Shrines and Temples of Nikko
Shrines And Temples Of Nikko
Cultural Japan Asia And The Pacific Tochigi Prefecture

Nikko is a perfect illustration of the architectural style of the Edo period as applied to Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. The ingenuity and creativity of its architects and decorators are revealed in an outstanding and distinguished. The shrines and temples, together with their environment, are an outstanding example of a traditional Japanese religious centre, associated with the Shinto perception of the relationship of man with nature, in which mountains and forests have a sacred meaning and are objects of veneration, in a religious practice that is still very much alive today.

At the end of the 8th century a Buddhist monk, Shodo, erected the first buildings on the slopes of Nikko sacred mountain, which had been worshipped since time immemorial. At the end of the 12th century, the Kamakura Shogunate established itself in the region of Kanto, enabling Nikko to strengthen its position further as a major sacred site in Kanto. However, the site was abandoned owing to the upheavals of the Muromachi period, in the 16th century. It was chosen as the site for the Tôshôgu, a sanctuary composed of several buildings erected to house the mausoleum of T Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This regime was in power for over 250 years in the history of Japan. Since this period, Nikko has played a very important role as a symbol of national sovereignty, not only in the eyes of local authorities but also those of leaders of neighbouring countries who sent their emissaries to pay tribute to Ieyasu, a deified personage.

In 1871, the Meiji government decided to divide the site and its religious buildings into three groups entrusted to three separate religious organizations: Futarasan-jinja and Tôshôgu for the Shinto cult and Rinnô-ji for Buddhism. This reorganization entailed moving and restoring certain buildings.

  • The Futarasan-jinja: devoted to the three divinities of Mount Nantai, it forms a complex of buildings. Most of them were restored or built in the 17th century, following old traditions, and they exerted a general influence in the layout of shrines throughout Japan. Among the buildings, mention should be made of the Honden and the Haiden, the heart of the shrine, the BetsugûTakino-o-jinja Honden, with a construction plan dating back to the year 825, and the Shin-yosha, the oldest example of an architectural style which was to inspire the first construction phases of the Tôshôgu. The Shinkyôis also part of the Futarasan-jinja. This sacred bridge, straddling the river Daiya, appears to belong to the Muromachi period. Its present configuration, a vermilion lacquer bridge resting on massive stone pillars, goes back to 1636.
  • The Tôshôgu: this shrine, founded in the 17th century, comprises a large number of buildings. A suite of three sacred chambers is a perfect illustration of the H-shaped architectural layout known as Gongen-zukuri. The Shômen Karamon and the Haimen Karamon, a masterpiece of craftsmanship is inspired by a foreign style, hence the common name of 'Chinese door'. The Yômeimon, erected in 1636, is probably the best-known example of the architectural style of Nikko. It is covered in a profusion and infinite variety of decoration. The Tôzai Sukibe, also dating to 1636, is a wall about 160 m long, surrounding the Honden , Ishinoma and Haiden group. The Tôzai Kairo, a corridor 220 m long, with a southern section formed of 25 sculpted panels, surrounds three sides of the same Honden , Ishinoma and Haiden group.
  • The Rinnô-ji: the origin of this Buddhist temple goes back to the 8th century, and it has always remained a place of worship. Major constructions were added at the beginning of the Edo period, especially in 1653 for the mausoleum of the third shogun, Togukawa Iemitsu. The group, in the Gongen-zukuri shape and style and composed of the Taiyû-in ReibyôHonden, Ainoma and Haiden, is listed as a National Treasure. It is a pure masterpiece of architecture and decoration.

Thanks to centuries of landscaping, the temples and shrines blend harmoniously into their natural setting. The buildings are arranged on the mountain slopes in such a way as to create different visual effects. Thousands of Japanese cedars (Cryptomeria ) were planted during the Tôshôgu construction period in the early 17th century. This forest provides an exceptional natural bower for the shrines and temples, adding considerably to the beauty and sacred character of the site.