Broad, tree-lined Omotesandō leads up to the main entrance to Tōshō-gū (東照宮), just to the west of Rinnō-ji. You’ll pass under a giant stone torii gate (one of the few remaining features of the original 1617 shrine), while on the left is an impressive red and green five-storey pagoda, an 1819 reconstruction of a 1650 original, which burned down.
Inside the precincts, turn left to reach the Three Sacred Storehouses (Sanjinko) on the right and the Sacred Stables (Shinkyūsha) on the left, where you’ll spot Tōshō-gū’s most famous painted woodcarvings – the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys, which represent the three major principles of Tendai Buddhism. The route leads to the steps up to the dazzling Yōmei-mon (Sun Blaze Gate), with wildly ornate carvings, gilt and intricate decoration. A belfry and drum tower stand alone in front of the gate. Behind the drum tower is the Honji-dō. This small hall is part of Rinnō-ji temple and contains a ceiling painting of a “roaring dragon”; a priest will demonstrate how to make the dragon roar by standing beneath its head and clapping to create an echo.
It’s better to see the roaring dragon rather than fork out ¥520 for the less impressive sleeping cat (nemuri neko) beyond the Yōmei-mon. You’d easily miss this minute carving, just above the Sakashita-mon gate to the right of the inner precinct, if it wasn’t for the gawping crowd. Two hundred stone steps lead uphill from the gate to the surprisingly unostentatious tomb of Ieyasu, amid a glade of pines, and about the only corner of the shrine where tourists are generally absent.
Directly in front of the Yōmei-mon is the serene white and gold gate of Kara-mon, beyond which is the Haiden, or hall of worship. The side entrance to the hall is to the right of the gate; you’ll need to remove your shoes and stop taking photographs. Inside, you can walk down into the Honden, the shrine’s central hall, still decorated with its beautiful original paintwork.
Every year, on May 18, the Grand Festival re-stages the spectacular burial of Ieyasu at Tōshō-gū, with a cast of over one thousand costumed priests and warriors taking part in a colourful procession through the shrine grounds, topped off with horseback archery. It’s well worth attending, as is its smaller-scale cousin (also called the Grand Festival) on October 17, which doesn’t have the archery and only lasts half a day, and the “Light Up Nikkō” event (end of Oct, beginning of Nov), during which the major temple buildings are illuminated at night to great effect.