The group of buildings in Niikosan — Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple, Futaarasan-jinja Shrine’s 103 buildings (9 national treasures and 94 important cultural properties), and the surrounding historical area (cultural landscape) were registered as world heritage in 1999 as “Shrines and Temples of Nikko”. Nikko is a town of world heritages. As well as the elaborate buildings, there are many great places to see, such as the beautiful landscape, history, traditional culture, and local cuisine. The number of tourists to Nikko last year exceeded 12 million, and the number of foreign lodgers was over 100,000. The number is increasing each year.
Where is Nikko located?
◾Nikko prospered as the sacred place of mountain worship
It is said that the origin of Nikko was when Shodo Shonin (*1) built Shiunryu-ji Temple (Shihonryu-ji Temple) in the north coast of Daiyagawa River (near Shinkyo Bridge) in Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture in the year 766, which is more than 1,250 years ago. In 767, he built a small shrine of the Futaarekami (later called Hongu Jinja Shrine), which is said to be to origin of Nikko Futarasan-jinja Shrine. 16 years later, when Shodo Shonin got to the summit of Nantai-san Mountain, he built Jinguji Temple (Chuzen-ji Temple) halfway up the mountain, and also built Futarasan-jinja Shrine Rear Shrine at the summit. Since then, Nikko became the base of mountain worship, and many trainee monks go to the mountain.
Mountain worship is believing that mountains are the image of God, and believing that Shinto deities and Buddhas, and ancestral spirits live in the mountains, and to carry out various rites and training. Nikko Futarasan -jinja Shrine’s holy precinct is a vast 3,400 hectares, boasting as being the second largest Shinto shrine area in Japan including Nikko mountain range, Kegon Falls, and Iroha-zaka Slope which make up the core of Nikko National Park. The ruggedly beautiful nature of Nikko, such as the untouched primeval forest, majestic falls, and splendid mountains are must-see superb views along with World Heritage “Shrines and Temples of Nikko.”
(*1) Shonin: honorific or title of high priests in Buddhism
(*2) the souls of ancestors (family members)
◾ This World Heritage flourished and have been protected at each turning point in history
For Nikko, it is said that there have been four turning points. The first was when Nikkosan was established, and the next was when the feudal government moved from Kyoto to Kamakura. It is said that Nikko greatly flourished several times under the direct patronage of the shogunate government at the time.
The largest turning point was when Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Edo shogunate, which continued for about 260 long years since 1603, died. The remains of Ieyasu were immediately buried at Toshogu Shrine on Kunozan Mountain located in Shizuoka Prefecture in a Shinto funeral. However, following Ieyasu’s will, the second shogun Hidetada built Tosho-sha (later became Nikko Toshogu Shrine), and there, after the first anniversary of Ieyasu’s death, they put his divine spirit to rest.
Since this funeral, Nikko became the region under the Edo Shogunate's direct control. It is said that Toshogu Shrine was made in a simple style at the time it was built. Later, the third shogun Iemitsu, who respected and had faith in Ieyasu like a god, had it go under major reconstruction, and as a result, it is now how it looks today.
The last turning point occurred between sometime around 1853 and the Meiji Era. During this time, there were two “Shrines and Temples of Nikko” experienced two crises. The first crisis was the Boshin War (1868-1869), fought between the Imperial and shogunate forces, and the second was when the Meiji Government announced the “Shinbutsu Bunri Rei” during the Meiji Era (1868-1912).
“Shinbutsu Bunri Rei” was a policy distinguishing Shinto and Buddhism, shrines and temples, and to separate them. Hence, in 1871, Nikko Toshogu Shrine and Futarasan-jinja Shrine were separated from Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple. Upon this separation, Buddhist temples were moved from the precincts of shrines, and Buddhist statues were destroyed or thrown away. This caused chaos in Nikko, where “Shinbutsu Shugo” (*3) faith brought prosperity. As this was going on, it is said that a representative of the townspeople of Nikko who were against losing important cultural assets, decided to put his life on the line and directly appeal to Emperor Meiji. The emperor understood the situation, and ordered to keep the assets where they were, and also granted them some coins, which lead to the damage being held to a minimum.
