Japan City Guides: Nikko
- a small town in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture
- founded in the 8th century by the Buddhist priest Shodo
- famous for Toshogu, the mausoleum of the Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu
- an extant showcase of the Tokugawa clan's power and wealth, the supreme cultural legacy of Japan's Edo era
- 200km north-east of Tokyo
- population 17,000
- 600m above sea level
- means "Sunlight" in Japanese
"Nikko is Nippon"
"Nikko is Nippon" is the slogan spread on posters throughout the town. And, true to the slogan, Nikko is a quintessentially Japanese combination of a somewhat drab, often shabby, functional little mountain settlement in which nestles a pay-to-view miracle of cultural achievement.
Nikko showcases some of Japan's most splendid - even gaudy - high culture in a serene and evocative mountain wilderness. Nikko offers a unique combination of natural quietude and cultural opulence.
Nikko's main sights are Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, housed often on the same premises. Set in a 424 hectare (1048 acre) domain, these institutions include between them a total of 103 buildings, nine of which are classified as National Treasures and 94 as Important Cultural Properties. Nikko's shrines and temple were registered as a World Heritage site by the World Heritage Committee in 1999.
Nikko was established as a center of Buddhist religious activity during the 8th century by the priest Shodo Shonin. Nearby Mt. Nantai had already been an object of veneration for generations.
According to legend, Shodo Shonin overcame a series of challenges and climbed the mountain, bringing the teachings of Buddha to the area. Yet his achievement did not bring about the exclusion of the ancient native Shintoism, whose shrines remained and stood side by side with Buddhist temples.
Significant as Nikko was, its present fame dates back to comparatively "recent" times, i.e. the year of the demise of the great unifier of Japan, the Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa (1542-1616). Nikko is north of the capital (now Tokyo, but then known as Edo). North is the direction from which demons are traditionally said to come, so Ieyasu wished to be enshrined as a god of the nation, protecting it from evil even in death.
Not only was Nikko located in an auspicious direction, but the 53rd abbot of Rinnoji Temple was very close to Ieyasu and, enjoying his confidence, was entrusted with the Shogun's remains. In accordance with Ieyasu's wishes, a small shrine was built at Nikko. Ieyasu's grandson Iemitsu Tokugawa had the shrine rebuilt into the opulent masterpiece it is today: a monument not only to Ieyasu, but to the wealth and power of the Tokugawa family.
An iconic image from Nikko is that of the three monkeys.
The Daiya River, Nikko, rushing with white water after heavy rains.
Nikko as a tourist attraction consists of (in order of proximity to the Shinkyo Bridge entrance) Rinnoji Temple; Toshogu - the main attraction, where Ieyasu Tokugawa is enshrined; Futarasan - a shrine to the gods of the area's holy mountains Nantai, Nyoho and Taro; and Taiyuin - where the renovator of Toshogu, Iemitsu Tokugawa, is enshrined.
From Nikko town as you near the shrine area, you will see the picturesque vermillion Shinkyo ("Sacred Bridge" AKA "The Snake Bridge") spanning the Daiya River.
Shinkyo Bridge belongs to the Nikko Futarasan Shrine and has been a World Heritage Site since 1999. 800 million yen (over USD6.5 million) were spent restoring it between 1997 and 2005. Shodo Shonin, the bringer of Buddhism to Nikko, was said to have been unable to cross the river on his mission to climb Mt. Nantai, so implored the gods for help.
The god Jinjao appeared, cast down a pair of snakes from bank to bank which formed a bridge.
A small shrine to Jinjao is one of the first structures you come to after crossing Shinkyo Bridge, but is not usually open to the public.
A statue of Shodo Shonin stands a short distance away.
A short 10-minute walk from Shinkyo Bridge, opposite the Nikko Botanical Garden, is the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, constructed in 1899 as an imperial palace and further expanded in 1918 to house the Taisho Emperor during his visits to Nikko. The Tamozawa Imperial Villa also served as a bolt hole for the Imperial family during the American bombing raids on Tokyo during World War II.
The beautiful 3 hectares of Japanese gardens incorporate garden design techniques from the Heian Period of Japanese history through to the later Edo, Meiji and Taisho eras.
The first temple after Shinkyo Bridge is Rinnoji, but it is recommended that Rinnoji be left till later. The main attraction, Toshogu Shrine, is on the rising ground directly behind Rinnoji.
This is because a discount ticket for entry to nearly all the shrines and temples, including Rinnoji, can be purchased for only 1,300 yen from the green-roofed office at the right of the entrance to Toshogu. Also, if time is limited, Toshogu should be given priority.
Toshogu was built in 1617 by the second Tokugawa Shogun, Hidetada as "a simple shrine," to enshrine Ieyasu Tokugawa . However, Ieyasu's grandson, Iemitsu, reconstructed it in 1636 in its present style.
454,000 workmen and artisans labored for a year and five months, night and day, to complete Toshogu. Since then, Nikko has owed its fame to this shrine.
The first structure of note after passing under Toshogu's stone torii archway is the Go-juu-no-toh Five Storey Pagoda on your left. 36 meters (118 feet) high, it has a unique earthquake-resistant feature in the form of a 60cm (2 foot)-diameter pole hung internally from its fourth floor.
The original tower dated from 1650 but burned down in 1815. The present tower is a reconstruction from 1818. The twelve Chinese zodiac signs are carved around the Pagoda's first level.
The Omote-mon ('Front Gate') is guarded by fearsome 4m (13 foot) high Deva king guardians at the front, a pair of lions on the other side, and festooned with golden elephants.
