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.