(*3) Shinbutsu Shugo: Shinto and Buddhism native to Japan were mixed, and became a reconstructed religious phenomenon as a system of beliefs.
Sightseeing spots of Nikko
◾What to see at Nikko
The Nikko Toshogu Shrine is where Tosho Daigongen, a deified Lord Ieyasu is enshrined. First, walk through the large stone main gate, and on your left, you will see Five-storied Pagodas, and in front of you are the powerful Nio Guardian sculptures on either side of the front gate. Generally, Five-storied Pagodas and Nio Guardian sculptures in a shrine are traces that remain from the “Shinbutsu Shugo.” At Toshogu Shrine, there are remain buildings, which were protected from “Shinbutsu Bunri Rei” and “Haibutsu kishaku” (*4) situation.
In order to go inside from the front gate, you will need to pay admission at the reception desk. In front of you as you walk through the gate, you can rent (you need to pay a deposit) easy to understand audio guides (*), which will explain the 29 buildings within the precincts of Nikko Toshogu Shrine. They will accept orders between 9 am and 4 pm (between November and March, until 3 pm). At Toshogu Shrine, you can see many engravings of animals such as an imaginary elephant, three wise monkeys, and a sleeping cat. There are stories, meanings, and beliefs behind each one, so it is highly recommended to have the audio guides with you. They are not merely designs but express religious beliefs and academic/ideological backgrounds.
(*4) Haibutsu kishaku: The destroying of Buddhist temples, statues, and
Buddhist scripture scrolls, and abolishing the chartered rights of temples and those that entered the religious order such as monks and nuns.
*They are pen-shaped guides with earphones. You place the pen tip on the photos of a special pamphlet, and you will hear the audio guide. In Japanese (two types-for adults and for children), English, Chinese.
●The large scale renovation of the Heisei era is now finished, revealing a gorgeous national treasure, the Yomeimon Gate
If you walk from the front gate, go further inside and see the imaginary elephant and three wise monkeys at the sacred stable where a sacred horse tied to, located under the roof of the Kamijinko (sacred storehouse), which is one of the three sacred storehouses, go to the Chozuya (*5), wash your mouth to cleanse yourself. If you go further inside, there is the Yomei-mon Gate, which is the entrance to the main shrine. Surprisingly, there are over 500 lavish sculptures on the Yomei-mon Gate. There are 12 pillars that support the gate, with Gurimon patterns (swirl-like patterns) on them, and one of the pillars has a pattern of the swirl going in the opposite direction. This pillar is called the “Mayoke no Sakabashira (upside down pillar that wards off evil),” since it was said that “buildings start to collapse as soon as construction is finished,” so they left the building superficially unfinished by erecting one pillar upside down. Further, the rich colored hallways (national treasure), that stretch out to the right and left of the Yomei-mon Gate have one of Japan’s largest engravings of flowers and birds which are breathtaking. Others would be the Karamon Gate (national treasure) that is painted white using Gofun (*6), so as you take a look at it, go inside the Main Shrine from the entrance on the side. The Main Shrine, which is made up of Hall of Worship, Stone Room, and Inner Shrine, is the most important place within the Toshogu Shrine. You cannot take pictures inside, but from the ceilings and walls to the pillars, sophisticated engravings and paintings of sacred beasts and such are interspersed, making the structure of the place high in artistic quality.
(*5) Chozuya or Temizuya: a place where visitors use water to wash the hands in order to purify themselves.
(*6) Gofun: white pigment made from baked shells
●The mystery of national treasure “Nemuri Neko”
Along with the three wise monkeys, this “nemuri neko (sleeping cat)” is also famous. Though small, it is designated as a national treasure. The nemuri neko is taking a snooze on top of the Sakashita-mon Gate, which stretches towards the Rear Shrine. The cat is surrounded by peonies and sleeping in the sunlight, so it is said that it was sculptured associating it to nikko (also means sunlight). Behind it are sculptures of two sparrows dancing in the bamboo forest. There are various theories, but it is said that this depicts peace, because sparrows are playing very close to a cat. However, if you look closely, the cat seems to be standing a bit firm with its forepaws. Some say that the cat is like a gatekeeper, protecting the mausoleum (grave) of Tokugawa Ieyasu, and that it is pretending to be asleep so that if something bad happens, it can attack right away. Try looking at it from different directions and find out for yourself.
