A Shinto and Buddhist centre of worship for centuries, Nikko is home to Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine. Just 2 hours from Tokyo, it makes for a great day out from the city. Here’s all you need to know…
Nikko, it’s got history
Nikko was established as a centre of Shinto and Buddhist worship in the 8th century. Nestled in the foothills to the north of Tokyo, this delightful town is home to a number of shrines. Of these, the Toshogu shrine is the most famous. Built in 1617 as for Ieyasu Tokugawa, nearly half a million workers laboured night and day to complete it. Furthermore, a short stroll down the river bank will bring you to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This picturesque gorge was created by a volcanic explosion 7,000 years ago where you’ll find the Ghost Jizo. If you’ve got more than just a day, stay the night and explore the the rich countryside. Walks at Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon falls are well worth doing, as is a visit to Yumuto Onsen.
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I’ve seen some impressive shrines and temples in my time but this is right up there with the best of them. First of all, Toshogu is up a hill and you’ll be climbing a lot of steps, so wear sensible shoes. A few ladies were wobbling around in heels. Not smart. The lavishly decorated complex consists of around a dozen buildings, beautifully surrounded by tall evergreen trees. Walking in through the main gate feels like you’re being transported back to another era.
Bright colours and bold carvings adorn each building, the attention to detail making you realise why it took so long to build. As you climb the steps up to the Yomeimon Gate, two giant imposing trees either side seem to guard the entrance. The building itself is possibly one of the most ornate I’ve ever seen. Recently restored, its detail and colours will rival anything you may have seen in India or Thailand.
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Five Storey Pagoda
Another impressive structure sitting just outside the main gate to the Toshogu shrine is the five storey pagoda. Built originally in 1650, it burnt down in 1815. It was rebuilt a few years later with a cunning 60cm long pole hanging from the 4th floor to help make the structure earthquake resistant. Another clever design point is the main pillar hangs 10cm above the ground. This helps counter the effects of the wood growing and shrinking over time. The pagoda opens periodically for visitors.
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The Kanmangafuchi Abyss
A short walk along the river from the main temple complex is the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. Formed 7,000 years ago by a violent volcanic explosion, it now makes for a delightful riverside walk into the surrounding forest. It is also the site of the ‘Ghost Jizo’. A Bodhisattva who cares for the deceased, there are supposedly 70 of these statues. However, it is said that every time you try to count them, a few always seem to go missing – like ghosts. Give it a go and see how many you can count!
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Getting to Nikko
From Tokyo, the best way to reach Nikko is by train. The super-rapid Shinkansen will whisk you to Utsunomia in just 45minutes where you change onto the local Nikko Line train. However, because of the infrequency of these trains, the wait at Utsunomia can be longer than the journey from Tokyo. The ride up to Nikko, however, is delightful. Hop into the front carriage and you can peer through the front window and get the drivers view as you snake your way through the countryside. Arriving at Nikko station, there are shuttle buses to run you up the hill to the base of the complex. This is definitely the easy option but as a result, you’ll miss out on the quaint shops and houses which line the main street.