Nikko Things to Do

  • Taiyuin Temple
    Taiyuin Temple
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  • Iemitsu's Mausoleum
    Iemitsu's Mausoleum
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  • Taiyuin's Kokamon Gate
    Taiyuin's Kokamon Gate
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Most Recent Things to Do in Nikko

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    Toshogu Shrine: Nemuri-Neko

    by toonsarah Written Jan 14, 2014

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    To the east of the Honsha is the Kuguri-mon, the entrance to the inner shrine or Okumiya. And above this entrance is the second of Toshogu’s famous little carvings, although unlike the Three Wise Monkeys this one, the sleeping cat or Nemuri Neko, is perhaps mostly famous only in Japan rather than worldwide. Attributed to Hidari Jingorou, this carving of a cat dozing while surrounded by peonies is supposed to be a personification of peace – peace for Ieyasu and for the nation. On the far side of the panel are carved a couple of sparrows (sorry, I forgot to get a photo of these) and the fact that they play so happily and so close to the sleeping cat is seen as a sign that Japan is at peace. Also, the cat is bathed in sunlight which is said to be a depiction of Nikko (nikko means sunlight in Japanese).

    And now we walk under the sleeping cat, being careful not to disturb him, to visit the inner shrine.

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    Toshogu Shrine: Okumiya and Ieyasu's tomb

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 14, 2014

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    Ieyasu's tomb
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    At the Kuguri-mon (the gate with the sleeping cat) your ticket will be checked again but there is no additional charge to visit Ieyasu's tomb – unless you count the penance of climbing the 200 stone steps to be a charge! These ascend through the forest (so there would be plenty of shade on a hot day, I imagine) to a small complex of structures that surround the actual burial place of the Shogun. At its heart is the small pagoda-like tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa. You pass through a torii gate guarded by two bronze Komainu (dog and lion-like creatures) and circle the tomb. At one side is a sacred cedar tree, Kano Sugi, which has stood here protecting the shrine area for many years. It is said that if you pray facing a hole in its trunk your prayers will be answered, and a small stall sells Kano Suze, small bell-like charms in the shape of a cedar seed.

    The tomb itself, Okusha-houtou, is of bronze – a replacement for an earlier stone one that was damaged by earthquake in 1683 (and which itself replaced the original wooden structure). Ieyasu’s coffin is within, but while he is buried here his deified spirit resides in the inner sanctuary of the main shrine below. In front of the tomb are a vase, incense burner and candlestick in shape of crane, gifts of Korea. The atmosphere is more restrained and more tranquil than in the main shrine far below. Here among the trees you understand that Ieyasu Tokugawa’s wish for a “small shrine” has indeed been fulfilled, and his grandson’s exuberant designs have not intruded totally on his longed-for peace.

    Descending from here we stopped for a rest and a hot coffee from a vending machine in a small shelter (one of the few places on the site where eating and drinking are permitted) before taking a few final photos and then bidding farewell to Toshogu.

    If you have stuck with me thus far you may like now to continue with us to nearby Futarasan, a very different (and much smaller) shrine.

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    Futarasan

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 14, 2014

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    Futarasan is only five minutes’ or so walk from Toshogu but it seemed to us that we were in a different world. The crowds had gone (most day-trippers don’t make it here) leaving just a handful of tourists (some Western, some Japanese) and some local families here to celebrate a children’s festival (see following tip). We strolled around in a much more leisurely way than had been possible at Toshogu, taking photos and soaking up the tranquil atmosphere and the rich colours of the leaves just starting to take on their autumn hues.

    Futarasan Shrine was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko and who also founded the nearby Rinnoji Temple. It is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro (Futarasan being another name for the first and most prominent of these).

    You can wander round the grounds here for free, though there is a small charge (300¥ in October 2013) to enter an area featuring a small forested garden with a couple more halls including the Shinyosha (portable shrines store – see photo five) and Daikokuden where some treasures, including some beautifully worked swords, were on display. There is also a sacred fountain, a modern Buddha statue (see photo four) and some old sacred trees. This was the most peaceful part as few other people seemed minded to pay that small fee. We were very happy that we had decided to do so and could enjoy this tranquil spot.

    But now, more about the celebrations we had noticed.

