Nestled amidst the lush landscapes of Tochigi Prefecture, Japan, Nikkō is a captivating destination that beckons travelers with its rich cultural heritage and spiritual significance.
Renowned for its stunning natural beauty and historical treasures, Nikkō is home to a remarkable array of Shinto shrines (Futarasan and Tōshō-gū) and Buddhist temples that embody the essence of traditional Japanese spirituality.
In this article, we embark on a captivating journey through the sacred sites of Nikkō, delving into the profound stories and architectural wonders that have withstood the test of time.
From the vibrant hues of the Toshogu Shrine, dedicated to the illustrious Tokugawa Ieyasu, to the serene tranquility of Rinnō-ji Temple, where Buddhism’s wisdom unfolds, join us as we explore the profound interplay of faith and nature, revealing the spiritual tapestry that graces the heart of Nikkō.
Futarasan Jinja Shrine
Futarasan Jinja, located in Nikkō, Japan, is a revered Shinto shrine with notable historical and cultural significance. The shrine covers a vast area of 3,400 hectares, encompassing eight peaks of the Nikkō Mountains, including Mount Nantai, and the magnificent Kegon Falls. Every year, the shrine’s main festival is celebrated from April 13 to April 17.
Comprising three distinct sections, the shrine’s main complex stands between Nikkō Tōshō-gū and the Taiyū-in Mausoleum, drawing numerous visitors along with Rinnō-ji, forming part of the Shrines and Temples of Nikkō UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The main shrine, called Honsha, is located at the foot of a hill, at an altitude of 650 meters, in the Sannain district of downtown Nikkō. The middle shrine, known as Futarasan-jinja Chūgū-shin or, more commonly, Chugushi, is situated in the Chūgū-shi district, on the northeast shore of Lake Chūzenji, at the base of the southern slope of Mount Nantai, an active volcano overlooking the lake (altitude 1,280 meters).
At the summit of the latter (2,486 meters), the Okumiya shrine emphasizes the sacred nature of the mountain. From the precincts of the main shrine, the two annexed sacred places are accessible via National Route 120, which connects downtown Nikkō to Numata in the neighboring Gunma Prefecture.
Nikkō Futarasan Jinja is home to three enshrined kami (deities): Ōkuninushi-no-Mikoto, god of nation-building and agriculture; Tagorihime no Mikoto, one of the three Munakata goddesses; and Ajisukitakahikone, god of agriculture and thunder.
Its historical significance dates back to its founding in 767 by Shōdō Shōnin, a Kegon school Buddhist priest. The mountain’s ancient cult merged with the Buddhist Shugendō religion, with Mount Nantai symbolizing both a sacred go-shintai and the shape of phallic stone rods.
Despite enduring challenges during the Sengoku period, the shrine underwent reconstruction during the Edo Period with support from influential figures. Designated as a National Historic Site and containing numerous National Important Cultural Properties, Futarasan Jinja remains an esteemed site, recognized as a National Shrine of 2nd rank under State Shinto.
The shrine’s remarkable history and cultural significance led to its inclusion in the UNESCO World Heritage Site designation of Shrines and Temples of Nikkō in 1998.
The Futarasan Shrine, boasts an impressive collection of 23 historically significant structures, all designated as Important Cultural Properties. The main building, Honden, takes pride of place as it enshrines the three deities of the shrine and dates back to 1619.
Another remarkable structure is the Karamon, an elegant gate standing in front of the Honden, built during the early Edo period. The Sukibe, a roofed wall surrounding the Honden, also belongs to the early Edo period.
Among the other noteworthy structures are the Haiden, a worship hall erected in 1645, and the copper Torii, a majestic gate marking the shrine’s entrance, completed in 1799. The wooden arched bridge, Shinkyō, adds to the shrine’s allure, constructed in 1904.
Honsha, the main shrine, rests at the foot of a hill in the Sannain district of downtown Nikkō, standing at an altitude of 650 meters. Priest Shodo, sensing its powerful energy, established a sacred foothold where Tosho-gu now stands, recognizing it as a natural power spot. Over the centuries, many priests came to this place to undergo spiritual training.
Originally enshrined on the site of the present Betsugu, Hongu Shrine, it was later relocated and became known as ‘Shingu.’ In 1617, during the construction of Toshogu Shrine, it was moved to its current location, undergoing renovations at the same time.
The current shrine buildings were constructed during this period, including the main hall and the irimoya-zukuri worship hall, with 11 buildings designated as national important cultural properties (including the Shinkyo bridge).
Within the Shinen garden, there is a bronze lantern, inscribed in 1292 (a National Important Cultural Property), commonly known as ‘Bakadoro.’ Legend has it that when lit, it acquires a mysterious appearance, bearing countless scars from samurai testing its strength with their swords.
