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The ultimate guide to Nikko Tosho-gu

That headline pains me, because it contains a spelling mistake. It should be Nikkō Tōshō-gū, because those macrons make a big difference in Japanese pronunciation, but … 

  • I've realized that Google doesn't recognize the similarity between Nikko Toshogu and Nikkō Tōshō-gū.
  • Most people would search for Nikko Toshogu, and wouldn't end up here.
  • That's what happens to my post about Daiyūzan Saijō-ji, which I'm convinced is the ultimate (there I go again; I'm so humble) post about this beautiful but relatively unknown temple.

Thus I've sold my copy-editor's soul to Google for the sake of more hits. Shoot me at dawn and bury my body on a remote Niigata mountain.

What's to say about Nikkō Tōshō-gū that hasn't been said a thousand times? 日光を見ずして結構というなかれ。Nikkō o mizushite "kekkōto iunakare. Do not say "magnificent" until you've seen Nikkō.

The main shrine at Nikkō Tōshō-gū.
Click on the photos to see bigger versions.

Main shrine and snow

It's a UNESCO World Heritage Site, one of the most popular tourist attractions in Japan, an "explosion of colour and craftmanship that is one of the most dazzling architectural specimens in Asia".

Maybe, but … have you been to Nikkō as the guest of a Shinto priest who used to work there?

Thought not. That's what I did, so there, and I don't feel guilty for one second for gloating about it. It's all thanks to museum nerd Sarah, who knows other museum nerds who do nerdish things like study Shinto at Nikkō. (Sarah is also a Tōshō-gū addict to such an extent that she makes my Sky Tree obsession look like a brief frivolous flirtation.)
I've been to Nikkō many times, but always to go hiking, which means I've never paid much attention to Tōshō-gū. I've entered on a few occasions, but every time I fled within minutes because the crowds frightened the living daylights out of me. The solution? Go in winter, in the snow, when Nikkō is as quiet as it gets. Drag Sarah and her priest friend along, and get the tour of a lifetime.

The square in front of the station

Snow and ice

Ready to come along? I'm not going to repeat all the usual information about the shrine complex, which you can find at Wikipedia as well as here and here. I'll rather add extra information that might not be that well-known.

Walking along the main street towards Nikkō Tōshō-gū. You can take a bus,
but I recommend walking. It takes 20 to 30 minutes.

The tourist centre



The famous bridge at Nikkō Tōshō-gū

The avenue leading to the shrine complex

Getting closer

Please observe the young lady in her short skirt and high heels. This is called
"snow gear for women" in Japan.


Let's start with the Sacred Fountain (御水舎 Omizuya). It's roughly 6 m x 4 m x 3 m and has twelve granite pillars that support an elaborately coloured copper-tiled roof. The ceiling has an Indian ink drawing of a dragon that reflects in the water basin, and is sometimes called the Mizukagami-no-ror the "dragon in the water mirror".

The most interesting thing is the roof at the back: one side is shorter than the other. There are two reasons: it's believed that the shorter side was to protect an ancient cedar growing next to the water basin, but it was also done deliberately because perfection would anger the gods.

The other interesting imperfection – deliberate or not? – is that the roof decoration is asymmetrical.

Omizuya to the left

This is the "perfect" side of the roof.

Not so perfect. Can you spot the difference?


Not symmetrical

Dutch lantern

Next up, the Dutch lantern (オランダ灯籠 Oranda dōrō), which was a gift from the Dutch East India Company (V.O.C.) presented to the shōgun in 1643.

The funny thing about this lantern is that the Tokugawa family crest is upside down, because the artist made a mistake. No worries. As already mentioned, human perfection does not please the gods.

Upside down Tokugawa family crest on the Dutch lantern

This is what the Tokugawa crest should look like.
Image: Wikipedia.

The crying dragon

We move on to Smaug the dragon. Or rather, the singing dragon (鳴き龍 naki-ryū), who lives in a building called Honji-(本地堂). I couldn't photograph him, because cameras are not allowed in Honji-dō and many other areas that we visited, but I can tell you about it all.

The dragon was painted on the temple's ceiling by Kanō Yasunobu (狩野安信). When you stand underneath the dragon and hit two wooden clappers, it produces an echo in the ceiling, making it sound as though the dragon is singing or roaring. That's because the ceiling is similar to a concave mirror. The head of the dragon is in the centre of the concave, with the center being about 6 centimeter deep, and this creates the sound waves. Read more about the science behind the dragon's cries here.

The building where the crying dragon lives

Flowers and kirin

There are recurring themes at Tōshō-gū, but these ones caught my attention:

1) Peony, the flower that is associated with the Tokugawa family.

