Take a wrong turn in Japan, and you’ll stumble onto a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The sheer amount of protected cultural history in Japan can be overwhelming, especially if you come from a relatively new country like me. (Happy early 153rd birthday, Canada!) Despite the potential shock to our systems, my fiancé and I had booked a weekend trip to Nikko, the motherland of UNESCO heritage sites in Japan. Bursting at the seams with ancient shrines and temples, and equipped with newer amusements, like Edo Wonderland, the sky’s the limit in terms of things to do in Nikko. That said, having spent hours trekking through Nikko’s top sights, I can firmly say that one rises above all the others: the lavish Nikko Toshogu Shrine. If you only have a little bit of time in Nikko, this one’s a must.

A visit to Nikko Toshogu Shrine tops off my list of things to do in Nikko.
A visit to Nikko Toshogu Shrine tops off my list of things to do in Nikko

The History of Nikko Toshogu Shrine

While many Japanese shrines aspire toward simple elegance, Nikko Toshogu Shrine dazzles its visitors with an array of intricate carvings and stately structures set off by vivid lacquer and gold. It quite literally sparkles. It’s a testament to the Shrine’s architects and artists that it never veers into the territory of gaudy. Rather, the shrine maintains an atmosphere of splendid dignity.

In some ways, its beauty can be seen as a labour of love. Built in 1617, Nikko Toshogu was intended to enshrine Tokugawa Ieyasu and elevate his status to that of a diety. A pivotal figure in Japanese history, Tokugawa Ieyasu brought peace to a turbulent Japan and sought to unify it under the Tokugawa Shogunate. His advocations for literacy and the arts led to a great cultural flowering in the Edo period. In May, the Reitaisai Festival and Procession of 1,000 Samurai pay tribute to the arrival of his remains in Nikko.

Entering the Shrine

There are artistic flourishes everywhere you look at Nikko Toshogu Shrine. Coupled with its long list of key sights, it’s easy to see why it sits at the top of my things to do in Nikko list. Visitors to the shrine will, just as we did, first stumble upon the crimson Gojunoto Pagoda. Each of its five tiers represents a different element: earth, water, fire, wind, and void. Continuing past the fierce guardians of the Omotemon gate, we soon reached the nearby storehouses, which contained a familiar motif. A set of wood carvings, the famous hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil monkeys, keep watch over the shrine’s sacred horses. Nearby, we spotted a rather interesting carving of an elephant. Famously, its creator had famously never seen one before, and all things considered, it’s a great effort.

These monkeys keep watch over the Shrine's sacred horses.
These monkeys keep watch over the Shrine’s sacred horses
The famous hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil monkeys.
The famous hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil monkeys

Yomeimon Gate & Honjido Hall

Continuing inward, we encountered the distinctive white-and-gold Yomeimon Gate, which is quite literally a National Treasure. Its surface is adorned with over 500 carvings depicting sages, children at play, and traditional anecdotes. It earned the pseudonym the “Gate of the Setting Sun” because it is said that one could gaze at it all day without losing interest. Beyond the Yomeimon Gate lies Honjido Hall with its notable large ceiling painting of a dragon.

Fierce dragons guard this gate at Nikko Toshogu Shrine.
Fierce dragons guard this gate at Nikko Toshogu Shrine

The Inner Reaches of Nikko Toshogu Shrine

Finally, we reached the Sakashitamon Gate and the main shrine buildings. Within the gate, we spotted a carving of a tiny, sleeping cat. Despite its small stature, it’s in actuality, a very famous carving that represents a collective desire for peace in Japan. From the gate, we followed a long stretch of stairs up through the woods to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb. Although less adorned than other areas of the shrine, his tomb emanates a notable sense of tranquillity.   

Nikko Toshogu Shrine draws thousands of visitors every year.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine draws thousands of visitors every year

Nearby Things to Do in Nikko

Despite having covered all of the major sites at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, there’s still a host of tiny details for you to discover on your own. Once you’ve had your fill, consider setting off for the nearby Shinkyo Bridge and the noodle shops surrounding it. Just like we did, many will recognize it from the face of Japanese postcards. Although we didn’t meet any deities ourselves, simply treading through Nikko’s ancient spaces was a divine experience.

Looking for other this to do in Nikko? Head for the nearby Shinkyo Bridge.
Looking for other things to do in Nikko? Head for the nearby Shinkyo Bridge
It's a tranquil spot.
It’s a tranquil spot

Name: Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Address: 2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi 321-1431, Japan
Website: https://www.toshogu.jp/english/index.html

Post by: Japan Journeys