A Sketchbook Visit to Nikkō, Japan’s UNESCO Temple Town

Something strange happened when the clocks hit 5pm in Nikkō. The town suddenly fell quiet, the people disappeared, the shops shut their doors, and restaurants turned their ‘open’ signs around to ‘closed’.

The sun went down in a haze of muted oranges and purples, a chilly evening began to creep in, and we were left wandering around in a quiet Japanese town with barely a cat in the streets.

Even though this was peak sakura season, this was the nature of small town life, we realised. Clearly, the rules were different to Tokyo, just 2 hours train travel to the south. After a few blocks of seeing closed signs on every door, we realised we we may not be eating dinner tonight.

Urban sketching Japanese bridge in Nikko Shinkyo bridge
Shinkyo bridge in Nikko

The only restaurant open past 5

This was the Yasukawacho area of Nikkō, north of the photogenic Shinkyo bridge, and close to the UNESCO temples of the town. As luck had it, our hotel recommended the only restaurant that stayed open past 5pm.

We sat down at the Bell restaurant, slurped down a hot bowl of soup with yuba (rolls of layered soy sheets, a Nikkō speciality), and pored over a map that was bursting with UNESCO temples. There was a lot to do tomorrow.

Sketch of Yuba tofu skin noodle soup in Nikkō, Japanese specialty food
Yuba, Nikkō’s specialty food, is a tofu skin sometimes served rolled up in a noodle soup.

The wonderful exploration of Nikkō

A great starting point is the historic Shinkyo Bridge, which dates back to 1636, and must be one of Japan’s loveliest bridges. It leapt across a small but turbulent river in a flash of vermillion paint, landing just in front of a small stone staircase.

Next to that staircase, a large, flat stone was carved with the words World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikkō. I was excited to explore.

UNESCO World Heritage Sights in Nikkō

Nikkō is known first and foremost for its collection of 103 temples and shrines that collectively form one gigantic UNESCO site.

The first temple that appeared up the steps was Rinnō-ji, a grand Buddhist hall that was founded by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to Nikkō. The gardens of Shoyoen are also nearby, a popular spot to watch autumn colours drifting down from the trees.

Travel sketch pencil art of a Japanese torii gate in Nikkō
A huge torii gate greets us as we walk up the leafy staircase towards the temple.

Tōshō-gū Shrine

No more than 10 minutes walk from Rinnō-ji was the most popular attraction in the area. The mighty Tōshō-gū Shrine was drawing visitors up its gravelled path like a gigantic magnet. The complex, mostly hidden from view from below, is constructed up a hillside, with stone staircases, paved courtyards and decorative buildings entangled in a forest of soaring pines and Japanese maples.

Approaching Tōshō-gū Shrine is an exciting venture, and curiosity built with every step; the main entrance is shadowed by a towering 5-storey pagoda and a massive torii gate. We paid our 1300 yen, stuffed our faces with sesame mochis (to energise for the climb), and headed up the first of many steep staircases.

On the next level up, a gallery of well-decorated storehouses were inlaid with gold leaf, and carvings of curious animals. One seemed to be dedicated to the ‘hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil’ monkeys. Another had a pair of funky-looking elephants parading across its facade, carved by a Japanese artist who (apparently) had never seen an elephant.

A tip for parents – leave the pram at home. It wasn’t long before I folded up our stroller, slung it across my back, and placed baby in the carrier instead. There would be plenty of steps to come!

Yomeimon Gate

An army blocked our way. Not an army of samurai, or ashigaru infantry, but one of camera-toting tourists competing for selfies and exclusive photos of a gate. Then we caught a glimpse of it. and we could see why – this was certainly a nice gate.

Polished white doors, ornately carved black dragons and gold details, white figurines and blue-grey tiles, tiers and crosslinks and golden studs. Yomeimon gate, a sturdy black-and-gold gate, had details so intricate that it looked like 10 gates were superimposed upon each other.

The Crying Dragon Audio Illusion

But before going through, however, we walked over to Honjido Hall, slipped our shoes off, and went to stand under a gigantic ceiling painting of a dragon, Nakiryu, the crying dragon, with a crowd of curious visitors.

