More than 15,000 craftsmen worked on the Toshogu Shrine (東照宮) in Nikko National Park for over two years. With 500 kilos of gold leaf and many ornaments, it is also the most visited shrine in the temple area. It is dedicated to the founder of the Edo Shogunate (1603-1868), Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616). After his death, his grandson decided to build this imposing mausoleum for him. Are you planning to visit Nikko National Park? Then you should definitely consider visiting the Toshogu Shrine. In this article I will give a historical explanation of the person Ieyasu Tokugawa and what is so special about this shrine.
Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Founder of the Edo Shogunate
Ieyasu Tokugawa was a clever strategist. He is still seen in Japan as one of the three people (others are Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi) who united a divided Japan. But this did not happen without a struggle. At an early age he was caught up in power games. At the age of 5 he was taken hostage, was told that his father had died and grew up in a hostile clan. And at the age of 15, he fought in various wars. Finally, he returned to his homeland Mikawa to succeed his dead father.
As leader of the Matsudeira clan, he cleverly and skilfully managed to defeat several enemies. And around 1590, he agreed with Japan’s most important landlord Toyotomi Hideyoshi to divide up strategic places. When Hideyoshi died in 1598, Ieyasu was Japan’s most important ruler. This only became a reality when Ieyasu defeated several rulers from the west at the Battle of Sekigkara in 1600. It resulted in an imperial approval in 1603 to become Shogun (Commander-in-Chief of Japan). It was the beginning of the Edo Shogunate.
But Ieyasu was already 60 years old. The centre of his power shifted from Kyoto to Tokyo, but in 1605 he resigned his post. But in secret, he retained absolute power and determined policy. He banned trade with foreign countries, expanded the Edo Castle in Tokyo and peace and stability for the next 250 was a fact. In 1616, the good man died at the age of 73.
Fancy taking a walk through Nikko National Park? Visit the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the disappearing Jizo statues.
The Toshugu Shrine – A historical guide…
The Toshogu Shrine has been a Shinto shrine since the Meiji period (1868-1911), but has never lost some of its Buddhist features. Shinto is Japan’s most important religion and emphasises belief in nature spirits. The Meiji Shrine in Tokyo is the best example of this. Below I give a brief explanation of the main sights at the Toshogu Shrine in order of passing.
Pagoda: Opposite the ticket counter is a pagoda dating from 1818. The original pagoda from 1650, donated by a landlord in Japan, caught fire at the beginning of the nineteenth century. It consists of 5 layers and each floor represents an element. And seen from the bottom to the top, these are earth, water, fire, wind and air.
Omotemon Gate: The entrance to the complex of the Toshogu Shrine is called the Omotemon Gate or Niomon. This is a typical Buddhist feature, as the Nio are the protectors of the Temple. Okay, they may look a little creepy, but they don’t hurt anyone….
Warehouses: As you pass through Omotemon Gate, you will come across a number of warehouses. In these buildings, armour and weapons of 1000 Samurai are kept. Twice a year, these outfits are used for ceremonial parades.
Tip: In mid-May and mid-October, a big festival takes place. All the armour and weapons are pulled out of the warehouses and a big celebration takes place.
The three wise monkeys: On the left-hand side is a small horse barn. Here you will find one of the many beautiful decorations of the Toshogu Shrine: an image of three monkeys. In the past, people believed that the spirits of monkeys protected horses.
Library: Before you climb the first flight of stairs, on the left-hand side you will see a sacred fountain with a decorated roof. This is the oldest building of the Toshogu Shrine (1618) and ritual purification takes place here. Next to it is a Sutra library with Buddhist scriptures.
Yomeimon Gate: If you go up the stairs towards the Yomeimon Gate you will see a tower on both sides. On the left is a drum tower, on the right a bell tower. Behind the Drum Tower is a building whose ceiling contains a drawing of a roaring dragon. But the showpiece of the Toshogu Shrine is of course the Yomeimon Gate. This gateway to the prayer hall is richly decorated with animals, is flanked by two statues of dogs and is decorated with a lot of gold leaf.
Prayer hall: The Yomeimon Gate is the entrance to the Haiden, the prayer hall. During my visit, they were busy restoring the temple (which will take place till 2024). Praying is still possiblem but not to take photos. Nevertheless, this hall is richly decorated with gold and ornaments.
Mausoleum: Before you walk up the stairs to the mausoleum of Ieyasu Tokugawa, you come across a beautiful decoration of the sleeping cat at the entrance gate. This decoration dates from the 17th century and has no deeper meaning. Okay, its creator was a great lover of cats…
Once up the stairs towards the mausoleum, normal life begins. Compared to the temple, his mausoleum is quite sober. But this is also how the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate would have intended it. However, his grandson decided otherwise and, out of great respect, had a mighty tribute built…
Would you like to visit the Toshogu Shrine in Nikko National Park?
How to get there? Toshogu Shrine is about a 30-minute walk from JR Nikko and/or Tobu Station. You can get there by bus within 10 minutes from Tobu Station.
Opening hours: The mausoleum and Golden Temple are open every day from 8am to 5pm (Nov-March 8am to 4pm).
Do you have any tips, comments or ideas about Toshogu Shrine in Nikko National Park? Feel free to leave a comment below.