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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Best Rated Things to Do in Nikko

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    Shinkyo (Sacred or Snake Bridge) (3 photos)

    by nicolaitan Written Nov 29, 2005

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    The first shrine in Nikko was built by a Buddhist priest named Shodo Shonin 1200 years ago. Legend states that he crossed the Baiya River pictured here on the back of two snakes, one red and one green, thrown in the air by an old man. The bridge was first built in 1636 for use by the shogun and his party only. Destroyed by flooding, the current bridge was rebuiilt in 1907. It is the property of the Futarasan Shrine and is the first cultural highlight encountered on entering the shrine area from the village of Nikko.

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    Toshogu Shrine

    by tigerjapan Written Jan 22, 2005

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    The first-time I saw Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine I was truly in awe. This magnificent Shrine honours the spirit of Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate (1603-1868). Many of Japan’s best artists and carpenters were brought together to design and construct this shrine. It took about 12 and a half years to build and was completed in 1639 under the rule of Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu.
    One of the most interesting things about this structure is the unique way it blends the architectural accents of both the Shrine and the Temple styles.
    You enter The Shrine through The Yomeimon Gate. This colourful gate features more than 400 ornate wood carvings. Other ornate wood carvings of interest are the famous three see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil monkeys, which can be seen on the Sacred Stable (Shinkyusha) and the sleeping cat (which sleeps realistically along the Eastern Corridor). It is said that these carvings may well have been done by Jingoro Hidari. Hidari features in many legends and was a famous artist of his time.

    Address: Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture

    Website: http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3801.html

    The Famous
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    Shinkyo Bridge

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 15, 2014

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    This distinctive red bridge is something of a symbol for Nikko. It belongs to the Futarasan Shrine (not, as may seem more likely, the slightly nearer Tosho-gu) and is the oldest bridge built over a gorge in Japan. It dates originally (in this form) from 1636. In 1902, during restoration works it was destroyed by the river and it was reconstructed in 1904. The most recent restoration was in 2005.

    It is 28 metres long and 7.4 metres wide and spans the river at a height of 10.6 metres above the water. It was designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural property in December 1999.

    This was the first bridge to be built over the Daiya river in Nikko, and its construction is linked to an interesting legend:

    It is said that around the year 766, the Priest Shodo Shonin together with ten disciples tried to cross the Daiya river, at the place where today this bridge stands. They were unable to cross the river because of the strong currents, so the priest fell on his knees and prayed. Suddenly, the God of the River, Jinja-Daio appeared before him and said that he would help him to cross. The god released two snakes over the river, one red and one blue; their bodies transformed into a bridge and sedge sprouted on their back, allowing the party to cross. After they had crossed the river they looked back; Jinja-daiou and the bridge had already disappeared.

    That’s why when it was rebuilt in the form we know today, during the time of Empress Meishō, it was considered sacred, and ordinary people were allowed only to look at the bridge, but had to cross the river on a different one nearby. Only the Empress, a few generals and Imperial messengers were allowed to use Shinko. This interdiction remained in place until modern times when, 40 years ago, the bridge was transformed into an open-air museum. And now everyone can cross it, for a fee of 500¥.

    We didn’t do this ourselves but watched as a succession of proud Japanese tourists (some of them in traditional costume) solemnly strolled from the town end of the bridge to the shrine end, paused to pose for photos, and then strolled back again. You see, while you can nowadays walk across the bridge, you can’t actually use it as a means of crossing the river because the far end is closed (I assume to ensure that everyone pays their 500¥). So to cross the river you do still need to do as ordinary people did for centuries and use the parallel bridge that now carries the road traffic too.

    We came past here a few times and on one occasion by night, when the bridge is nicely illuminated and the scene more tranquil – a great photo opportunity. But for now it is time to leave the bridge and start to explore Nikko’s greatest treasures, the shrines, starting with Tosho-gu

    Directions: At the far end of the main street from the two stations, near the bus stop for the shrines

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    The Three Monkeys

    by nicolaitan Updated Dec 2, 2005

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    The famous carving of the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys is located within the Toshogu shrine on the Shinyosha or Sacred Stable. It is the most well-known of a series of 8 monkey carvings on this building (had I only known). The panels follow the course of a human life from child to parenthood. The monkeys are on a stable because in ancient times monkeys were considered the guardians of horses.

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    Yomeimon Gate (5 photos)

    by nicolaitan Updated Dec 2, 2005

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    this magnificent gate is the masterpiece of the Toshogu shrine, named after an Imperial Gate in Kyoto. It is over 30 feet high and has over 500 sculptures. Many are of animals both real (giraffe, tapir) while others are of imaginary animals like horse-dragon and flying dragons. Three detail photographs of the shrine are included in this set.

