Nikko – light of the sun

The Japanese proverb says: “The one who did not see Nikko does not know what the true beauty is.”

Nikko is a small town in Tochigi Prefecture, about 140 km from Tokyo. The literal translation means “sunlight”. Surrounded by mountains, located in the National Park (Nikko Kokuritsu Koen), has been attracting priests and pilgrims for centuries. It is estimated that the first buildings were built in this place about 1200 years ago, along the Daiya River, at the foot of Nantai Mountain. Many sanctuaries and temples were erected here. The most important of these are Rinno (766 years old) and Chuzen (784 years old).

Nikko is also the seat of kami (Shinto deities), which became the burial place of the first shogun of the Tokugawa family. The mausoleum, which was built for him in the Tosho-gu temple, is the most beautiful Japanese mausoleum. Outside of Tosho-gu Temple, Nikko is also home to the beautiful Futarasan-jinja Temple (dedicated to the gods of the mountains). In 1999, temples: Tosho-gu, Futatarsan-jinja and Rinno were listed on the UNESCO World Heritage List.

All of them are located close to each other.

From Tokyo, Nikko can be reached by train. We have chosen Shinkansen Yamabiko to Utsunomiya (53 mins) and then the charming historic one – Nikko Train (49 mins). From Nikko Station, there are few tourist buses available. Heritage Bus (Nikko Tobu Bus) No.7, four stops – will take to the main place. This bus stop is in the middle of the cedar forest, from where all the monuments and main temples are within a few minutes walk.

Nikko. Toshogu Shrine

The mausoleum of the first shogun of the Tokugawa family is characterized by rich colours and numerous decorations. There is a stone staircase called the “stairs of a thousand men”, which will lead you to the most important shrine in Nikko. At the top of the staircase, there is the magnificent granite torii gate, the largest gate of this type. It was erected in the Edo period (1618).

Japan, Nikko, Toshogu Shrine
Torii Gate, Nikko

The Five storied Pagoda (Important cultural property)

On the left side, there is a beautiful five-storied pagoda. The original construction was erected in 1650. Unfortunately, in 1815 it was destroyed by fire. However, it was rebuilt three years later. The pagoda was then equipped with a special pillar that runs inside the structure along with its entire height (30 m). The pillar is suspended, hanging on chains from the 4th story. This was done to prevent the pillar to punch through the roof even if the height of the pagoda were to shrink over its long life.

This also works as a shock absorber which makes it extremely resistant to strong winds and earthquakes. Several of them have already tested the construction of the pagoda. So far, the system proved to be a great anti-seismic invention. It has been proven for the last 200 years that in 2012, the same technique was used during the construction of the Tokyo Sky Tree.

Japan, Nikko, Toshogu Shrine
Pagoda, Toshogu Shrine, Nikko

The pagoda today is 36 m high and decorated with rich, vibrant colours and numerous ornaments. The leading motifs are animals illustrating the Oriental Zodiac. There is a motif of the Mitsui Aoi, (three mallow flowers on the black rim), which is a symbol of the Tokugawa family.

The omote-mon gate

This is another monument, which can be seen on the way to the main temple. This is an excellent example of religious syncretism, that is, the combination of different religious traditions. In this case, on the one hand, there are Nio guards – defenders of the Buddhist pantheon. On the other side of the gate, there is a pair of stone Chinese lions, the Karajishi – guards the Shinto shrines. At this gate, you can find in total over 82 sculptures.

The courtyard

Then, we enter a large courtyard with three holy warehouses (Sanjinko) and the Drum Tower. These warehouses were designed for storing objects used during the annual matsuri feasts – the parade of a thousand warriors accompanying the yabusame ceremony.


The Kamijinko is the tallest one out of three warehouses, decorated with sculptures of two animals, called “imagined elephants”. Why such a strange name? It is because the author of these sculptures has never seen a real elephant. He had never seen a picture before, that would give him an idea of these animals. When he decided to do his work, he read only the description of the elephant in one of the books. So, let’s take a look at what he had imagined:

Japan, Nikko, Toshogu Shrine, Imaginary elephants
Imaginary elephants, Nikko

Shinyosha – is a sacred stable where a white horse from New Zealand was kept. The stables are being adorned by the famous statue of the Hidari Jingoro, consisting of eight panels depicting Sansaru (three wise monkeys), sometimes called the three mystic apes. Together they embody the proverbial principle “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”

  • Mizzou – covering his eyes, who sees no evil
  • Kikazaru – covering his ears, who hears no evil;
  • Iwazaru – covering his mouth, who speaks no evil.

