Nikko: A Glimpse into the World of the Shoguns

Shoyoen garden in autumn

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.

Shinkyo bridge
Shinkyo bridge


Nikko’s shrines

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.

Shoyoen garden in autumn
Shoyoen garden in autumn

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.

Sanbutsudo building at Rinnoji temple
Sanbutsudo building at Rinnoji temple

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.

One of the shrine buildings lit at night
One of the shrine buildings lit at night

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.

The Yumeimon Gate viewed through a stone arch
The Yumeimon Gate viewed through a stone arch

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

Tamozawa Imperial Villa
Tamozawa Imperial Villa

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.

Jizo statues
Jizo statues

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.

Nikko waterfall
Nikko waterfall

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!

61 thoughts on “Nikko: A Glimpse into the World of the Shoguns

  1. Eric || The Bucket List Project says:

    wow, Nikko in Autumn is beautiful. Everytime I see pictures of Japan in fall the red colors just seem to fit perfectly. I had never heard of Nikko but it is definitely added to my Japan Bucket List! I think it would be great to spend the night because then you can get those night tours of the temple lit up

    • Emily Cole says:

      Thank you but I’m afraid photos don’t do it justice 😉 These photos were taken with just a normal point and shoot camera, nothing fancy. It’s been replaced since and I can’t remember what it was!

  2. Juliette | Snorkels To Snow says:

    Ah, my Japan wanderlust is getting stronger and stronger every day! I’m gutted we will only have a few days in Tokyo on our upcoming trip because we’ll be skiing at Niseko the majority of our time – not that I’m complaining about that! But we had to cut short our Tokyo trip due to my husband’s work commitments requiring us to come home earlier than we had planned so we won’t get much of a chance to explore the surrounding areas. But there’s always next time!

  3. durhamslovelifetravel says:

    oh wow, Nikko is beautiful! I’d love to see the fall colors of the Maple trees! This is such great timing as we are heading to Japan in January and thinking about what we will do in the short time we are there! I’d prefer to go in summer but I imagine Winter will be just as beautiful!

  4. Neha says:

    I am not just a traveler but a painter as well. And I love vibrant shades all coming together. Now, you can imagine how much I loved this place looking at your pictures and going through your account. The shades of the trees are superb and so are the temples and their lightings. I wish to add it to my bucket list

  5. EG III says:

    Great looking place. I’m guessing either spring or fall are the best times to go so I can see why you chose November. I always recommend for visitors to Japan to try to venture outside of Tokyo for a more authentic experience and it looks like Nikko has plenty to offer along those lines

    • Emily Cole says:

      We were really delighted with the garden – one of the best places for autumn colour I’ve been. I’d really recommend Japan if you get the chance!

    • Emily Cole says:

      I agree, I always like to spend at least a night at a new destination. Otherwise I feel too rushed. I could have spent a lot longer in Nikko.

  6. Fair Dinkum Traveller says:

    I love nothing more than visiting ancient buildings like the ones in Nikko. The history, the culture, tradition. It is a real eye opener. By the looks of Nikko is very beautiful indeed and that waterfall is stunning. Thanks for the great article.

  7. Fairytale Studios says:

    Wow. Thats looks like a fantastic place. The mix of wonderful architecture, natural beauty and historical importance makes it such a unique destination. Your photographs are fabulous and you have captured the beauty of this place really well

    • Emily Cole says:

      You really should if you can! I think you might be interested in shojin ryori (vegan cuisine served in monasteries, but you probably know that already 😉 ). I didn’t get a chance to try it on this trip but I definitely will next time I go to Japan.

  8. utravelshare says:

    Since I was a child I’ve always dreamed about to visit Japan (I’m a manga & anime lover), in particular their ancient history, the kind culture and the medieval architecture that they perfectly preserve. Last yera I visited almost the entire China, whereas next year is Japan turn…I’m really so excited 🙂 and thanks to your post, I’m pretty sure I’m going to include Nikko on my list

    • Emily Cole says:

      I hope you have a wonderful time. Like you I’m fascinated by Japanese culture and so I had really high expectations – Japan was better than I could have imagined!

  9. ehsanhaque24 says:

    The temples and shrines are so beautiful. This was an awesome read. I went to Japan for about 3 weeks back in July. What a time that was. My favorite country to date. However, I only got a chance to visit Tokyo, Osaka, and Kyoto. I am looking forward to coming back to Japan soon. Nikko is high on the list. Your photography is incredible, thanks for sharing!

    • Emily Cole says:

      I can see how 3 weeks were swallowed up in just those 3 cities. We spent a week in Tokyo and didn’t get through everything that we wanted to! Japan has to be my favourite country too. It’s a good excuse to go back!

  10. travellingslacker says:

    So many cool things in one post! Fall colours, waterfalls, Torii gates, epic statues and what not!
    I think this represents some of the best things that Japan has to offer beyond their electronics.

    • Emily Cole says:

      It’s the ancient contrast to the modern Japan. I love how you can be walking down a neon-lit buzzing street and then stumble across an ancient shrine that is still obviously used.

  11. Joanna says:

    Nikko looks so beautiful! I am actually planning a trip to Japan for next year and I will definitely include it in my itinerary. I love the feel of the town, with all those amazing temples and the autumnal scenery.

    • Emily Cole says:

      I’m jealous! Have a great trip. Are you going in the autumn too or for cherry blossoms? I’m sure it will be fab in any season though.

  12. sudiptode says:

    Nikko looks so beautiful in its entirety. How much did you have to pay as the entry fees. I love the way you have captured this place. Putting this on my go to list 🙂

    • Emily Cole says:

      The current fee is 1300 yen for the main temples. You might have to pay extra to see the sleeping cat and enter the museum (we didn’t do either). Hope you get there soon!

  13. Jure says:

    These Japanese gardens and shrines look so beautiful! Everything so neatly manicured always. Gotta give that country a try finally, as I’ve been eyeing it for so long now.

  14. Where Monica Goes says:

    Oh, how I miss Japan! I love autumn and how it makes the land of the rising sun more beautiful. The shrines are really worth seeing. I haven’t been to Nikko but thanks to you, I have learned that it is actually near from Tokyo. Accessible from Asakusa even. Thanks for sharing this!

  15. Marge Gavan says:

    Ahh, another reason to go back to Japan! I didn’t go Nikko and looking at the photos, I really really should go back and see it for myself. That photo of the Jizo statues is amazing by the way. And I want to go there in autumn because I must agree the changing colors of leaves make the scenery all the more beautiful.

    • Emily Cole says:

      There are so many reasons to return, aren’t there? Must see Sapporo in winter, cherry blossoms, Okinawa, the list goes on…

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