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    Toshogu Shrine: Shinkyu

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 14, 2014

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    In contrast to the other buildings in this part of the complex, such as the storehouses described in my previous tip, the Shinkyu or Sacred Stable is relatively plain – probably the least adorned building in Tosho-gu. Yet it contains its most famous single carving, that of the Three Wise Monkeys – "See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil".

    In fact, there is a frieze of eight monkey carvings. This frieze is known as a Sansaru and its panels function something like a picture book, telling the story of a monkey’s upbringing and way of life. Other images show scenes such as a mother caring for a youngster; a young monkey on his own, newly independent; a pair of monkeys; and a pregnant monkey. You can see all eight on this website. But everyone wants to see and to photograph this one, and you will have to wait your turn (remember my warning about the crowds that flock to Tosho-gu? Well, most of them are here to see this!)

    The monkey has been treated as a guardian of horse since early times and at one time there would have been a monkey actually kept in the stable. Today there is no live monkey, but the stable is home to two sacred white horses. Or rather, a temporary home, as the horses live “off site” and merely visit each day, for two and a half hours, taking it in turns to serve the shrine in this way. We were here as one arrived so had a good chance to take photos (see photo three) before he settled into the stable for the day.

    Different horses have served the shrine over the years but they must always be white. A notice outside the stable explained more about the current horses and their role:
    “Toshogu Shrine owns two sacred horses. One is “Kotuku” meaning “White Heron” in the New Zealand native Maori language. He is the third sacred horse donated by the New Zealand Government as a token of goodwill and friendship between the two countries. He is the only horse donated from overseas serving at a shrine in Japan at present.
    The other horse is “Fukuisami”, meaning “good luck and bravery” in Japanese. He is the second sacred horse donated by the Japanese Racing Association to the Toshogu Shrine.
    Each of these sacred horses takes turns serving the Shrine in this sacred stable for only two and a half hours a day. They spend the rest of the time, attended by a dedicated stablemaster and master horseman, at a nearby modern stable which is attached to an outdoor practice ground.”

    Beyond the Shinkyu is the Omizuya or cistern.

    Directions: On your left after passing through Omotemon

    Website: http://www.toshogu.jp/english/

    Arriving for duty In the stable
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    Toshogu Shrine: Sanjinko

    by toonsarah Written Jan 14, 2014

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    Beyond the Omotemon is an open area surrounded by smaller buildings, almost all of them richly carved. Three of these are known as the Sanjinko or Three Sacred Storehouses. To your right is Shimojinko (Lower Sacred Storehouse), in front of you Nakajinko (Middle Sacred Storehouse) and to the left of that, as you face it, is Kamijinko (Upper Sacred Storehouse). These are used to store the various harnesses and 1,200 costumes used in the Procession of a Thousand Samurai (Sennin Musha Gyoretsu), held each year in May and October. They also store the equipment for Yabusame contests (archery on horseback) which take place at the same time. The Sanjinko are open for viewing for one week each before the Spring and Autumn Festivals – I think we had unfortunately just missed the latter (but see this good description).

    All three storehouses are designated Important Cultural Properties and all are ornately carved, but the most striking and consequently most photographed is Kamijinko. Large carvings of elephant adorn its gable. They are known as the “Imaginary Elephants” because the artist, Kano Tanyu, would never have seen the real thing. He drew them from his imagination having heard accounts and descriptions, and really didn’t do a bad job under those circumstances – just think how hard it would be to conceive of an animal that looked like an elephant if you had never come across any, or any picture of one! OK the ears and tails are weird, but apart from that it’s pretty close.

    Facing the middle and upper storehouses across this space is one of the best known of Tosho-gu’s 55 buildings, the Sacred Stable or Shinkyu

    Directions: Beyond the Omotemon in front of you and to your right

    Website: http://www.toshogu.jp/english/

    Kamijinko Shimojinko
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    Toshogu Shrine: the Five-storied Pagoda

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 14, 2014

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    Inside the Ishidorii the first building you come to, on your left, is the Five-storied Pagoda or Gojunoto. This is designated as an Important Cultural Property by the government of Japan. The Gojunoto Pagoda was dedicated in 1648 by Sakai Tadakatsu, the feudal lord of Obama in Wakasa Province (present day Fukui Prefecture). But the one that stands here today built in 1818 to replace that earlier one which was destroyed by fire in 1815.

    The pagoda stands 35 metres high. It is carefully constructed to withstand earthquakes and strong winds. It has no internal floors and a central column is suspended by a chain from the fourth storey to support the ones below. This doesn’t rest on any foundations but instead is free to sway, thus functioning as a dynamic counterweight and also allowing for the wood to shrink or expand.

