Nikko (日光) is a small mountain town located in the northeast of Tokyo. It’s only a two-hour train ride away from the Japanese capital and for that reason, it is a very popular destination for day-trippers. In fact, Nikko is one of the easiest and most interesting day trips from Tokyo.
The town is mostly famous for its shrines and historic sites. The must-see sites include Toshogu Shrine, Nikko-zan Rinnoji Temple and Nikko Futarasan-jinja, which all have UNESCO World Cultural Heritage status. Nikko has some breathtaking natural sights to offer as well. I visited Nikko on a one-day trip from Tokyo, so I had to choose between visiting its world-famous Shrines and Temples or seeing its mountainous landscapes, lakes, and waterfalls. I chose to visit the shrines and I didn’t regret it.
In this article, I’ll be sharing my exact itinerary and the main tourist sights I visited during my one-day visit to Nikko.
If you only have to choose one place to see in Nikko, it should be the world-famous Toshogu Shrine (東照宮).
This is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo Period, and it is widely regarded as the most lavishly decorated shrine in all of Japan. Tokugawa was a strong and celebrated ruler. The Tokugawa Shogunate he founded ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868 (Meiji period). His shrine was initially constructed as a simple mausoleum but in the first half of 1600s Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu enlarged the complex to honor his grandfather.
Toshogu Shrine is one of the very few temples in modern Japan that contains both Shinto and Buddhist elements. Until the Meiji Period, when the Shinto religion started to separate from Buddhism, it was not uncommon for places of worship to contain elements of both religions. But during the Meiji period starting in 1868, State Shinto was implemented and the use of Shinto practices and elements started to disappear from most Buddhist temples. In their place, Japan started to see the so-called “State Shinto” shrines and practices, deliberately intended to reflect the national ideology and inspire national integration. Fortunately, the Toshogu shrine was not heavily impacted by the State Shinto ideology and the separation of the two religions was not carried out completely here.
What to See in Toshogu Shrine?
The Toshogu Shrine complex we can visit today consists of more than a dozen buildings, lavishly decorated in Shinto and Buddhist styles. The wood carvings are breathtaking and stay, until this day, the most exquisite and detailed carvings I’ve seen on Asian temples.
But among all structures, there are a few that deserve special attention. These are :
- the Yomeimon Gate,
- the Five-story pagoda,
- the decorated storehouses,
- the Honjido Hall,
- the Main shrine building (along with its haiden and honden),
- the Sakashitamon Gate,
- the Tomb of Ieyasu.
In this article, I’ll only mention the buildings that impressed me the most in this shrine, but if you want to know more about the Toshogu shrine and see more photos, have a look at my article “How to visit Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine?”.
The Five-story pagoda
The entrance of the shrine’s complex is marked by a big stone gate, called the Granite Torii. Once you pass through the gate, you will see on your left one of the notable buildings in the complex: the Five-story pagoda. But the pagoda that stands here today is not the original building from 1650. The original five-story pagoda was burnt in a fire and then rebuilt in 1818. The “new” pagoda that tourists can see today is made in a traditional Chinese Buddhism style and each tier of the pagoda represents an element in Buddhism – earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven.
The sacred horse stable (Shinkyūsha)
In this first inner court, don’t miss to see and take a photo of the stone lanterns, Ishidōrō. I believe these lanterns were donated by different Japanese feodals for the funeral of the last shogun. After that, take your time to look at the Shinkyūsha also called the sacred horse stable. The unpainted building of the Shinkyūsha may not seem very impressive at first, but this is where you will see some of the most famous carvings in the shrine. The Shinkyūsha is decorated with eight wooden panels with sculptures of monkeys. Among them, the most famous carving is called “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” and it represents 3 monkeys among which the fist one doesn’t hear, the second one doesn’t speak and the third one doesn’t see. In ancient times monkeys were considered to be guardians of the horses and for that reason, all 8 panels that were carved in the stable depicted monkeys.
