When you’re as powerful and influential as Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over two hundred and fifty years, people tend not to remember you in half measures. This explains the ornate beauty of the Nikko Toshogu, the final resting place of Ieyasu and a must see day trip if you’re spending a few days in Tokyo.
Located in Tochigi prefecture, approximately 2.5 – 3 hours by train from Tokyo, the Nikko Toshogu shrine is a world heritage site set amongst some beautiful forest and the otherwise quiet town of Nikko.
The shrine was established in 1617, a year after Ieyasu’s death. His remains were transferred from his original place of burial and interred here. The Toshogu was at first a very simple building but most of it was rebuilt in 1636 by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu who seemed determined to make it one of the most spectacular shrines in Japan. In the course of rebuilding, Japan’s finest craftsmen had a hand in the work and that skill is etched into every facet of the shrine complex.
The building exteriors are extensively decorated with detailed carvings, perhaps the most famous of these are the Sanzaru and the Nemuri Neko. The Sanzaru, commonly known in the West as The Three Wise Monkeys, depict the principle of ‘See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ are located on the Shrine’s stables. Their depiction at the Toshogu is the most famous in the world and though possibly not their first depiction, the carving is often credited for their popularisation.
The Nemuri Neko is situated above the gate leading to Tokugawa’s mausoleum. This carving of a sleeping cat is said to have been created by Hidari Jingoro, a legendary artist of the early Edo period whose very existence is shrouded in myth. The cat is said to be a symbol of a peaceful world. On the opposite side of the gate are carved two birds who happily play whilst the cat sleeps eternally. The Nemuri Neko is a surprisingly small carving, especially when compared with some of the more grandiose pieces of work around the shrine, only around 20 centimetres in height, but it is a powerful image and is designated as a National Treasure in Japan.
The Main Shrine, also designated as a National Treasure, is where the shrine’s ceremonies are held. It’s a gorgeously decorated building with unique dragons painted on the ceiling.
Tokugawa’s Mausoleum is located some distance from the main shrine building and is accessed by passing through the Nemuri Neko gate and heading up a fairly long path lined with stairs where it waits at the very top in a peaceful glade of trees and is quite simple in appearance to the rest of its surroundings.
My personal favourite building at the shrine is the Honjido hall. The ceiling of this building is painted with a huge dragon and the room is so precisely constructed that there is no echo, except for directly beneath the dragon’s head as demonstrated by a priest clapping two pieces of wood together for visitors. The painting is called the Roaring Dragon because of this.
The Nikko Toshogu is a very popular destination so expect to see large crowds of tourists here but is still definitely worth a visit. There are also currently some renovations happening on the central Yomeimon gate until 2019 which means that this particular part of the shrine is covered in scaffolding. Even so, there is still more than enough to see here. Nikko itself is also quite a nice little town and home to several other important shrines, waterfalls and some beautiful nature so it’s very easy to make a full day of it here.