    The pagoda’s five stories, from top to bottom, represent sky, fire, earth, water and wind, as well as the five Buddhas of wisdom. It is decorated with the 12 signs of the Chinese zodiac on the first storey (see the tiger in photo four). You can go inside on payment of a small additional fee but we opted not to, wanting to press on and see the main shrine complex, and unfortunately I didn’t note the price.

    Beyond the pagoda you come to the ticket office, and to the official entrance to the shrine, the Omotermon Gate.

    Directions: On your left as you approach Tosho-gu

    Website: http://www.toshogu.jp/english/

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    Toshogu Shrine: general information

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 14, 2014

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    There is one sight that every visitor to Nikko comes to see, and that is the Toshogu Shrine. And rightly so. This flamboyantly ornamented, intricately carved, riotously coloured collection of buildings will blow your mind!

    The shrine is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It was Ieyasu who established Tokyo as the seat of government of a (more or less) unified Japan. A perhaps surprising choice for deification, he was brutal and bloodthirsty in pursuit of power; even members of his own family died at his hands. It was he too who established the trade monopolies that resulted in the almost total isolation of Japan from the rest of the world for over two centuries.

    Ieyasu had expressed the wish to be deified after his death in order to protect his descendants from evil. He died in 1616 and his remains were originally buried at the Gongens' mausoleum at Kunōzan, but a year later were reburied here at Toshogu. It was his grandson Iemitsu who, in 1834, ordered the construction of the complex of 55 buildings we see today in order to fulfil Ieyasu’s dying wish:
    "Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan."
    He chose Nikko because of its location north of Edo. The north was considered the taboo direction, inhabited by demons. By placing himself there, Ieyasu hoped to protect Japan from evil and ensure long life for the Tokugawa government and eternal peace for the nation.

    Whether these 55 buildings can be considered a “small shrine” is another matter! It took 15,000 workers to build them, but they did so in an impressive one year, five months! The shrine complex was registered as a World Heritage site in December 1999, and most of the individual buildings are designated as either “an Important Cultural Property” or “a National Treasure” by the Japanese government. Almost all are covered with an explosion of colour and every surface is carved – there are 5,173 carvings in total!

    The shrine is open every day of the year, from 8.00 – 17.00 in the summer months (April to October) and 8.00 – 16.00 in the winter. Last admission is 30 minutes before closing but I wouldn’t leave it that late – you need a minimum of an hour to see it properly, preferably two or more.

    Admission when we visited (October 2013) was 1,300¥. You may see references to a combination ticket for this and the other shrines but at the time of our visit that was suspended as the various sites hadn’t been able to agree a price. Check when you pay what the current situation is if you plan to visit more than one. I’d also read that there was a supplementary payment to see some parts of Toshogu (such as Ieyasu’s mausoleum and the famous “sleeping cat”) but our tickets covered the whole complex. Again, check when you buy.

    The photos attached to this tip were all taken on the approach to Toshogu, by the way. I have no idea of the purpose of the small procession we witnessed – there must have been a special event happening somewhere but we never saw anything more of it than this.

    There is so much to see here (and so many photos to take and share) that I’ve broken it down into a series of shorter tips. But before we start to explore, a warning.

    Directions: Cross the bridge over the Daiya at the top of the main street and walk up the steps almost opposite by the World Heritage stone shown in my first photo

    Website: http://www.toshogu.jp/english/

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    Kanmangafuchi Abyss

    by toonsarah Written Jan 15, 2014

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    Most day trippers to Nikko come, rightly, to see its magnificent shrines, but if you’re here for any longer you really shouldn’t miss a visit to the so-called Kanmangafuchi Abyss. While “abyss” is rather a grand term for what is essentially a small gorge, it’s a scenic spot and one which you’ll probably share with only a handful of other tourists rather than the hordes who visit Toshogu etc.

    The gorge was formed about 7,000 years ago by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Since then the river Daiya has been carving these huge boulders into dramatic shapes as it tumbles over them. This area has been considered a sacred place since ancient times, because Fudo-Myo-O (a manifestation of the Cosmic Buddha) once appeared to people from the deep waters of the river. The name of the abyss, “Kanman”, comes from the murmuring sound of the river, which the Priest Kokai likened to an incantation chanted by Fudo-Myo-O of which the last word was “kanman”.

    A riverside path (easy walking but with some steps) follows the water upstream. On your left as you walk are the famous Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi (see next tip) and on your right this tumbling stream. When we were here (third week in October) the leaves were turning and despite the dull weather there were some glowing colours that contrasted nicely with the rushing white waters. It really is a very photogenic spot.