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    Rinnoji Temple

    by toonsarah Written Jan 14, 2014

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    Bato Kannon?
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    It is fair to say that we did not see Rinnoji at its best. The main sanctuary building, Sanbutsudoh (Three Buddha Hall), was undergoing major reconstruction at the time of our visit (October 2013) and was completely shrouded in this industrial-looking structure, within which it seems to have been almost completely dismantled. There was only an image of its frontage on the front of this (photo three) to give us any idea of its usual appearance. But at least we were able to go into this structure (for a reduced fee, 400¥) and get just a glimpse of some of its treasures.

    Sanbutsudoh is so named because three images of Buddha are enshrined inside. We were told when we paid for admission that we would only see one of these but that we would get much closer to it than is usually the case. Well, we certainly got close, just a metre or so from its feet, but as no photos were allowed in that part I can’t share it with you. However we were allowed to take photos of the model Sanbutsu on display, and higher up this ten storey structure I got some photos of other elements of the temple that are being worked on by the restoration team, including (I have since realised) this one (main photo) which is, I think, one of the other Buddhas – Bato Kannon, or “Kannon with a horse’s head”.

    As it was a Saturday, we didn’t see anyone actually at work on this immense task – an Australian lady we had spoken to outside had assured us that this was a fascinating process to view, as I’m sure it must be, so our timing was unfortunate in that respect. The relatively poor weather also meant that the views from the top were not as good as they must sometimes be, but it was still an excellent way to get a sense of Nikko’s lovely setting among the mountains, so well worth the climb.

    Rinnoji Temple was originally called Nikko-san, and was established by a Buddhist monk Shodo (whose statue stands at the entrance) in 766. It grew quickly, as many Buddhist monks flocked here in search of solitude among Nikko’s forests and mountains. By the 15th century there were over 500 buildings on this site; today there are just 15. Of these, Sanbutsudoh is the most significant by some distance. It has been moved several times in the past – at one time it stood where Toshogu is now located, then on the present-day site of Futarasan, and only under the Meiji regime, when it was decreed that Buddhist and Shinto places of worship should be separated (they had become very muddled over the years and were often co-located and intermingled), did it relocate to this spot. Or rather, Rinnoji relocated – it was some years before the temple, which was short of funds, could afford to rebuild Sanbutsudoh

    In it are the three gold-leafed statues of Buddha: Amida, Kannnon with a thousand arms (Senju Kannon) and Kannon with a horse’s head (Bato Kannon). These were made in the early Edo period and are all 8 metres high. The one we saw, Amida, is considered the foremost seated wooden image in Japan. I believe each of the three will be rotated in turn in this display area throughout the restoration period, which is due to last until March 2021.

    There are a number of other buildings dotted around the complex but we didn’t spend a lot of time investigating these (Chris in particular was suffering from temple overload and keen to leave time to see something of the town!) There is a small garden attached to the temple, Shoyoen, which was made in the Edo period and is in the style known as Chisen Kaiyu Shiki (“short excursion around the pond”). The weather was not really conducive to garden visits so we skipped this too (it costs an additional 300¥) but we did take a few photos in the pretty garden area immediately surrounding Sanbutsudoh.

    After leaving Rinnoji we headed into town, stopping for refreshment in a quaint little restaurant, Hippari Dako

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    Nikko’s main street

    by toonsarah Written Jan 14, 2014

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    Small shop
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    We spent a very pleasant couple of hours exploring Nikko’s main street and I was surprised at how much there was to occupy us here, from browsing in some shops and galleries to taking photos of quirky signs and interesting shop displays. I could have quite happily spent a fair bit of money in the shops but Chris kept me in check! I especially enjoyed the several antique shops we browsed in, and some delicate old china sake cups in particular.

    Another thing you see a lot of here are items carved in wood, from small kitchen utensils to large pieces of furniture. The craftsmanship is excellent and it’s worth a look in these shops even if you don’t plan to buy, just to see the styles and the quality of the work.

    I did succumb though in one shop, but that’s a matter for another tip …

    About halfway along the street on its western side we found a lovely modern art gallery / café. You can browse the works on display on the ground floor and mezzanine above, and then have a coffee and maybe a piece of cake, also on the ground floor and surrounded by art – just the sort of place we enjoy. And the paintings on display when we visited included some lovely bird ones in a distinctive modern Japanese style that we rather liked.

