Tosho-gu Shrine – Nikko, Japan

Nikko was a renowned Buddhist-Shinto religious center, and the warlord Tokugawa Ieyasu (1542-1616) chose this area as the site for his mausoleum. Founded in 1617, Tosho-gu was later enlarged by Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu, into the spectacular complex seen today. To create a shrine worthy of a shogun, 15,000 artisans spent two years carving, gilding, painting, and lacquering the 22 buildings. Although a Shinto shrine, Tosho-gu retains many Buddhist elements. The sugi-namiki (Japanese cedar avenue) leading to the shrine was planted by a 17th-century lord, in lieu of a more opulent offering.


Shinto, the “way of the gods,” is Japan’s oldest religion. Its core concept is that deities, kami, preside over all things in nature, be they living, dead, or inanimate. The Sun goddess Amaterasu is considered to be Shinto’s most important kami. From ancient times, the emperor’s rule was sanctioned by the authority of the greatest of the gods, said to be his ancestors. Religious rituals in Shintoism are centered around the offering of gifts and food, and the saying of prayers. Although Shinto was the state religion from 1868 to 1946, few Japanese today are purely Shintoists, but most will observe Shinto rituals alongside Buddhist practises.


The shrine’s opulence is not at all in keeping with the sense of duty and simplicity that is usually central to Shintoism. This incongruity highlights the transformation that Shintoism underwent foil owing the introduction of Buddhism to Japan in the 6th century. Many of the shrine’s buildings have Buddhist architectural elements. The five-story temple (pagoda) and the gate guarded by the Nio figures (Niomon) are just two examples of how Buddhism and Shintoism coexist at Tosho-gu. The shrine is famous for the ornate carvings that decorate entire buildings, both inside and out. The most exquisite are found at the Twilight Gate (Yomeimon gate), whose name implies that it can take all day to view the carvings.


Introduced to Japan by a Buddhist monk from China in the 8th century, the proverb of the Three Wise Monkeys represents the three truths of Tendai Buddhism. The names of the monkeys are Mizaru, meaning “see no evil,” Kikazaru, meaning “hear no evil,” and Iwazaru, meaning “speak no evil.” In Japan, monkeys are trad­itionally believed to keep horses healthy, and at Tosho-gu, they are the guardians of the sacred horse, an animal long dedicated to the Shinto gods (sacred stable). Their famous gestures of covering their eyes, ears, and mouth are a dramatic representation of the commands of the blue-faced deity Vadjra: if we do not see, hear, or speak evil, we will be spared from all evil.



Donated by a daimio (feudal lord) in 1650, this five-story pagoda was rebuilt in 1818 after a fire. Each story represents an element: earth, water, fire, wind, and heaven, in ascending order.


This sutra library holds some 7,000 Buddhist scriptures in a revolving bookcase.


The ceiling in this hall has a huge painting of a mythical creature known as the Roaring Dragon. If you stand beneath the dragon’s head and clap your hands, the resulting echo sounds like a roar.

Karamon Gate


This is the smallest gate at Tosho-gu.

Three Sacred Storehouses

The costumes for the Tosho-gu festivals are stored here.



This gate is guarded by two fearsome Nio figures, one with an open mouth to pronounce the first letter of the Sanskrit alphabet (ah), the other with a closed mouth for the last letter (un).

Sacred Stable


A carving of the Three Wise Monkeys decorates this wooden building. A horse, given by the New Zealand government, is kept here for a few hours each day.

Sacred Fountain


This granite basin (1618) for ritual purification is covered with an ornate Chinese-style roof.

Yomeimon Gate


Lavishly decorated with beasts and flowers, this gate has one of its 12 columns carved upside down, a deliberate imperfection to keep from angering jealous spirits. Statues of imperial ministers occupy the niches.

Sleeping Cat Carving


Over an entrance in the east corridor, this tiny, exquisite carving of a sleeping cat is attributed to Hidari Jingoro (Hindari the Left-Handed).



Tosho-gu’ s fall and spring festivals are held in May and October. More than 1,200 people, dressed in clothes from the Edo period, take part in processions in which the shrine’s relics are displayed.


Tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu

Ieyasu was a wily strategist and master politician who founded the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns that ruled Japan for over 260 years. Born the son of a minor lord, Ieyasu spent his life attaining power, finally becoming shogun in 1603, when he was 60. He built his Ieyasu capital at the swampy village of Edo (now Tokyo), and his rule saw the start of the flowering of Edo culture. He ensured that, after his death, he would be enshrined as a god and gongen (incarnation of the Buddha).


1603-1867: The Tokugawa Shogunate brings about a prolonged period of peace.
1616: Death of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu; he is later deified.
1617: The main hall of Tosho-gu Shrine is constructed.
1636: The mausoleum and shrine are completed.
1999: The shrines and temple are made a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

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