Sunday, July 7, 2019

The Grave of a God at Nikko Toshogu

-- Susan, every other Sunday

Last month, I visited Nikkō, a World Heritage Site in the mountains three hours northwest of Tokyo. The area's sacred history goes back well over a thousand years, to the 8th century founding of Nikko Futarasan Shrine, but it truly gained notoriety during the 17th century, when it became the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) the man who, as Shogun, unified Japan.

Main Gate, Nikko Toshogu

After his death, Ieyasu was buried at Nikko Tōshō-gu Shrine, where he is also enshrined and venerated as the protective deity Tōshō Daigongen, in which form people believe he continues to watch over the Japanese nation and its people.

Tōshō-gu is one of the most elaborate Shinto holy sites in Japan. All of the buildings are covered with spectacular gold-accented carvings.

Detail, Yomeimon at Toshogu

After passing through the enormous torii (sacred Shinto gate) at the entrance and climbing the stairs to the entry gate, visitors pass a set of large storehouses which hold the thousands of ritual costumes and implements used in various festivals throughout the year.

Storehouse, Nikko Tōshō-gu

Near the storehouses, the temple stable features famous carvings of the "three wise monkeys" who feature in Japanese and Chinese legend. (You may recognize them as "Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil.")

Three Wise Monkeys

Just past these buildings, a covered fountain for ritual purification stands beside yet another torii. Beyond it, a set of steep stone stairs leads to the Yomeimon - the most elaborate temple gate in Japan, with over 500 carvings of sages and fantastical beasts.

Yomeimon - the most elaborate temple gate in Japan

The gate is also known as the Gate of the Setting Sun, because a person could apparently look at it all day, from sunrise to sunset, without growing bored or tired of its beauty. While I didn't test that theory, there was certainly far more to see than I was able to take in at a single visit.

After passing through the Yomeimon, I stopped to view the Hondo, or Worship Hall, which is currently undergoing renovation in accordance with Shintō tradition, which requires regular maintenance and rebuilding of shrines as a sign of respect for the kami (Shintō deities).

Hondo, Tosho-gu

Hondo Entrance, Tosho-gu

On the far side of the shrine yard, I waited my turn to pass through the famous gate that leads to the upper shrine and Ieyasu's grave. The gate features a carving known as the "Sleeping Cat" by sculptor Hidari Jingorō which symbolizes Tokugawa Ieyasu watching over Japan.

The famous Sleeping Cat

 The unique carving has been designated a Japanese National Treasure.

Once more . . . the Sleeping Cat

Beyond the sleeping cat, 208 stone steps lead upward through a forest of massive cedars to the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Torii near the burial site.

The grave has not been opened since his burial in 1616.

The grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified Japan

I studied Tokugawa Ieyasu's life, career, and achievements in college, and have read a great deal about him since.

He was imperfect--but then, who isn't--but his efforts are largely responsible for Japan's emergence from a group of warring feudal states to a unified country ruled by uniform laws. His edicts caused the economy to grow; his family's patronage strengthened the shrines and temples, as well as many Japanese traditional arts. He is quoted as saying: "In life, the strong are those who understand the meaning of 'patience.'"

Ieyasu's Grave

I spent several minutes standing near his tomb, watching the wind in the trees and the sun shining on the monument that marks his grave. To some, it is the grave of a deity. To others, the grave of a legend. To me, it was the grave of a man both like and unlike any other, whose life helped to inspire my love of this country I now call home.


  1. Another fascinating piece, Susan. I am hankering to visit Japan again.

  2. Thanks, Susan. What I want to know is what happened to the other two monkeys? Did the stench kill the Smells No Evil monkey? Was the Tastes No Evil monkey killed by evil's poison?

    These are the questions that keep me up at night...

  3. As I was reading this post, Susan, it hit me that through your writing I've come to not just learn, but appreciate, so much of the history culture, art, and values of Japan, in a manner and to a degree I never imagined I would. Now if only the US could learn the value of maintaining infrastructure.