © Owain Price

The Yomeimon Gate was our favourite gate in the whole Nikko Toshogu Shrine complex, and it’s hands down one of the most beautiful temple/shrine gates in Japan. The detail and beauty on show is an incredible expression of the skills of the craftsman in the early Edo period. It’s nickname “Higurashi-no-mon” means you will never tire of looking at it all day, but with constant streams of visitors you won’t get to test that anymore.

The Yomeimon gate guardians are pretty impressive too. Swear to God, this guy blinked at me when I got close to take the picture below. I flinched like he was going to reach for the bow .. pretty handy guardian still scaring intruders after nearly 400 years on the job!

Toreimon Gatekeeper, Nokko Toshogu Shrine

Swear to God, he blinked at me when I took this shot © Owain Price
Yomeimon Gate Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Yomeimon Gate © Carmen Price

Through the Yomeimon Gate you encounter another series of wow-factor fascinations, some in the detail of the stories told in the carvings. Like the “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkey frieze on the Shinkyusha (Sacred Stable).

You can purify body and mind from the spring water at the Mizuya (water purification building. Rinse hands and mouth here ladling from the solid granite basin, from and dedicated by the feudal lord of Kyushu-Saga, Nabeshima Katsushige. Traditionally and today this is done before worshipping the deity in any shrine.

Omizuya Water Purification stone at Nikko's Toshogu Shrine
Cleanse body and mind at the Omizuya © Carmen Price

Past the Yomeimon Gate you come to the most sumptous gate of all, the Karamon (Chinese) Gate that was off limits to all but the Shogun’s retainers and feudal lords deemed worthy of an audience with the Shogun within. Now fully restored, it’s colours and gold leaf are stunning today, and must have inspired awe in visitors.

Karamon (Chinese) Gate at Nikko Toshogu Shrine
The Karamon or Chinese Gate is the most sumptous of all © Owain Price

Certainly the early European traders were impressed by the Shogun’s power, and keen to cultivate his favour. As the whole complex is full of dedications from other Japanese feudal lords, it’s also home to some expensive foreign dedications like the Dutch Candelabra, a fantastic structure also known as the Revolving Lantern, whose massive lantern would spin when lit, driven by the hot air created within it. It was dedicated back in 1636, a present from the Dutch government.

Dutch Candelabra at Nikko's Toshogu Shrine

Toshogu’s lanterns are a feature – there are 121 of them at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, of which 101 are stone, 17 copper, and two fabulously expensive imported European iron. The lanterns beneath the Yomeimon Gate were dedicated by Ieyasu’s supporters at the decisive battle of Sekigahara in 1601, while those in the outer court came from the losing lords.

The Inner Shrine and final resting place of the first Shogun

Heading on and up it’s hard not to appreciate the Shinto spirits, ascending from the more luxurious settings lower down to the more ascetic inner shrine and final resting place.

Torii gate to the Inner Shrine at Nikko's Toshogu Shrine
The final Torii gate to the Inner Shrine © Carmen Price

The Inumikon Gate behind the Worship Hall guards the grave, built in 1650 and cast as single piece of bronze.

Inside lies the Inner Shrine Pagoda, cast in an expensive alloy of gold, silver and copper in 1683, replacing the earlier succesive wooden and stone versions. Visitors can’t pass the Inumikon Gate or enter the shrine, but you can stroll around it after summiting the last steps and passing under the Torii Gate to the inner shrine, also cast from bronze.

The 207 steps are pretty steep, and long enough to deter many visitors, so with luck you may get some quiet moments to reflect on the whole Nikko Toshogu Shrine experience. Which is presumably what the builder, and it’s deified resident, would have wished.

From the shrine Ieyasu looks out in direct line due south through the Tori Gate to the road to is capital at Edo (Tokyo). This was planted with bordering trees for many miles to creat an avenue that is still in use today.

Last resting place of the first Shogun at Nikko's Toshogu Shrine
Final resting of the first Shogun since 1617 © Owain Price

Access to Nikko

Nikko has 2 separate rail lines with their own stations – JR or the Tobu Line work equally well and there’s not much difference timewise from Tokyo.

Tobu run the Limited Express Spacia service from Asakusa in Tokyo to Nikko in 2 hours. You can take the Asakusa line to/from Haneda Airport to connect to it (changing from the suburban station to the Asakusa Tobu terminus). The main Tobu Line (Nikko is a branch off it) continues on to Aizu Ashinomaki onsen so works well for more onsen and Samurai heritage there.

You can get a 4 day Nikko Pass which includes all local trains and bus lines, and one non-express return trip from Tokyo, plus discount entry to Edo Wonderland, for ¥4,320 for adults, ¥1,060 children. There is plenty of accommodation in Nikko town too, so you could just stay here and do a culture day, a ski day, and an Edo Wonderland day for example. More details/book on Tobu site

With JR you can take shinkansen to Utsunomiya then the Nikko line.

Self driving is easy, it’s only 160km, 2 hours or more depending on traffic. The World Heritage site gets busy.

The World Heritage site is easily accessed from town by the World Heritage Bus, or taxi, or about a 45 minute walk – it’s all uphill though, so easier to walk back down after.

More info on the Nikko tourism site here

When you’re in Nikko get more of a flavour for life in the Edo era by visiting nearby Edo Wonderland theme park village – a great experience for all ages.

Ride the World Heritage Bus from the stations to the site © Carmen Price

Nikko accommodation options

There is a great selection to suit any budget in and around Nikko. Staying in town is simplest, or up in the beautiful Lake Chuzenji upland area with magnificent waterfalls and wilderness to enjoy there.

For Nikko accommodation deals from booking.com just enter your target dates:

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Nikko is quite compact, staying around the stations area is central to everything