Located about 140 km north of Tokyo, the city of Nikko nestles in the mountains of western Tochigi Prefecture. Its three holy sites — Futarasan Shrine, Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine and Rinno-ji Temple — were collectively designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.
Center of worship
The area’s role as a center for religious activity is said to date back to 767, when Futarasan Shrine was founded by the sacred Shodo Shonin. Recent research has excavated much older religious sites, however, thus making the date of its original founding unknown. Enshrined here are the three deities of Okuninshi, Tagorihime and Ajisukitakahikone. Each god represents the holy Nikko mountains of Nantai-san, Nyoho-san and Taro-san. The shrine grounds cover a vast area of 3,400 hectares, which includes the eight sacred mountains of Nikko, Kegon Falls and the Iroha-zaka road that zigzags through the mountains. Many of its buildings and possessions are designated as Important Cultural Assets, including the beautiful red Shinkyo sacred bridge over the Daiya River.
Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa clan. It was completed in 1617 during the rule of his son, Hidetada. During the Edo Period, the Tokugawa shogunate performed stately processions from Edo (current Tokyo) to Nikko Tosho-gu along the Nikko Kaido. Known as the “processions of a thousand warriors,” the shrine re-enacts these grand parades every year at its spring and autumn festivals.
Five structures of the shrine are designated as National Treasures of Japan, and three more as Important Cultural Properties. Famous buildings within the precincts include the Yomei-mon gate, which is decorated with deep relief carvings painted in rich colors, as well as the Kara-mon Chinese-style gate with its decorations in white. Close by Kara-mon, perching on top of the balustrade, is Nemuri Neko, the carving of a sleeping cat attributed to famous artisan Hidari Jingoro.
Another exceptionally famous carving here is the three wise monkeys, which decorates the stable of the shrine’s sacred horses. These monkeys represent the act of hearing, speaking and seeing no evil, a common cultural ritual held by the Japanese and Chinese since ancient times.
Rinno-ji Temple, the third Cultural Heritage site, is a Tendai sect temple founded by Shodo Shonin in 782. Receiving much protection and ample funding from the Tokugawa clan, this temple prospered especially during the Edo Period. Its ancient buildings are scattered in a wide area, with many designated as National Treasures or Important Cultural Assets. This temple also houses Iemitsu-byo Taiyu-in, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu.
Nikko is also home to famous hot-spa resorts such as Kinugawa Onsen. The mountains west of the city comprise the Nikko National Park, which has some of the most spectacular waterfalls in Japan, including the Kegon Falls, as well as the scenic trail that goes around Lake Chuzenji.
Due to its high elevation, the weather in Nikko is considerably cooler than in Tokyo. The average temperature is around 7 C, with the warmest months reaching only around 22 C. As the coldest days see the mercury dipping to about minus 8 C, there are frequent heavy snowfalls. Winter sports such as cross-country skiing and ice-skating are popular pastimes here during the cold months.
Some of the most popular winter events include snow festivals, a candlelight pageant and illuminations. At Yunishikawa Onsen spa, the Kamakura Festival is held from late January through the end of February. Many snow houses (kamakura) are built and lit by ice lanterns at night. The snow festival at Oku-Nikko Yumoto Onsen spa, from Dec. 1 through March 31, 2008, creates a magical world of snow and light. During the festival, various events are held, including a “make your own snow lantern” contest, as well as a “snow expedition tour.”
Meanwhile, the Nikko Candle Pageant 2008 is held at Kanman-ga-fuchi, where numerous guardian deities of children exist since olden times. Originally a sacred ground for worshipping the mountains of Nikko, the light from 3,000 candles brings it to life after sunset. Here again, numerous events are held taking full advantage of the mystic space created by the candlelight.
Finally, the Watarase Gorge Illumination, from early December until late February, sheds a whole new light on the three railway stations, as well as the Watarase River.