    During the day there are plenty of opportunities for refreshment, although as we were to discover later it does go very quiet at night. There’s also a fairly large tourist information centre (we didn’t go in this), an interesting display showing pictures of a festival at Toshogu Shrine (I’m not sure though if that’s a permanent fixture or if the display rotates?) and a striking statue at the top of the street of someone looking out over the river and town – see photo five. I haven’t been able to track down who this is, so if anyone knows I’d be grateful for the information.

    Returning to the question of shopping here, I did manage to resist temptation, encouraged by Chris (we had bought rather a lot of souvenirs by this late stage in our journey) but as you’ll read in my next tip I was captivated by one item in particular and returned the next day to make a purchase!

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    JR Nikko Station

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 14, 2014

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    JR Nikko Station
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    Depending on the route you take from Tokyo you may arrive, as we did, at Tobu Nikko Station or at this one nearby, the JR Station. The reason that there are two stations so close together (about a five minute walk) is that the Tobu line is privately owned and has its own distinct station. In most places it would be enough to know which station to use and you might then safely ignore the presence of the other. But if like me you are an admirer of the work of Frank Lloyd Wright you will perhaps want to check out this JR Station even if not using it for your journey, as he designed it. This fact came as something of a surprise to me as I hadn’t been aware that he had done any work in Japan. But what did I know?! It turns out that apart from America, Japan is the only other country where Frank Lloyd Wright ever worked and lived, and he did quite a lot here – see the sample on this website. But this doesn’t seem typical of his work here, nor does it look like a style I would associate with him, being rather traditional in appearance (and even having, dare I say, having a little of the suburban twee aesthetic about it?!)

    The station opened on 1 August 1890 and is in the typical somewhat romantic style of the Meiji period, though streamlined a little I think by the influence of Wright on that style. It apparently has an ornate and rather beautiful “guest room” used by a former emperor, but this is only open at certain periods – there’s a photo on this Tourist Information website if you’d like to see it. We however contented ourselves with a quick look at the outside, as it had been a long day and we were ready for a break.

    So now, it’s time for a beer!

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    The town of Nikko

    by Ewingjr98 Updated Jul 26, 2013

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    Nikko is located in Tochigi Prefecture, about 140 km north of Tokyo. Nikko has just 90,000 residents, but Nikko National Park draws millions of visitors per year. The main attractions are the Shrines and Temples of Nikko, including Futarasan Jinja, Rinnō-ji,and Nikkō Tōshō-gū, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other draws include the glorious nature of the area including the mountains, rivers, waterfalls, onsen, lakes and even some wild animals.

    Nikko is served by two train lines that terminate in the town not far from the temples: Tobu Railway and JR East. There are plenty of lodging options in Nikko, from 4-star Western style hotels to local Japanese ryoken, where you will sleep on a tatami mat on the floor. Most restaurants close early, so dinner may be tough to find if you spend the night here.

    The weather in Nikko is significantly cooler than Tokyo, which is great in the summer, but could be bad in the winter!

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    Hike around the temples

    by Ewingjr98 Updated Jun 12, 2013

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    During our visit to the temples, we found a small trail that began between Futarasan-jinja and Taiyu-in Mausoleum. We hike up the trail in a northerly direction, much of which was spent hiking up stairs. We reached a small temple after 15 or 20 minutes, and we decided to take a small path to the west, rather than continue on the main path down towards a stream. This narrow path eventually led to a dirt driving path in the woods, where we might have seen one of Nikko's famous monkeys. Here we decided to take the path back down the hill as darkness was quickly approaching. Near the bottom of the trail we got a see an ancient, but seldom visited temple tucked in behind Taiyu-in Mausoleum.

    Our entire hike was about 5 kilometers and lasted perhaps an hour to an hour and a half.

    Here is a map of our hike: http://goo.gl/maps/sS3uB
    And here are some additional photos from our hike: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/tt/c5337/

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    Lake Chuzenji and the town of Yumoto

    by Ewingjr98 Written Jun 11, 2013

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    Lake Chuzenji
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    Lake Chuzenji was created about 20,000 years ago when Mount Nantai last erupted. The lava locked the river, and created both Kegon Falls and the the lake. The large lake reaches a depth of 508 feet, and its surface is 4,124 feet above sea level.

    The lake is said to have been discovered in 782 by a priest who scaled sacred Mount Nantai. A few years later, in 790, Futarasan Shrine was constructed to honor the gods of this mountain.

