During our time in Tokyo, we took a day trip to the nearby town of Nikko. Just outside the town are the mausoleums of some of the oldest of the Tokugawa shoguns, the rulers of Japan from 1603 to 1867. These tombs can be visited as part of elaborate shrines tucked into the wooded foothills of Nikko National Park.
To get there, we used our Japan Rail Passes to ride the shinkansen (bullet train) to Utsinomoya, where we transferred to a local train that took us into Nikko itself (also covered by the pass). This transfer was quite easy to find and make.
Upon arrival at Nikko Station, we made our plans for the day. The main area of shrines is about two kilometers from the station, so we had to plan how to get there. We could have paid for a bus to take us, but we decided to walk there ourselves. It was slightly uphill so a little tiring, but not too hard.
We stopped to admire the Shinkyo Bridge at the entrance to the park. This beautiful red bridge over a crystal clear stream was built in 1636. It cost a fee to walk over it, so we just viewed it from a distance.
We decided to visit the main shrines/temples as part of a rough loop. The first stop was Rinnoji Temple, the largest Buddhist temple in the Nikko area. However, as we approached the area where it was supposed to be, all we could see was a large ugly building that looked like it belonged in a generic industrial plant. We were confused, but then we noticed that it had a picture of the temple painted on it! As it turned out, this was an elaborate building built around the temple while it was undergoing major renovations.
The covered building is Sanbutsado Hall, the main building of the temple. Even though it is under renovation, you can still go inside for a fee. Inside the main level we were able to view three large gold statues of the buddha figures Amida, Senju-Kannon (Kannon with a thousand arms) and Batu-Kannon (Kannon with a horse head). Pictures were not allowed.
This was interesting, but even more fascinating was that the entrance fee also allowed you to get a cool view of the renovation works. If you look at the exterior picture of the building above, you will see that towards the top there is a projection with windows that wraps around the entire building. This is a walkway that offers views down onto the exposed old roof. We watched as workers meticulously shaped pieces of wood to be fit into the roof, replacing old rotting wood. We also watched another group pounding dowels into holes in large beams and then cutting them off.
For lunch, we walked back into town and found a place offering the local specialty, soba noodles with yuba (tofu skin). We got seated in the traditional section, so we sat on the ground with our shoes off. The noodles were quite good!
Refreshed, we headed back to sightseeing. The next stop was the main attraction: Toshogu Shrine, the complex surrounding the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This attraction was much more crowded than the Rinnoji, with many school groups visiting on field trips (identified by uniquely colored hats or kerchiefs). The main gate was covered over for renovation, but we were able to find some of the other famous carvings that make up the elaborate decoration of the shrine. We also hiked up a large flight of stairs to the actual tomb itself, which is much more austere.
Our final stop on the main shrine loop was at Taiyuinbyo, the shrine/mausoleum for Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu and the third Tokugawa shogun. This one was much less crowded, with no school groups, so it was a lot easier to take in the architecture and enjoy the serene setting in the green woods.
We then left the main area of shrines and visited the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a small gorge on the outside of town. Here a short path follows along a clear river rushing through narrow rock walls. The main attraction though is the dozens of Jizo statues lines up in a row along the trail. Each has been provided a red cap and scarf, lending the whole thing a mystical air.
After this, we felt like we had seen what we had intended to while in Nikko. We walked all the way back to the station and caught the trains back to Tokyo. We are glad we visited – it provided us a nice opportunity to get away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, and see some unique and historic shrines and temples!