Last updated on October 26th, 2018
The centerpiece and most visited attraction of the Nikko UNESCO World Heritage site is the Toshogu shrine. This final resting place for Tokugawa Ieyasu is like a peacock among the pigeons, an extravagant and elaborately colorful showpiece dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for almost 300 years.
Toshogu Shrine History
Tokugawa Ieyasu was one of Japan’s three unifiers and the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1600 to the late 1800’s. This feudal military government is known as the Edo period in Japan’s history, named for the seat of government at Edo Castle (Edo is now known as Tokyo).
We tend to think of the Japanese aesthetic as reserved and minimalist, as seen in the refined Japanese gardens of Kyoto. Built in 1617, the initial shrine for Tokugawa Ieyasu was a much simpler affair. The Toshogu we see today is anything but reserved or minimalist. Unlike typical shrines, this elaborately lacquered and gold leafed complex was built by Ieyasu’s grandson in his honor 20 years after his death. By that time, Ieyasu had been named a Buddhist deity, and this shrine was built to glorify his achievements and undoubtedly, with its grandiose design, also provide continuing validation to the Tokugawa rule he established. It is said that more than 15,000 craftsmen worked on the shrine employing the highest technology available in that time, and using 2.5 million sheets of gold leaf.
The Toshogu shrine is sited in a serene forest on a mountainside, with Ieyasu’s mausoleum topping the highest point of the shrine. The path up to and then throughout the shrine follows the mountain’s topography, so expect to climb many stairs as you explore the site. It is also a very popular tourist attraction with both Japanese and international visitors, so expect it to be very busy, especially on the weekends.
The major shrine buildings are undergoing a major renovation called the Great Heisei Renovation which started in 2005 and is scheduled to go through 2024. Only a few buildings are worked on at any one time, so this does not greatly impact a visit to this site. Walking through the complex, it was evident which buildings had been refreshed – their colors were almost fluorescent in their vivid new paint, and the new gold leaf was blindingly bright in the sunlight.
The entrance to the Toshogu shrine is marked by the large stone Ishidorii Torii gate.
After passing under the large torii gate, the next structure to attract my attention was the Gojunoto five story pagoda. Each of the levels of the pagoda represents an element as it was understood in ancient times – earth, water, fire, wind and void. The tall, red pagoda with its intricate and detailed multicolored carvings captures the eye and was only a prelude for what was to come inside the shrine proper.
After purchasing entry tickets, stairs took me through the Otomemon, or front gate, with its guardian deities on either side.
Sacred Store Houses
The first buildings I saw once I entered the shrine complex are three Sanjinko storehouses, imaginatively named the Upper, Middle and Lower Sacred Storehouses. The function of these buildings is just what their name indicates. They are used to store the costumes and harnesses for the Procession of 1000 Samurai that occurs every spring and fall.
The Shimojinko or Lower Sacred Storehouse
The Nakajinko or Middle Sacred Storehouse
The Upper Store house, or Kamijinko Sacred Storehouse is known for its unique carvings of elephants on the front. They are known as “Imaginary Elephants” because the artist had never seen the real species, so he created them based on how he imagined they looked. They definitely have a Chinese dragonish quality to them. The other side of the building, which can be seen once you climb higher up the path and go through the Yomeimon Gate, is just as colorful.
Shinkyusha-the Sacred Stables
Across from the Sacred Storehouses is the sacred stable. This unpainted building is famous for the eight carved panels that wrap around the top. The panels depict scenes in the life of three monkeys, representing the life of ordinary humans. The most famous scene is the “Hear no evil, speak no evil and see no evil” panel. I took photos of this panel in 2015 and again this year in 2017. The improvements from the extensive restoration that Toshogu is undergoing is very evident.
The next building is the Omizuya, or Water Purification Building, built in 1618. As is typical with shrines and temples in Japan, supplicants go through a purification ritual to wash their hands and rinse their mouths before going to worship.
Next to the Omizuya is another ornate storage building that is used as a library to store sacred scrolls.
From here, steps took me up to the what is acknowledged to be the most beautiful gate in all of Japan – The Yomeimon Gate. It is also called the gate of the Setting Sun because you can look at it all day till the sun sets and not get tired of it. Just this gate alone has over 500 carvings on it. There was so much to see, it was hard to take it all in in one viewing. The renovation on the Yomeiman Gate was completed in March of 2017, which explained its brand new appearance when we visited this fall.
The exterior wall on either side of the Yomemon Gate is called the Corridor or Kairo. This was one of my favorite sections of this whole complex. The wall is decorated with brightly painted and intricately carved openwork panels depicting all sorts of birds and flowers. I could have studied all these panels till sunset also.
Inside the shrine complex, these walls store and display a very large collection of sake barrels. The sake is donated by the breweries to the shrines for use during ceremonies and festivals. In return, the shrine asks the gods for prosperity for the brewers.
Karamon Gate and Main Shrine Complex
Passing through the Yomeimon Gate, I faced yet another elaborate gate and highly decorated building stretching out on either side. The Karamon Gate is painted in white chalk and highlighted with a lot of gold. The Karamon Gate acts as the entrance to the Main Shrine (no photography or shoes allowed inside).
The Sleeping Cat
To the right of the main shrine complex is the Sakashitamon Gate which is the entry point for the many stairs that climb up the mountain to Ieyasu’s tomb. This gate is famous for the carving of a sleeping cat which is supposed to have a very life-like appearance and which represents peace. The cat sculpture is not all that large or particularly elaborate as compared to the lavish carvings on the buildings around it. So, it was quite surprising to witness the popularity among the Japanese of this small, ordinary looking decoration.
Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Tomb
A separate entry ticket lets you pass through the Sakashitamon Gate to climb up the 200+ stairs to see Ieyasu’s tomb. After the almost gaudy explosion of color and shape in the shrine dedicated to him, his mausoleum looks positively drab and boring, though still not all that small.
Toshogu is such an amazing place it is hard to take it all in in one visit. I had the chance to visit Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine twice, once in 2015 on a guided day trip tour from Tokyo, and then again independently this fall (Nov. 2017 – you can read my post comparing the two expereinces here). It is a beautiful site to visit and should be on everyone’s Japan list of activities. With each visit I was able to see and appreciate new details, and I know that if I went again, I would see more elements that escaped me before.
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