There is quite a bit posted online about Nikko Toshogu and the enshrined Ieyasu Tokugawa.  Before you make the journey, I encourage you to finish reading this post to ensure that the visit will be worth your while.


After nearly 40 days spent in Japan on business – spread out over four separate visits – I was afforded a “rest day” where I was able to enjoy time with my friend and former colleague Kan.  We took the Shinkansen 2.5 hours outside of Tokyo to Nikko Toshogu (Nikkō Tōshō-gū).  I spent an entire day learning about Japanese culture and seeing a mix of Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples.


I was really grateful for such a visit.  I was appreciative to have a friend guide me through his native country and help further my understanding of my six-year journey.  I was grateful for the experience that gave me deeper insight into the Japanese culture, as well as my own, which was not expected.  I able to finally experience Japan outside of a 10-minute break in-between meetings, the fast paced business environment, or seeing Japan through the telescope of a large city.  Don’t misunderstand me, there is a lot to see and do in Tokyo, but after four visits, I was open to something different.  Our trip to Nikko was just that.


Nikko is divided into several areas.  If you plan to see all of it, it is perhaps worth it to buy a “combination” ticket as each area can charge for each entry.  The site is rather massive, and took a full day to explore. It is set in a beautiful cedar forest.  The architecture is well-preserved (restored where necessary) and almost entirely made of wood (without nails!) with extensive carvings throughout (the famous Yameimon Gate is covered and being restored, as of Sept. 2013).


The Rinnoji temple is currently and completely encased in a framed building used to rebuild/restore it, which should be completed by the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games.  If you appreciate engineering or architecture then you can see the entire Rinnoji structure disassembled and being rebuilt via movable platforms extending from the building that covers it.  Quite fascinating to see one building used to rebuild another without ever touching the structure, perhaps only if you are an engineer.


We went through the site starting from the bus stop at the bottom of the hill and headed towards Futarasan Jinja.  From there we walked through the Shinmon Gate along a path lined with stone lanterns that led to the five-story pagoda (Gojunoto), an architectural masterpiece from 1650 (rebuilt in 1818).  We made our way to the main part of Toshogu, through the Omotemon Gate, past the three monkeys and zigzagged along a path and eventually through the Yameimon Gate.


We found the Sleeping Cat under the roofed passageway that led up several terraces to the Okusha, the inner shrine of Ieyasu Tokugawa.  The sleeping cat is noted as being one of the most famous sculptures in the area.  Approximately the size of a real cat, the somewhat flat carving is so well painted that it optically looks like a life –sized feline (in 3D).  It is said that as the cat sleeps, Japan will be peaceful.


On our return from the Okusha, I was stopped by an American couple who asked me, “What’s up there?”

They were standing in the same line I had been in, slowly migrating up the path and stairs to the burial site of Ieyasu Tokugawa.  How do you explain, in twenty seconds, to an antsy American couple what they will find at the end of a long line – something that was carefully explained to me by a native Japanese during the course of a two and ½ hour train ride?

I sighed knowing that what they would find could remain in their eyes unimpressive at best and said plainly, “It’s the shrine of Tokugawa.”

They knew this much but continued, “Well, what does it look like?”


And in that instant, I felt sorry for these two Americans, not necessarily because of their impatience, but perhaps because of their disinterest in appreciating something that is not American, or more specifically, a cultural experience deeper than their own.


Thinking this, I down played my response and undersold them on “It’s another shrine, with some bronze statues.  It looks quite old.”  Which is true perhaps, but the act of presenting one’s self at the shrine of the unifier of Japan has greater meaning than just to see it.   As I was saying this, my friend had continued on unaware that I had been stopped.  I was looking to continue my visit and experience and left my fellow Americans in the long line up the hill.  Perhaps this long line was one of Ieyasu’s final teachings of patience.

(Part 2 can be found here)


A special thanks to my friend Kan, for without his help I would not have been able to post these pictures.  I lost my camera on the JR Line to Haneda Airport.  He was able to track it down, pick it up at the Shinagawa Station in Tokyo, and mail it back to me.  Awesome!  Thanks Kan!


2 thoughts on “Nikko Toshogu – A Cultural Perspective (1 of 2)

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