    Yumoto, or Oku-Nikko (Inner Nikko), is the name of the part of Nikko area around Lake Chuzenji. This small scenic town is known as a summer resort area, due to its cooler temperatures and high elevation.

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    Japan's Romantic Road

    by Ewingjr98 Written Jun 11, 2013

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    Germany has a "Romantic Road," that is so named because it loosely follows an ancient Roman route connecting a number of historic cities such as Würzburg, Augsburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen, and Neuschwanstein Castle and the Alps.

    Japan, too, has a route called the Romantic Road, but I don't think ancient Romans ever traveled this far from home. Both roads are approximately 350 kilometers, and they both connect some historic towns and travel through mountains. Interestingly enough, Japan's Romantic Road even has some signs in German that read "Romatische-Strasse."

    Japan's Romantic Road is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage site at Nikko, as well as scenic mountains, lakes, and falls.

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    Nantai-san (Mount Nantai)

    by Ewingjr98 Updated Jun 11, 2013

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    Mount Nantai near Nikko is a dormant volcano that stands 2,486 meters above sea level. The mountain has long been a source of mysticism and superstition for the Japanese, as the mountain was seen as providing life-giving water to the farms and villages in every direction. Some early Shinto shrines were associated with Mount Nantai, and the mountain is supposed to house the spirit that is worshiped in Futarasan Shrine in Nikko. Futarasan was an ancient name for Nantai-san.

    Nantai-san is famous for its spiritual animism and its hiking trails. The east side of mountain, as viewed from an overlook on Rt 120, is experiencing the geographical phenomenon called slump (settling and sliding of the earth), and has been shored up with expensive erosion prevention and water channeling projects.

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    Futarasan jinja

    by Ewingjr98 Updated Jun 10, 2013

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    Futarasan jinja (二荒山神社) is a famous Shinto shrine in Nikko. It was founded in 767 by a priest named Shōtō and is named after Mount Nantai, which is also called Futarasan (二荒山). Ancient Japanese felt that the mountains were home to the gods, therefore they were worshiped like gods.

    The best part of this shrine is a spring called Futara Spiritual Spring. Why is this spring so wonderful? First, it is believed to cure eye diseases. Even better, the water is said to make very tasty sake. At the tea house next door, you can try green tea made from this spiritual spring.

    Visiting the small shrines and Spiritual Spring behind the main temple will cost 300 Yen per adult. It also costs 200 Yen to tour the main building, called the Honsha, but you can also take off your shoes and duck your head in for a few photos for free.

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    Rinno-ji Temple

    by Ewingjr98 Updated Jun 7, 2013

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    Rinno-ji Temple is Buddhist temple complex with 15 buildings. This was established as a Buddhist site in 766. Sanbutsudoh Hall is the most famous building, and it houses three gold Buddha Statues. Surrounding the temple is a large Japanese garden.

    As of 2013, the Sanbutsudoh Hall is undergoing a major renovation effort, expected to last until about 2021. Therefore, the temple is open, but shrouded in a giant temporary structure made of scaffolding.

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    Taiyuin Mausoleum

    by Ewingjr98 Updated Jun 7, 2013

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    Taiyuin Mausoleum was begun in 1652 and completed in fourteen months. This is the final resting place for the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, the grandson of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, for whom Toshu-gu was constructed. It is said that Iemitsu wanted to be buried in Nikko so he could continue to serve his grandfather even in death. Of note, Iemitsu is known for closing Japan's borders, which lasted for about 200 years until the Meiji Restoration.

    Taiyuin Mausoleum was built to the southwest of the Tosho-gu Shrine. The temple sits in a narrow valley filled with tall trees, so it has a dark, quiet atmosphere. Near the shrine's entrance you will find a trail that takes you up into the mountains.

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    Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine

    by Ewingjr98 Written Jun 7, 2013

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    Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine is the most important of all of the Tosho-gu Shrines in Japan. Built in 1617, during the Edo Period, the temple and its structures are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Additionally, five structures and two swords at Tosho-gu are designated as National Treasures of Japan, and three other buildings are listed as Important Cultural Properties.

    According to the Nikko Tourist Association, the temple cost 40 trillion Yen ($400 million) in today's currency, adjusted for inflation. This site also claims 4.5 million people participation in the construction effort, and the temple took just one and half years to complete.

    The five story pagoda stands 36 meters tall. It waas constructed in 1650, but it burned in 1815 and was rebuilt in 1818.

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