If you are lucky you may see the sacred white horse (alive) in the stable. It is there at certain times of the day only.
The Three Sacred Warehouses (Sanjinko)
Facing the sacred stable you will see two of the Three Sacred Warehouses (Sanjinko). They are called Nakajinko (Middle Storehouse) and the Kamijinko (Uppper Storehouse). They are also decorated with beautiful carvings and colors.
But take a close look at Kamijinko or the Upper Storehouse, because this is where you will see another of Nikko’s famous carvings. At the upper part of the house, you will see the Sozonozo Elephants (or the “imagined elephants”). The author of this carving has never seen elephants in his life and this is why their depiction is a so irrealistic: with long tails and funny years.
The Library (Kyozo)
To the left of the Kamijinko, you will see the Kyozo or the Library. This is where in most Buddhis temples the sutras (the sacred Buddhist scriptures) are stored. This two-level building is very beautiful in itself with carved windows made in a beautiful shape.
Take the small stairs from the lower courtyard that leads to the upper yard. This is where you will see Yomeimon gate which is the most elaborate and beautifully decorated building in the Nikko shrine complex. It is even believed to be one of Japan’s most intricately decorated structures.
The Yomeimon Gate was constructed in 1636 and has more than 500 carvings and 12 white pillars. The front four pillars are visible in the photo below. Observing this beautiful structure in detail may take you an entire hour. Some local tourists spend even more than one-hour taking photos and contemplating the details and the vibrant colors of this beautiful gate. The carved sculptures are layered upon each other and most of them represent birds and mythical creatures: dragons, lions, etc. One of the most famous details is the carving of the two white horse dragons at the front. These creatures come from Chinese folklore. They have the head and the tail of a dragon, but two horns, and horse legs ending in gold hoofs.
Main shrine building (Shaden) & Honden and Haiden
As in all Japanese shrines, the main building consists of a praying hall (haiden) that is connected to the main hall (honden). These halls are dedicated to the spirits of Ieyasu and two other of Japan’s most influential historical personalities, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Minamoto Yoritomo. Visitors are allowed to enter the richly ornamented building but photographs are not allowed inside.
At the entrance to the main shrine building, you will see the beautiful Karamon gate. This gate is decorated in a Chinese style
The Shaden (Main Shrine Building) is the building where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined. After Ieyasu’s death, his successor shogun Hidetada had this shrine built to enshrine the first Tokugawa shogun at Kunozan. The shrine was built in only a year and seven months by master craftsman Nakai Masakiyo. The shrine is built in a style referred to as 権現造 (Gongen-Zukuri) where the inner sanctuary and worship hall are connected with an Ishi-no-ma (a room with a stone floor). The shrine was built using the best craftsmanship and building technology available at that time in Japan.
The form of the buildings at Kunozan Toshogu served as a model for other Toshogu shrines around Japan, including the well known Nikko Toshogu shrine in Tochigi Prefecture.
To the right of the main shrine building, you will see the Sakashitamon Gate. On this gate, you can see a very small carving of a sleeping cat. This carving can stay almost unnoticeable compared to the bigger and more lavishly decorated dragons, lions, and swans that are seen through the complex. But somehow, this is the most photographed item at the shrine and probably in the entire Nikko shrine complex! That’s because this is the famous carving of the Nemuri Neko.
Nemuri Neko or the sleeping cat is like a national symbol of Japan. The carving is attributed to Hidari Jingorō, a legendary 17th-century artist. The sculpture is widely known as the “Sleeping cat”, but in other readings and translations, it has a more powerful meaning. If you are curious to know more about it have a look at my next article “Why is Nemuri Neko so famous in Japan”. Today, the Nemuri Neko is a National Treasure in Japan, and this small carving of 20 cm has been an inspiration for generations of Japanese artists for many centuries.
Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum
Sakashitamon gate marks the start of a long flight of stairs that leads uphill through the woods. This is the path that will lead you to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum. The ascent takes about five-six minutes. At the end of the path, you’ll see the mausoleum of the first shogun.
