Futarasan Jinja, founded in the 8th Century by the priest Shodo, sits adjacent to the more showy Nikko Toshogu. It can be reached from the beautiful Sacred Bridge, which legend has it was created from two snakes by the deity Jinja-Daiou to allow Shodo to cross the Daiya River. Futarasan is part of the Nikko Unesco World Heritage Site.
Futarasan enshrines the deities Okuninushi, Tagorihime, and Ajisukitakahikone. It also contains many National Treasures and Important Cultural Assets, including two swords.
Futarasan’s Shinto roots are apparent in the many shrines to nature found within its grounds, as well as ancient trees up to 1,000 years old.
Nikko Toshogu is a visually stunning shrine complex in Tochigi Prefecture, dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu — who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate — and the centerpiece of the Nikko Unesco Heritage Site. Indeed, it is what people mean when they refer to “Nikko Shrine.”
Toshogu includes an array of impressive gates, decorated walls, shrines and temples, and many national treasures and important cultural artifacts. One of these treasures is Nemuri Neko, the sleeping cat. By passing underneath this 17th Century wooden statue attributed to Hidari Jingoro, visitors can begin climbing the hundreds of stone steps to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
According to Wikipedia, “Five structures at Nikkō Tōshō-gū are categorized as National Treasures of Japan, and three more as Important Cultural Properties.” Among the national treasures is the elaborately decorated Gohonsha, or Main Hall. Visitors must remove their shoes to enter the central area of worship, whether to pray or enjoy the splendor. (Photography is not permitted inside the hall.)
In addition to Nemuri Neko, Toshogu hosts a regular mythical bestiary of statues and bas-reliefs, from peacocks and phoenixes to the famous Three Wise Monkeys and elephants rampant.
Among all the impressive sights at Toshugo, one temple stands out for its sound: Yakushi-do, to the left of the Youmeimon gate, features the Roaring Dragon. Monks clap woodblocks under the enormous dragon mural on the ceiling of the temple to produce a ringing echo. The acoustics of the temple room are such that the woodblocks only echo when they are clapped directly in front of the dragon’s face, as the monks demonstrate. (Photography and recording are not permitted here.)
The temple also features statues of Buddhas representing the 12 years of the Chinese calendar.
When to visit
Toshogu nests in a forest of impressive old Japanese cedar trees (杉). As these are evergreens, there’s no autumn color season for visiting. On the other hand, those who suffer from cedar pollen allergy may wish to take precautions and avoid the active season.
As with all popular tourist attractions in Japan, Toshogu becomes very crowded on weekends and holidays. Even on a cold, snowy December day, the bus to the shrine was jam-packed. (Of course, in better weather many visitors may elect to walk from the station.)
Direct trains run several times per day to Tobu Nikko Station from Shinjuku or Asakusa. Visitors can purchase a day pass for the World Heritage Bus at Tobu Nikko Station for ¥500. The bus leaves every 15 minutes on a loop that includes Toshogu — disembark at the Omotesando (表参道) stop (No. 83).
The bus ticket office at Tobu Nikko Station also sells entrance tickets for Toshogu: ¥1,300 for admission to all shrine attractions including the roaring dragon at Yakushi-do. Tickets are also available at the entrance to the shrine.
Tori no Ichi is a festival celebrated on days of the Rooster in November. The tradition started at Asakusa Temple in Tokyo in the 17h Century when Washidaimyojin (Washimyoken Bodhisattva) was enshrined there. Nowadays, the festival is celebrated at many temples where “Otori-sama” (the eagle) is honored.
The festival became popular in the middle Edo period. Woodblock prints of the era show people carrying kumade, bamboo rakes decorated with Oban-koban (distinctive oval gold coins) and Okame (mask of good fortune). On a smaller scale, a miniature bamboo rake may be adorned with a simple ear of fine rice. With purchases of larger kumade, the vendors clap woodblocks in time to bring the buyer even more good fortune.
In addition to praying at the temple and buying kumade, visitors can enjoy treats from the many food stalls lining the open air market in and around the temple. Food ranging from sweets to takoyaki (octopus balls) to grilled seafood and yakitori (chicken roasted on a skewer) can be enjoyed along with a variety of beverages.
Takaosan — Mt Takao — offers lots of hiking and a famous temple and shrine complex within easy reach of central Tokyo, making it the most-climbed peak in Japan. In fact, an estimated 2.6 million people visit each year to see the attractions, including a Monkey Park and Wild Flower Garden, and — from June through October — what is reputed to be the highest beer garden in Tokyo.
Fall is a popular time to visit the mountain, and thousands of Tokyoites flock to see the changing 紅葉 (momiji: maple) leaves. Cooler air also offers a chance to view Mt Fuji from Takaosan’s 599-meter peak.
Unfortunately, easy access from Tokyo and the great scenery on view add up to enormous crowds. At the height of 紅葉 (koyo: autumn leaves) season, it’s not unusual to wait up to an hour for the cable car, and to be jostled by the crowds thronging to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji at the peak.
There isn’t room on one mountain for enough cafés and restaurants to handle the crowds at their peak, but the throngs are handled via typical Japanese ingenuity. For example, to avoid large crowds waiting for the lift or cable car down from the mountain, the operators distribute numbered tickets to riders, who are only permitted to queue for the ride once their group’s number has been called. Even the shops at the foot of the mountain have experience dealing with the thousands of people who flock to the mountain each day, with workers helping the customers to queue up and maintain a semblance of civility (or at least order).
