A World Heritage Site, Tōshō-gū is a brilliantly decorative shrine in a beautiful natural setting. Among its notable features is the dazzling 'Sunset Gate' Yōmei-mon.
As the shrine gears up for its 400th anniversary a major restoration programme is underway. Until at least 2018, the Yōmei-mon and Shimojinko (one of the Three Sacred Storehouses) will be obscured by scaffolding. Don't be put off visiting, as Tōshō-gū remains an impressive sight. A new museum building is also set to open during 2015.
The stone steps of Omotesandō, lead past the towering stone torii (entrance gate) Ishi-dorii, and the Gōjūnotō, a 1819 reconstruction of the mid 17th century original, to Omote-mon, Tōshō-gū's main gateway, protected on either side by Deva kings.
In Tōshō-gū's initial courtyard are the Sanjinko; on the upper storey of the Kamijinko (upper storehouse) are relief carvings of 'imaginary elephants' by an artist who had never seen the real thing. Nearby is the Shinkyūsha adorned with relief carvings of monkeys. The allegorical 'hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil' simians demonstrate three principles of Tendai Buddhism.
Further into Tōshō-gū's precincts, to the left of the drum tower, is Honji-dō, a hall known for the painting on its ceiling of the Nakiryū (Crying Dragon). Monks demonstrate the hall's acoustical properties by clapping two sticks together. The dragon 'roars' (a bit of a stretch) when the sticks are clapped beneath its mouth, but not elsewhere.
Once the scaffolding comes off in 2018, the Yōmei-mon will be grander than ever, its gold leaf and intricate, coloured carvings and paintings of flowers, dancing girls, mythical beasts and Chinese sages, all shiny and renewed. Worrying that the gate's perfection might arouse envy in the gods, those responsible for its construction had the final supporting pillar placed upside down as a deliberate error.
Gōhonsha, the main inner courtyard, includes the Honden (本殿; Main Hall) and Haiden (拝殿; Hall of Worship). Inside these halls are paintings of the 36 immortal poets of Kyoto, and a ceiling-painting pattern from the Momoyama period; note the 100 dragons, each different. Fusuma (sliding door) paintings depict a kirin (a mythical beast that's part giraffe and part dragon).
To the right of the Gōhonsha is Sakashita-mon, into which is carved a tiny wooden sculpture of the Nemuri-neko that's famous for its lifelike appearance (though admittedly the attraction is lost on some visitors). From here it's an uphill path through towering cedars to the appropriately solemn Okumiya, Ieyasu's tomb.
Bypassed by nearly everyone at Tōshō-gū is the marvellous Nikkō Tōshō-gū Museum of Art in the old shrine offices, showcasing fine paintings on its doors, sliding screens, frames and decorative scrolls, some by masters including Yokoyama Taikan and Nakamura Gakuryo. Follow the path to the right of Omote-mon to find it.