The Shrines and Temples of Nikko are a traditional Japanese religious centre with Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The temples and other shrines in this area originate from the 17th century and attract attention because of their rich decorations.
The well-known carvings of the three see-no-evil, speak-no-evil, hear-no-evil monkeys can be seen on the Sacred Stable. A few steps from that, the Youmeimon gate boasts over 300 carvings of mythical beasts, such as dragons, giraffes, and lions, and Chinese sages.
Nikko is also associated with the Shinto perception of the relationship of man with nature, in which mountains and forests have a sacred meaning and are objects of veneration. The mountainous landscape, the trees, the rocks: they all form part of the site Nikko.
Map of NikkoLoad map
"Don't say beautifully until you've seen Nikkō" is an old Japanese saying. And not without reason. The temples and shrines of Nikkō are famous for their colourful ornaments and the multitude of carvings, best known are the Three Wise Monkeys: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.
Nikkō was already a holy place in the 8th century, and became a spiritual centre when the mausoleum of the first Tokugawa Shōgun was moved here in the early 17th century. The temples and shrines represent the architectural style of the Edo period (1603 to 1868).
To enter the shrine complex, you have to cross the Daiya River. There is the beautiful vermilion-painted Shinkyo Bridge, after paying an entrance fee you can walk across the bridge - and back. It is not the entrance to the sacred area, visitors have to take the ordinary car bridge. In this regard, nothing has changed since the Edo period. Ordinary worshippers were never allowed to use the Shinkyo Bridge, it was only for the Shōguns and for ceremonial purposes.
Rinno-ji was founded in the 8th century and was the first temple in Nikkō. It is also the first site to be reached after entering the inscribed area. Most impressive are the golden Buddha statues in the main hall. Certainly an important Buddha temple, but for today's visitor, Rinno-ji is just the prelude to the main attraction, the Toshogu Shrine.
Unfortunately, the Toshogu Shrine was also one of the most crowded sites I visited on my Japan trip. A five-story pagoda marks the entrance to the shrine. One of the first things you discover after passing through the Niomon Gate are the Three Wise Monkeys mentioned earlier. You can find them on the outer wall of the sacred stables. Even these auxiliary buildings are richly decorated with ornate and colourful carvings. However, the abundance begins with the Yōmeimon, the gate to the inner shrine (the photo shows a close up). It takes time to view all the carvings and decorations in detail: lions, dragons, strange looking elephants, but also scenes with human figures. I particularly liked the birds and floral motifs on the outer walls next to the gate. And the burst of colours and figures continues in the inner grounds, the buildings are lavishly covered with gold leaf and brightly painted carvings. Pomp and glory should be demonstrated here, not simplicity and modesty. The actual tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu is located in the forest above the shrine. You have to pass another gate (try to spot the sleeping cat) and climb steep stairs. The tomb is the oldest part of the shrine and rather plain compared to the other buildings.
Next to the Toshogu shrine is the Futarasan-jinja, connected with Toshogu by a long alley lined with stone lanterns. And a short walk further up the hill will take you to the Taiyuin Shrine, the second highlight in Nikkō. It is the mausoleum of Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa Shōgun, who established a strict social hierarchy and Japan's isolationist foreign policies during the Edo period. I even liked Taiyuin better than Toshogu. It is similar in style, maybe a little less opulent than its neighbour, but very elegant and harmoniously embedded in the surrounding forest. And above all, it was far less crowded, with only a handful of other visitors. So you can really enjoy the atmosphere and the natural environment.
You can hike further up the mountain. An ancient stone-paved path leads through a cedar forest to the Takinoo Shrine. It is a scenic and peaceful place with a small waterfall and tall cedars, and I was all alone up there.
I visited Nikkō on a day trip from Tokyo in October 2019. I started early in the morning (the shrines open at 8 am) and spent the whole day there. But Nikkō also seems to be a nice place to stay overnight. The architectural style of the shrines differs significantly from other sacred sites in Japan. The shrines in Nikkō were the most ornate and colourful buildings I visited in Japan, and definitely one of the highlights of my trip.
