140km north of Tokyo, Nikko (日光) is one of the most popular excursion destination out of the Japanese capital. Dotted with onsen villages, ancient cedar forests, scenic waterfalls, turquoise lakes and lush green mountains, the magnificent piece of landscape is also the final resting place of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康), the founding shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1600 until Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Shinto mausoleums of Tokugawa Iayasu and his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光) in Nikko are part of “Shrines and Temples of Nikkō” inscribed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage in 1999. These historical sites draw huge crowds of visitors daily to the otherwise sleepy hilltown of Nikko.
There were so much to do and see in Nikko but we could only do a very long day trip this time. We booked the earliest direct train, Tobu Railway’s Revaty Limited Express leaving Tokyo’s Asakusa Station at 06:30, and the last return train leaving Nikko at 19:18, leaving us about 11 hours in Nikko. We also got the Nikko All Area Pass, which covered our local bus fares in the Nikko and Chuzenji Lake area and discount on the Tobu train tickets. We planned to check out the shrines and temples in the morning, and then visit the scenic Chuzenji Lake (中禅寺湖) and Kegon no taki (華厳の滝, Kegon Waterfall) in the afternoon. As soon as the Revaty train pulled into Nikko Station at around 08:20, we were excited to see the beautiful weather.
Our journey to Nikko began from Tobu Asakusa Station (浅草駅), a monumental terminal building constructed in 1931.
In order to take the 6:30 Revaty Limited Express, we had no choice but to get up early and left Shibuya at about 5:30.
The train arrived in Nikko at around 08:20. We hopped onto a Tobu bus in front of Nikko Station for the nearby temple and shrine area. Attempting to avoid the crowds later in the day, we decided to first visit Toshogu Shrine (東照宮), the single most popular attraction in Nikko.
Toshogu Shrine is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for 250 years until Meiji Restoration in 1867. Because of its historical significance, the shrine is highly popular among local Japanese. After a short walk along the procession route, we entered through Ishidorii (Stone Torii Gate), a beautiful timber gateway erected by the powerful feudal lord Kuroda Nagamasa, into the shrine complex.
Despite our early arrival, the Toshogu Shrine was already full of student groups and tourists. We passed by a group of students below the Gojunoto (Five-Story Pagoda) as we entered the complex.
We entered the central complex through Omotemon Gate (Front Gate) or Nio Gate that is guarded by a pair of Nio (仁王) guardians.
Once entered the forecourt, we could already appreciate the meticulous relief carvings and vivid architecture features on the Sanjinko (Three Sacred Storehouses). Toshogu presents quite a contrast compared with most other Shinto shrines that are usually minimalist in design and natural in colour tones.
At the forecourt, the Shinkyu-Sha, the sacred horse stable, houses a real horse. This comes from the tradition made by early emperors who would donate to the Kibune Shrine in Kyoto either a white horse to stop the rain in a rainy year, or a black horse to welcome the rain in a dry year.
The front facade of the Shinkyu-Sha, the sacred horse stable, featues the Sanzaru (Three Wise Monkeys) on eight frieze panels depicting ordinary lives of people. The most famous panel is undoubtedly the adorable “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil”.
Beyond a large tori and a flight of steps is the Yomeimon Gate (陽明門), the gate of setting sunlight.
With 500 beautiful wooden carvings, the Yomeimon Gate (陽明門) is considered by many the most impressive gate in Japan.
The impressive Yomeimon Gate represents the Main Gate of the Imperial Court in the entire complex.
As far as the legend goes, Yomeimon Gate is also called the “Gate of the Setting Sun” because visitor can gaze upon it all day without getting tired.
Impressive decorations at the gate includes a golden lion housed in a niche.
And a lot more that depict anecdotes, legends, wise people, sages, etc.
Another famous feature at Toshogu is Nemurineko, the tiny carving of the sleeping cat on the beam of a hallway. A work by master carver Hidari Jingorou, the napping cat under the warm sun is a depiction “Nikko”, which literally means “sunlight”. It marks the entry point of the path that ultimately leads to the final resting place of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康) on the hill.
