In the spring of 2017 the city of Nikko finally finished refurbishing the Toshogu Shrine where the legendary founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu, is enshrined. The refurbished Yomeimon gate, which is registered as a national treasure, is absolutely stunning and something I would never suggest a person skip. Nevertheless, much like Kyoto’s Kiyomizu-dera, the Toshogu Shrine and its gate suffer from their own notoriety. Simply put, the site’s tone of spirituality is generally crushed by the hordes of tourists wielding selfie-sticks.
Luckily for you though, Ieyasu isn’t the only Tokugawa enshrined in Nikko! Located only a stone’s throw away from the Toshogu Shrine you’ll find Taiyuin-byo, the mausoleum of Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu. Technically under the jurisdiction of nearby Rinno-ji temple complex, this Shinto-Buddhist hybrid is an often overlooked relic that closely resembles the lavish Toshogu Shrine. Despite the architectural similarities between the two, Taiyuin-byo was actually built to be a bit more modest than the Toshogu shrine due to Iemitsu reverent respect for this grandfather.
Taiyuin-byo is located the farthest away of all Nikko’s sites and nestled within the crest of a hill amongst ancient cedars that lend a spiritual charge to the air. Seeing Iemitsu is not well known overseas this means that Taiyuin-byo is thankfully not nearly as plagued by crowds of gawking tourists. Given Taiyuin-byo’s proximity to the rest of Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites, it would be a real shame for visitors to pass this one up. Just remember to pay your respects first at the Toshogu Shrine.
Before we continue, those interested in visiting Taiyuin-byo are HIGHLY encouraged to read at least the Wikipedia page about Iemitsu before going. While I won’t delve into the history of the third shogun here for brevity’s sake, much of the policies of the Tokugawa shogunate were implemented by Iemitsu (such as the famous 200 years of isolation). Though it may have been Ieyasu who consolidated control of the country at the end of the Warring States period (1467–1615), it was his grandson who set the framework that would allow the dynasty to maintain control as long as it did.
How to Get There
Taiyuin-byo is located among the collection of Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Tochigi Prefecture. What this means is that this isn’t just a place that you go to on a whim like Asakusa’s Senso-ji. You’re going to need to carefully work a trip into your itinerary. Though most of Nikko can be done in just a day, it’s best to book accommodations anyway due to how the trains workout. Despite its fame, Nikko is definitely located in the countryside and things start shutting down early. You don’t want to get stuck out here overnight!
Once you’re actually settled in Nikko, getting to Taiyuin-byo is not much of a challenge. After arriving at the station, you will find buses taking you to the many UNESCO World Heritage Sites. However, I would suggest you instead hoof it up the rustic shopping street. Not only will you pass a collection of shops that have been in business for hundreds of years but you’ll also get to walk past the amazing Shinkyo Bridge. Opting for the bus will take you right past it too but it’s hard to appreciate its beauty properly on wheels.
As mentioned before, you’re going to want to check out the Toshogu Shrine first. The reasons stated above aside, the humble Iemitsu himself would want you to pay your respect to his grandfather first before visiting his mausoleum. After checking out the ornate Toshogu Shrine, make your way to Taiyuin-byo which can be found here.
Astute readers will notice that Taiyuin-byo actually faces the Toshogu Shrine itself. Shrines and temples in Japan typically face south, or occasionally to the east, yet never north or west like Taiyuin-byo. It is said that Iemitsu’s deep sense of respect for his grandfather compelled him to ignore tradition and thus invite misfortune by configuring his mausoleum in such an orientation.
Venturing Inside of Taiyuin-byo
After purchasing an entry ticket at Taiyuin-byo, make your way to the first of four gates immediately in front of you. Once inside, you’ll immediately behold the ornate Shinto water ablution pavilion or temizuya. I’ve visited a lot of spiritual sites across Japan and this is by far the most ostentatious structure I have ever seen. When you finish marveling over its beauty you will want to purify yourself next before proceeding further. If you need a refresher on the proper ceremonial ritual, here’s a short reminder.