●Climb 207 steps and reach the Rear Shrine
From the Sakashita-mon Gate, it takes about 10 to 15 minutes (separate admission) to get to the Rear Shrine. If you walk the stone-paved road and climb steps made from 207
monoliths surrounded by a solemn cryptomeria forest, you will reach the Rear Shrine. The shrine is the burial site, of the enshrined deity, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu. You cannot go inside, but you can walk around see the pagoda, etc. At the Rear Shrine, you can buy good luck charms only sold there, so how about buying some as mementos and souvenirs? Basically, it will take three to four hours to thoroughly look around. It depends on what time of the day you visit, but an earlier hour is usually less crowded, so visiting early is recommended.
“Nikko Toshogu Shrine”
●2301, Sannai, Nikko-shi, Tochigi Prefecture
●0288-54-0560 (Nikko Toshogu Shrine Administrative Office)
●For admission details, please check the Nikko Toshogu Shrine website.
●8:00-17:00 (closes at 16:00 during November 1 to March 31) *admission until 30 minutes before closing time.
●Open all year
●From Tobu Nikko Station, use Tobu Bus Nikko “World Heritage sightseeing bus.” It takes 8 minutes, and get off at Omotesando bus stop
◾️Places to see at Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple
Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple is made up of halls and Honbo such as the Main Hall (Sanbutsu-do), Taiyu-in Temple, Dai Goma-do Hall, Shihonryu-ji Temple, Chuzen-ji Temple and Onsen-ji Temple of Oku Nikko, and also 15 sub-temples. The Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple is like a general term for the Buddhist facilities that were originally in Futarasan Shrine. It survived the downfalls of the “Shinbutsu Bunri Rei” and became how we see it today. Unlike Nikko Toshogu Shrine and Futarasan-jinja Shrine, they have and enshrined Buddhist sculpture, and also the mausoleum of Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Iemitsu, who respected Lord Ieyasu and worshipped him like a god, is said to have given strict orders to have his own mausoleum in Buddhist style, and the Shogon (*7) should be more modest than the Toshogu Shrine. In accordance with Iemitsu’s will, the Taiyu-in (national treasure) Temple was built by fourth shogun Ietsuna. If you pay the admission, you can see from the Nio-mon Gate to the Taiyu-in Temple, and at a location that is a little far, the Goma-do Hall. Among those places, the Niten-mon Gate is the largest within the Nikko precincts. You may find it interesting to look around while seeing how different they are compared to the Nikko Toshogu Shrine.
(*7) Shogon: to decorate Buddhist statues or Buddhist temples; or the decorations themselves
●The buildings have a different attraction from Nikko Toshogu Shrine
In contrast with the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, which is built so that gold looks attractive against brilliant colors, the Taiyu-in Temple, where the mausoleum of Lord Iemitsu is located has a somewhat relaxed atmosphere. The gold colored metal ornaments are made to look shiny against a background of jet-black. The Taiyu-in Temple, designated as a national treasure, is beautifully decorated in gold inside as well. There are 140 paintings of dragons on the ceiling, and an armor worn by Lord Iemitsu is on display.
●The three golden seated figures in the Main Hall (Sanbutsu-do)
Enshrined in the inner room of the Main Hall are golden seated figures Senju-Kannon,
Amida, and Bato-Kannon. Not only is the Main Hall one of the largest wooden buildings in Nikkosan, but it is one of the largest in eastern Japan.
*the Main Hall is currently undergoing major renovation for the first time in 50 years, so some parts have temporary enclosures and some pathways may be restricted.
●Experience Zen meditation in the hall of Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple
In the Jogyo-do Hall of Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple, you can experience Zen meditation (reservation only, a fee is charged as well as admission). When and how many participants is negotiable. How about composing yourself by sitting in Zen meditation and know more deeply about yourself?
“Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple”
●2300, Sannai, Nikko-shi, Tochigi Prefecture
●For admission details, please check the Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple website.
●8:00-17:00 (closes at 16:00 during November 1 to March 31) *admission until 30 minutes before closing time.
●Open all year
●To go to the Main Hall, Goma-do Hall, Homotsuden, and Shoyoen, take the Tobu Bus Nikko “World Heritage sightseeing bus” from Tobu Nikko Station and ride for about 7 minutes, and get off at Shodo Shonin Zo Mae Bus Stop. To go to Taiyu-in Temple and Jogyo-do Hall, take the Tobu Bus Nikko “World Heritage sightseeing bus” from Tobu Nikko Station and ride for about 15 minutes, and get off at Taiyu-in/Futarasan Jinjya Mae Bus Stop.
Recommended restaurants in Nikko
◾Tasting Nikko specialties
A local specialty of Nikko would be yuba. Yuba is made from the skin of gently boiled soybean milk, which is lifted out using bamboo skewers. There are various kinds of yuba dishes such as moist uncooked yuba, simmered dishes of yuba soaked in soup stock, and deep fried manju (sweet buns) wrapped in yuba. There are many restaurants and souvenir shops along the Japan National Route 119 that stretches from Tobu Nikko Station to Nikko Toshogu Shrine. If you’re curious about places to eat such as famous restaurants that serve yuba kaiseki (traditional Japanese cuisine), yuba soba (noodles) restaurants, and café restaurants that have yuba cuisine on the menu, why not stop by?
◾️A café that serves various dishes using local ingredients
“Kamaya cafe du Reverbere” has many dishes that are made abundantly using local ingredients. They serve many favored items such as pizza made using flour produced in Nikko, special homemade drinks and sweets made by the owner-patissier. Their popular dish is donburi (rice bowl dish) with various specialties in it, such as Mae Nikko roast beef and rolled yuba. Prices are quite reasonable.
“Kamaya cafe du Reverbere”
●12-6, Matsubara-cho, Nikko-shi, Tochigi Prefecture
●11:00-17:00 (last order: 16:00)
●One minute walk from Tobu Nikko Station
Popular activities in Nikko
◾️Tour around World Heritage sites in a kimono to remember the special occasion
If you go to COCON NIKKO, a kimono rental shop, you can rent everything you need to go out for a walk dressed in kimono. They have a wide variety to choose from, so you can find just the right one you like. They also have a kimono for men and children. They will dress you, and if you have too much luggage, the shop can keep them for you. You can stay out from 10 am to 5 pm. (It will take about 30 minutes from the time you enter the shop and the time you go out.) It’s good that you can stay outside for a long time. How about touring around World Heritages in a kimono to remember the special occasion?
“Kimono Rental Shop COCON NIKKO”
●404-2, Ishiyamachi, Nikko-shi, Tochigi Prefecture
●0288-25-6625 (reservation needed) *Make reservations from the following website
●Check their website for rental plans and prices
●Closed on Wednesdays
●About one minute on foot from Tobu Nikko Station
◾Going to Oku-Nikko looking for breathtaking sceneries of mother nature
If you get on the Tobu Bus bound for Chuzenji Onsen Hot Spring at JR Nikko Station or Tobu Nikko Station, get off at Akechidaira Bus Stop after riding for about 40 minutes. From there, ride the cable car (fee is charged) and go up to an elevation of 1,373 meters, and from there, you can go to Akechidaira Observation Tower, where you can command a view of Chuzenji-ko Lake. If you travel further on bus, and get off at Chuzenji Onsen Bus Stop, you will get to Kegon no Taki Falls. The view of the fall with a fall of 97 meters is spectacular. An elevator (fee is charged) can take you down where you can get a view close to the basin of the fall. From the Kegon no Taki Falls, you can walk to Chuzenji-ko Lake, so how about stopping by for the great view of the lake?
*You will be taking the Second Iroha-zaka Slope when going to Chuzenji-ko Lake from Nikko Station, but your return path will be on the First Iroha-zaka Slope, which is a different route. You will need to stop by Akechidaira Plateau on your way to Chuzenji-ko Lake.