I visited Nikko in the fall of 2007.
Nikko is a small town and the temple area is located in a wooded area about a 30-minute walk from the train station. I managed to visit Nikko on a day trip from Tokyo. About half of the trip is via the fast Shinkansen, and the other half is a much slower local train.
The most famous thing in Nikko is probably the wood carving of the "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkies. That trope has its origins here.
I highly recommend visiting Nikkor for anyone with a few days in Tokyo.
Read more about the Shrines and Temples of Nikko on my website.
The town itself feels like a ski resort in summer… which it kind of is. But what I mean is that the visitors come for the day to walk in the hills or visit the religious sites but they don’t set up base for longer than eight hours or so. The few hotels near the train station all have vacancies and in the evenings most restaurants are either closed or empty. It’s during the day that there are queues out the doors for the popular lunch joints.
The first shrine was built in 776 and more were built right up until the 16th century when the area was abandoned. It means there’s a mix of architectural styles that show the evolution of Shinto against the backdrop of Buddhism in Japan. The Japanese have a saying that roughly translates to “you haven’t seen beauty until you’ve seen Nikko” and it’s true. These magnificent buildings nestled in the lush green forests are truly stunning
Read more from Michael Turtle here.
Nikko is an enchanting complex of temples, shrines, and gardens idyllically located in mountains north of Tokyo. The site is located within Nikko National Park, which is an easy day trip from Tokyo. I traveled to Nikko in November 2010 and enjoyed great autumn weather during my visit. I was not alone at the park, as many local visitors were also appreciating the pleasant weekend; I even encountered a wedding at one of the shrines. Of the shrines and temples I visited, I was most impressed with Toshu-gu Shrine, which had a brilliant, intricately carved and painted gate, as well as a photogenic five story pagoda. Within the shrine was the famous wood-carving of the Three Wise Monkeys (see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil). Also of note at Nikko were Futara-san Shrine, which included a copper torii and a sacred bridge, and Rinno-ji Temple, which included a shogun's mausoleum as well as a treasure house and a garden. After the non-stop busy-ness of Tokyo, Nikko was a welcome retreat to nature in Japan.
Logistics: Nikko can be reached by train from Tokyo. A local bus system provides access to the park.
I visited this WHS in November 2009. The shrines and temples of Nikko, together with their natural surroundings, have for centuries been a sacred site known for its architectural and decorative masterpieces. They are closely associated with the history of the Tokugawa Shoguns. You could easily spend 3-4 days here to try to cover all the sights there are to see.
Nikko is a beautiful area. The World Heritage sites are all within easy walking distance from each other. There is a bus specific for the sites as well. I took the train from Asakusa, Tokyo and used the World Heritage Pass. It covers the roundtrip train ticket on the Tobu line and entrance to the sites. It doesn't however pay for special exhibits within the sites. The buildings were beautiful and very peaceful. Toshogu had construction and renovations going on but the main gate and buildings were visible. I would recommend going as early as possible to the sites. Since Nikko is a very popular destination there are many tour groups as well as school trips there. After around 9:30a.m., the temples and shrines lost a little of their tranquility and became more of a circus. But overall I would go back here again and recommend it to others. There is more to the area than just the World Heritage sites. Nikko is also in a national park with hot springs, waterfalls, hiking, and a large lake. To do both the sites and the park will require a stay overnight as the natural areas are at least an hour away by bus. Also Nikko is famous for yuba (tofu skin) so try some of the great yuba cuisine while you are there.
There are a lot of temples in Japan, but the ones at Nikko I liked most. Nikko on its own disproves the common remark that Japan does not have world-class sights.
The Toshogu-shrine is the best example of this. The main gate inside the complex is 11 meters high and painted with animals, flowers, and human figures. Especially the smallest details (which you can only see with binoculars or the zoom lens of your camera) are magnificent. What at first just looks like a coloured border later turns out to be a whole scene.
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