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You might want to come here to see one of    Japan’s    great    mountain    Buddhist retreats.  Or  you  might  want  to  pay  homage  to  Tokugawa  Ieyasu,  the  model  for James  Clavell’s  novel  Shogun.  But  if  you want the kids to enjoy this expedition from Tokyo,  tell  them  you’re  on  safari,  looking for  animal  images  in  this  magnificent 17th-century Japanese shrine.

On  the  edge  of  town,  walk  onto  the vermilion-painted  Sacred  Bridge  (Shinkyo),  built  in  1636;  in  the  past,  only  shoguns and their emissaries were allowed to cross it. Up the stone steps is the 8th century Rinnoji Temple, housing the “gods of Nikko,” three 8.4m-high (28-ft.) gold-plated wooden  images  of  Buddha.  Today  the gods  are  taking  prayers  for  world  peace. Through   a   grove   of   ancient   Japanese cedars,  you  come  to  the  showpiece  of Nikko, Toshogu Shrine, built in the 1630s by Tokugawa’s grandson. No expense was too great in creating the monument: Some 15,000 craftspeople were brought from all over  Japan,  and  after  2  years’  work,  they completed  a  cluster  of  buildings  more elaborate than any other Japanese temple or shrine, gilded with a dazzling 2.4 million sheets   of   gold   leaf.   Go   up   the   stairs through  a  huge  stone  torii  gateway;  on your  left  is  a  five-story  pagoda.  (Pagodas are  normally  found  at  Buddhist  temples, not   Shinto   shrines,  but  the  two  mingle happily    here.)    Up more  stairs  to  your first animal image: the Sacred Stable, which  houses  a sacred   white   horse (horses    have    long been  held  sacred  to  Shinto  gods).  Above the  stable  door  is  my  personal  favorite carving at Nikko—three monkeys enacting “see  no  evil,  hear  no  evil,  speak  no  evil”; they’re the guardians of the sacred horse. Across from the stable is Kami-Jinko, with a  famous  painting  of  two  elephants—pretty accurate, considering that the artist had  read  about  elephants  but  had  never actually  seen  one.  Up  the  next  flight  of stairs, to the left is Yakushido, known for its dragon painting on the ceiling. Tell the kids to clap their hands under it; the resulting echo sounds like a dragon’s roar. The shrine’s  most  stunning  feature  is  Yomeimon Gate, often called the Twilight Gate because  it  could  take  you  all  day  (until twilight) to see everything on it. Painted in red,  blue,  and  green  and  decorated  with gilt  and  lacquerwork,  this  gate  has  about 400  carvings  of  flowers,  dragons,  birds, and other animals. To the right of the main hall,  look  for  the  beloved  carving  of  a sleeping cat above the entrance to Tokugawa   Ieyasu’s   mausoleum.   Beyond that, stone steps lead past cedars to Tokugawa’s strikingly simple tomb.

Directly  to  the  west  of  Toshogu  Shrine  is Futarasan  Shrine  (1617),  where  the  kids should look for the ghost lantern, enclosed in  a  small  wooden  structure.  According  to legend,  it  used  to  come  alive  at  night  and sweep around Nikko in   the   form   of   a ghost,  scaring  one guard so much that he struck it with his sword 70  times—you  can still  see  the  marks on  the  lamp’s  rim. Spooky.