Nikko, Japan is a location of worship for both Buddhism and Shintoism. Observe these Buddhist temples from the 8th century with respect and admiration.
With cascading waterfalls, sacred mountains, and enviable hiking trails, Nikko National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage Site you cannot miss. Spanning from the Tochigi Prefecture to the Niigata Prefecture, Nikko is a cultural, environmental, and religious hub. While many people come just for the beautiful waterfalls, others are attracted to 8th century architecture and culture.
Though the coexistence of Buddhism and Shintoism has been marked by a temperamental and unpredictable relationship, you can now visit both sacred temples and shrines throughout Japan. Nikko is the perfect example of the two religions living in harmony, and many Japanese worship both at the same time. Here is a brief overview of the three Buddhist temples you must visit while in Nikko.
Known not only as a tourist destination, Rinnoji Temple is a pilgrimage location for Buddhists. While the temple grounds date much farther back, they rebuilt the structure in 1645.
Stop and see the “Kongozakura” tree. Thought to be over 500 years old, Nikko now considers this tree a natural monument. The Kongozakura tree stands in front of the Main Hall, the Sanbutsu, which holds the three sacred Buddha statues (two sets of three). The three Buddhas in Rinnoji are Sendai Kannon, Amitabha Nyorai, and the Horsehead Kannon.
It is in your best interest to listen carefully to the tour guide at this location. While most of the tour is in Japanese, there will be instructions in English along the way. Grab a pamphlet, admire the sculptures, and make your way to the next temple.
Price of Admission Varies
Sanbutsu-do: 400 yen
Sanbutsu-do and Taiyuin: 900 yen
Taiyuin-byo, or simply Taiyuin, is not only a temple but also a mausoleum of the third shogun. A shogun is the historical head of command of a Japanese feudal state. They often were military dictators, but still revered for their prowess. This shogun, Iemitsu, has a beautiful mausoleum dedicated in his honor and it is only a stone’s throw from Rinnoji.
During the Meiji period, Japan ordered the religions to be separate entities entirely. They put laws in place requiring the Japanese Kami to remain separate from Buddha. Most of the temples and shrines in Nikko fully separated, while only a couple remained combined. The temple has several qualities and religious artifacts that share both religions.
This temple is beautiful. If you go to Rinnoji, it is worth buying the combination ticket so you can see Taiyuin. Red pillars, gold inlay, and a graceful white dragon greet you at the Karamon Gate. Incense wafts through the air at the sanctuary, which is also another National Treasure, with a picturesque backdrop of the forest.
Price of Admission Varies
Taiyun: 550 yen
Taiyun and Sanbutsu-do: 900 yen
Farther than the other Nikko temples is Chuzenji Temple. While the others are accessible from JR Nikko station, Chuzen-ji requires a bus ride. I would actually recommend renting a car to visit this location, then taking advantage of an onsen on the lake as your final destination. This temple offers very few programs in English, so be prepared with Google Translate.
Upon arriving at Chuzen-ji, you will experience a view of Mt. Nantai that rivals some iconic sights of Mt. Fuji. The mountain often reflects off of the lake on still days. The snowy landscape in the winter is unparalleled. There are very few more simple pleasures in life than soaking in an onsen outside, while looking for monkeys in the snow.
The temple offers more than just a Hokusai-inspired view. Housed in the temple is a six-meter tall statue of the Goddess of Mercy, Kannon. Carved from a single tree trunk, still rooted, many make a pilgrimage to pray and give her offers. This 1,300-year-old temple has thatched roofs and the rumor is that those who pray here will have good fortune in love.
Price of Admission
Nikko has so much to offer the wandering traveler. From temples to shrines to waterfalls, it is an experience unlike any other. If you visit, toss a coin into Kannon for me. I miss it all dearly. Have you experienced Nikko? What about the temples in Japan? Let us know in the comments below!