To the left of the temizuya you’ll encounter a flight of stairs that will lead you to the second gate of Taiyuin-byo, the Nitenmon. This massive structure is guarded by four statues and was chiseled by very impressive craftsmen so be sure to look up when walking through so you don’t miss any details. The Nitenmon gate is guarded by a total of four sentinels. The two front sentinels are known as Komoku and Jikoku. A green and red duo stand valiantly behind — the gods of Wind and Thunder, respectively.
After admiring the glorious gate, continue to make your way further up the stairs. Eventually, you’ll come across two towering structures that seem identical in form. These dual turrets house a bell and a drum that were once used for ceremonies. The drum signifies birth where as the bell signifies death. When taken together they are symbolic of the cycle of reincarnation that is core to the Buddhist faith. Also, be sure to keep your eyes out for the beautiful view pictured above.
At the top of the final staircase you’ll find the crowning gate at Taiyuin-byo, the Yashamon. Similar to the Yomeimon gate at the Toshogu Shrine, this gate is decorated quite ornately. Nevertheless, in keeping with the overall theme of humility at Taiyuin-byo, the Yashamon gate is not nearly as ostentatious as that of Iemitsu’s grandfather’s. As with the Nitenmon gate below, this final gateway to the inner portions of the shrine is also protected by four heavenly Buddhist guardians.
After passing through the Yashamon gate, you’ll be presented with a series of stone and metal lanterns. Just beyond these you’ll find the heart of Taiyuin-byo, the honden, or inner shrine. As with Ieyasu’s monument, the woodwork and architecture is absolutely stunning. That said, those who have followed my advice and visited the Toshogu Shrine first will notice the level of reverent restraint that Iemitsu deployed when having this place designed.
When I visited in November of 2016, guests to Taiyuin-byo were allowed to enter the honden but make sure to take your shoes off first. If you visit Taiyuin-byo in one of the colder months like I did, you might be able to sense the third shogun’s chilling spirit lingering inside the heart of the honden — either that or the cold Tochigi mountain air. Also, whatever you do, be sure not to take pictures of the worship area! This is a big no-no when visiting all Buddhist temples; please, don’t commit this grievous faux pas! You’re free to marvel at the gilded altar and wooden carving of Iemitsu but leave your camera out if it.
To round out your visit at Taiyuin-byo, head out to the right side of the honden. You’ll be looking for a blocked staircase guarded by the structure pictured above. These stairs lead to Itemitsu’s actual grave and is off limits to all but the top officials of Taiyuin-byo. Though you’re not allowed up, the way that the staircase winds off up and into the towering cedar trees gives this final element an ethereal vibe that few other places are able to evoke.
Other Nearby Attractions
Nikko is not short on attractions unlike some other areas that only are home to one famous site,. As one might expect, this section could draw on for days so I’ll limit this to just a small handful of suggested places that are near Taiyuin-byo.
Though Rinno-ji is currently under construction, it is Nikko’s most important temple. Rinno-ji was founded by a monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. As Taiyuin-byo falls under the temple’s jurisdiction, visitors are eligible to purchase a combined ticket that allows people to enter both.
This small Japanese style garden is located next to Rinno-ji and is an absolutely amazing location for viewing the colors of autumn (with early November being said to be the most photogenic time). There’s a small charge to enter but you won’t be disappointed.
Mentioned in the “Getting There” portion of this article, the Shinkyo Bridge is a site that I could stare at for hours on end. Shinkyo Bridge has served as the entryway to Nikko’s spiritual sites for centuries and holds the rank of being one of Japan’s best bridges.
This ravine is home to around 70 stone Jizo statues which some refer to as the Bake Jizo or “Ghost Jizo.” Why’s that you ask? Well, according to local legend, the number of statues changes every time you count them. I was too scared to attempt debunking this folklore but you might be braver than I was.
Until next time travelers…