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Nikkō’s history as a sacred site stretches back to the middle of the 8th century, when the Buddhist priest Shōdō Shōnin (735–817) established a hermitage here. It was a training centre for Buddhist monks, before declining into obscurity. That is, until it was chosen as the site for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the warlord who took control of all Japan and established the shōgunate that ruled for more than 250 years, until the Meiji Restoration ended the feudal era.

Ieyasu was laid to rest among Nikkō’s towering cedars in 1617, and in 1634 his grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, commenced work on the shrine that can be seen today. The original shrine, Tōshō-gū, was completely rebuilt using an army of some 15, 000 artisans from across Japan, taking two years to complete the shrine and mausoleum. Whatever one’s opinion of Ieyasu (he is said to have had his wife and eldest son executed because it was politically expedient), the grandeur of Nikkō is intended to awe, a display of wealth and power by a family that for 2½ centuries was Japan’s supreme arbiter of power.