Nikko Toshogu enshrines the most famous samurai leader Tokugawa Ieyasu. Its carved and brilliantly decorated structures are part of the Shrines and Temples of Nikko UNESCO World Heritage site and the highlight of any visit to Tochigi.
Nikko is well serviced by public transportation, and getting to its World Heritage sites is easy.
From Nikko Station or Tobu Nikko Station, the World Heritage tour bus makes stops at Nikko's UNESCO sites, including Toshogu Shrine. The ride takes about 15 minutes.
If time allows, the walk from Nikko Station takes about 45 minutes and provides the opportunity to enter the World Heritage site from Shinkyo Bridge, sacred Nikko's traditional gateway.
Tokugawa Ieyasu played a pivotal role in unifying Japan and is one of the most important figures in the nation's history. His rise to the status of shogun initiated the Edo period (1603-1867), which was the most peaceful and prosperous period in the long history of ancient Japan and propelled the merchant city of Edo towards its destiny as the world-renowned megalopolis of Tokyo.
A year after his death, Tokugawa Ieyasu was enshrined at Nikko, elevating his status to divinity. Toshogu branch shrines spread throughout Japan.
Every year, Toshogu Shrine holds the Shuki Taisai Grand Festival in the fall and spring with a procession of a thousand warriors, re-enacting the arrival of Tokugawa Ieyasu's remains in Nikko.
When Toshogu Shrine was constructed, the designers had something divine in mind. The ingenuity and careful attention to detail that went into constructing Nikko Toshogu Shrine is extraordinary. It's vibrant colors, and flamboyant carvings stand in stark contrast to much of Japan's more spartan design.
Among the breathtaking structures at Toshogu Shrine, the five-storied pagoda is the most conspicuous because of its height. It stands near the main entrance. The five stories represent the elements of existence: in ascending order, earth, water, fire, wind, and void.
The Yomeimon Gate is Japan's most lavishly decorated gate. It's covered with 508 detailed carvings of children and elders and mythical beasts. It is a masterpiece of Edo-period craftsmanship.
Although not as lavish as most structures at Toshogu Shrine, the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu is its most significant site. You'll ascend a long set of stairs through thick forest before approaching the tomb. The view of the shrine from above and the Yomeimon Gate is worth the climb.
You could spend hours taking in the all the intricate carvings that cover Toshogu Shrine, but three are particularly renowned.
The Nemuri-neko, or sleeping cat, was carved with two flying sparrows on its backside. The animals' co-existence was said to symbolize a peaceful future for the newly unified Japan.
One of the more bizarre, yet memorable carvings at Toshogu Shrine is the "Imagined Elephant," or Sozo-no-zo. It was carved by an artist who had never seen one, and the elephant's mythic proportions show through.
The shrine's most famous carving by far is the Three Wise Monkeys. The first "sees no evil," another "speaks no evil," and the last "hears no evil."
The carving is one of a series of eight on the Sacred Horse's stable, that uses monkeys to portray the phases of human existence, with wisdom for each stage. The three monkeys teach children how to avoid bad things in life by seeing, speaking, and hearing no evil.
After taking in this magnificent shrine at your leisure, Futarasan Shrine and Rinnoji Temple, Nikko's other World Heritage sites, are both within walking distance. A short stroll over to Taiyuinbyo, an elaborate shrine that also serves as the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu's grandson Iemetsu, who built the Toshogu, is also well worth a visit.