Takaosan Yakuo-in Yukiji, commonly called Yakuo-in, is a Buddhist temple and shrine complex established on the flanks of Mt Takao at the order of Emperor Shomu in 744.
Yakuo-in was restored in the 14th Century by Shungen Daitoku, who enshrined the deity Izuna Daigongen following a vision. Izuna Daigongen protects devotees from harm, and combines attributes of five deities, as described by the temple’s official site: Fudo Myo-o, Karuraten (Garuda, a divine bird), Dakiniten (a demon that feeds on human hearts), Kangiten (a fertility deity with the head of an elephant) and Benzaiten (the deity of water, music and victory in battle).
Mt Takao is associated with Tengu, long-nosed demons who act as messengers of the gods and who chastise evil. These figures are found throughout the temple complex, and flank the entrance to Izuna Gongen-do.
Yakuo-in is reached following a brief walk along paved paths (and some stairs) from the cable car/lift terminus on Mt Takao. Alternatively, hikers can reach the summit of Mt Takao first and then descend through the temple complex.
Meigetsuin, “Bright Moon Hermitage,” is known as the Hydrangea Temple of Kamakura. The temple was originally founded in 1160 by Yamanouchi Tsunetoshi for the repose of the soul of his father, Yamanouchi Toshimichi, who died the previous year in the Battle of Heiji. It is the site of a yagura which legend holds to be Toshimichi’s resting place. Reliefs on the wall depict Shaka Nyorai, Taho Nyorai and the 16 Arhats, while the large gravestone, added 220 years later, is for Uesugi Norikata, who greatly expanded the temple under the direction of abbot Misshitsu Shugon.
Nowadays, though, the temple is known for the view of the garden from the main hall through a circular window, and for ajisai — hydrangea.
The temple, just an hour’s train ride from Shinjuku, overflows with visitors in late May and early June as the hydrangea bloom. The line to enter the temple grounds soon backs up as far as the Kita Kamakura train station, turning the 10-minute walk into a wait of 40 minutes or longer.
For those with the patience (and sunscreen) to wait it out, the reward eventually comes.
Kenchoji, nestled in the hills north of Kamakura, is Japan’s oldest Zen training monastery. It was founded by Chinese Zen master Rankei Doryu (Lan-hsi Tao-lung) and constructed by the order of Emperor Gofukakusa, with construction finishing in 1253 (the fifth year of the Kencho era).
Just inside the outer gate, Somon, stands the impressive main gate, Sanmon. This gate was built in 1754 by the chief priest Bansetsu. Tradition has it that in order to repay the kindness of the Kenchoji priests, a tanuki (Japanese raccoon dog) transformed itself into a monk to assist with the gate’s construction, and to this day the gate is also known as “Tanuki Mon”.
Along the pathway leading from Sanmon to the main hall, Butsuden, is a Chinese juniper (Juniperus chinensis) planted more than 750 years ago by Rankei Doryu.
Butsuden — Buddha Hall
Just past the great-grandfather juniper is the Butsuden, an Important Cultural Property. The building originally was a mausoleum belonging to the Shogunate, and was moved to its present location in 1647. The Butsuden houses a large wooden statue of Jizo Bosatsu (Ksitigarbha Bodhisattva) — a rarity for Zen temples — as well as other Buddhist statues.
Hatto — Dharma Hall
Continuing past the Butsuden, we come to the Hatto hall, the largest wooden Buddhist structure in eastern Japan. The ceiling of this hall for public ceremonies is adorned with a vast painting of a dragon, Unryu-zu, created in 2003 by Koizumi Junsaku to mark the 750th anniversary of Kenchoji.
Off to one side of the Hatto is the Karamon gate, another Important Cultural Property which, like the Hatto, was moved to its present location from Zozoji in Tokyo. As its name indicates, it displays the distinctive undulating bargeboard which became popular during the Heian period. Such gates were reserved for the use of the Shogun or for visits from the Emperor.
Kawasaki Daishi Heikenji Temple (Kawasaki Daishi Sama) is the headquarters of the Chizan sect of Shingon Buddhism and was founded in 1128. The temple was destroyed during the Pacific War — the current structures are reconstructions of the Heian Period buildings.
Kawasaki Daishi is a popular destination for hatsumode, the first temple visit of the new year. Nearly 3m people visit Kawasaki Daishi for hatsmode each year, making it the third most popular such destination in Japan. In addition, the temple is known as “Yakuyoke No Odaishi-sama” for its rituals devoted to yakuyoke, the warding off of evil.
Kawasaki Daishi lies just a few hundred meters from the western abutment of the eponymous Kawasaki Daishi Bashi (bridge) over the Tamagawa River separating Tokyo from Kanagawa Prefecture, near Haneda at the river’s outlet into Tokyo Bay. Entrance to the temple area is through a vermilion gate which opens onto a marketplace of shops featuring traditional Japanese hard candy, soba and daruma.
The candy makers beat their knives against the cutting board in rhythm to attract customers.
Once past the marketplace, the entrance to the temple is via Dai-Sanmon Gate, housing the traditional dharmapala figures.
As the headquarters of a major Buddhist sect, Kawasaki Daishi often has displays of religious artifacts and artworks. One such artwork on permanent display is the statue “Prayer For Peace”, by Entsubakatsuzō Kōbōdaishi (installed 1984).
Kawasaki Daishi can become very crowded during festivals and hatsumode. On the other hand, it can be surprisingly quiet, even on a weekend when the food stalls are out with the hawkers practicing their English on passers-by. Although at first glance the temple does not appear large, in fact there is a number of halls and facilities, each with its own purpose.