If you make one trip from Tokyo, it should be to the pilgrim town of Nikkō (日光) where the World Heritage-listed Tōshō-gū shrine complex sits amid mountains crisscrossed by outstanding hiking trails within the Nikkō National Park. Tōshō-gū attracts masses of Japanese tourists year-round, who tramp dutifully around the shrine and the surrounding holy buildings. After you’ve done the same, it’s worth investigating the far less crowded Nikkō Tōshō-gū Museum of Art, and the Nikkō Tamozawa Imperial-villa Memorial Park, then crossing the Daiya-gawa to explore the dramatically named Ganman-ga-fuchi abyss, which is in fact a tranquil riverside walk. The most beautiful parts of the national park are around Chūzenji-ko lake, some 17km from Nikkō.
With a very early start it’s possible to see both Tōshō-gū and Chūzenji-ko in a long day-trip from Tokyo, but to get the most out of the journey it’s best to stay overnight; cramming both places into one day during the peak summer and autumn seasons is impossible.
First impressions of Nikkō as you come out of either train station aren’t great – the uphill approach to the shrine is lined with tatty shops and houses. However, the walk along the town’s main street takes no more than fifteen minutes.
At the top of the main street is one of the town’s most famous landmarks, the red-lacquered Shin-kyō bridge (神橋). Legend has it that when the Buddhist priest Shōdō Shōnin visited Nikkō in the eighth century he was helped across the Daiya-gawa at this very spot by the timely appearance of two snakes, who formed a bridge and then vanished. The original arched wooden structure first went up in 1636, but has been reconstructed many times since. Unless you must have a close-up shot of the bridge, there’s little need to pay the entrance fee, as the structure is clearly visible from the road.
Take the left-hand path uphill across from the bridge and you’ll emerge in front of the main compound of Rinnō-ji (輪王寺), a Tendai Buddhist temple founded in 766 by Shōdō Shōnin; his statue stands on a rock at the entrance. The large, red-painted hall, Sanbutsu-dō, houses three giant gilded statues: the thousand-handed Kannon, the Amida Buddha and the fearsome horse-headed Kannon. It’s worth paying to view these awe-inspiring figures from directly beneath their lotus-flower perches (entry is included in the combination ticket, which you can buy at the booth outside). Rinnō-ji’s Treasure House (Hōmotsuden; 宝物殿), opposite the Sanbutsu-dō, has some interesting items on display, but its nicest feature is the attached Shōyō-en, an elegant garden with a path around a small pond.
Although Nikkō has been a holy place in both the Buddhist and Shinto religions for over a thousand years, its fortunes only took off with the death of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1616. In his will, the shogun requested that a shrine be built here in his honour. However, the complex, completed in 1617, was deemed not nearly impressive enough by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who ordered work to begin on the elaborate decorative mausoleum seen today.
Iemitsu’s dazzling vision had an underlying purpose. The shogun wanted to stop rival lords amassing money of their own, so he ordered the daimyō to supply the materials for the shrine, and to pay the thousands of craftsmen. The mausoleum, Tōshō-gū, was completed in 1634 and the jury has been out on its over-the-top design ever since. Whatever you make of it, Tōshō-gū – along with the slightly more restrained Taiyūin-byō mausoleum of Iemitsu – is entirely successful at conveying the immense power and wealth of the Tokugawa dynasty.
Despite its popularity as a tourist destination today, barely a century ago Nikkō, in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, was running to seed. It was foreign diplomats and businesspeople who began to favour it as a highland retreat from the heat of the Tokyo summer in the 1870s.
Ten kilometres west of Nikkō lies Chūzenji-ko (中禅寺湖) and the dramatic Kegon Falls (華厳の滝) that flow from it. Frequent local buses (¥1100 each way) usually take less than an hour to get here, running east from the train stations in Nikkō along Route 120 and up the twisting, one-way road to reach Chūzenji, the lakeside resort, though travelling times can easily be doubled – or even tripled – during kōyō in mid-October, the prime time for viewing the changing autumn leaves, when it’s bumper-to-bumper traffic.
Both the lake and waterfalls were created thousands of years ago, when nearby Mount Nantai (男体山; 2486m) erupted, its lava plugging the valley. Walking west along the shore for around 1km will bring you to the second Futarasan-jinja (二荒山神社) of the Nikkō area. This colourful shrine, which once bore the name now adopted by the town, has a pretty view of the lake, but is nothing extraordinary. There’s also a third Futarasan-jinja, on the summit of the sacred volcano of Nantai-san, which is owned by the shrine. To reach it you’ll have to pay ¥500 and hike up the 2484m peak; it takes around four hours and should only be attempted in good weather.
A trip around Tōshō-gū is likely to quench your appetite for sightseeing, but it’s worth pressing on to some of the other temples and shrines in the surrounding woods. On leaving the main shrine, take the path next to Tōshō-gū’s pagoda, and head west to the Futarasan-jinja (二荒山神社), whose simple red colour scheme comes as a relief to the senses. This shrine, originally established by the priest Shōdō Shōnin in 782, is the main one dedicated to the deity of Nantai-san, the volcano whose eruption created nearby Chūzenji-ko. There are some good paintings of animals and birds on votive plaques in the shrine’s main hall, while the attached garden (¥200) offers a quiet retreat, with a small teahouse serving macha green tea and sweets for ¥350. You can also inspect the bakemono tōrō, a “phantom lantern” made of bronze in 1292 and said to be possessed by demons.
Just beyond Futarasan-jinja, and bypassed by the tourist mêlée, is the charming Taiyūin-Reibyō (大猷院霊廟), which contains the mausoleum of the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who died in 1651. This complex – part of Rinnō-ji and hidden away on a hillside, surrounded by lofty pines – was deliberately designed to be less ostentatious than Tōshō-gū. Look out for the green god of wind and the red god of thunder in the alcoves behind the Niten-mon gate, and the beautiful Kara-mon (Chinese-style gate) and fence surrounding the gold and black lacquer inner precincts.
In stark contrast to Nikkō’s temples and shrines is the Zen-like simplicity of the beautifully restored Nikkō Tamozawa Imperial Villa (日光田母沢御用邸記念公園). A ten-minute walk west of the Shin-kyō bridge along the main road, this 106-room residence, surrounded by manicured gardens (including a 400-year-old weeping cherry tree), combines buildings of widely different heritage, some parts dating back to 1632. Three emperors have lived in it, including Akihito, who was evacuated here during World War II. As you stroll the corridors, take time to appreciate the intricate details and the gorgeous screen paintings.
Another tranquil escape is close at hand. From the villa, take the road heading south down to the Daiya-gawa; five minutes’ walk west along the river is the Ganman-bashi, a small bridge across from which begins the riverside pathway through the Ganman-ga-fuchi abyss (含満ヶ淵). Part of this walk, along the attractive and rocky river valley, is lined by the Narabi-jizō, some fifty decaying stone statues of Jizō, the Buddhist saint of travellers and children.
Before rushing off, check out the Nikkō Tōshō-gū Museum of Art (日光東照宮美術館), at the back of the shrine complex, to the left as you walk out of the Omote-mon gate. This traditional, impressively simple wooden mansion dates from 1928 and is the former head office of the shrine. Inside, the sliding doors and screens were decorated by the top Japanese painters of the day and together constitute one of the most beautiful collections of this type of art that you’ll see in Japan.
Not far east of here are the grounds of Meiji-no-Yakata (明治の館), the early twentieth-century holiday home of the American trade representative F.W. Horne. The various houses amid the trees are now fancy restaurants, but it’s worth wandering around even if you don’t eat here to take in the pretty gardens and sylvan setting.
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.