We walk and walk, deeper and deeper into the lush green forest of majestic leaf and pine trees. Ancient moss clings to the stone walls, as we walk between rows of perfectly aligned stone lanterns.
The further into the forest we get, the more people we meet. Large crowds of school children line up for group photos, all wearing the same hats.
Then we finally see it, the big torii (shrine) gate with the temples inside.
We have arrived in Nikko, a World Heritage Site, by train on a day trip from Tokyo. Nikko is one of Japan`s biggest tourist attractions, and for a good reason, the ancient temples and shrines dating back to the glories of the Edo period (1600-1868) are stunning. The temples lay beautifully scattered among the hilly woodlands surrounded by cedar trees.
The negative of this beautiful area is that of course, everybody else has discovered it too! So it is packed with people, especially the two most famous temples. High season (summer and autumn) as well as weekends are the busiest, and can take away from the spirituality of the place. We visited Nikko on a weekday, but in July, and the two principal temples were pretty crowded by school classes, but the other temples were very peaceful.
Nikko dates all the way back to the 8th century when the Buddhist priest Shodo Shonin (735-817) built a hut. For centuries, the Nikko area with its forest and mountains was a training ground for Buddhist monks.
Nikko first became famous when the place was chosen to house the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the ruling warlord of Japan. He died in 1617, and they constructed the shrine Toshu-gu in his honour.
The Shrines And Temples Of Nikko
Tosho-gu is the main Shinto shrine in Nikko, and the entrance is through a magnificent torii (shrine gate), protected by huge red Deva kings on either side.
The shrine is a grand and impressive mausoleum that displays the wealth and power that this ruling family of Japan had for two and a half centuries.
Once you step inside the gate, you will see Sanjinko (meaning “Three Sacred Storehouses”) beautifully decorated with colourfully painted carvings.
On the top of the upper storey are carvings of two elephants made by a Japanese artist who had never even seen an elephant! So the elephants look a bit funny! 🙂
Just to the left of the entrance is the famous Shinkyusha (meaning “Sacred Stable”), decorated with wood carvings of monkeys in different positions.
The most famous of these monkeys are the three in the middle, “Hear no evil, See no evil and Speak no evil” monkeys demonstrating the three principles of Tendai Buddhism.
But this shrine bonanza of Nikko don`t stop with these two marvellous buildings, oh no, there are still plenty to see! Step through another torii (shrine gate), climb some stairs, and voila you will enter Honji-do.
This huge hall is famous for it`s painting on the ceiling of “Crying Dragon” which is stunning in itself. But the cool thing about it is that the dragon will cry (make a dragon roar) when the monk clap two sticks together beneath it. The monks demonstrated this while we were there, and it is a unique sound emanating from the ceiling under the dragon and nowhere else in the hall. Very strange, and a bit like magic! 🙂 Unfortunately, it is not allowed to take photos or video in this room.
Up next is the Yomei-mon (meaning “Sunset Gate”), amazingly decorated with gold leaf sparkling in the sun, and intricate, colourful carvings and paintings of flowers, dancers and mythical beasts and Chinese sages. It is a bit gaudy, and it is more Chinese style than Japanese, but still exquisite!
Fun fact: To not arouse envy in the gods by its perfection, those who constructed this building deliberately had the final supporting pillar placed upside down to create an error.
The panels along the corridor are decorated with over 300 unique paintings of flowers and different animals and birds. The most famous of these paintings is Nemuri-Neko (“Sleeping Cat”) a small wooden sculpture of a sleeping cat up under the ceiling. This cat is famous in all of Japan for its lifelike appearances. Well, it is cute but to be honest, I did not see what the big deal was and why everybody was queueing up to see it. It is not that impressive, but very cute! 🙂
The Rinno-ji Temple was built 1200 years ago and is a Tendai-sect temple. The temple was undergoing restoration work while we were there. It is due for completion in 2020.
We did, however, get to go inside and see the interiors which are on display. We got to see three 8 m gilded wooden Buddha statues, which visitors usually don`t get to see up close when they are in the actual temple.
The Taiyuin-byo Shrine was built for the grandson of the emperor Iemitsu (1604-1651). That it is a bit further away from the main temple makes it less crowded, which was a good thing! No school classes here. We really enjoyed this temple, as it was more peaceful and atmospheric.
It contains many of the same things as the main shrine Tosho-gu, like storehouses, drum tower, and Chinese-style gates.
This shrine is, however, a lot more compact and intimate and is set in beautiful surroundings deep into the green and lush forest.
Besides all the statues and beautiful buildings, this shrine contains dozens of lanterns and a gate with two white and gold decorated guardians. The defenders are holding one hand up and one down; up = welcoming those with pure hearts and down = to suppress those with impure hearts. I hope and believe we have pure hearts as we felt very welcomed. 🙂
The Futarasan-jinja Shrine dates back to 1619, and is Nikkos oldest. This is the most atmospheric of all the shrines and temples. It is set high up on the hill in between tall cypress trees. We loved this temple.
Futarasan-jinja is the protector shrine of Nikko itself, dedicated to the nearby mountains surrounding Nikko.
This beautiful and photogenic bright red bridge located at the sacred spot where the Buddhist priest Shodo Shonin is said to have been carried across the river on the back of two giant serpents.