Ema with peony

2) You see dragons all over Tōshō-gū: the magnificent Sun Blaze Gate (陽明 Yōmei-mon) alone is decorated with 508 sculptures of dragons, and the ceiling of the Main Hall (本社 Honsha) is decorated with hundreds of dragons who all look slightly different. The Honsha also has what I promptly dubbed the "gaijin dragon" because … he's white. Again, no cameras allowed, so I can't show you what he looks like.


3) Phoenix (鳳凰 or hō-ō) on the walls of the shōgun's room in the Honsha. If I may quote from the English website: "Only daimyō or higher class people can go inside." This room is off-limits to tourists, but we were allowed to slip in thanks to the shrine priest who was our guide. I sneaked in a few illegal photos, becauseI'mfromAfrica.

Normally tourists are now allowed in the shōgun's room.
Tokugawa descendants still use this room when they visit the shrine. 

Phoenix in the shōgun's room

4) I spotted one kirin, the famous mystical beast that only appears in times of peace. I couldn't photograph him because too many people would've seen the South African doing the South African crime thing; and anyway, despite my default irreverent mode and criminal tendencies, I believe that cameras don't belong inside sacred spaces and 99,9% of the time I honour my own convictions. The kirin can show himself at Tōshō-gū because the cat is sleeping and the sparrow is still alive and therefore there is peace upon the blessed islands of Japan. What am I going on about? Aha. Continue reading.

5) Sparrows. The most famous sparrow is, of course, the one behind the even more famous sleeping cat. You want to know more about the sleeping cat? OK!

The sleeping cat

This tiny carving (眠り猫 nemuri-neko or the sleeping cat) is a symbol of peace. All of Japan is in love with it, and if you visit Nikkō in summer, I can guarantee that you'll have to stand in line for hours to see it from behind 601 888 other tourists. If you walk around to the back of the cat, you can see sparrows on the other side of the gate (called 坂下門 or Sakashita-mon). Let me quote the rather quaint English description on the Nikkō Tourist Association's English website: "Also, there is a sculpture of sparrow on the backside of the sleeping cat. The sparrow will be eaten if the cat is awake. However, the sparrow and the cat co-exist. It means that nation wide chaos is over and peaceful society has come."

I wonder if Mr Abe has been to Nikkō. I digress.

The sleeping cat and ...

... the happy sparrows

Stairs leading to Ieyasu's grave

Ieyasu's grave

If you follow the steps behind the sleeping cat, you'll walk through an avenue of giant cedar trees to Ieyasu's grave at the Inner Shrine (奥社 Okusha). His grave surprised me: after the magniloquent ostentatious extravagance of the shrine buildings, the grave stands behind a simple wooden building with almost no adornments.

I love this photo for some weird reason. It's the simple shrine in front of
Ieyasu's grave

Gate in front of Ieyasu's grave

Ieyasu's simple grave

Sacred tree next to the grave

That's it!

I could go on for another twenty pages, but let's save a few more stories for another post.

I do want to add that I could barely contain myself when I finally realized just how privileged I was. I knew I was with a Tōshō-gū employee, but the full significance didn't penetrate until an older, very dignified, clearly important priest in full Shinto costume came walking towards us with a group of men in suits. He saw our guide, smiled, walked over and chatted to her.

"Who's that?" I asked Sarah.
"That’s the second head priest."
"That's the … wha'? Heh? Second head priest of Nikkō Tōshō-gū?! Oh holy shit."

I can be so erudite under pressure.

Thank you

Sarah and Honourable Nikkō Guide, it was … well … you know what I said to you at the station as we left. Unforgettable. I could never thank you enough for this privilege. Dankie.


1) A macron, meaning "long", is a diacritic placed above a vowel (and, more rarely, under or above a consonant).

2) If you’re interested in art and want to read more about Japanese paintings, the tradition of master vs student, as well as sibling rivalry, I recommend Copying the Master and Stealing His Secrets: Talent and Training in Japanese Painting, edited by Brenda G. Jordan and Victoria Louise Weston.

3) I've written others posts about Nikkō: hiking to Takinoo Jinja and hiking in Kanmangafuchi.

Red buildings in white snow

Dragon in snow

The sculpture of the three monkeys on the stables
(hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil)

Ru loves roofs, especially snow-covered roofs

Elephants! They keep following me, into the snow, into the forests,
wherever I go. (It's a running in-joke on this blog.)

Above, horse, because ... horse!
Below, selfies.

Bye-bye, dragons! See you soon!

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