The importance of this Buddhist recommendation can be interpreted in many ways. One of them is the version that says: who lives according to the above guidelines – is protecting himself against evil.

The Yomei Mon Gate

The next staircase leads to the “Sunset Gate” – Yomei-mon, also known as “the gate that can be admired until dusk.” This name is related to the fact that in the Edo period, the lower rank samurai was not allowed to exceed its thresholds. This gate is a remarkable work of art and its wealth is dazzling. At present, its additional advantage is that it has recently been completely renovated, all sculptures repaired and freshly painted. The effect is breathtaking! It is decorated with more than 500 sculptures, including beautiful dragons (painted in pearl colours), tigers and children.

Nikko main shrine buildings

Right behind the gate, there are the main buildings of the complex: the Haiden Pavilion (praying hall), the Ishinoma Hall (made of stone, former corridor), the Ieyasu Tokugawa mausoleum, and the treasure trove of precious objects. In the inner sanctuary, there is the most sacred place of the Tosho-gu. The halls have dedicated the spirits of Ieyasu and two other of Japan’s most influential historical personalities: Toyotomi Hideyoshi (called by the Tokugawa Ieyasu “the most powerful man of Japan”), and Minamoto Yoritomo (the first shogun in Japan). This part is inaccessible to visitors.

Japan, Nikko

The Ieyasu mausoleum itself is located at the end of a 200-meter rocky path that leads through the old, cryptomeria forest.

Tokugawa Ieyasu – the Great Shogun

Tokugawa Ieyasu is undoubtedly one of the most outstanding figures in Japanese history. He lived from 1543 to 1616. He founded the Tokugawa Shogunate dynasty, was recognized as a great unifier of the state. In the years 1598-1603, he was part of the five-person old council, where (as a regent) he was the most powerful of them. The power struggle led in 1600 to the most powerful battle in the feudal history of Japan. In the battle of Sekigahara, there were over 160 thousand warriors involved.

The Ieyasu Tokugawa won the battle, which made him the actual ruler of the country. Because the title of the Great Shogun was inherited in Japan, Ieyasu proved his origin from the Minamoto family. In 1603 he received the desired title, giving rise to the Tokugawa Shogunate. He was possessing the real power only for two years, as in 1605 he abdicated and handed over the power to his son. However, after his official resignation, he continued to make strategic decisions until his death.

Immortal defender

Today, Tokugawa is surrounded by great respect for the Japanese people: he is recognized as an extraordinary strategist, an outstanding politician and a statesman. He was considered a very wise and patient man. Before his death, he demanded: “Bury me first at Mount Kuno, but at Nikko build a small sanctuary. When it is ready, move my remains like divine relics. There, I will take my duty as a defender of Japan”. The emperor Go-Mizuno raised the Tokugawa Ieyasu to the rank of God, and named him “the great incarnation enlightening the East.” Nikko was chosen as a place of the final burial, due to its location north of Edo. It was also believed, that the demons came from the north side.

The story of how Tokugawa’s Ieyasu got his power has become the subject of James Clavell’s book “Shōgun”. Based on that book, the series “Shōgun” was also produced. Tokugawa character (Toranaga from the book) was played by Toshirō Mifune.

The mystery of the Ieyasu story

The history of Tokugawa Ieyasu has also become an area of many years of researches by numerous scientists. They were wishing to answer the question of where he was buried. In 2014, the Sump magazine (by Admac Inc. in Shizuoka), has revealed a long-term deception regarding the true location of the Great Shogun remains. It was well known that after his death in 1616, he was buried in the Kunōzan Tōshō-gū mausoleum in Shizuo. It was also widely believed that on the first anniversary of his death, the remains of Ieyasu were moved to the mausoleum in Nikko. The remains of Ieyasu remained in Shizuoka and never left this place.

The lie came because the descendants of Ieyasu wished to strengthen their authority and the importance of the main temple (Toshogu). Being in the possession of the greatest tomb of the eminent ruler – the Shogunate could show people his glory and power.

To this days, knowledge of the real burial place of Ieyasu is not widespread. People continue to worship Ieyasu’s memory in Nikko and only a few know the truth (they want to believe in it). In the face of listing the temple of Toshogu on the World Heritage List, seeking answers today and striving for truth is neither indicated nor accepted. Joining the UNESCO Heritage was largely motivated by the belief that it was Ieyasu’s burial site. Everyone agrees, however, that the soul of the Great Shogun certainly remains in Toshogu’s temple, and so for this moment – this explanation must be enough.

