Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s, and Nikko National Park continues to offer scenic, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails.
Nikko and the Okunikko area around Lake Chuzenji, in particular, are well known for their beautiful autumn colors (koyo). In the average year the colors start descending from the higher elevations of Yumoto Onsen in early October, are best around Lake Chuzenji and the Irohazaka road in mid to late October and reach the town of Nikko in the first half of November.
Tōshōgū – The burial place of dynasty founder Tokugawa Ieyasu and the most extravagant of the lot. Ieyasu 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.
東照宮 is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Ieyasu and two other of Japan’s most influential historical personalities, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Minamoto Yoritomo.
The lavishly decorated shrine complex consists of more than a dozen Shinto and Buddhist buildings set in a beautiful forest. Initially a relatively simple mausoleum, Toshogu was enlarged into the spectacular complex seen today by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu during the first half of the 17th century.
Yomei-mon Gate is an incredibly ornate gate with over 400 carvings squeezed in.To the right of the main hall is the way to Ieyasu’s tomb, entry to which costs an extra ¥520. Look out for another famous carving, this time of a sleeping cat (nemuri-neko). There are 200 stone steps, and steep ones at that; and then you finally reach the surprisingly simple gravesite itself.
陽明門 has Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture.
After two flights of steps you will reach the Sacred Stable, housing a white horse. The most famous symbol here is the carving of the three wise monkeys, who “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”. They’re part of a curious series of carvings about the life cycle of a monkey, from giddy childhood to fearful old age.
Nearby, you can also find an interesting carving of an interesting approximation of an elephant, carved by an artist who had clearly never seen one.
This carving here, on the left, is not an elephant. Its called a Baku, and in Japanese mythology, its a creature which eats your dreams.
Yakushi-dō Hall 薬師堂, the Hall of the Medicine Buddha, is known for a dragon painting on the ceiling. A monk is usually on hand to speak and strike a special block whose sharp, piercing sound is said to be identical to the cry of a dragon.
Kegon Waterfall is the only exit for the waters of Lake Chuzenji. It can be seen from a free observation platform that is easily accessible on foot, as well as from a paid platform at the base of the falls. The paid platform is accessed via a 100 meter deep elevator and offers the more impressive views.
The sight of Kegon Waterfall in combination with Lake Chuzenji can be enjoyed from Akechidaira Observatory, which is accessible by ropeway from Akechidaira Plateau.