Nikko Travel Guide 日光
"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 Rinno-ji temple, the first building of the complex of Nikko.
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.
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.
Busy throughout the year, the site is flooded with visitors in spring during the Nikko festival (17th and 18th 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 ceremonies of Shinto rites.
Nikko and Gandhi
You reach this sacred complex via a bridge, marking a separation from the secular world. The shinkyo ("sacred bridge"), painted in red, was originally reserved for the emperor and the shogun before being crowded 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: Rinno-ji temple, known for its "hall of three Buddhas". The curious can also go and look at the objects of worship (mandalas, bells) kept in the Treasure Museum (opposite the temple).
Behind the temple, 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's considered one of the finest examples of Momoyama architecture, demonstrative and pompous. Other Tosho-gu shrines 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.
Activities in Nikko
At the back of the shrine is another spiritual animal who watches 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 young son Iemitsu (the third shogun) in Taiyu-in, which is accessed after passing through Futarasan Jinja shrine (782).
It takes a good day to fully enjoy the spiritual beauty of Nikko, and it may be useful to spend the night there to surrender to the charm of its natural heritage. Running along 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.