Futarasan Chugushi, an intermediate shrine between the main shrine and Okumiya, rests at the base of Mt. Nantai on the north shore of Chuzenji Lake. According to historical records, it was constructed in the 3rd year of Enryaku (784) after Shodo Shonin’s ascent of Mt. Nantai in 782. Initially known as ‘Nantai Chugu,’ ‘Nantai Gongen,’ and ‘Chuzenji Gongen,’ the current shrine was built in 1699.
This site has served as the main entrance for climbing Mt. Nantai, and even today, the climbing entrance is located beside the main shrine. The entrance gate is open only during the mountain’s accessible period (May 5th to October 25th). During the festival from July 31st to August 8th, a statue is moved from the main hall of the Chugu Shrine to the Okumiya.
Seven buildings, including the main shrine, are designated as national important cultural properties. The precincts are also home to two giant yew trees (A and B strains), designated as natural monuments by Tochigi Prefecture. The treasure hall proudly displays various treasures, including swords owned by Futarasan Shrine.
Okumiya shrine, also known as Oku-miya, is a sacred site perched atop the summit of Mt. Nantai, founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin. The area surrounding Taroyama Shrine, near Okumiya, has revealed significant ritual relics dating from the Nara period to the early modern period, collectively known as the Nantai summit ruins.
Notably, numerous excavated artifacts have earned the distinction of being designated as important cultural properties, carefully preserved and displayed at the Chugu Shrine Treasure Museum.
This serene sanctuary holds great historical and cultural significance, making it a revered destination for pilgrims and visitors seeking a deeper connection with Japan’s past.
Shinkyo, the Sacred Bridge
The Sacred Bridge (Shinkyō) over the Daiya River belongs to Futarasan Shrine, is known as one of Japan’s three most beautiful bridges and a symbolic gateway to Nikko. This vermilion lacquered marvel, measuring 28 meters long, 7.4 meters wide, and 10.6 meters above the river, was registered as a World Heritage site in December 1999.
According to legend, priest Shōdō and his followers sought to climb Mt. Nantai in 766 to pray for national prosperity but faced the challenge of crossing the swift Daiya River. In response to Shōdō’s prayers, a 10-foot-tall deity named Jinja-Daiou appeared, adorned with two snakes wrapped around his right arm.
Jinja-Daiou released these snakes, and they transformed into a rainbow-like bridge covered with sedge, allowing Shōdō and his followers to safely cross. This extraordinary bridge is sometimes referred to as Yamasugeno-jabashi, meaning the “Snake Bridge of Sedge.”
Though rebuilt several times, the Shinkyō has maintained its design pattern since 1636 when it was exclusively used by Imperial court messengers. In earlier times, it lacked piers, similar to the Saruhashi Bridge in Otsuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture.
The current bridge, reconstructed in 1904 after being washed away by the Ashio Typhoon in 1902, has been open to the public since 1973.
Toshogu, is a prominent Tōshō-gū Shinto shrine in Nikkō. Part of the Shrines and Temples of Nikkō UNESCO World Heritage Site, it includes 42 structures, five of which are National Treasures of Japan, and three are Important Cultural Properties.
Dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shrine was initially constructed in 1617 during the Edo period and expanded during the reign of the third shōgun, Iemitsu. The revered Ieyasu is enshrined here, along with his entombed remains.
The shrine’s spring and autumn festivals, known as “processions of a thousand warriors,” reenact the historic stately processions from Edo to Nikkō.
The Yōmeimon, an intricately decorated gate, and the Karamon, an ornate entrance gate, are among the celebrated structures. The shrine’s five-storey pagoda represents elements in ascending order and boasts a unique earthquake-resistant design.
Stone steps lead to Ieyasu’s grave, which is topped by a torii with calligraphy attributed to Emperor Go-Mizunoo. The shrine even witnessed the historic appointment of its first female Shinto priest, Yuri Kawasaki, in 2008.
The sanctuary comprises numerous buildings, with thirty-nine designated as “Important Cultural Properties” and others as “National Treasures.” Among them are the Ishidorī, the Gojūnotō pagoda, the Omotemon gate, the Shinyosha stable, and the Omizuya basin.
Recently, tourist facilities such as the Nikko Toshogu Koyoen, a hotel, restaurant, wedding venue, and museums have been constructed. The Tōshō-gū holds great cultural significance and is celebrated during its primary matsuri, the Reitaisai, held annually on May 17th and 18th. Other smaller festivals take place throughout the year.
The Yomeimon Gate at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, known as the “Higurashi Gate,” boasts numerous richly colored sculptures, captivating visitors endlessly. Facing south and accessed by two stone steps, the gate connects to the east-west corridor through the sleeve wall. Inside, visitors encounter the Karamon and the worship hall.
Rebuilt in 1636, the architectural style follows a 3-room, 1-family tower gate design, with copper-tiled gabled roofs on all sides. The pillars and piers are adorned with intricate carvings and gofun coating.
