Just an hour or so north of Tokyo by train lies the town of Nikko, famous for its complex of centuries-old temples which showcase the best of medieval Japanese architecture. Many of the ornate, intricately carved buildings are designated as national treasures as well as being a Unesco World Heritage site. If you’re interested in Buddhism and Shintoism then you should definitely visit Nikko.
One of the first famous things that you’ll see in Nikko is the Shinkyo bridge which dates from 1636. You can pay a fee to cross the bridge which is just by the entrance to the shrine complex. Even if you don’t cross it, it makes for an obligatory photo stop.
There are several different shrines at the complex and all are administered separately. We visited two of them – Rinnoji temple and the Toshugo shrine. There are two more shrines just next to the Toshugo shrine so it depends how much you like visiting temples and mausoleums as to how many you choose to visit.
Just by the entrance to the shrine complex you shouldn’t miss the peaceful Shoyoen garden which is a great spot for autumn colour. We’d chosen November to come to Japan especially to view the leaves and we weren’t disappointed. Japanese maples surround a small lake which you can walk around spotting little shrines as you go.
Next to Shoyoen garden we found the Rinnoji temple – the most important in Nikko. It was founded in the 8th century by the monk who first introduced Buddhism to Nikko. Inside the main building are three statues of the mountain deities of Nikko. There is also a night tour around this part of the complex which adds extra atmosphere. We found this area to be the least crowded – everyone was making their way up to Toshugo shrine.
A long path took us through the woods and uphill towards Toshugo shrine, the most famous in the temple complex. The shrine was built in the 1600s and is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled over Japan for 250 years until 1868. Ieyasu is credited with uniting different factions together in peace and laying the foundations of modern Japan.
His shrine is made up of about 50 buildings including storehouses, arches, gates and stables in addition to the main shrine building. The shrine is unusual in Japan as the buildings are so ornately carved and decorated with gold leaf, so you won’t see anything else quite like it.
We first passed a five-storey pagoda which sits just through the entrance gate to the shrine before reaching the storehouses which are covered with elaborate decoration. There are lots of famous carvings to keep an eye out for so don’t miss the three monkeys, the elephants (which were carved by an artist who had never seen them) and the sleeping cat. There is also a sacred stable so try to catch a glimpse of the sacred white horse who lives inside.
Beyond the storehouses is the famous Yomeimon gate which is possibly the most ornate structure in Japan. Set at the top of a flight of steps to appear more imposing, it is covered with gilded dragons and intricate carvings. Passing under the gate we walked around to the main shrine building. It was very busy here and a wedding was taking place. I did wonder if the wedding was the reason for the crowds, but I suspect it was just a typical day there. We had to queue for quite a while to get a look at the main building. While this didn’t make for a particularly peaceful visit we were glad we’d made the effort as we certainly didn’t see anything else similar in Japan.
Other sights in Nikko
There is more to Nikko than shrines. We looked around the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, a restored palace museum which I have covered in another post. Next to the Villa you can find botanical gardens, and of course gardens in Japan are usually worth looking at.
We were staying near to the Daiyagawa river which cuts its way through the hills around Nikko. Just along from our hotel there is a beautiful but eerie path through a gorge lined with Jizo statues. These statues are said to protect travellers and unborn children. They have various nicknames including “ghost Jizo” as it is said that you will never count the same total twice.
There are plenty of hiking opportunities around Nikko and we took an afternoon walk in search of waterfalls and more autumn colour. This walk was much more peaceful than looking around the packed shrine. There are other, more spectacular waterfalls in the area near to Lake Chuzenjiko in the mountains above the town. Unfortunately we didn’t have enough time to visit the lake or the nearby onsen baths.
Know before you go
Some of the buildings at Toshugo are currently under renovation and cannot be viewed – this includes the Yumeimon gate and the Sanbutsudo building at Rinnoji temple.
Nikko is easily reached by train from Tokyo. There are various options including the direct Tobu line from Asakusa station. JR passes are not valid on the Tobu line but they offer Nikko packages including transport on local buses. Alternatively you can use JR lines Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno stations and change for Nikko at Utsonomiya. We had JR passes and took this option.
You could try to visit in a day trip if you’re pressed for time and I’d recommend the Toshugo shrine above anything else. We stayed for one night and got everything done before we left for Hakone in the afternoon.
We stayed at Turtle Inn ryokan which is near to the shrines, Tamozawa Villa and botanical garden, and the Jizo statues.
There are plenty of restaurants and bars in Nikko itself. As vegetarians we managed to find something to eat after a little difficulty!