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Highlights Of Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine In Tochigi, A UNESCO Site

Highlights Of Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine In Tochigi, A UNESCO Site

Tochigi 2016.06.14 Bookmark

At the UNESCO World Heritage site Nikko Tosho-gu, among the many beautiful carvings you will find the famous Three Wise Monkeys, the Sleeping Cat and the Imagined Elephants. Yomeimon, Karamon and other national treasures also call Nikko home.

Translated by Hilary Keyes

Written by Keisuke Yamada

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One of the representative UNESCO World Heritage sites in Japan are the shrines and temples of Nikko. Of these, perhaps the most famous one is Nikko Tosho-gu. The reason for this is the fact that the first shogun of the Edo period, Tokugawa Ieyasu (*1) has been enshrined at Nikko Tosho-gu.

The majority of the shrine buildings now found at Nikko Tosho-gu were reconstructed by the third shogun (*2) Iemitsu (*3) in the year 1636. This event became known as the "Great Rebuilding of the Kan'ei era". There are eight National Treasures and 34 Important cultural properties here. The shrine grounds contain 55 structures in total. Amidst all this splendor you will find that great attention to detail has been paid; this is certainly one of the highlights of these buildings. It is said that there are well over 5000 ornaments.

Built by craftsmen gathered from all throughout Japan, these buildings have all been richly colored and ornamented with lacquer and the pillars have been decorated with a great number of carvings and engravings.

Let's take a closer look at the artwork of Nikko Tosho-gu.

*1 Tokugawa Ieyasu: a daimyo (feudal lord) and shogun of the Sengoku era (1467-1590) and Azuchi-Momoyama era (1573-1603).
*2 shogun: the title for a military leader with a comparatively large armed force.
*3 Tokugawa Iemitsu: the third shogun of the Edo shogunate that began in 1603 with Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The Entrance to the Tosho-gu

This is the entrance to the Tosho-gu shrine where many stop to take commemorative pictures of their visit. From here, if you have about two hours free, you will be able to view all of Tosho-gu shrine.

The Five Storied Pagoda

This five-storied pagoda was built in 1650. However, it was destroyed by a fire and then rebuilt in 1818. While it hasn't been built on a grand scale, the contrast of the red of this five-storied pagoda against the green of the surrounding trees is quite stunning.

The Front Gate

With its two Nio (*4) statues on the left and right, this is the Nio Gate. At the front of this gate you are able to see the two Deva king statues, while in the back two stone komainu (guardian lion-dogs) statues stand watch. This is quite an unusual point; Tosho-gu shrine has been built with the uniquely Japanese syncretism of Shinto and Buddhism in mind.

*4 Nio statues: the two statues standing at the entrance of a temple. One of them has their mouth open (a position called agyo), while the other one has its mouth tightly closed (called ungyo). These two statues are known in English as the two guardian Deva kings; the open and closed mouths represent the sacred Buddhist sound "Aum".

Imagined Elephants

The Imagined Elephants are engravings of two elephants found on the Kamijinko, the upper storehouse. These storehouses are where the tools of the Shinto gods and goddesses are kept, such as festival objects. Tosho-gu shrine has three of these storehouses - the Kamijinko, Nakajinko and Shimojinko, which are collectively known as the Sanjinko, the Three Sacred Storehouses.

The Imagined Elephants on the Kamijinko were designed by Kano Tan'yu (1602-1674) who, it is said, drew these from his imagination, having never seen an elephant before; this accounts for their slight differences to actual elephants.

The Three Wise Monkeys

This famous engraving of the "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" monkeys is more formally known as the Three Wise Monkeys. This carving is found on the Shinkyusha (the sacred stable), where horses that had been dedicated to the gods were kept.

The reason why these monkeys are found on the stable is that monkeys are believed to take care of horses; essentially they are the guardian deities of horses.

This is a photo of MATCHA's staff imitating the monkeys.

The Sleeping Cat

On the gate over the pathway leading to the Okumiya (the building where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined) is the national treasure, the Nemuri-neko ("The Sleeping Cat"). If you aren't careful, it's quite easy to miss this small but important carving.

This sleeping cat, if you look at it from the left, appears to be stalking some prey. It is said that the Nemuri-neko is meant to express the strength of Tokugawa's restraint toward those that would seek to destroy the harmony of the land.


Passing under the gate of the Nemuri-neko and climbing the 207 stone steps, you will find yourself surrounded by a silent sea of Japanese cedar trees standing near Okumiya, where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined. Okumiya has a different, mysterious atmosphere than other places in the shrine grounds; it almost feels as though you have slipped into another time completely.

Karamon - The Gate with Chinese Motifs

The Karamon Gate was painted white using gofun (white pigment made from baked shells) and decorated with highly detailed engravings depicting scenes from Chinese legends, such as Kyoyu and Soho (*5) and Shunteichoken no Gi (*6).

*5 Kyoyu and Soho: Kyoyu (a legendary character in China ) was at Eisui river washing when he saw Soho (a legendary character in China that lived in a nest atop a tree); this scene depicts the form of the cattle walking away as they would not drink the now dirty water.
*6 Shunteichoken no Gi: A scene depicting Shuntei (a great person of Chinese legend), collecting New Years greetings from various government officials.

Come to Nikko and Revel in History

Beyond what we have looked at here, there are an untold number of other amazing carvings and beautiful buildings at Nikko Tosho-gu. The impressive, ancient atmosphere of this UNESCO recognized shrine is just something that has to be experienced in person to be believed.

When you visit Japan, Nikko Tosho-gu is certainly a place not to be missed.

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