The small city of Nikko is cozy with small shops and cafes/restaurants. It is also very quiet as all tourists visit the shrines and temples all day. When the temple area closes at 5 pm. the visitors head down into the city, but most of them are on a day trip to Nikko and will only spend a few hours in the town before heading onwards.
We had a couple of hours waiting for our returning train to Tokyo, so we had dinner and some dessert at a small local cafe.
For dinner, we had Udon noodles with Yuba. Yuba is a popular traditional dish in the Nikko area and is the skin that forms when making tofu out of soybeans. It is cut into strips and used in everything from Udon dishes to Sashimi to fried bean buns. To tell you the truth, it doesn`t taste very much!
For dessert, we had a typical Japanese green tea set called “San-ten Nama Youkan & Macha Set”. Youkan is a typical Japanese sweet made of jellied bean paste. They usually come in three different colors; brown is made of black soy beans, yellow/green is made of green soybeans while purple is made of purple sweet potato.
Nikko is such a vast area of shrines and temples that it is almost overwhelming! We spent one full day there, and that was enough. I`m glad we didn`t spend more days in Nikko as we felt a bit templed out after this. 🙂
Nikko is great if you don`t have that much time in Japan and want to see many temples and shrines in a short period.
How To Get To Nikko?
The best way to reach Nikko is by train from Tokyo. Take the Tobu Nikko line from Asakusa Station in Tokyo:
- Tokkyu (limited express) trains take 1 3/4 hours and cost about 2620 JPY = 23 us$. We took this. Be sure to ride in the last two cars to reach Nikko (the other cars get separated at an intermediate stop).
- Kaisoku (rapid) trains take 2,5 hours and cost 1320 JPY = 12 us$, and goes hourly between 6:20 am and 4:50 pm
- If you have a JR pass (we had not activated our passes yet at this point) can take the Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo to Utsunomiya (4800 JPY = 43 us$, 54 min) and change there for an ordinary train to Nikko (740 JPY = 7 us$, 45 min).
From Nikko train station there are buses (190 JPY = 2 us$) up to the temple and shrine area, or you can walk (uphill for about 20 min). Bus stops are announced in English.
How Much Does It Cost?
There used to be a combination ticket which was valid for two days costing 1000 JPY = 10 us$, and covered entry to Rinno-ji, Roshu-gu and Futarasan-jinja. But we could not find these tickets anywhere and figured out that they have been suspended indefinitely due to a lack of consensus between the participating shrines and temples. So you now have to buy tickets at each temple and shrine:
- Tosho-gu Shrine: 1300 JPY = 12 us$
- Rinno-ji Temple: 400 JPY = 4 us$ (Sanbutsudo only), 300 JPY = 3 us$ (Treasure House and Shoyoen Garden)
- Taiyuin-byo Shrine: 550 JPY = 5 us$
- Futarasan-jinja Shrine: 200 JPY = 2 us$
All temples and shrines are open between 8:00 and 17:00. They close 16:00 between November and March. No closing days.
Where To Stay In Tokyo
Tokyo has an incredible variety of accommodation available. Here you find some of the world's most luxurious hotels as well as traditional Japanese Inns where you sleep on a futon mat. Famous tiny pod hotels, love hotels for couples, business hotels for the businessmen that stayed out drinking too late to go home, and everything in between.
- Address: 3-7-1-2 Nishi Shinjuku, Shinjuku 163-1055, Tokyo, Japan
- Price: from 500 us$
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This hotel has a great location within just a few minutes walk from Shinjuku-sanchome station in Tokyo’s shopping and entertainment center. The hotel is bright and modern, with small but comfortable rooms that include a tv, refrigerator, microwave, safe and a washing machine(!). Wifi is free and fast. They serve a tasty breakfast in the bar next door. In an otherwise very expensive area of the city, this hotel offers great value for money.
- Address: 3-7-1 Shinjuku, Shinjuku-ku, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan
- Price: from 100 us$
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Hotel MyStays Asakusabashi
We stayed at Hotel MyStays in Asakusabashi and really liked this hotel! It is brand new, and the rooms are actually decent sized compared to the average hotel in Japan (choose a twin room if you need the biggest room). The neighborhood is great, with lots of restaurants and cafes, and a short walk to the underground station Asakusabashi. It was the cheapest and best hotel we could find in Tokyo.
- Address: 1-5-5, Asakusabashi, Taito-ku, Akihabara / Ochanomizu, Tokyo, Japan
- Price: from 80 us$
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MyCube by MyStays
If you're traveling solo on a budget or would simply like to try one of the famous and unique cube/pod hotels of Tokyo then this is a great choice. It is a brand new hotel and quite spacious for a pod hotel. Every pod has lockable baggage storage and free Wi-Fi. The underground station is located right next door and there are plenty of places to eat in the neighborhood.
- Address:2-6-7 Kuramae, Taito-ku, Asakusa, Tokyo, Japan
- Price: from 40 us$
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Budget Alternatives: Khaosan Asakusa Hostel
For more accommodation recommendations, click here to read our complete guide to where to stay in Tokyo.
We used the Lonely Planet`s Japan travel guide on our trip. You can get that and other great books by clicking on the pictures below:
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Have you been to a temple or shrine area? Did you like it, or did you think it was too much? We`d love to hear from you. Please leave a comment in the comment area below! If you enjoyed this, please share on social media! Thanks! 🙂