    Part way along is the small building seen on the right in my main photo. This is Reihi-Kaku, formerly a Buddhist Gomadan (Alter of Holy Fire) which a priest, Kokai, built at the time of the foundation of the nearby Jiunji Temple. It was used to burn a holy fire facing a stone image of Fudo-Myo-O, located on the opposite bank. The Reihi-kaku was washed away by floods in 1902, and today's building is a 1971 reconstruction. The fire no longer burns here however.

    Beyond Reihi-Kaku and the Bake-Jizō the path ascends some steps past a small graveyard and through trees to emerge just below a main road. There are a couple of stone seats here but the views aren’t as good as from lower down, so you will probably want to simply turn and retrace your steps, as we did, for another chance to marvel at and photograph the Bake-Jizō

    Directions: Easier to find than to explain! See location on Google maps. About 10/15 minutes’ walk from Shinkyo Bridge or get a taxi from town

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    The 5 Story Chinese Pagoda (2 photos)

    by nicolaitan Written Dec 2, 2005

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    this remarkable structure is dedicated to the 5-Wisdom Buddha. Originally built in the 1600's, it was reconstructed in the early 1800's incorporating an anti-earthquake technique by which the central pillar floats above the ground. Animal sculptures on the lower levels indicate the zodiac signs.

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    The Bake-Jizō of Kanmangafuchi

    by toonsarah Updated Jan 15, 2014

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    As soon as I saw photos of these haunting statues I knew I had to see them for myself. Commonly referred to as Hyaku Jizō, meaning the “100 Jizō”, there are in fact around 70 or 80 here as some were washed away in the 1902 flood. I say “around 70 or 80” because it is said that no one knows the exact number. A legend says that each time they are counted, the result is different – hence their other name, Bake-Jizō , meaning “Ghost Jizō ". Of course the more rational visitor may conclude that the reason for all the discrepancies when counting is that so many have been badly damaged that they are now little more than a pedestal or pile of stones, and therefore no one can be sure whether or not to count them. But the legend is more captivating!

    Another name sometimes used is Narabi Jizō, Jizō in a line, which is self-evident. They line one side of the path, facing the river, as if standing guard over the abyss. And in fact, standing guard is exactly what they are doing. Jizō is a Buddhist divinity, the guardian of children, and in particular, children who die before their parents. He is sometimes worshipped as the guardian of the souls of mizuko, the souls of stillborn, miscarried or aborted foetuses, in the ritual of mizuko kuyō, as I wrote about in my Tokyo tip about the Chingodo shrine in Asakusa.

    I have read several explanations for the practice of putting red bibs and caps on these statues. One suggests that this custom is primarily associated with a child’s recovery from sickness (or preserving them from falling sick) and the red colour was originally associated particularly with smallpox. But also, putting bibs and hats on these statues is a way of nurturing the spirits with whom they are believed to be imbued. Expectant or worried parents knit these hats and bibs for the statues and leave offerings of money for their children's well-being.

    We spent quite a lot of time taking photos of the statues, though had to wait a while to get the best ones as a man with a tripod had set up right in the middle and was in no rush to move on. But eventually we got all the images we wanted and were ready to move on and visit the nearby Joukouji Temple

    Directions: Easier to find than to explain! See location on Google maps. About 10/15 minutes’ walk from Shinkyo Bridge or get a taxi from town

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    Rinnoji Temple

    by nicolaitan Written Nov 30, 2005

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    this temple was founded by Shodo Shonin who introduced Buddhism to Japan in the eighth century. It houses 3 gold-lacquered wooden statues corresponding to the three mountain Shinto gods enshrined at the Futarason shrine nearby. Besides the hall of the 3 Buddhas, there is an adjacent classic garden and the Taiyuin Mausoleum dedicated to the thried Tokugawa shogun Iemetsu. It was a mecca for pilgrims and those training in religion.

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    Kamajinko (Upper Sacred Warehouse)(2 photos)

    by nicolaitan Written Dec 2, 2005

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    This ware house is used to 1200 costurmes for periodic Samurai parades as well as equipment for archery on horseback. It is most noteworthy for the elephant sculptures on the front gable. Seems the painter had never actually seen an elephant so the ears are all wrong. Now called "Imaginary Elephants"

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    Ishidorii - - The Giant Torii at Nikko (2 photos)

    by nicolaitan Written Dec 2, 2005

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    this huge torii is made of granite and is the largest of its kind in the world, measuring almost 30 feet high and dwarfing the other giant toriis in Kyoto and Kamakura. There are a group of steps leading up to the torii which are built as an optical illusion - the distance is much shorter than it appears from the bottom of the steps.

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Nikko Things to Do

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