North of Tokyo lies Nikko, a small city in Tochigi prefecture. Tranquil, beautiful and alluring, it has earned itself a place on Japan’s Romantic Road. It is possible to visit Nikko as a day trip, but equally worth it to spend a few days just to enjoy all there is to discover. Nikko is at the entrance of the Nikko National Park, a natural wonder and a favourite of hiking and nature enthusiasts. There are some truly magnificent waterfalls, lakes, forests and mountains to discover. Visitors also flock to Nikko in autumn for autumn leaves viewing (koyo). Nikko continually astounds with its gorgeous foliage and postcard-perfect scenery. Besides its natural beauty, Nikko is also a site of rich cultural significance, with UNESCO World Heritage Site Nikkō Tōshō-gū, Japan’s most beautiful and lavishly decorated shrine.
Nikkō Tōshō-gū is probably the most famous attraction in Nikko, and rightfully so. A large shrine complex set in the middle of the forest, it stands out for its intricate and lavish decorative elements. Having gotten used to minimalist zen aesthetics in Japan, the flamboyant colours of red and gold in Nikkō Tōshō-gū with its many ornate embellishments and carvings were a change of visuals, and simply remarkable!
Yomeimon Gate is a masterpiece and the most photographed site in the complex. Its other name is "higurashi-no-mon" which means that one could look at it until sundown, and not tire of seeing it. This is possibly true, given that the gate is intricately carved with more than 500 mythical and fantastical creatures, each one a sight to behold. For this reason, it is known as one of Japan's most beautiful gates.
One can also easily spend lots of time admiring the many different carvings that adorn the walls of the shrine complex, but there are a few that you should particularly look out for, as they are the most iconic and cannot be missed! The first is the carving of the Three Wise Monkeys. If they look familiar to you, it is probably because their wisdom transcends time, and the contemporary-inspired version is available on most keyboards as emojis. They represent Hear no evil, Speak no evil and See no evil.
The second carving not to miss is this one of a mythical elephant. Impressively, the artist had never seen an elephant before. This imagined elephant thus has claws, golden hair and tusks and exceptional proportions fitting of a fantastic beast!
The third famous carving is Hidari Jingorō's Sleeping Cat. The carving is not very big, and visitors have to queue up to view it. It is special because it is a finely detailed almost lifelike carving of a little black and white cat sleeping serenely. It is considered a national treasure, and has inspired the style of other artists.
It is well worth remembering that this spectacular shrine is also the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years. The mausoleum is located some way from the the main Yomeimon Gate, and visitors will need to take stairs through the surrounding forest to reach this place. The mood and colours here are suitably more subdued, befitting the dignity of the place as a great leader's resting place.
Before you leave, do not forget to visit the five-storied pagoda, whose five layers represent the elements of existence of earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven. All in all, Nikkō Tōshō-gū rightfully claims its honour of being Japan's most beautiful shrine. It will take a few hours at least to explore all the treasures in this sprawling shrine complex, but visitors will surely leave feeling enriched with new knowledge of Japan's culture and symbolism.
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