How to visit Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine : history and main buildings

Nikko (日光) is a small mountain town located in 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. But if you have to choose only one place to see in Nikko, it should be the world-famous Tosho-gu 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 the 1600s Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu enlarged the complex to honor his grandfather. Tosho-gu 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 Tosho-gu shrine?

The Tosho-gu 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.

Staircase of the thousand, and Granite Torii

You will start your visit by going through the Staircase of the thousand, which ends in front of the Granite Torii. This magnificent gate marks the entrance to Tōshōgu Shrine. It was constructed in 1618, and it is made from 15 blocks of stone that came from Fukuoka. The blocks are hollowed out to reduce weight and held together by a network of cables and crossbars to withstand earthquakes. It is the largest granite torii made during the Edo period.

The Five-story pagoda

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.

How are Japanese pagodas different from Chinese pagodas?

In fact, the multi-story pagoda came to Japan from China in the sixth century. Exactly as in China, they were first introduced with Buddhism and were attached to important temples. But there are some important differences in the architecture of the Chinese and Japanese pagodas that are interesting to point out. The first main difference lies in the building materials that were used. While the Chinese built their pagodas in brick or stone, the Japanese made them mainly out of wood. While in China many pagodas were turned into watchtowers, in most of Japan they didn’t have much practical use and stayed more of a religious building.

How can Japanese pagodas resist earthquakes?

Moreover, Japanese builders had to learn how to adapt the pagodas to Japan’s meteorological conditions, typhoons, and earthquakes. Japanese pagodas were built less high, typically five rather than nine stories, and their roofs were covered in heavier earthenware tiles, instead of the porcelain tiles we see in China. But Japanese builders kept looking for ways to increase their weight and protect pagodas from earthquakes. One of the most important architectural differences lies in their central pillar, known as shinbashira. In the early pagodas, the shinbashira was laid on the ground in the center of the building in order to add up to the building’s weight. But interestingly, as the architecture developed in many Japanese pagodas the shinbashira, doesn’t rest on the ground, but is suspended from the top of the pagoda! This means that the weight of the building is supported entirely by its outer and inner columns, while the main pillar is hanging loosely down through the middle of the building! And this is exactly how the five-story pagoda you will see here was constructed. The main pillar of this pagoda hangs ten centimeters above the ground. Unfortunately, the interior of the pagoda is not always open and you may not be able to see it. Another interesting feature of the Japanese pagodas is the “juxtaposition” of the floors. Unlike in the Chinese pagodas, here each successive floor is smaller than the one below and they are not connected to each other. This is easily seen in the Five-story pagoda of  Tosho-gu as well (see photo below). In this way, none of the pagoda’s columns/pillars carries the entire weight of the building from the top to the bottom. As a result of this design, during an earthquake, each floor of the pagoda slides sideways, independent of the floors below and the motion of the earth is constrained by the shinbashira that is hanging in the middle of the building.

Omote-mon gate

Once you’ve passed by the pagoda you can head toward the Omote-mon gate. At this gate, you will find two of the four Heavenly Kings from the Buddhist faith. They are also referred to as Devas or Nioh. The Heavenly Kings represent some of the typical sculptures we find across Buddhist temples and they are guarding the entrance to the shrine. These statues, are around 4 m high and are located on each side of the entrance. This gate leads to the lower level or first inner court of the shrine.

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.

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 Wise Monkeys

The Shinkyūsha is decorated with eight wooden panels with sculptures of monkeys. 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. However, it is believed that these 8 panels of monkeys are representing and satirizing the human life. Among them, the most famous panel is called “The Three Wise Monkeys”. This panel represents 3 monkeys among which the first one doesn’t hear, the second one doesn’t speak and the third one doesn’t see. In Japanese, this carving is describing ]the principle of “not seeing” (Mizaru), “not hearing” (Kikazaru), “and “not saying” (Iwazaru). By refraining from those three acts, it is said that you can lead a safe and happy life.

This sculpture is also carved by Hidari Jingoro (read more below).

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 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 Buddhist 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.

Yomeimon gate

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.

Stone building sheltering the water basin (Mizuya)

The Drum Tower (Koro)

This was originally a bell tower but during the separation of Shintoism and Buddhism in the Meiji period (1868-1912), the bell was replaced with a taiko drum because bells were closely associated with Buddhist temples. In 1873 a taiko drum that was previously at Edo Castle was given to the shrine by Katsunao Kojima, a former retainer of the shogun.

Tōzai Kairō and Kugurimon

When visiting the Toshogu shrine, pay special attention to these roofed cloisters that enclose the main shrine buildings. The carvings on them are exquisite!

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.

Karamon gate

At the entrance to the main shrine building, you will see the beautiful Karamon gate. This gate is decorated in a Chinese style 

Karamon gate

The Main Shrine Building

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.

Hall of Worship

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.

Sakashitamon Gate

Nemuri Neko carving

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.

Why is Nemuri Neko so famous in Japan?

You probably know that Nemuri Neko or the sleeping cat is like a national symbol of Japan, but did you know that it all comes from this small carving in Nikko? The name of the carving – Nemuri Neko – comes from nemuri, which means “sleeping” but also “peaceful” and neko which means “cat”. The carving is attributed to Hidari Jingorō, a legendary 17th-century artist. Hidari was fascinated by cats and spent a big part of his life observing them. He had also spent the majority of his time studying and sculpturing, and he was carving wooden cats in various shapes and sizes. Apparently, he was determined to achieve a lifelike sculpture of a cat. By doing this, he initiated a new field of sculpturing that focused on depicting the natural features of the animal and not only artistic or mystical presentations. The sculpture is widely known as the “Sleeping cat”, but in other readings and translations it has a more powerful meaning. On the other side of the gate, there is another small sculpture of a sparrow. Some believe that the sparrow will be eaten when the cat wakes up, but others say that the cat is not asleep, it’s just piecefull resting, and that the two animals coexist in peace. This “peaceful” interpretation of the two carvings signifies that the chaos has disappeared and that there is peace in the world. 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.  


This metal building/pagoda enshrining the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu is called Okusha Hōtō.

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