The second famous tourist site in Nikko, that’s worth a visit, is Taiyuin mausoleum. The building is located just nearby the Toshogu Shrine, and most tourists would visit the mausoleum just before or after they’ve seen the world-famous shrine.
Taiyuin is the mausoleum of Iemitsu, Ieyasu’s grandson and the third shogun. Following the example of Ieyasu, who asked his descendants to build a shrine for him (the Toshougu Shrine), Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu, left instructions for a mausoleum to his grandsons. So the Taiyuin Mausoleum was built in 1653 by the following shogun, the son Tokugawa Ietsuna, and the result was this masterpiece of architecture and decoration, today listed as UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The architecture and the style of Iemitsu’s Mausoleum are very different from the Toshogu shrine’s layout and architecture. The building was intentionally built in a more modest and sober style. In a typical Japanese tradition, Iemitsu didn’t want his tomb to overshadow the final resting place of his grandfathers. And this was a way for Iemitsu to show respect for his predecessors.
Nevertheless, it is easy to mistake it as part of the shrine complex. It is, however, a separate building that was built later on. The predominant colors are also different: Toshougu Shrine is predominantly white and golden, while the Taiyuin Mausoleum is for the most part gold and black, with a little red framing. Similar to the shrine, Iemitsu’s Mausoleum is also composed of several buildings. They are also decorated in Shinto and Buddhist styles. The main color we see in Taiyuin is vermilion.
What to See in Taiyuin Mausoleum?
The most notable structures here are:
- the Niomon Gate
- the Nitenmon Gate
- the drum tower and the belfry,
- the Karamon Gate,
- the haiden (praying hall)
- The main hall (honden)
The entrance to the complex is marked by Niomon Gate which is followed by the more lavishly decorated Nitenmon Gate. Once you’ve passed through the gates, you’ll other structures part of the complex, such as the drum tower, and the belfry on the right. After that, you’ll reach the praying hall (the haiden).
The main hall (honden) is located just behind the haiden but can only be viewed from the outside. The two halls are connected by a short corridor. Next to the halls at the innermost precincts is Tokugawa Iemitsu’s mausoleum, which lends a composed and dignified charm to the temple.
The third place in Nikko, that I believe every tourist should visit, is Shinkyo Bridge. Fortunately, it can not be missed, because it’s conveniently placed on your way from Nikko’s train station to Toshogu Shrine.
Shinkyo Bridge means “sacred bridge”. It stands at the entrance to Nikko’s shrines and temple area and it’s known as one of Japan’s three finest bridges. Its exact construction date and origins are unclear, but we know that the “modern” structure of the Shinkyo bridge dates back to 1636.
The bridge is really beautiful and gives a mythical Japanese atmosphere to Nikko’s shrines and temples. It is where I took one of my favorite photos in Nikko.
Rinnoji (輪王寺, Rinnōji) is Nikko’s most important temple. It was founded by Shodo Shonin, a Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. Unfortunately, due to my poor organization and planning, I was not able to visit this temple. Moreover, during my visit in 2017, the temple’s main building, the Sanbutsudo, was undergoing a decade-long renovation. The renovation of Sanbutsudo was completed in the spring of 2019, and the temple is fully reopened today.
Rinnoji consists of several interesting buildings: the Sanbutsudo, the temple’s treasure house, and the Shoyoen (a small Japanese-style garden) and it’s definitely a place to visit when you are in Nikko, Japan.
If you’re visiting Nikko for one day only, make sure to plan properly so that you have around 1,5 hours to visit the temples before your train back to Tokyo.
Nikko’s quiet streets
And finally, let’s not forget that Nikko is a charming small city that has to offer a lot more than its world-famous shrines and temples. When you are there, don’t forget to taste some traditional Japanese food, visit the parks and Japanese-style gardens or go for a massage! As I didn’t visit the Rinnoji temple I had time to have a hot meal in one of the many local restaurants before I get on my train to return to Tokyo.