Two hours by train from Tokyo, history has twice blessed the small town of Nikko with good fortune.

The first time, the powerful warrior leader Tokugawa Ieyasu declared his wish to be enshrined in Nikko, north of the nation’s new political capital that his regime established in Edo (modern-day Tokyo), shortly before his death in 1616. Once enshrined, Nikko became a place where local pilgrims worshipped.

The second time, in 1999, UNESCO decided to make the shrines and temples of Nikko, now in Tochigi Prefecture, a World Heritage site, putting the area on the international tourist map.

There are plenty of tourists — both from inside and outside Japan — now walking around Nikko, but fortunately there are few of the fast-food restaurants and international coffee chains that often follow them. Unlike Kyoto, a visit to Nikko is still a visit to small-town Japan, despite its nominal status as a city.

Outside the town there are the lakes and waterfalls of Nikko National Park, but for most who have only a weekend out of the city to spare, there will be little time other than to take in Nikko’s shrines and temples.

After Ieyasu, who came out on top in Japan’s late-16th-century wars of unification to set up the Tokugawa Shogunate, moved the capital east from Kyoto in 1603, he requested that after his death he be enshrined as a god in Nikko. From there, his spirit would protect Japan.

Though it may seem strange that Ieyasu, from present-day Shizuoka Prefecture, would wish to be enshrined in far-away Nikko, in the Edo Period the north was considered to be where demons came from. Entombed there, the late shogun could protect the archipelago from evil. Toshogu Shrine was completed a year after Ieyasu’s death.

Power of the shoguns

The fantastically decorated shrine leaves visitors in no doubt of the power the shoguns wielded in the Edo Period. It will also be of little surprise to anybody who has read Giles Milton’s interweaving of historical fact with narrative fiction, “Samurai William” (2002), in which Tokugawa Ieyasu is a man feared and laughed at in equal measure; a man so fat that in later life he couldn’t mount his horse; but also a man who struck fear into the hearts of mortals through his lavish spending.

“The pomp and pageantry of his courtly retinue was designed to strike fear into all who visited,” Milton writes.

This pomp and pageantry can be seen in Toshogu, with its impressive size and exquisite carvings in colors more reminiscent of Chinese architecture. When the shrine was, along with the rest of the temples in Nikko, granted world heritage status by UNESCO, the organization said the site was “a reflection of architectural and artistic genius.”

One of the most striking features of Toshogu is the high regard it has for animals. There are carvings of 30 kinds — mythical and real — throughout the shrine. The famous “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys and the sleeping cat are joined by animals that the Japanese had never seen. Artists carved giraffes, elephants and lions; there is also a carving of a tapir, a long-snouted animal found in Southeast Asia and South and Central America, which is reputed in Asian folklore to be able to suck out nightmares with its nose. As an onsite security guard explained, “All the animals here are to protect the shrine.”

Ieyasu today might be bemused at such grandiosity, as he himself wanted a small shrine. It was his grandson, the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, who made the place the fantastic set of buildings it is today.

Iemitsu is perhaps the most notorious of all the shoguns, as he started the sankin kotai (system of alternate annual attendance of daimyo) and sakoku (closed country) policies. Sankin kotai forced daimyo, the feudal lords of Japan, to live in Edo as hostages, in order to ensure that the shogun had the loyalty of anybody who may challenge him and would receive the taxes demanded from up and down the country. Sakoku meant, in Milton’s words, that, “The few mariners that dared to sail [to Japan] — or were unlucky enough to be shipwrecked [there] — found themselves arrested, tortured and killed.”

Iemitsu is enshrined a few hundred meters away from his grandfather in the Taiyuin Mausoleum of Rinno-ji Temple. Taiyuin faces Toshogu as a sign of the respect that Iemitsu had for his grandfather. In his final message before death in 1651, he said “I will serve for Ieyasu even after I die.”

Ceiling of dragons

Taiyuin was finished in 1653, and like Toshogu, it is an awe-inspiring set of buildings. As colorful as Toshogu, Taiyuin is smaller in scale but its carvings and statues are as intricate as those of its larger neighbor. Set in the hill opposite Toshogu, the Haiden Oratory is the highlight of the temple. The inside is decorated with 140 dragons on the ceiling and includes a sacred lion painted by Tanyu Kano, considered one of the most influential artists of the Edo Period. The lion is one of his masterpieces.

As well as the areas dedicated to the two Shoguns, Rinno-ji Temple and Futarasan Shrine are a part of the World Heritage site.

Rinno-ji Temple includes Sanbutsudo, the area’s largest temple. The building houses three large statues, the 1,000-handed Kannon, the Amida Buddha and the horse-headed Kannon. The 8-meter-high statues are made of wood and coated in gold leaf. While not as impressive as the huge Buddha in Todai-ji Temple, Nara, they are definitely worth a look.

Opposite Sanbutsudo is the Shouyoen Japanese garden, and a short walk around the pond offers plenty of photo opportunities and a break from the buildings and statues that occupy most of one’s time when visiting this area.

Futarasan Shrine is the oldest of all of Nikko’s shrines, but also the least memorable. Overshadowed by the grandeur of its neighbors, the most interesting aspect of this shrine are the games that can be played within its grounds — here, a roulette wheel and fairground games offer distractions of a less spiritual kind.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.


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