November 13, 2017

In Search of Nikko's Founder

While most overseas visitors make a beeline for the Toshogu Shrine, Nikko’s roots actually predate the Tokugawa shogunate by nearly 1,000 years.

The stone steps of Nikko's Takino-o Path in Tochigi Prefecture

This week, we are traveling back in time to follow the footsteps of Nikko’s founder, the Buddhist saint Shodo Shonin. Unfortunately, the vast majority of travelers to Nikko gloss over this hidden narrative and instead make a beeline for the ornate Toshogu Shrine. While this eternal monument to Tokugawa Ieyasu is indeed impressive, Nikko’s roots predate the shogunate by nearly 1,000 years. Luckily though, today much of Nikko’s ancient history remains available for intrepid individuals to explore.

Before diving into the details, let’s first talk about who Shodo Shonin actually was. Without drowning you in unnecessary details, know that he was a monk born during the Nara period (710–794). Of course, Shodo Shonin’s claim to fame is that he is progenitor of the complex of shrines and temples in Nikko. Since uncovering the location, Nikko has been considered a sacred place where Shintoism and Buddhism coexist. The establishments of Rinno-ji Temple and Futarasan Shrine are the present-day incarnations of those founded by Shodo Shonin.

Today, the legacy of Nikko’s founder can best be observed along the ancient and little known Takino-o Path. This stone-paved lane winds through a forest of massive ancient cedar trees. Especially during bouts of rain or fog, an excursion along the Takino-o Path is like being spirited away into the divine realm of the gods. Supposedly, the walkway follows the exact route taken by Shodo Shonin hundreds of years ago as he went about setting up Nikko’s shrines and temples. Thereafter up until the Meiji period (1868–1912), Takino-o Path continued to be a popular pilgrimage with practicing ascetics.

Getting to Nikko & the Takino-o Path

Nikko’s iconic Shinkyo Bridge in Tochigi Prefecture

You’ll find the Takino-o path located along the northeastern side of Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine. This of course means that it is quite a distance from central Tokyo. I’d only advise a visit for those who are already planning to hit up Nikko in the first place. As beautiful and serene as the Takino-o Path is, it alone is not worth the two hour plus train ride. Yet, if you’re interested, try to get in the main Nikko attractions on the first day and save this hidden gem for your second.

There are three primary spots of interest along the 5 km Takino-o Path that we’ll cover in this guide. The trailhead starts at Nikko’s legendary Shinkyo Bridge (pictured above). This beautiful archway arcs over the Daiya River and serves as the entrance to Nikko’s shrines and temples. The vermilion-lacquered bridge is said to be one of the three most beautiful in all of Japan. Despite having visited Nikko on several occasions, I continue to be struck by the magnificence of the Shinkyo Bridge and always end up staring in awe for a good hour or two.

Before moving on, know that the myths surrounding Shodo Shonin claim that long ago there was no way to cross the Daiya River flowing beneath the Shinkyo bridge today. The legend holds that when the monk found he could not cross the chasm on his own, he asked for the help of the deities. In response, two snakes appeared and intertwined to form what would become the Shinkyo Bridge. Ever since, it has only served to ferry people across the rapids below.

First Stop on the Takino-o Path, the Kaisan-do

The Kaisan-do along Nikko’s Takino-o Path in Tochigi Prefecture

After taking in the Shinkyo Bridge, make your way toward Kaisan-do. This can be accomplished either by passing to the right of the Toshogu Shrine’s administration office or by following along the northern branch of the river. While this may sound confusing, a quick look at this Google Map should ensure that all makes sense. Neither routes are particularly scenic so I would opt for the trail passing closest to the main shrines and temples.

Either way, you’ll eventually come across the Kaisan-do hall. This structure is actually the mausoleum of Shodo Shonin and was built specifically to house his ashes. If the historical records are to be believed, Kaisan-do was erected by the legendary monk Kukai. While a full examination of this engineer-monk’s story would fill up tomes, know that he is best recognized for having created the modern system of writing and this is only ONE of his many huge accomplishments.

Shogi pieces at the Rinnoji Kannon-do along Nikko’s Takino-o Path in Tochigi Prefecture

Just next to the Kaisan-do main building, you’ll also find the smaller Rinnoji Kannon-do pictured above. Here, you’ll encounter a number of wooden blocks offered up by expecting mothers. These shapes are actually pieces from the Japanese game of Shogi. They are called kyosha and move in straight lines, much like the rook in western chess. Mothers-to-be often bequeath these prior to childbirth for a safe and complication-free delivery.

Lastly, just behind the Kaisan-do temple, you’ll also find a series of Buddhist stone sculptures known as the Hotoke-iwa. Originally, there were many more structures but most were obliterated in a major earthquake. Today, only a handful of the Hotoke-iwa survive but they are definitely worth a quick look!

