Harmony Interrupted in Nikko

During the summer I took a short trip outside Tokyo to the historic town of Nikko (日光市), a journey of about 2 hours by train. The area is popular with travellers for its ornate shrines and hot springs (onsen).

Shinkyo Bridge

After arriving at Tobu Nikko station you can choose to take a bus or walk 20 minutes to the shrine and temple area (as we did). You’ll know you’ve reached it when you pass by the beautiful vermilion lacquered Shinkyo Bridge (神橋) which was the original gateway to Nikko. In the past, it could be crossed only by messengers of the Imperial court but today you can pay for the privilege!

Cedar Avenue
Mossy Stone Wall

To my mind the best part of Nikko has to be its magnificent forest of over 13,000 cedar trees, covering the entire area, providing a cool and atmospheric backdrop to the history.

Tōrō Lanterns
Avenue Terminal

Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社) was the first shrine we visited and it was here that I began to get somewhat irritated.

Collection Box

Don’t get me wrong, the whole of Nikko is incredibly beautiful but the visual harmony has been vandalised by an excess of ugly and unnecessary signage everywhere (not pictured to save the eyesore). No doubt those who look after the shrines are just trying to be informative but by cluttering up the view they are destroying exactly what made it special in the first place.

Stone Lanterns

Luckily I’m not the only person who thinks this – a group called Signage for Heritage led by Eisuke Tachikawa (from design agency Nosigner) is attempting to come up with better solutions and restore some of the beauty that had been lost around Japan. Check out his TEDx talk on the subject for more details.

Toshogu Shrine

Our next stop was Toshogu Shrine (日光東照宮) which is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康) and the most extravagant of the lot. Ieyasu, who was the founder of the Tokugawa dynasty of shoguns, was buried here immediately after his death, but the present complex was only built in 1634 on the order of his grandson Iemitsu. The shrine took 2 years to complete with the efforts of 15,000 workers.

Three Wise Monkeys

The stable of the shrine’s sacred horses bears a carving of the famous three wise monkeys (三猿), who hear, speak and see no evil, a traditional symbol in Chinese and Japanese culture.

Gold Leaf Pavillion
Stone Turtle

Turtles are a symbol of longevity in Asia – I loved the stone one here that someone had made from loose rocks.


Unlike most Japanese temples and shrines, the buildings here are extremely gaudy and ornate, with multicoloured carvings and plenty of gold leaf, and show heavy Chinese influence.

Tourist Trap

In hindsight I had picked the wrong time to visit Nikko – owing to the Obon (お盆) national holidays/festival falling at the same time we visited, everywhere was very busy. Queuing up to visit a place which should be peaceful and quiet is not my idea of fun.

Zen Hostel River

The saving grace of the short trip was staying overnight at the Zen Hostel (recently renamed “Earth Hostel”) which is surrounded by nature and has a beautiful river flowing next to it that I took a dip in twice. The perfect spot in the middle of nowhere to unwind away from the crowds.

David avatar

5 responses

  1. Great post love the pictures. Looks like it would be great if it was not the national holiday. I’m not a big fan of the crowds. Also, you should rewrite the sentence about turtles.

    1. Thanks Miguel, corrected!

  2. Gary Croft. Melbourne Australia avatar
    Gary Croft. Melbourne Australia

    One of the best times to visit Nikko is in light rain or drizzle. For some reason the tourist hords stay away in droves and you have the rare experience of being alone to experience the quiet beauty of the place.
    This I did in March of this year(2015),and I am so glad I did-coldness of snow also kept people away.
    Climbing all the way up to the top is definitely worth the effort,even though you think to yourself,when do these steps ever stop!
    One of the great places of the world for this traveller I can surely say.

    1. Thanks for the tips Gary – I feel like I should give Nikko a second chance 🙂

  3. Gary Croft avatar
    Gary Croft

    David, I have made the mistake of a summer visit last year-busloads of tourists,noise,selfiesticks everywhere etc,and decided this wasn’t for me.

    Returned to Japan in march when it was a frosty 6 degrees & light snow at Nikko. Shot across from Shinjuku for a second visit and was so happy I did. Did the walk thru town and armed with umbrella and ipad I had the place to myself in the early morning around 9am.
    Tourists start coming in between 10.30-11.30 I found….get there before them!


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