The first floor’s inner ceiling displays two ink paintings of clouds and dragons, surrounded by colored cloud patterns. Each side features two paintings, with the east showing celestial maidens and the west showcasing Karyobinga paintings.
The outer walls on both sides exhibit repaired carvings of peonies on a golden ground, not original to the structure. In 1974, during the restoration, a Chinese oil painting depicting cranes, flowers, and birds was found beneath the current peony painting.
Gojunoto – the five-storied pagoda
The Goju-no-to, also known as the Five-Storied Pagoda, found at Tōshō-gū, holds great historical significance. Lord Tadamitsu Sakai dedicated this impressive structure in 1650, and after a fire, it was meticulously reconstructed in 1818.
An architectural marvel, the 34.3-meter tower is built in a well-hole style, and each of its five stories represents a different element, ascending from earth, water, fire, wind, and finally heaven. The lower four stories reflect a traditional Japanese style, while the top story showcases an elegant Chinese design.
On the first story, visitors can admire intricate carvings of the twelve animals from the Chinese Jyuni-shi, representing the Oriental Zodiac. The pagoda’s interior features no floors, employing a unique and innovative anti-earthquake technique. Instead, a central pillar is suspended from the 4th floor, extending just 10 centimeters above the ground, ensuring its stability and resilience.
This pagoda serves as a splendid example of architectural ingenuity and cultural fusion at Nikko Toshogu Shrine.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine showcases wooden sculptures of various animals, many symbolizing peace. Among them, the Nemuri Neko (Sleeping Cat) is believed to protect Ieyasu while appearing asleep yet ready to pounce at any moment.
The eight bas-relief screens in Shinkyusha depict monkeys, known as protectors of horses, conveying lessons for a peaceful human life. One of the most famous wood sculptures in Nikko is the Three Wise Monkeys, embodying the principle of “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.”
These sculptures emphasize avoiding negative influences, especially in childhood. The shrine’s sangusoku (candlestick, vase, and incense burner) resembles Buddhist implements, with the candlestick representing longevity through cranes and turtles.
Rinnoji, also known as Rinnō-ji, is a Tendai Buddhist temple located in Nikkō. Founded in 766 by Buddhist monk Shōdō Shōnin, it became a retreat for monks seeking solitude and ascetic training.
Together with Nikkō Tōshō-gū and Futarasan Shrine, it forms the Shrines and Temples of Nikkō UNESCO World Heritage Site, with 42 structures included in the nomination.
One of the most notable buildings is the Sanbutsudō (Three Buddha Hall), featuring gold-leafed statues of Amida, Senju Kannon, and Batō Kannon, representing Nikkō’s three mountain kami enshrined at Futarasan Shrine.
Adjacent to the Sanbutsudō, visitors can explore the Shōyō-en Garden and the Rinno-ji Homotsu-den Hall, housing an impressive collection of Buddhist art, including sculptures, paintings, calligraphy, and scrolls mainly from the 8th century. Among the treasures is the Daihatsu nehankyō shūge, a significant manual of the Nirvana Sutra.
The temple also oversees the Taiyū-in Reibyō, a mausoleum dedicated to Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shōgun. This splendid structure, designed in the Gongen-zukuri style, is designated as a National Treasure of Japan.
In total, 37 other buildings within the temple complex hold the status of Important Cultural Properties.
Sanbutsudō, or Three Buddhas’ Hall, also known as Daihon-do, at Rinnō-ji is the largest hall in the area and the largest wooden building in eastern Japan. Completed in 1645 with contributions from Tokugawa Iemitsu, it houses three gold-leafed principle images of Amida, Senju-Kannon, and Batō-Kannon, representing Nikkō’s three mountain kami’s.
Each statue stands 8 meters tall and was remade during the early Edo period. Although among Japan’s largest Buddha statues, they lack cultural property designation due to unclear origins, prompting further research.
Sanbutsudō’s history involves multiple relocations, settling in its present site after separation from the Shinton Futarasan Shrine during the Meiji era, when it was rebuilt under Emperor Meiji’s direction and renovated in the 1950s. The vermilion lacquered hall with a copper-tiled roof was renovated recently.
Taiyu-in Reibyo Mausoleum
Taiyū-in Reibyō serves as the final resting place of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the esteemed grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu. While its layout shares similarities with Tōshō-gū, the mausoleum occupies a smaller area and boasts a more subdued appearance.
Iemitsu, in his will, specifically requested that his memorial not surpass the grandeur of his grandfather’s. Construction commenced in 1652 and was completed within a remarkable fourteen months.
As it was built in close proximity to Tōshō-gū, it is highly probable that many of the same skilled craftsmen contributed to both projects, though their identities remain unknown. Taiyū-in Reibyō showcases the exquisite Nikko-bori style of wood carving, adding to the allure of this historic site.