In 1999, the whole world paid tribute to the baroque splendour of the shrines and temples of Nikko that gleam among the giant cedars, when the complex was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. These architectural masterpieces are tightly bound up with the history of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled from the 17C to the 19C.
Exploring the site
The small vermilion Shin-kyo bridge symbolises the entrance to this sacred area, where man brought out the divine in nature: in the 8C, the monk Shodo Shonin, who had gone to meditate with his disciples in the mountains, endeavoured to conquer Mount Nantai with an attempt to cross the Daiya River. On the third go, he succeeded, and went on to found the first place of worship, the temple Shironryu-ji (as Rinno-ji was initially named) appearing a short distance from the sacred bridge. Meanwhile, he had the Futarasan Shrine and the Buddhist temple Chuzen-ji erected nearby, about 15km to the west, on the shore of Lake Chuzenji at the foot of Mount Nantai, contributing to making this divine land a place of pilgrimage.
Buildings of pharaonic proportions
In the 16C, the monk Tenkai, patriarch of the Buddhist sect of Tendai-shu (Lotus Sutra) came back to and extended Rinno-ji. It then became Nikko’s most important temple and the regional hub of some 15 Buddhist temples with the same name. At the same time the Shinto shrine Tosho-gu was built. A cedar forest, planted for the occasion, serves as a backdrop for this large mausoleum dedicated to the first shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu, who died in 1616. The building is unique in Japan in terms of its size, and also distinguishes itself by the richness of its materials and detail of its decoration. All gold leaf and bright colours glinting, its abundance of ornate carvings was crafted by the most talented artists of the day.
A place of pilgrimage and celebration
Coming from Tokyo via the Suginami avenue of Japanese cedars and taking the Kanman-ga-fuchi walking trail just before arrival, successive shoguns and pilgrims came as of the 17C to pray in Nikko's temples and shrines, as well as to honour the first Ieyasu shogun, who became the country's protector, by visiting his mausoleum. Emperor Go-Mizunoo deified Ieyasu with the posthumous name Tosho Daigongen, the "Great Deity who shines in the East".
Twice a year, during the festival in Nikko, a Yabusame ceremony takes place at the foot of Tosho-gu Shrine. This religious ritual aims to please the gods by showcasing the powers of concentration and skill of the horseback archers. There are no winners or losers among the 15 or so riders in the dress of the Heian, Kamakura or Edo eras – three important periods in the history of this practice. All those who hit the target are honoured. The annual Yayoi Matsuri (a parade of cherry blossom-decked floats from Nikko's different districts) is also held in the grounds of Futarasan Shrine in mid-April.
By train, daily departures from Tokyo with the Tobu Line from Tobu Asakusa Station (exit 4 from Asakusa Station), “Limited Express SPACIA” train (7 stops) or regular train (8/12 stops and one change at Shimo-Imaichi Station), hourly departures, reservation mandatory, 1hr 50min/2hr 30min, 2700/1400 JPY (2160 JPY/free if ticket purchased in conjunction with a City, Region, Park Pass). Tobu offers three Bus&Train Pass deals, City, Region and Park, including an Asakusa-Nikko return on the regular line, Dec-mid-Apr: 2670/4150/8010 JPY, mid-Apr-Nov: 2670/4520/8010 JPY. Purchase of Bus&Train Pass, tickets and information at the Tobu Sightseeing Service Center situated on the ground floor of Tobu Asakusa Station (daily 7.20am-7pm).
From the capital’s large JR stations and for Japan Rail Pass holders, numerous daily services connect the stations of Tokyo and Ueno to Nikko by JR lines, by Yamagata or Tohoku Shinkansen with a change of train at Utsunomiya Station, 1hr 45min/5570 JPY. From Shinjuku Station, three daily services with combined Tobu/JR trains with no changes (7 stops), 2hr 15min/4000 JPY.
From Tobu Station, there are regular Tobu bus services to the temples and hotels dotted along the main road. It’s preferable to take the bus there (290 JPY; 500 JPY return) to get there as early as possible and come back on foot as far as Shin-kyo bridge, then walk along Route 119, which is lined with shops and restaurants. It is more economical to get the Buss Pass if you plan to make more than one or two visits. Purchase of Bus Passes and tickets, and information available at the Tourist Center in Tobu-Nikko Station (daily 8.30am-5pm) or the Nikko JR station ticket office.
The temples of Nikko can be visited on foot; they are located a 20min walk from Shin-kyo bridge, itself around 25mins’ walk from the Tobu and JR stations.
An information centre for tourists is located inside the train station, with staff on hand to give tourist information in English on request, as well as large interactive touchscreens with an English-language option. Left luggage service and luggage-free visit service available. Ticket machines with English-language option, train tickets, Tobu Bus Pass and tickets for tourist sites (Tosho-gu Shrine, Rinno-ji Temple, for example).