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Nikko Travel Guide
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"Snow Shinkyo bridge," a print by Kawase Hasui (1930) representing the famous red bridge that marks the entrance to Nikko.

"Snow Shinkyo bridge," a print by Kawase Hasui (1930) representing the famous red bridge that marks the entrance to Nikko.

The large stone torii leading to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nikko.

The large stone torii leading to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nikko.

The Rinno-ji temple, the first building of the complex of Nikko.

The Rinno-ji temple, the first building of the complex of Nikko.

A detail of the Tosho-gu, a magnificent example of architecture Momoyama.

A detail of the Tosho-gu, a magnificent example of architecture Momoyama.

The three wise monkeys, etched into the wood of the pediment of the stable of Tosho-gu, are among the symbols of Nikko.

The three wise monkeys, etched into the wood of the pediment of the stable of Tosho-gu, are among the symbols of Nikko.

Mount Nantai on the heights of Nikko.

Mount Nantai on the heights of Nikko.

Spiritual and Natural

Unmissable and unforgettable, the religious complex of Nikko (north of Tokyo) is the city of Japanese spirituality, Buddhist temples and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Nikko was born twice. For the first time in 766, when the monk Shodo Shonin founded his spiritual retreat in a magnificent pine forest. The site was then, and for nearly a millennium, one of the high places of Japanese Buddhism, with the sacred mountain of Koya-san . Its second birth was in 1636, when Japan, peaceful and prosperous, entered the golden age of Edo. The ruling family, the Tokugawa, had the mausoleum of Ieyasu, the great unifier of the Archipelago, built there. Nikko thus became a symbol of Japanese syncretism, where Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines come together, and where the divine is all around.


Busy throughout the year, the site is flooded with visitors in spring during the Nikko festival (17 and 18 May): more than a thousand participants dressed as Edo samurai reenact the funeral ceremony of 'Ieyasu Tokugawa; and you can watch  Yabusame trials, horseback archery and religious ceremonial the imprint of  Shinto rites .

Nikko Gandhi

We reach this sacred universe via a bridge, marking the separation from the secular world. The shinkyo ("sacred bridge"), painted in red, was originally reserved for the emperor and the shogun before being croweded with hundreds of thousands of visitors. Then you take the path to the left to enter what was once the Buddhist heart of the first Nikko: Rinnô-ji temple, known for its "hall of three Buddhas". The curious will also go and look at the objects of worship (mandalas, bells) kept in the Treasure Museum (opposite the temple).

Behind the temple, the Tosho-gu (1636) marks the second Nikko period, when the Tokugawa family had their Shinto shrine built, and which is the most ornate in the country (15 000 craftsmen were involved in its construction). With gilding, vivid colors, and sinuous lines, it is considered one of the finest examples of Momoyama architecture, demonstrative and pompous. Other Tosho-gu santuaries are dotted around Japan,  notably in Ueno (Tokyo), Koya-san, and Sendai .

More minimalist, the pediment of the sacred stable is however even more famous. There are three monkeys carved in the wood, that everyone in Japan calls Mizaru ("blind") Kikazaru ("deaf") and Iwazaru ("mute"). They symbolize the precepts of the Tendai Buddhist sect inspired by Confucius: see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Gandhi made it a rule of great wisdom.

Escapades in Nikko

At the back of the sanctuary is another spiritual animal who is watching over the site: the statue of the sleeping cat marks the entrance to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu. The oldest mausoleum is however not the only one, as at the western end of the complex rests his little son Iemitsu (the third shogun) in the Taiyu-in, which is accessed after passing through the sanctuary Futarasan Jinja sanctuary (782).

If it takes a good day to fully enjoy the spiritual beauty of Nikko, it may be useful to spend the night to surrender to the charm of its natural heritage. Running along the Daiyagawa River the Kanmanga Fuchi path is sumptuous, between woods and the strange volcanic formations of Mount Nantai. At the end, dozens of statues of Jizo (the protector of children) covered with moss seem to defy time and proclaim the union of mineral and vegetable.

You will have to return to Nikko Station and take a bus to go to Lake Chuzenji (30 km), the opportunity for an aquatic excursion (around the lake by boat, 1 hour) or to push on to the spectacular Kegon no Taki waterfall and Yumoto Onsen  hot springs .