Located in the northwestern part of Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is best known for its vast and rich nature as well as the many famous historical shrines and temples. As it used to be the sacred land of mountain worship for Shinto and Buddhist, many people visit the place for its distinctive mystical atmosphere and decorated shrines. The World Heritage site Shrines and Temples of Nikko consists of 103 structures spread over three complexes. They are all within easy walking distance of each other, making for an unforgettable day absorbing some of Japan’s most gilded religious architecture. The Japanese saying “Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikko”—kekkō meaning beautiful, magnificent or “I am satisfied”—is a reflection of the beauty and sites in Nikko.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine
Toshogu Shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that played a pivotal role in unifying Japan and ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. The ingenuity and careful attention to detail that went into constructing Nikko Toshogu Shrine are extraordinary. Its vibrant colours and flamboyant carvings stand in stark contrast to much of Japan's more spartan design. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture.
Activities: Shrine visit Fee: JPY 1300 (shrine) Time required: 45 minutes-1 hour
Within walking distance from Toshogu Shrine is another World Heritage site, Futarasan Jinja. Although not as grand and ornate, Futarasan-jinja is much older as it founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko. Futarasan Jinja is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro. Futarasan is an alternate name of Mount Nantai, the most prominent of the three mountains. You can wander the impressive main grounds for free, and check out the inner garden with its ancient trees for a small fee.
Activities: Shrine visit, Photo stop Fee: JPY 200 (inner garden) Time required: 45 minutes
Located one kilometre from the Futarasan Jinja grounds is Shinkyo Bridge (Sacred Bridge), which also belongs to the shrine. The bridge is ranked as one of Japan's three finest bridges together with Iwakuni's Kintaikyo and Saruhashi in Yamanashi Prefecture. According to legend, a priest and his followers climbed Mt. Nantai to pray for national prosperity. However, they could not cross the fast-flowing Daiya River. They prayed and a 10-foot tall god named Jinja-Daiou appeared with two snakes twisted around his right arm. Jinja-Daiou released the blue and red snakes and they transformed themselves into a rainbow-like bridge covered with sedge. That is why this bridge is sometimes called the "Snake Bridge of Sedge". Activities: Photo stop Fee: JPY 500 Time required: 30-45 minutes
Like the neighbouring Toshogu Shrine, elaborate, gilded carvings distinguish Rinnoji Temple is dedicated to the gods of the three mountains behind it. Founded by the monk Shodo Shonin, it is Nikko's most important Buddhist temple. The most impressive sight at Rinnoji Temple is the three eight-meter-tall, gold-lacquered Buddha statues, each showing a different facet of Buddha. The three statues also represent the three Nikko mountain gods Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho and Mt. Taro. Surrounded by towering cedar trees and lush forests, the whole area is especially impressive with the fall colours.
Activities: Temple visit, Photo stop Fee: Varies (JPY 300-JPY 900) Time required: 30-45 minutes
The Taiyuin temple is a mausoleum of the grandson of Ieyasu, Iemitsu. Iemitsu’s lavish mausoleum complex resembles the nearby Toshogu Shrine in its layout and architecture, but it was intentionally built somewhat more modest than the Toshogu, due to Iemitsu’s deep respect for his grandfather. Taiyuin temple is officially a Buddhist temple even if it mixes Buddhist and Shinto elements. (Image via Nikko Station)