Futurasan Shrine

Futarasan is a Shinto temple devoted to the gods of the mountains. Shrine was founded in 782 by the monk Shonin, reconstructed in 1610. The complex extends over a vast area: from the Shinkyo bridge to the mountain tops. There is a very interesting Honden (main pavilion) here, as well as three portable sanctuaries.

It is also worth mentioning, that there are beautiful black pines, planted by the Buddhist monk Kukai. According to the legends, he may have been the first who brought tea seeds to Japan. There is also an old, bronze lantern, called: ”Ghost Lantern”, due to the katana traces (Japanese sword).

The shrine and its garden are surrounded by the forest, so peace and silence can be found here. This is an exceptional place, there are not many tourists – must be seen when visiting Nikko.

Kanmnangafuchi Abbys

Kanmnangafuchi is a gorge formed by lava from the eruption of the volcano on Mt. Nantai. The gorge is several hundred meters long. To get to this place, you must take a stroll (about 20-30 minutes from the Futarasan shrine).  This is going to be a very pleasant walk, as during the whole way you will be in a charming natural environment.

The main attraction of this place (besides the Daiya river) is the row of about 70 stone statues of Jizo, the Bodhisattva, who cares for the deceased. Originally there were 100 statues of Jizo, but some of them were destroyed by a major flood in the Meiji Era. The statues look out over the river and across to the Nikko Botanical Garden, but the garden can’t be entered from this side.

Shinkyo Bridge

Turning back towards the city, along the Daiya River, we reach Shinkyo Bridge. It is recognized as one of the three most beautiful bridges in Japan, it is 24 meters long, over 7 meters wide and rises over a river at a height of over 10meters. The current construction dates to 1636, but it is known from the historical records that the bridge was already there long before. The Shinkyo Bridge is part of the Futarasan Temple complex. Right in front of the bridge is a gejo ishi stone, reminding that the bridge could only be crossed by the shogun and the emperor.

Japan, Nikko, Shinkyo Bridge
Shinkyo Bridge, Nikko

History of the bishop Tenkai

In front of the bridge, there is a monument of Bishop Tenkai. This is a Buddhist monk who has attained the rank of Daisojo, the highest rank of the priesthood. He served in Tokugawa Ieyasu and served as an ambassador between the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Imperial Court in Kyoto. For many years he was an advisor and trustee of Ieyasu. He managed to build several Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines. He was also the great master of Rinno-ji Temple in Nikko. After the death of Ieyasu, it was the Tenkai who fulfilled the final wish of the shogun regarding his funeral and posthumous name. From 1616 he served as an advisor to the two more Tokugawa shoguns.

In Nikko, there is a statue of Bishop Tenkai, who stands just the opposite of the Shinkyo bridge.

Japan, Bishop Tenkai, Nikko
Bishop Tenkai, Nikko

In Nikko, there is also a monument/tower set up by the bishop. Sohrintoh – this tower is made of bronze, and it is over 13 meters high. It was built in 1643 and changed its place several times. It was originally set up at the Toshogu temple, and then (in 1645) it was moved to the Futarasan Shrine. Since 1875, it is facing the temple of Rinko-ji. It was transferred there by the Mei government decree, which divided the Shinto religion from Buddhism. The tower was supposed to protect the city and the temple from evil spirits. The tower holds 1000 volumes of Buddhist scriptures. On its top adorned with 24 bells, there is an engraved Tokugawa Kamon – three mallow flowers in a black rim.

Japan, Sohrintoh Tower, Nikko
Sohrintoh Tower, Nikko

Right next to the tower there is a beautiful bronze lantern – Itowappu Tourou. It is a gift from the local merchants in recognition of the Tokugawa Ieyasu’s permission for trade with merchants of the Silk Route.

Japan, Itowappu Tourou, Nikko
Itowappu Tourou, Nikko

Nikko memories

The beauty of Nikko left a deep impression on us. We left this place with nostalgia and a desire for a quick return. There are over 5100 sculptures – there is no way to be able to see them all and understand everything within a one day trip. It is a truly charming place, full of symbols and extremely interesting stories. This is also about people who live there. Strolling through the Kanmnagafuchi Abbys or the Daiya River, Japanese people smiled at us and greeted us with the warm “Konnichiwa” (hello).

Nikko is a place that is worthy to visit and experience by yourself what does real beauty means!

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