The Shrines and Temples of Japan: Part 3, Nikko

If you haven’t yet, first read part one and part two.

I had a reader ask me what she should do when she’s in Tokyo and I suggested a visit to Nikko. That reminded me that I never wrote the final party of my three part Shrines and Temples of Japan series. So, in the spirit of better late than never, I give you…..the Shrines and Temples of Nikko.


Unlike Kyoto or Nara, Nikko was not a capital of Japan. Nikko is located in the mountains in central Honshu surrounded by Japanese cedar forests. The first temple was established in 782 by the high priest Shodo as the forests around the area had always been sacred to the Shinto religion. The town of Nikko eventually grew around the shrines and temples.

The current temples date back to the seventeenth century and consist of a mix of Buddhist and Shinto temples and shrines. In addition to worshipers, Nikko became a popular attraction during the Miji Dynasty in the 19th century.

Most non-Japanese are probably not aware that the hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil saying comes from Nikko. The monkeys are found on a carving on a stable building at the Tosho-gu temple. I had no idea of this fact when I arrived in Nikko so I didn’t understand why so many stores in Nikko had t-shirts and statues of the three monkeys. I also didn’t understand why so many people were making goofy faces and getting their photos taken in front of the same building.

The Shrines

There are three primary sites, all adjoined to each other which compromise the Shrines and Temples of Nikko World Heritage Area. Tosho-gu, Rinno-ji, and Futarasan. Rinno-ji is Buddhist and the others are Shinto.

I am not going to go into detail regarding each site and building because, to be honest, they all sort of blurred together and I’m just not that much of an expert on Buddhism or Shintoism. I am aware of different schools of Buddhism and how the different temples are home to different schools, but if I tried to describe the difference I’d probably get it wrong and just end up plagiarizing Wikipedia.

What I can tell you are the very obvious differences between Nikko and Kyoto or Nara. The location of Nikko in the mountains and nestled in the cedar forest gives it a very different vibe than either city. Kyoto is a large city and no matter where you go, you are never far away from the city. Even in Nara, while not nearly as big, you always sort of have the feeling you are in a city park.

You are under no illusion that you are in a city at the Nikko shrines. Many of the buildings literally stand under or close to very large cedar trees. Even with large crowds, I still had a feeling that I was in the forest because you are totally surrounded by trees.

The other thing I noticed in Nikko was that the buildings were much more colorful and elaborate than what I had seen in Kyoto and Nara. In Nikko, the facades of buildings were often covered in gold leaf and you could see bright reds, blues, and yellows everywhere.

There was one path I was able to take which went up a hill and into the woods. I probably got sidetracked for over and hour hiking up there and I eventually came across a paved hillside and a system of pipes which sort of took away the magic of everything.

Getting There

It takes about two hours to get from Tokyo to Nikko. I took the Shinkansen to the Nikko line. There was only one train transfer and I think there may have been a slower train which went directly into Tokyo from Nikko, but I wasn’t aware of it. I also had a JR Rail pass, so I took the Shinkansen because I could.

Once you arrive in Nikko, it is possible to walk to the temple complex. It took me about 30 minutes to walk there and it was almost all uphill. There is a bus which can take you there, but I didn’t bother. The walk back is much easier as it is all downhill.

When I was there, there seemed to be a much higher percentage of Japanese tourists than I saw in Kyoto or Nara. I don’t think Nikko is as sexy of an attraction as either of those and tends to get more pilgrims and worshipers.

I was there in late November so it was getting chilly and the sun set early. The temples closed around five-ish on a Sunday.

I arrived at the complex a little after noon and I don’t think I was able to see everything (but it was also busy).

If you are in Tokyo and have a spare day, take a trip out to Nikko. It is probably the best option to experience traditional Japanese culture and religion available in the area.