Taking the earliest direct train from Tokyo and came to Toshogu immediately upon arrival, we thought we could enjoy a bit of peaceful time at the highly popular shrine before the tourist groups came. That totally didn’t happen as the shrine was already full of student groups when we arrived. Walking up to visit the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康) was not a peaceful journey at all.
Just a few minutes of short walk led us to the hill platform of the mausoleum. Compared to the shrine buildings downhill, the mausoleum carries a more harmonic relationship with the natural surroundings.
The bronze urn on the hill contains the remains of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康), the most powerful shogun of Japan before the modern era.
The calligraphic sign Tōshō Dai-Gongen (東照大権現) near the mausoleum is attributed to Emperor Go-Mizunoo (後水尾天皇) from the 17th century.
The curved archway of Karamon Gate (唐門) symbolizes the authority of the Gohonsha Main Shrine Hall behind. Despite the renovation scaffolding, we were able to enter the hall as a group to have a peek of the space where events and festivals would be held annually.
On the last day in Tokyo, we decided to pay a visit to Tokyo’s oldest and most popular Buddhist temple, the Sensoji (金龍山浅草寺) and Kengo Kuma (隈 研吾)’s Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center right across the street from the iconic Kaminarimon (雷門). Sensoji was definitely the busiest attraction we visited in Tokyo. Everywhere in the temple ground was filled with people, from the souvenir shop lined Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り) to the Kannondo Main Hall.
After the temple and Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center, we had a little bit of time left before heading to the airport. We took the metro to check out the nearby Skytree, the tallest structure in Japan. We didn’t go up to the observation deck of the tower, but instead wandered around at the shopping area and the outdoor terrace, where a group of tourists crowded in a small Calbee shop picking the colourful packs of special edition potato chips.
Soon enough, we returned to Shinjuku and boarded an Narita Express to the airport.
Designed by Kengo Kuma (隈 研吾), the eight storey Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center is an architectural gem across the street from the Sensoji. With exhibition and activity spaces stacked vertically, each floor of the building has a distinct function.
The ground floor is dedicated to an introduction of the district of Asakusa.
Glass railing and exposed timber joists wrap around a central atrium.
On the roof terrace of Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center, there are information signage on the railing associated with the view.
At two metro stops to the east, the 634m Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) stands out at the background, while the wavy golden feature of the Asahi Beer Hall dominates the foreground. Designed by famous designer Philippe Starck, the golden feature is meant to represent the burning heart of Asahi beer.
To the north, the view from Asakusa Culture and Tourism Center is dominated by the Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り), the procession route of Sensoji.
Across the street, the iconic Kaminarimon (雷門) or “Thunder Gate” marks the start of Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り).
Standing 11.7m tal, with its enormous lantern and statues at both sides, Kaminarimon (雷門) is very popular with tourists and locals.
Lined with souvenir and snack stores at both sides, the 250m Nakamise Dori (仲見世通り) is always packed with visitors.
The Hozōmon (宝蔵門) of Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺) features three large lanterns, with the 3.75m tall chochin (提灯) hang in the middle.
A cute white akita dog rests at the courtyard in front of Hozōmon (宝蔵門).
The prominent Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) can be seen from Sensoji.
Many visitors would gather close to the big incense burner in the central courtyard and cover themselves with the smoke, due to a traditional belief that the smoke can improve their thinking and make them smarter.
The entrance of the Kannondo Main Hall is also decorated with a huge red lantern.
With 30 million of visitors per year, the Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺) is one of the most visited religious site in the world.
Traditional lanterns on the pavement waiting to be hung.
The five-storey pagoda is also another main feature at Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺).
At the main ground of Sensō-ji (金龍山浅草寺), there are a row of food vendors selling all kinds of Japanese snacks.
Near Sensō-ji, the famous Azumabashi (吾妻橋) is a popular spot to photograph the Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) and Asahi Beer Hall.
At the base of Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー), a series of outdoor terraces provide a pleasant approach to the tower.
Designed by Nikken Sekkei, the 634m Tokyo Skytree (東京スカイツリー) is the second tallest structure in the world just behind Burj Khalifa (830m).