One of the Deva kings has his his lips closed and the other his mouth open as if issuing a cry. This is a traditional "alpha and omega"-type dichotomy known as "mm" and "ah," and can be found in many similarly paired likenesses of various characters and guardians.
Through the Omote-mon Front Gate are the three San-Jinko Sacred Storehouses where costumes for spring and autumn festivities and horseback archery gear is stored.
The two creatures depicted in carved relief on the end of the roof of the far left-hand storehouse are known as the "imaginary elephants." Toshogu's art director, Kano Tanyu, had never seen an elephant. Judge for yourself how he fared on hearsay alone!
To the left of the Omote-mon gate is Toshogu's only largely unpainted bare-wood structure, the Shinkyusha Sacred Stable. The Stable houses the horse (donated by the government of New Zealand) used in worship of the gods. The three carved "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil" monkeys are said to protect the horses from disease.
The sacred horse itself, Koha, (a New Zealand Maori name meaning "gift"), can be seen here daily between 10am and 2pm.
Further on after a right-hand bend in the parth is the Omizuya lavabo (holy washing trough), dating from 1618. Water is siphoned from the nearby river for worshipers at the Shrine to purify themselves with.
Omizuya lavabo's twelve granite pillars support an ornate Chinese-style roof depicting waves and flying dragons.
Apart from the gold, the watery but brilliant colors are typical of the late 1500s Momoyama era.
Right behind the statue of Shodo is Rinnoji, is the first main temple you approach from the Shinkyo Bridge direction, and is a temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism.
Like all the temples in Nikko, it is said to have sprung from the Shihon Ryuji Temple founded by the father of Nikko, the priest Shodo Shonin, in 766.
Rinnoji's main structure is the Sanbutsudo (Three Buddha Hall) and is typical of Tendai Buddhism architecture. The Sanbutsudo enshrines the "Three Divine Manifestations of Nikko": the Horse-headed Buddha, the Amida Buddha, and the Thousand-headed Buddha, represented in gilded wood.
Hobutsuden ("Treasure House") is a museum located in front of the Sanbutsudo, separated only by the carpark. Hobutsuden is not to be confused with the much bigger Hobutsukan Museum in the adjacent compound.
Hobutsuden is accessible for 100 yen. However, a 300 yen ticket allows you to enter both Hobutsuden museum and the adjoining Shoyoen strolling gardens, created over 300 years ago.
Hobutsuden Museum covers the 1,200 years of Rinnoji Temple's history.
Most visitors to Nikko staying overnight eat in their hotels. However there are restaurants around the station area and on the roads leading up to the Nikko San'nai area. Yuba - thin strips of tofu - is a specialty, and there is a local beer - Nikko beer.
Tobu Nikko Station Information Center
Tobu Nikko Station
Tel. 0288 53 4511
A 5-minute walk up Route 119, on the left.
However, to purchase a 1,300 yen set of tickets allowing entry to Toshogu, Yakushido, Futarasan, and Rinnoji, go to the green-roofed office at the right of the entrance to Toshogu. (Not available at the Nikko Tourist Office.)
Shinkyo Bridge, Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, Japan
Mist in the valley at Kegon Falls, Lake Chuzenji, Tochigi, Japan
Lake Chuzenji & Kegon Falls
There are also hot-springs at Yashio-no-yu Onsen (closed Thursdays, except when a national holiday when it closes Friday; Tel. 0288-53-6611), Yumoto Onsen (a small settlement on the northern shore of Lake Yunoko, with several establishments offering spa facilities), and Kinugawa Onsen (also a settlement, on the east bank of the Kinugawa River).
Nikko Edo Village is a theme park for samurai dramas and ninja shows (shuttle bus from Shin-Takatoku station on the Tobu Kinugawa Line).
Oze National Park
Oze National Park is about 35km (22 miles) north-west of Nikko as the crow flies, centered around Lake Ozenuma. It is a mountainous area great for hiking, with numerous lodges and some camping sites.
Hotel Accommodation in Nikko
Nikko has hotel accommodation to suit all budgets. Some recommended places to stay in Nikko include the Nikko Station Hotel Classic right at Nikko Station with an indoor hot spring bath and terrace, the Japanese-style Nikko Tokanso with tatami rooms and for budget travelers the Nikkorisou Backpackers.
There are buses from Nikko Station to Shinkyo Bridge, though the distance can be covered in around 15 minutes on foot.
IMPORTANT: Check beforehand with the station staff whether or not you need to change trains at Imaichi. Asking this question could save you hours.
To ask in Japanese: Imaichi (EE-MY-CHEE) de norikae no hitsuyo ga arimaska? or, better still, go here to print the question out in Japanese (as an image file, so doesn't require Japanese font capability) and simply show the printed question to the station staff.
For JR Rail Pass holders, an alternative route is by shinkansen (bullet train) to Utsunomiya (50 mins) and then a local JR train to Nikko (45 mins).
Available from Tokyo Asakasa station - this 2-day pass includes train travel (though not the Express surcharge) to Nikko, bus travel between Nikko, Chuzenji Lake, Kinugawa onsen and Yumoto onsen, as well as boats and cable cars in these areas.
Access to Nikko from Nikko Station
From the Tobu line Nikko station to the Nikko temple and shrines (known as the "Nikko San'nai" area), it is a 5-minute bus or taxi ride, or a 20-minute walk. The bus station is right in front of the train station, and the road up to Nikko San'nai is the road visible beyond the bus station.