Nikko Travel: A Complete Guide to Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Nikko Toshogu Shrine is dedicated to one of the most important figures in Japanese history, Tokugawa Ieyasu, a feudal lord and subsequent Shogun (the samurai/military leader of Japan) whose reign marked the beginning of one of Japan’s most prosperous and peaceful periods. Toshogu both deifies Tokugawa Ieyasu as the god Tosho Daigongen (Great Deity of the East Shining Light) and acts as his final resting place, as his remains are entombed in a mausoleum at the very end of the shrine.
Toshugu Shrine is an absolutely essential place to visit on your travels through Japan. Not only does it honour and recount the history of one of Japan’s most notable figures, but the design and architecture are as grand as they are unique. There is simply nothing else like it throughout the whole of Japan.
So, how can you get the most out of your visit? Keep reading to find out!
From Tobu-Nikko Station, take the bus to stop 7, Shinkyo Bridge (this is a popular stop, so most buses stop there. Make sure to read the signs and ask the bus driver if you are unsure). I recommend you start your journey here and make your way through Shinkyo Bridge and Rinnoji Temple before seeing Nikko Toshogu Shrine. The bus ride takes about 7 minutes.
If you wish to go straight there, take the World Heritage Sightseeing Bus to stop 83, Omotesando and walk the rest of the way to the shrine. The trip will take just over 10 minutes.
** Note: These details are true at the time of publishing. Please see the Tobu Nikko Bus website for more accurate and up to date details on the bus timetable and route structure.
The History of the Tokugawa Clan
Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543 to 1616) was a powerful feudal lord who is now known as one of the three main figures responsible for uniting Japan. Born to a feudal lord and the daughter of a samurai lord, Tokugawa Ieyasu was immersed in the schemes, politics and strategies used by the samurai clans from the moment he was born. Throughout his life he expertly navigated his way through the ranks, gaining power, land and influence as he grew to become one of the most powerful feudal lords of his time.
After the death of his most powerful ally, Toyotomi Hideyoshi, Tokugawa Ieyasu took advantage of the confusion and loss of power surrounding his death, overthrew Hideyoshi’s seven-year-old son through the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 and established his place as the ruler of Japan. His rule was recognised by Emperor Go-Yōzei in 1603 when he was named the Shogun (military/samurai leader of Japan), thus marking the beginning of the Tokugawa Period, more commonly known as the Edo Period. Ruling from what is now known as Tokyo, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his family led Japan over a time that is known for its relative safety, great economic growth, strict social etiquette, tight political control and for nurturing many of the artistic and cultural elements we still celebrate as cornerstones of traditional Japan. The Tokugawa family ruled for over 250 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868, when the Emperor took back supreme control over Japan.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine
There is no mistaking the prevalence of this shrine. It is the most expensive shrine I have ever been to, it has its own museum that rivals the grandeur of Japan’s art and history museums and features the most beautifully sculpted, intricate gold and white architecture that can’t be seen anywhere else in Japan. It truly is one of a kind.
As you walk up to the shrine, you will be met by a stunning torii gate and a five-storied pagoda to your left, decorated in the traditional vermillion red and gold seen in most Shinto shrines. Interestingly, pagodas are a Buddhist structure but sometimes appear in shrines as it was common to mix the two religions before the Meiji Restoration. In 1868, the Shinto and Buddhism Separation Order came into effect, legally requiring all Shinto elements to be removed from Buddhist sacred sites and vice versa. However, in Toshogu and other temples and shrines throughout Japan, the two religions were interwoven so intricately that the separation was never 100% completed.
Once you have finished at the pagoda, don’t get distracted by the stone lanterns! Make your way to the ticket booth to either pay for entry into the shrine (¥1,300 adult, ¥450 child) or for entry into the shrine and the museum (¥2,100 adult, ¥770 child). If you wish, you are also able to purchase an English audio guide for ¥500. As you make your way up the steps and into the shrine, the first thing you will see are the three sacred storehouses. They are used to hold clothing and sacred items used as part of the Thousand Warrior Procession as well as other ceremonial objects used by the shrine. It is thought that the artist painting these storehouses had never seen elephants before, so the ones that decorate the storehouses are called “sozonozo elephants” (imagined elephants).
Next is the horse stable, which was used by the horse Tokugawa Ieyasu rode when he defeated his opponents in the Battle of Sekigahara. This stable is most notable for the carvings of the “See no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkeys that adorn its walls. Nikko Toshogu Shrine is actually the birthplace of this popular saying, after the artist, Hidari Jingoro chose to illustrate a simplified Confucius teaching with monkeys, as a play on the Japanese words for the phrase itself and for monkey. Make sure to say hello to Kikazaru 🙉, Iwazaru 🙊 and Mizaru 🙈 as you walk by!
Next you will pass the Ritual Purification building and another Torii gate to arrive at Yomeimon Gate, and what a sight it is! Described by the temple custodians as the most extravagantly decorated gate in Japan, it’s kind of hard to argue with them as you marvel at the 508 different carvings of ornate dragons, flying horses, mythical animals and cheerful people. Yomeimon Gate is the most iconic part of Nikko Toshogu Shrine and is truly a wonder to behold.
Once through Yomeimon Gate, you will see the main shrine, the Prayer Hall, the breathtaking Chinese Gate and other stunning buildings that make up the most important part of the shrine. There is an area set aside for you to store your shoes so you can walk through the beautiful main shrine, which I highly recommend you do. Unfortunately, you can’t take pictures inside, so you’ll just have to trust me that it’s worthwhile! In the main courtyard, you will also find a gift shop and the window where you receive your goshuin stamp. I recommend giving your book to the caretakers now, as you will most likely need to wait a little while for them to complete it. The cost is a bit more than the usual price for goshiun at ¥500.
Next, pass Sakashitamon Gate and the famous carving of the sleeping cat to make your way up to the inner shrine and mausoleum. If you are not very fit or have leg problems, I do not recommend making the trip. The ascent requires you to climb 207 steps! They reward you at the top with green tea vending machines and a cute gift store selling cat-related charms, which I must admit, worked on me! Those cat charms were just too damn cute!
The shrine and mausoleum are a stark difference to the rest of the shrine. They are both muted and plain in comparison, so it’s a good opportunity to reel yourself back in and take a moment to focus on the significance and history of where you are. Tokugawa Ieyasu was buried underneath the pagoda in the mausoleum exactly one year after his death, on April 15 1617. His remains have been entombed here, untouched ever since.
As you can see from the above, there’s a lot to impress at Nikko Toshogu Shrine. My last little interesting fact to share is that this shine has not been rebuilt (only maintained and repaired) since Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson transformed the shrine from a modest structure to the elaborate marvel it is today way back in 1636. So in essence, it is likely to be one of the oldest original structures you visit on your trip to Japan.
Last but not least, should you go to the museum as well? Unfortunately, I didn’t have the time to go, but I highly recommend that you do. The museum includes many of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal belongings, such as his armour, decorative tapestries, swords, letters he wrote, ceramic kitchenware he used, as well as ceremonial objects used by the shrine and other notable artifacts to do with the Tokugawa family.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine is open from 8am – 5pm or 8am to 4pm, depending on the time of year. It is open every day. For more information on accessing the shrine, visit the official website here.