A monk demonstrated an audio illusion with hyōshigi clapping sticks. A normal cracking sound came from the sticks anywhere in the room – except, under the dragon’s mouth, where the crack echoed and oscillated in strange audio waves.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb

Although the main shrine opened up in front of us, it was the pathway to the right that caught our eye, the nemurineko (sleeping cat) gate. There we found a short, but leg-achingly steep climb to the very top of the complex, and arrived at a landing far above Nikkō.

That’s where we found the tomb. Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb was at the top of the hill, the resting place of the first shogun of arguably Japan’s most significant shogunate, the Tokugawa shogunate. The urn was protected by a green-bronze vase sculpture with a sweeping top, and fenced off by a square stone courtyard.

Futarasan-jinja, a temple complex that feels like a carnival

Many people feel templed-out by this stage, but for those who still have energy (thanks to our super sesame mochis), Futarasan-jinja is absolutely worth a visit.

One of the older temple complexes (dating to 782CE), Futarasan-jinja was also founded by Shodo Shonin. The mountain deities are worshipped here, a Shinto practice that frightens off mountain spirits.

There’s something of a sweet, charming carnival feeling at Futarasan-jinja, and we found ourselves exclaiming with excitement ‘Come, let’s go see what’s happening here!‘ numerous times.

Around the site are several curiosities you can take part in; an immense hollowed-out tree log that visitors can walk through, a wooden heart carving that visitors toss smallers hearts at to grant a wish, and a ring toss game on the side of one of the temples!

Doing Nikkō as a day trip

It was easy to see why so many people come to Nikkō; Tōshō-gū Shrine alone is worth the easy day trip from Japan. With just a two-hour journey to Tokyo station, it’s very accessible.

A Nikkō World Heritage Area Pass can be purchased for 2000 Yen, is valid for two days, and covers the return journey, as well as unlimited bus travel in the town. It can be purchased online at Japanican, or at outlets at Asakusa or Ikebukuro stations.

But i’d like to argue that there is plenty more on offer for those who choose to stay one or two extra nights. Even with two nights in Nikkō, we didn’t get time to see one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls, the hundred-metre high Kegon waterfall, out in the surrounding forests.

But for now, we waved goodbye to the day trippers who flocked back to the station, and went to find some ghost statues.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss and the ghost Jizō statuettes

Beyond the UNESCO temples, there was plenty more to see in Nikkō. I placed a hundred yen coin into a vending machine, and opened a sweet coffee as we walked over to the Abyss.

Sketch of Ghost Jizō statuettes in Kanmangafuchi abyss in Nikko, Japan
The Jizō statuettes lined up along the Kanmangafuchi abyss. They are also known as the ‘Ghost Jizō’, as counting them results in different numbers each time.

A small, rushing river flowed through Nikkō, under the Shinkyo bridge, over rocks and past houses. Upstream, the river followed the path of a rocky gorge called the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, formed by an ancient lava flow, and shaded by the leafy forest overhead. A walking trail traced the river banks for a pleasant nature walk.

Along the way, about 70 Jizō statues lined up to take their permanent place along the riverbanks. The Jizō is a Bodhisattva that cares for the deceased, an enlightened being who delayed his journey to Nirvana to help others. These are called the ghost Jizō, because when people count them, the number always changes, and nobody can agree on how many there actually are!

The statuettes, wrapped in red scarves and woollen hats, overgrown with lichen and moss, and sometimes headless (or destroyed completely) seemed to be blending back into the forest. They made for lovely companions along the trail.

This time, we came prepared for dinner!

The next night, we were prepared for the early 5pm close-up of the town. From the local Lawson convenience store, we bought a huge feast of sushi, microwave meals, onigiri and drinks, knowing full well that Japanese convenience store food is actually a pretty impressive option. After taking a relaxing onsen at our hotel, the Turtle Inn Annex, we set up our picnic on our tatami mats and feasted!

Drawing of two Japanese vending machines from Nikkō in front of a temple
Nikkō-themed vending machines in Japan

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