Nikko has a lot going for it: Beautiful nature, enjoyed in every season, and the great honor of being called the true Japan. There is also quite a bit of history nestled away in Nikko, such as in the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, a great feat of architecture that attracts visitors from near and far to its hallowed gates.
Real quick history lesson as to why this place is so important: Tokugawa Ieyasu, along with Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi, unified Japan for a bit, had a hard time deciding on who exactly would be ruling, ending with Ieyasu on the throne and leading the Tokugawa Shogunate. This shogunate ruled from 1600 until the Meiji Restoration all the way in 1868.
After his death, his son and grandson (Hidetada and Iemitsu) enlarged the shrine. Ieyasu is entombed there, which makes the shrine act as a mausoleum. He is also enshrined there, essentially deified in the Shinto faith, allowing the faithful and pilgrims from afar to come and worship him. His name at the shrine, for future reference, is Tosho Daigongen. Shinto has a history of deifying, or creating saints, all over Japan, most controversially in Yasukuni.
The shrine is home to many impressive features but a few stand out from the rest in the large mountain complex.
Mizaru: The Three Wise Monkeys
Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. This is a famous symbol present in both Chinese and Japanese culture and the depiction of the story at Toshogu is probably the most famous in all of Japan. It tells the story of a human’s life with the metaphor of the monkey going through its own life. Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil comes from the second panel and extolls the virtues of pure children who avoid evil during the springtime of their youth. There’s also a pun in the Japanese name: Mi (to look) and zaru (negative form) means “not to look,” like one of the monkeys, but zaru is also the word for monkey. Plus, the word Mi can also be used as a counting number for “three,” so there might be another layer there. Puns are appreciated across all languages here!
Yomeimon Gate and Karamon Gate
It’s big, it’s ellaborate, and it contains too many symbols and stories to capture in a single post. The one cool thing I liked was the reverse column, which was made becaus the architects and culture of the time believed that things made by man should never be perfect, thus, imperfections were engineered into their work. Just past Yoreimon Gate is Karamon Gate, which has some exquisite word carvings in its columns and bargeboard!
The tricky thing here is that there are no cameras allowed inside, as it is an active place of worship. The inside is very much like most Shinto shrines you’ll see across Japan, with lectures about the history of the shrine and its importance held somewhat frequently in the main hall. There is also a nice gift shop which has incredible ties with traditional Japanes patterning. They were, unfortunately, 5000 yen, which was outside my budget for that trip. One day!
Next Stop: Nikko
I also compiled a travel video for the Toshogu area on my YouTube channel for your viewing pleasure:
If you enjoy history and fine architecture of a more ornate style, Toshogu is definitely for you. You will have to pay a 1300 yen fee to enter the shrine grounds, but you can easily spend hours there. I recommend picking up the audio tour for 500 yen. ProTip: Get one and two people can share the earbuds and enjoy the information together!