The shrines and temples of Nikko are classified as a World Heritage Site, and the star among them is the magnificent shrine of Tōshō-gū. It is here that the first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, is buried. The shrine itself is famous for it’s magnificentgate, higurashi-no-mon, which unfortunately is undergoing a complete renovation at the moment. Behind it is another amazing gate, the white karamon, which had me gaping in awe at it. The carvings and the colours were so well done, I had a hard time tearing myself away from it. Fortunately, the rain helped me out with that.

As you follow the path laid out for you, there is a long trail through the cedar forest that rises to the top of the hill where the final memorial is laid out. There are quite a lot of steps and I noticed a few people struggling with them. As you get to the top there is a building (which we cannot enter) that has stairs behind it leading to the mausoleum (which we also cannot enter). Visitors are allowed to walk in a loop around the memorial, which is a large, fenced-in stone square with the tomb of Ieyasu sitting in the middle. It appears to be a cylindrical bronze structure, with a traditional type of sloping roof over it. Now, this is not the only memorial site to Tokugawa Ieyasu. There is also a mausoleum at Koyasan, which was built by his grandson, Iemitsu. In fact, there are two, one which enshrines Ieyasu, and one which enshrines Hidetada, the second Tokugawa shogun. So where are Ieyasu’s earthly remains really buried? According to this site, at Kunōzan Tōshō-gū, which is based in Shizuoka. Apparently, people were led to believe his remains were moved to Nikko Tōshō-gū in 1617, having been interred at Kunōzan Tōshō-gū after he died in 1616, but in fact they were left where they were. What the truth is, I’m not really sure, but I’ll go with the official line for now. In any event, the mausoleum at Nikko is wonderfully placed among all the tall, looming cedar trees, and it was a beautiful place to experience.

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Quality of Monuments: The mausoleum is really the only monument here, the rest of the grounds contain various buildings, gates, stairs, and lanterns. It’s a very minimalistic place, but has a kind of majesty about it as a result. It would be a nice place to hang out if there was someplace to site down and there weren’t so many tourists.

Cemetery Grounds: The shrine area is quite large, and the tomb lies at the top of the hill, so there is a bit of a hike to get there. The rain made it atmospheric, but I had to be extra careful on the stairs. Lots of cedar trees, which didn’t affect me much because it was early March, but if you come in early- to mid-summer and suffer from hay fever, this may be a problem for you (Japanese cedar, or sugi, is the biggest cause of hay fever in Japan).

Visitors: I was surprised at how many people were here, given that it was a weekday in early March. Lots of large groups, mainly Japanese school students, seniors, and Chinese tourists. A few independent travellers. People moved fairly quickly throughout the grounds, but sometimes there would be a traffic jam, depending on where you ended up. I imagine it’s much busier in the main tourist season.

Photographer notes: As noted above, there are a lot of people so you will need some time and patience to deal with all of them. Photography is not permitted inside most of the buildings, but outside you are fine. I actually found the light levels quite low, with the rain and the trees, but luckily had fast film and fast glass with me.


Cemetery: Nikkō Tōshō-gū (日光東照宮) [Toshu-gu Shrine]

Established: 1617

Location: Nikko’s Tōshō-gū shrine. Even if you have the Nikko pass to visit the area, you still have to pay to enter the shrine, which is 1300 yen for adults. It’s cheaper for students and large groups.

Nikko is about a 2.5 hour train ride from Tokyo, one-way. To make the most of your trip here, I highly recommend staying at least two days. That was my original plan and I’m disappointed that I ended up changing it.

Hours: April 1st to October 31st 08:00-17:00, November 1st to March 31st 08:00-16:00