Continuing Along the Sacred Takino-o Path

The stone steps of Nikko’s Takino-o Path in Tochigi Prefecture

From here on out, you’ll be walking along the Takino-o Path just as it was during antiquity. Besides, except for the chainlink fence that separates it from the nearby road, little has changed along this ancient pathway. Indeed, many of the trees that line either side of the Takino-o Path are so old that they could have very well existed during the time of Shodo Shonin himself. The uneven stones however do not make for an easy journey so you’ll need to mind your footing; no one is coming to the rescue if you get hurt.

There are a few things you’ll want to keep an eye out for along the path. The first of these you’ll encounter is a monument to a famous Heian period (794–1185) scholar. This guy was so knowledgeable that he was treasured as a god of study. If you’re a student, or trying to pick up a new skill, you’d do well pay your respects. Nearby, you’ll also find a large boulder called the Tagake Stone. From what I read, you’re supposed to chip off a small piece and bring it home to improve your schoolwork. Just don’t break your hand in the process…

After a quick stop, continue down the path through the primordial forest. While on your way, be sure to check out the massiveness of some of these timbers. Many of the trees quite literally predate every western nation in existence. Eventually, you’ll find yourself at the charming Shiraito Waterfall (lit. “White-thread Waterfall”). These falls are around 10 meters high and were a favorite of the Buddhist monk, Kukai.

Reaching Takino-o Shrine at the End of the Path

The stone torii of Nikko’s Takino-o Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture

Just past the Shiraito waterfall, you’ll find an antiquated stone staircase that leads up to the entrance of Takino-o Shrine. This hidden enclave was built by Kukai himself in 820 along with the Takino-o Path itself. Legends say that here Kukai, following in the footsteps of Shodo Shonin, encountered the goddess enshrined at Nikko’s Futarasan Shrine and decided to build Takino-o Shrine in her honor. Supposedly, in years gone by, this spot was a very popular location for pilgrims prior to the erecting of the Toshogu Shrine.

Takino-o Shrine is most well known for its unique torii gate that’s called the “Untameshi-no-Torii” in Japanese (lit. “Try Your Luck Torii). Made of stone, the upper part of the archway has a small hole in it. Local folklore holds that if you can throw a pebble through the hole then you’ll be blessed with good fortune. While this may seem simple enough, you only get three shots at the narrow opening. If you seek the goddess’ blessing, be sure to aim well my friends!

The main hall of Nikko’s Takino-o Shrine in Tochigi Prefecture

Moving on, as a shrine, Takino-o Shrine is nothing out of the ordinary. Over the years, the original buildings have been replaced and the current structures date back to the Edo period (1603–1868). The harsh Nikko weather after all is not kind to wooden structures. While Takino Shrine shares a lot of commonalities with other shrines across the nation, the grounds do have some interesting features to check out. These are as follows:

  • Sake-no-Izumi (lit. Fountain of Sake)
    This pure pond is said to contain water that was offered by Kukai to the gods when he first discovered the site of Takino-o Shrine many years ago. Since then, it has been revered as sacred by sake makers for its pure taste.
  • Kodane Ishi
    Takino-o Shrine is popular with those who are hoping to have a child. Touching this rock is said to give one a blessing that aids in this endeavor.
  • Goshinobuku
    These three sacred trees mark the spot where Kukai originally met with the goddess of Nikko’s mountain prior to the founding of the Takino-o path and shrine.
  • Enmubusi-no-Sasa
    This spot is for those looking to tie the knot. Supposedly, if you can fixate a piece of paper or bamboo leaf to the branch using only your thumb and little finger then you’ll surely get married.

Quite the selection of intriguing activities for a small little shrine, eh?

Heading Back to Nikko from Takino-o Shrine

The Gyoja-do along Nikko’s Takino-o Path in Tochigi Prefecture

Once you’re finishing with Takino-o Shrine, it’s time to head back to the main area of Nikko. You can either take the Takino-o Path back the way you came or opt for an alternative but equally scenic route. Personally, I’d recommend the latter as it will pop you out right next to Futarasan Shrine. Just know the path is entirely downhill; don’t make the mistake of taking this route to Takino-o Shrine unless you like to sweat. Honestly, I felt badly for the poor fools I crossed paths with.

Anyway, to find this alternative route, head to the fork in the road and look for a sign post. Then, climb the stairs and continue past a small building called Gyoja-do (meaning Hall of Buddhist Ascetics). If this sounds confusing at all, here’s a link to a Google Map to help you find your way. After about 10 minutes or so you should find yourself back among the hordes of tourists near Futarasan Shrine…