These days, almost all overseas visitors to Japan are aware of the many allures of Tochigi Prefecture’s Nikko region. Of course, chief among these is none other than the famed site enshrining Tokugawa Ieyasu, Nikko Toshogu Shrine. This ornate shrine is absolutely breathtaking and definitely worth your time if you’re in the vicinity. Still, unbeknownst to many, it is actually not the only establishment of its kind in Japan. In fact, though far less well known that its northern sibling, Shizuoka Prefecture’s Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is every bit as spectacular. Moreover, it may actually be even more historically significant than the Nikko Toshogu Shrine complex for a number of reasons we will get into in a bit.
Alas, why this place is not more well known overseas is beyond me. It has all of the makings of a great travel destination. What’s more, it is also located squarely on the popular “Golden Route” meaning that a visit requires that one take but a mere single step off of the beaten path. Here, I am just going to chalk this shrine’s obscurity up to poor marketing. After visiting in person not too long ago, I was blown away by how amazing this place was. To be frank, it’s a real shame that Kunozan Toshogu Shrine does not have more awareness abroad given how conveniently located it is. Sadly, as remarkable as the Nikko Toshogu Shrine is, it most definitely does necessitate that one commit to traveling all the way to Nikko.
Before diving into the logistics of how to get to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine, allow me to first note that this attraction can be done in one of two ways. For those spending the majority of their time in the Tokyo area, the shrine can easily be visited as a day trip from the capital. Alternatively, as alluded to above, the shrine is also an interesting detour en route to Kyoto and Osaka that is definitely worth considering (especially if you’re skipping Nikko). In either case though, JR rail pass holders really win out here as they can freely access the region via the Tokaido bullet trains at no further cost. Honestly, I’d argue that because of this, it’s even easier for overseas visitors to make the trek.
How to Get There
Actually getting to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is simultaneously both trivial and paradoxically a bit confusing. Put succinctly, you’ll need to use a combination of several forms of transportation to reach the mountaintop shrine. To begin with, take any of the Kodama or Hikari bullet trains bound for western Japan to Shizuoka Station. These depart regularly so plug in your schedule to a service like Jorudan and let it do the dirty work for you. Just make sure you don’t accidently hop on the Nozomi super express trains as these skip most of central Japan and only stop upon reaching Nagoya. JR Rail Passes cannot use these trains for free to begin with so be sure to double check before boarding.
Once you arrive at Shizuoka Station, you’re going to want to head towards the northern exit. There, you will find a local tourism information booth. The helpful staff there will give you a leaflet in English about the bus schedule as well as a few coupons that can help save you some coin later. With these in hand, you’ll want to head over to the nearby bus stop. Your destination will be a place called Nihondaira. From what I can gather, there are about two buses per hour but schedules can be subject to change. Rather than try to give you information that may become out of date, I’ll instead urge you to just visit the tourism information booth for the latest updates.
Now, technically speaking, the proper way to visit Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is by ascending the complex’s grueling main approach. This entails climbing up over 1,000 stone steps and is only really recommended for the masochists out there. For the rest of you sane readers, opt instead to take the previously mentioned bus to Nihondaira. From there, you’ll need to take the ropeway down to where the shrine is located. Though it will run you a few hundred yen each way, you can get a discount with the aforementioned pamphlet from the tourism information booth. And hey, it beats making the hike up those stairs.
Exploring the Shrine
Once you’ve finally reached Kunozan Toshogu Shrine itself, it will be time to explore the grounds. I suggest budgeting for a bit more time than usual. Just as with its counterpart in Nikko, the buildings that comprise the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine are something to marvel at. Entry to the shrine will run you a few hundred yen but make sure that you buy a combination ticket. This will also allow you to enter the adjacent museum. The facility exhibits some of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s personal belongings as well as some other treasures that have been dedicated to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine over the years in homage to the first shogun. While you unfortunately cannot take pictures inside, it’s definitely worth popping in.
Just beyond the museum and ticket booth, you’ll find a large host of brightly hued vermillion buildings. These are a stark contrast to the black tones that you see at the Nikko Toshogu Shrine and are all elaborately decorated with gold accents. First up, you’ll encounter the Romon gate which has some amazingly intricate etchings to behold. If you follow the path deeper into the shrine grounds, you’ll thereafter come upon the shrine’s oratory and main hall. Like with the Romon gate, these both sport a jaw dropping collection of colorful carvings. There are a number of benches at this area of the shrine for sitting and gaping so be sure to take your time to savor these works of art.
Now, as impressive as the buildings that comprise Kunozan Toshogu Shrine are, what really makes this complex historically important sits a bit deeper in the woods. Here, you’ll find the actual tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu that allegedly still holds his remains. Many people mistakenly believe that the Nikko site is the first Tokugawa shogun’s final resting place but this is not actually the case. Instead, Nikko’s sanctuary confusingly enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu’s spirit as a god whereas the Kunozan Toshogu Shrine serves as his actual mausoleum. It’s for this reason that I’m of the mind that Kunozan Toshogu Shrine is every as important as the establishment in Nikko.
By the way, if you’re wondering why Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb is in Shizuoka Prefecture and not somewhere like Tokyo (which was then called Edo), there’s a good reason. You see, Tokugawa Ieyasu was a master strategist and purposely abdicated from the role of shogun early to ensure a smooth transition of power to his son. In doing so, he was able to solidify his family’s control over a newly unified nation and ensure that his dynasty would last. After stepping down from the role of shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu thereafter retired to Sunpu Castle which is located only a mere stone’s throw away from Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.
Other Nearby Attractions
Before wrapping things up on this article, allow me to note that one other thing that Kunozan Toshogu shrine has going for it is that there’s a lot of other things to do nearby. What follows is a smorgasbord of intriguing attractions that are littered about the area. As always, I’ll include links to Google Maps so you can get a better sense of where these are located.
I already briefly touched on Nihondaira in the “Getting to Kunozan Toshogu Shrine” section but this plateau boasts a height of 308 meters and offers some impressive views of Mt. Fuji, the Izu Peninsula, the Japanese Southern Alps, Shimizu port, and Suruga bay. Regularly considered to be one of the top 100 landscapes in all of Japan, Nihondaira is definitely worth allocating a few more minutes too after visiting Kunozan Toshogu Shrine.
- Sumpu Castle
This castle was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1586 and thereafter served as his place of retirement. Sadly, little remains of the original today but the grounds have been converted into a charming park and some of the castle’s former structures have since been remade. Like with many other replicas, the interiors house museums. Additionally, you’ll also find a small traditional Japanese garden within the confines of the castle’s grounds.
- Shimizu Port
Located a few stops over from Shizuoka Station, this area is an important port that was used extensively for exporting the region’s famous teas. Today, visitors to Shimizu can enjoy an impressive fish market as well as a museum on the history of sushi. You’ll find the market a few minutes away from Shimizu Station by the bay. The sushi menagerie on the other hand is tucked away in a four story shopping mall called S-Pulse Dream Plaza.
- Miho Beach
Pictured above, this beach is made of millions of small stones rather than sand and is also known for its legendary views of Mt. Fuji. Additionally, Miho Beach is also lined with countless pine trees that add additional magic to the area. Visitors to get to the beach in a number of different ways but I’d highly suggest opting to take a bay cruise out from Shimizu if you can navigate the logistics of doing so.
Next time, happy travels and be sure to get off of the beaten path on your next visit to Japan!
Until next time travelers…