Tosho-gu: Just in the Nikko
text and photos by
famous "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" monkeys
During a year of travelling around these islands, Nikko must be one of the most memorable
places I have visited. The history of the sacred site stretches back to the middle of the
eighth century, and many traces of its past can be seen in the numerous temples and
shrines which dot the area. Originally built by Tokugawa Ieyasu to inspire reverence, the
temples of Nikko rate as some of the most impressive pre-Meiji architecture in Japan, the
focal point being the mind-numbingly detailed Tosho-gu Shrine.
Nikko was first established as a sacred site in the middle of the eighth century, when a
travelling priest established a hermitage there. However, the site didn't achieve fame
until it was chosen as the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who
established the shogunate which ruled Japan for 250 years before the Meiji Restoration. In
1634 his grandson commenced work on much of what can be seen today. The original 1617
structure was totally rebuilt in just two years, using an army of 15,000 artisans.
Initially, the deviation from a minimalist Japanese style in favor of a more sumptuous
Chinese design caused considerable controversy, and even today the break from convention
On the left after entering the shrine is a five storied pagoda, in which the statue of the
Five Wisdom Buddha is enshrined. Originally built in 1650, the pagoda was destroyed by
fire in 1815. It was rebuilt to its current 34.3 meter vermilion splendor three years
later and is designated as a national treasure.
Next on your left are the sacred stables, which currently contain the holy horse, a gift
from New Zealand. Carved into the lintel of the stables are famous relief carvings
including the "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" monkeys, which have
become emblematic of Nikko - and kept the tourist market afloat for years. Close by is the
Sacred Fountain and Revolving Library (closed to the public), topped with a Chinese gabled
roof and supported by twelve granite pillars. Beneath the central beam are exquisite
carvings of carp and a sleeping cat.
The Honji-do temple, the largest building in the complex, is the final resting place of
the Yakushi Buddha, the physician of souls. On either side of the golden tabernacle stand
Buddha representing sunlight and moonlight, and the Twelve Sacred Warriors, each a god of
war sporting a different kind of animal on his head, symbolizing protection from disaster.
After braving the queues, inside the temple is a huge ceiling drawing of the "roaring
dragon," for if one stands underneath it and claps, the echo can be heard vibrating
around the temple for several seconds. (The effect seems to work just as well with mobile
Climbing further into the temple complex leads to the Yomeimon Gate, or sunset gate. This
beautifully carved gate is a compendium of all the styles in the Edo period. In an attempt
to appease the gods in the face of such perfection, the architect had the final supporting
column on the left hand side placed upside down.
Passing through the gate and to the right is a temple which contains a carving of a
sleeping cat, another national treasure. Carved by a left handed artist, the cat and
accompanying auspicious flowers and birds are said to represent a degree of novelty and
expression never before seen in Japanese art. Finally, at the top of the complex is
Ieyasu's Tomb, a simple affair befitting the great man.
Nikko town itself has an unoriginal selection of shops and restaurants, but is pleasant
nonetheless. At the top of the main street is the beautiful (when not covered in
scaffolding) Shin-kyo Bridge where, legend has it, the priest who first came to Nikko was
carried across the river on the back of two huge serpents. Around Tosho-gu shrine are many
other temples, including Rinno-ji and the fifteen meter high Sorinto Pillar, a symbol of
world peace containing some 1000 volumes of Holy Sutra. There is also the small Futara-san
Shrine and the beautiful Taiyuin-byo Shrine, supposedly more aesthetically attractive than
Tosho-gu, with its impressive sixty-four tatami mat room and attractive woodland
surrounding. The whole area is stunning when the leaves change during the fall,
undoubtedly the best time to go.
Further afield, there are nice walks up river (past the Turtle Inn) along a path lined
with miniature Buddha, and some attractive scenery higher in the mountains, around Lake
Chuzenji and Yumoto Onsen. The Kegon Falls are impressive in height, but very
tacky-touristy. There are pleasant walks all around the area. It would be advisable to get
a map from the tourist office in Nikko beforehand. It is a good hour or so from Nikko to
this area by bus (JY1200), but the views are impressive.