The temples deep in the mountains of Nikko

AS OF July 2015, Japan has 19 properties inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage Site, 15 cultural sites and 4 natural sites. Nineteen more are currently on the Tentative List.

One of the gates of Toshogu Shrine

Of the number, one is located in the Tochigi Prefecture, where Nikko is. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko was the destination for the day.

It may have taken hours to get to this point, but the drive was presented with countless Instagram-worthy vistas. On the onset of winter, the scenes along the road from Isesaki to Nikko were contrasting. Trees bare of leaves lined the famed winding road of Irohazaka and a burst of reds and gold along the banks of the prefecture’s ancient lake and waterways provide an excellent example.

Area map of the World Heritage Site

The forested mountain of the Tochigi Prefecture, which is dominated by the early 17-century propagated cedar forest, is a Historic Site. It surrounds the Unesco World Heritage Site inscribed The Shrines and Temples of Nikko.

Spread across the complex of the Shrines and Temples of Nikko are 103 structures, nine buildings are designated National Treasures of Japan and 94 are Important Cultural Properties, belonging to two Shinto Shrines, the Futarasan Shrine and Toshogu, and one Buddhist temple, the Rinno-ji.

Futarasanjinja, a Shinto shrine, is also known as Nikko Futarasan Shrine. It takes its name from Mount Nantai, which is also called Futarasan. Founded in 767 by Shodoshonin, Futarasan enshrines three deities: Okininushi, Tagorihime, and Ajisukitakahikone.

A diety enshrined

Its most popular structure may be the Sacred Bridge, a vermilion lacquered 28-meter span that’s said to be one of the most beautiful bridges in Japan. Once used only by messengers of the Imperial court to cross the Daiya River. It was opened to the general public in 1973 and registered as a World Heritage in December 1999.

The bridge is often referred to as Yamasugeno-jabashi, the “Snake Bridge of Sedge”. Legend has it that in 766, Shodo, a priest, with his followers scaled Mt. Nantai to pray. Unable to cross the Daiya River, Shodo prayed to the 10-foot god Jinja-Daiou, who appeared before them with two snakes twisting on his arm. The reptiles were released and transformed to a arched bridge covered with sedge (a grass-like plant with triangular stems).

The 1617-built Shinto shrine of Tosho-gu, is dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. His shrine and remains are in this place.

NIkko Toshogu

Stately processions from Edo (modern day Tokyo) to Nikko Tosho-gu along the Nikko Kaido, one of the five routes of the Edo period, were held. The “processions of a thousand warriors” is reenacted by the shrine during its annual spring and autumn festivals.

Well preserved structures

In this shrine, five structures and two swords are categorized as National Treasures of Japan, and three buildings and numerous objects are designated as Important Cultural Properties.

Not to be missed are the Yomeimon, an ornately-decorated gate that is also known as “higurashi-no-mon” (meaning you could look at it until sundown and not tire of it); the Nemuri-neko, a carving of a sleeping cat; the stable of the sacred horses with a carving of the three wise monkeys; the five-story pagoda donated by a daimyo in 1650; the bronze urn containing the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Torii gate to the Tosho-gu Shrine with a tablet, Tablet- Tōshō Dai-Gongei attributed to Emperor Go-Mizunoo

The third on the list is Rinnoji, a complex of 15 Buddhist temple buildings, which was established in 766 by the Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin, who introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. Because of its geographic isolation, deep in the Japanese mountains, the place soon attracted other Buddhist monks in search of solitude.

Gojūnotō, a 1818 5-storey Pagoda in the Tosho-gu Shrine

Sanbutsudo, or the Three Buddha Hall, is one of its most famous buildings. Housed in it are the wooden statues in gold of Amida, Senju Kannon (Kannon with a thousand arms), Batu-Kannon (Kannon with a horse’s head). Beside this hall is the Shoyo-en Garden, which was created in the early Edo period in the image of Lake Biwa and was named by a Confucian scholar Issai Sato.

With so much to see and explore, a day in this World Heritage Site is not enough. But that give me a good reason to come back to this place.

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