Arguably one of the most important religious sites in Japan, the Nikko Toshogu Shrine sits in the forests of Tochigi Prefecture. The shrine houses the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the samurai leader who united Japan in the early 1600s and became the first ruler of the eponymous Tokugawa Shogunate.
Toshogu Shrine has been undergoing a wide-ranging renovation program since 2007 and is expected to last until March 2024. Works are gradual and isolated to avoid disruption, so it is likely the impact of any visit is minimal.
The current shrine complex, which covers both the main hall and many supporting buildings, dates back to 1636. Though Tokugawa Ieyasu was originally enshrined at Kunozan in Shizuoka Prefecture in 1616, his remains were relocated to Tochigi the following year. His grandson, the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, embarked on a shrine renovation to better honor his ancestor in the 1630s, resulting in the structures we see today. The most recent refurbishment project, planned for completion in 2024, is being carried out to combat the effects of age and weathering.
Several buildings within the shrine complex have been designated as National Treasures, including the Main Shrine (Gohonsha), the Kairo corridor, and the Karamon and Yomeimon Gates. The careful woodwork and intricate carvings at each of these locations are considered to be among the best in Japan.
One of the most photographed spots of the shrine complex is the famed Sanzaru carving on the shrine’s stable. Featuring three monkeys in various poses, the image is more commonly known as the “See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil” monkeys. Another popular decoration is the sleeping cat, which adorns the shrine’s east corridor. The lifelike feline, said to be carved by carpenter Hidari Jingoro, and has also been designated a National Treasure.
The shrine hosts numerous events throughout the year, most important of which is the Grand Festival on May 17th and 18th, where 1000 participants dressed as feudal-era samurai recreate the procession that transferred the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu to Nikko Toshogu. The shrine also marks seasonal festivals, such as spring harvest, rice planting, the sacred autumn festival and the year-end cleaning.
Nikko Toshogu is just one of a number of shrines, temples and villas that dot the mountains of this part of Tochigi Prefecture. The nearby Taiyuinbyo, which somewhat resembles Nikko Toshogu, was built to house the remains of the third shogun Iemitsu. The neighboring Futarasan Jinja predates the Toshogu Shrine complex by several almost a millennium and is dedicated to the three sacred mountains of Nikko – Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro.
Toshogu Shrine achieved UNESCO recognition in 1999.
With over 500 intricate carvings, the Yonmeimon is known as one of the most beautiful gates in Japan. Rows of elaborate golden dragons are carved onto the huge gate that marks the entrance towards the main shrine building. Yonmeimon gate is rightfully designated as a National Treasure, and is also known as the “Main Gate of the Imperial Court”.
Nemurineko, or Sleeping Cat, is a detailed wooden carving by Hidari Jingoro. The carving depicts a cat falling asleep while surrounded by flowers. Nemurineko is located at the East Corridor of Toshogu Shrine, where it's easily spotted by the crowds of visitors clamoring to take a photo of it.
One of Toshogu Shrine’s most famous sights, the lifelike wooden carving of three monkeys are located at the stable building within the complex. The monkeys represent those who hear, speak, and see no evil — a common saying in East Asian culture.
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