Why did Tokugawa Ieyasu choose Nikko?【Why Nikko Toshogu Shrine is amazing?】

Nikko has a history of thriving as an international summer resort.
In addition to that, there are many attractions such as mountains where one can feel close to the gods, the picturesque scenery of Lake Chuzenji resembling Europe, and a deep connection with religion over many years.

Among the attractions of Nikko, the especially famous Nikko Toshogu Shrine has become a renowned tourist destination worldwide for three reasons. I'll introduce those three reasons:

1. Flourished as a sacred place where the teachings of Shinto and Buddhism merged.

2. The shrine built by Shodo Shonin became an aspirational place for worship and practice.

3. Tokugawa Ieyasu, who achieved peace, was enshrined as a god after his death.

I'll explain these three reasons in detail, so you'll understand why Tokugawa Ieyasu chose Nikko.
While Nikko Toshogu Shrine is well-known for its splendid buildings, knowing this history will enhance your enjoyment of sightseeing.


【Integration of Shinto and Buddhist teachings】

In ancient Japan, people believed that gods dwelled in the towering mountains.

The mountains of Nikko have been objects of faith since before civilization developed, and they became deeply connected with Buddhism that arrived from China in the mid-6th century. In Japan, there was no concept of worshiping only one god, and in Nikko, it became established that there were many gods residing in the distant mountains, and furthermore, that the Buddhas also watched over people.

From this perspective, the Nikko Toshogu Shrine, the Nikko Futarasan Shrine, and the Rinnoji Temple, where the Buddhas are enshrined, were built in close proximity.

・Nikko Toshogu Shrine → Shrine worshiping gods

・Nikko Futarasan Shrine → Shrine worshiping gods

・Rinnoji Temple → Temple worshiping Buddhas

These relationships exist. Additionally, as I'll explain later, it's a significant feature that the enshrined deity at Nikko Toshogu Shrine is Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The World Heritage Site "Shrines and Temples of Nikko" refers to the entire area where these Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Nikko Futarasan Shrine, and Rinnoji Temple are closely connected.


In the 8th century Nikko, two significant religious events occurred.

One was when Shodo Shonin, who was practicing Buddhism, built a shrine in 766. By establishing a shrine to the god of Mt. Nantai, Nikko became a place for praying to gods.

The other event was in 782 when Shodo Shonin successfully ascended Mt. Nantai. Mt. Nantai is the tallest mountain in Nikko, and he succeeded in climbing it on his third attempt.

After successfully ascending Mt. Nantai, Shodo Shonin built shrines and temples around the foot of Mt. Nantai and Lake Chuzenji. Thus, Nikko came to play an important role in Japanese religious history as a sacred place for worshiping gods and Buddhas.

By the way, when Shodo Shonin was walking towards Mt. Nantai, there was an accident where he couldn't cross to the other side of the river due to the strong current. At that time, by praying to gods and Buddhas, a large snake became a bridge, allowing him to cross the river. This bridge is called the "Shinkyo" and is reproduced at the entrance to the World Heritage Site "Shrines and Temples of Nikko."


【Birth of Nikko Toshogu Shrine】

With Shodo Shonin's ascent of Mt. Nantai in 782, Nikko became a representative sacred place in Japan.

During the Kamakura period, it prospered as a place for rigorous ascetic practices, and for monks, Nikko became a place of longing to challenge at least once.

Later, Nikko Toshogu Shrine was built by Tenkai, who was a close aide to Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa Shogunate. After Tokugawa Ieyasu's death, his remains were temporarily placed in Kunozan, but later moved to Nikko.

This was in accordance with Tokugawa Ieyasu's will, which instructed:

"My remains shall be placed at Kunozan and then moved to Nikko. By doing so, I will become the guardian god of peace throughout Japan."

It's clear that Ieyasu had special feelings for Nikko. With Tokugawa Ieyasu enshrined as a god at Nikko Toshogu Shrine, the sacred land of Nikko gained a new role and value.


【Why did Tokugawa Ieyasu choose Nikko?】

In the late 12th century, Japan underwent a significant change in its political structure from a noble society to a warrior society.

After becoming a warrior society, there were continued territorial disputes among samurai. Particularly, from the late 15th century to the late 16th century, there was a period known as the "Sengoku period," where daimyos across Japan fought to unify the country. Famous figures like Oda Nobunaga and Toyotomi Hideyoshi were daimyos of this era.

Tokugawa Ieyasu, who sleeps in Nikko, governed this tumultuous era. After Hideyoshi's death, Ieyasu opened the Tokugawa Shogunate, and for the next 260 years, he established a peaceful and stable regime under the Tokugawa family.

By limiting diplomacy, a long period of peace ensued, giving rise to a unique culture.

Ieyasu had a strong desire for peace and established a powerful system to achieve it. It's rare in world history to have over 200 years without domestic or foreign wars. The Nikko Toshogu Shrine, created according to Ieyasu's will, was initially small but was transformed into its current magnificent form by his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu, who respected Ieyasu greatly. The decoration of the famous Yomeimon gate carries many messages of peace.



Nikko Toshogu Shrine, through this history, stands out with a significant presence distinct from any other shrine in Japan. Remembering this history and experiencing it while visiting Nikko will make your trip even more enjoyable.

Thank you for reading. I'll continue to introduce Nikko from the local perspective.