Visiting Nikko, Japan: Toshogu Shrine


This summer I was lucky enough to have a work trip for 2 weeks in Utsunomiya, Japan. Only a 45 minute train ride away, we had to head to Nikko, Japan for a day! Our main stop of the day was Toshogu Shrine. Toshogu is a World Heritage Site and the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Tokugawa Shogun (first General as it was translated for us).  The shrine has dozens of decorative buildings on the complex including a 5 story pagoda and various gates, each with their own guardians. There is an entry fee to get into the inner shrine (1300 yen) but so many areas to explore once inside.

The first significant buildings we came across were decorated storehouses. The most recognizable includes the storehouse with “see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil” monkeys all around it. Across the road there is a store house with 2 elephants carved on top. These are known as the Sozonozo Elephants or imagined elephants. At the time the Japanese had only heard stories of elephants from nearby countries. The artist who carved the piece had never seen an elephant before, he used only his imagination!

Off on the edge of the complex we followed signs to see the famous Nemurineko or “Sleeping Cat” carving. The carving is at the top of a doorway so be sure to look up or you may miss it like we did at first! We went through the doorway and up a long flight of stairs through the woods. The walk is a bit of a hike but the forest surroundings are beautiful along the way. At the top of the stairs is Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum. Many stop to pray at a tree at the top that is said to bring good fortune.

The main shrine building is open to visitors to see the elaborately decorated building but you must take off your shoes before entering. Unfortunately photographs are not allowed inside so you will have to visit to see the beauty for yourselves!

The last area we explored was Honjido Hall home of the “Crying Dragon”. Once again you have to take off your shoes to get inside. They let groups of people in at a time for a demonstration of the “Crying Dragon”. The “Crying Dragon” is painted on the ceiling and the demonstration includes a man clapping together 2 pieces of wood around the hall. It never echos until he is directly underneath the dragon’s eyes! Sadly, once again no photos were allowed inside.

The Toshogu Shrine complex is large so be sure to give yourself 2.5 hours at the very least to see everything. If visiting in the summer be sure to stay hydrated as this involves quite a bit of walking in the hot sun. Before going into the the shrine be sure to stop at the purification fountain to wash your hands and lips. If you are in Nikko or looking for a day trip to nearby, Toshogu Shrine is definitely a place to see!

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