Great place to stay in Nikko! Hotel in Nikko
Japan’s oldest hotel still in existence
In Nikko, there is a classic hotel where it is said that Helen Keller and Einstein have stayed in the past. Nikko Kanaya Hotel was established in 1873. It is Japan’s oldest hotel still in existence. It is in a convenient location—about 5 minutes away by car or about 15 minutes on foot from Nikko Toshogu Shrine. From the hotel, you can get a great view of the cedar trees and the mountain ranges of Nikko. Since the founder of the hotel was a Gakushi (*8) of Nikko Toshogu Shrine, there are sculptures and ornaments inside the hotel that remind us of Nikko Toshogu Shrine’s “Nemuri Neko,” imaginary elephant, etc. The hotel has gone under repeated extension and reconstruction, but the taste of the original hotel at the time it started business still strongly remains. From the standpoint of historical values, each hotel building is a registered tangible cultural property. In the dining room with ornaments as old as those from the Meiji era, you can taste traditional French cuisine made from recipes passed down through the successive master chefs. Among other dishes, their sautéed rainbow trout, strong in regional flavor, is quite popular.
(*8) Gakushi: people who play musical instruments or do musical performances
●The rooms have antique-like furnishings with a relaxed ambience
The rooms also still have the taste of the original hotel. Japanese and Western styles miraculously harmonize, and the guests can enjoy the architectural beauty during their stay.
●You can have lunch without staying overnight
At “Craft Lounge,” they serve rice curry (left photo) reproduced using recipe from the Taisho era, and a one plate dish with Hamburg steak, deep fried rainbow trout, and more (right photo) among other dishes. At the Japanese-style café, among others on the menu, you can eat Kamo soba (duck soba noodles) along with Nikko yuba, and also shaved ice that uses Nikko’s natural ice. You can enjoy lunch in the main dining room even if you are not an overnight guest. The restaurants have different business hours, so please visit their website.
“Nikko Kanaya Hotel”
●1300, Kamihatsuishimachi, Nikko-shi, Tochigi Prefecture
●For room details, please check the Nikko Kanaya Hotel website.
●Take the Tobu Bus from Tobu Nikko Station, and ride for about 5minutes, get off at Shinkyo Bus Stop. Shuttle buses are also available.
How to get to Nikko
◾How to go to Nikko from Tokyo
We highly recommend the route of taking the tokkyu (limited express) from Tobu Railway Asakusa Station to Tobu Nikko Station. You can go straight to Tobu Nikko Station without transfers, taking about an hour and 50 minutes, and it costs about 3,000 yen one way. You can go straight to Tobu Nikko Station from JR Shinjuku Station without transferring as well, taking about two hours, costing approximately 4,000 yen one way. If you want to go to various sightseeing spots, taking the bus is convenient. You can buy an affordable bus ticket that allows you to freely get on and off at the Tobu Nikko Station Tourist Center, JR Nikko Station’s Midori-no-madoguchi (JR Ticket Office). If you are going to Nikko for the first time, going on a day trip bus tour is a good idea. Some bus tours are in English or Chinese, and tours with lunch cost around 10,000 yen. There are various ways to access Nikko, tours from Tokyo, bus tickets that allow you to get on and off freely, etc., so it is probably best if you get information from tour companies and the like before you go.
Summary of Nikko
Nikko is the mecca of autumn leaves. Particularly, Chuzenji-ko Lake, Akechidaira Plateau, Kegon no Taki Falls, and Iroha-zaka Slope get crowded the most during the fall foliage season. The Iroha-zaka Slope is always congested, so you will need to give yourself plenty of time to move from place to place. The Nikko area has large differences in the levels of ground, so the peak foliage season is different depending on the place. Generally, it is from mid to late October for Chuzenji-ko Lake, and mid-October to early November for Iroha-zaka Slope, and early to late November for the area of World Heritage “Shrines and Temples of Nikko.”
*The best times to see autumn leaves differ depending on circumstances such as the weather.
*The above information was last updated June 29, 2018. For further information, please contact the facilities directly.
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