Nikko's Toshogu Shrine

Day 2: I would walk 500 miles…. ahem…. I would climb 12 steps.. 20 steps.. 41 steps.. 147 steps to be with you… departed Tokyo on the Shinkansen to Utsunomiya to Nikko.

For 600 yen, we stowed our packs for the trek uphill then downhill to explore the Toshogu shrine. A multi-sensory experience in the day.

  • Hum and low whistle of Shinkansen.

  • Gravel crunching.

  • A bird whistle toy clear and distinct through the rustle of wind in cedars.

  • Water dripping from bamboo faucet and splattered on stone in traditional ritual.

  • Repetitive thuds of steady methodical winter footsteps on all those stone steps.

  • A bamboo stick meets hollow bamboo pipe with a loud Crack and a long piercing echo under a giant dragon.

  • Crackle of plastic to reveal soft fresh mochi that melts in the mouth.

Culminating in a 2.7 km hike with packs to final respite for the evening. Note: Toshogu shrine is in Nikko and is the final resting place of the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The combination of Shinto and Buddhism is evident throughout. This was one of the most beautiful, ornate, pristine, serene, delicate, elaborate places/structures I have ever seen in person. From the intricate wood carvings (over 500) to the spatial layout to the relationship of the buildings with the cedar forest to the black lacquer to the gold leafing glimmering in the sun and the hammered patterned brass steps warm under socked feet. Amazing. (original tumblr post 2015)

Get out of Tokyo megalopolis for at least one day for a visit to this World Heritage site north in Nikko. Considered the most lavish in the country this shrine is rare in that it combines aspects of both Shinto and Buddhism. You'll be mesmerized by the giant cypress trees.

Nikkō Tōshō-gū (日光東照宮) SHRINE

Dating to 1617, during the Edo period, which was the most peaceful and prosperous time in Japan, dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu who was the founder of the the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The term shōgun refers to the ruling class of the military from 1185 to 1868 and were appointed by the Emperors of Japan to be in essence the dictators. The pagoda burned and this one was built in 1818 with 5 storeys each representing the elements in ascending order – earth, water, fire, wind and aether.

Shinto is the indigenious religion of Japan and is a polytheistic view with the belief that all things have kami (spirit) so there is an emphasis on the link between kami and the natural world. This is represented well in the design of the 5 storey pagodas.

The shrine has been undergoing historic preservation from 2007 to 2024 so the three times that I have been including this occasion some of the spots have been off-limits. However, it still is an incredible place to see.

This World Heritage Site is famous for much of the architecture and the intricate carvings throughout. It's quite mesmerizing and you can spend a lot of time looking at all of the details. Make sure to visit this during off season to avoid the bus loads of tourists that are brought here daily.

One of the most famous details is the three wise monkeys - "hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil" that became a common phrase. You'll notice that there are 8 panels where monkeys are used to portray the phases of human existence, with wisdom for each stage as a learning/teaching tool.

The storage houses even feature this intricate detail with the elephant being one of the most famous carvings at the site.

After this area, you then go up large stone steps to the Yomeimon Gate and Honjido Hall (no photography inside). This is always super crowded with the tour groups and it is a smaller area to congregate with paved areas and then lots of large stones.


Stairs are becoming a theme already on just day two of this travel experience. There are 147 steps to the top of the next part of this shrine complex. Most of the people you see get winded by this. Take your time. The goal is to go slow and be in nature. There is a seating area at the top to get water or tea and rest at the different elevation.

At the top of this is Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum.. It is a small area amidst the tree tops with numerous sculptures and sacred trees. Make sure to leave enough time to do this section especially if there are many people as you'll have to wait in line to go through the route. May also want to keep your 5 yen coins handy for the offering and prayer ritual.


Make sure you take the time to look at the details. Imagine the amount of time and intense skill level needed for the craftsmanship at this place. These are just a few of numerous elements around this entire shrine complex.

The exquisite craftsmanship can be an inspiration for everyone. You'll notice traditional Japanese motifs with nature such as the chrysanthemums and cranes. The patterns are also inspirational in their intricacies.

Pay attention to the Ema at each temple or shrine. You can purchase different styles for writing your wish to leave for the eventual blessing. At least one would be themed in the icon of the particular place, while others tend to be the zodiac such as sheep and boar. These are also excellent souvenirs as they designate specific places, are lightweight and flat for packing.

This is the end of our exploration of the Toshogu shrine complex, but it's not the end of our day. We are heading to our destination for the evening. Check out the next blog.

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