Master Artisanship and Architectural Splendour: The Shrines and Temples of Nikko

The mountains and forests of Nikko in the northwest of Tochigi Prefecture in Japan have been regarded as the hallowed ground of Shugen-do for over 1200 years. Within the Nikko complex are two shrines and one temple inscribed as World Heritage.

The Futarasan shrine dedicated to the God of Mt. Nantai is one of the two shrines. Its pavilion is the oldest building in Nikko. The Rinô-ji Temple also has a very long history. It became a place of pilgrimage for devotees of Japanese mountain worship. The Tôshôgu enshrines Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the Edo Government. The imposing Yômeimon is known for its lavish decoration. Tôshôgu was completed in 1617 by the 3rd Shogun of the Edo Shogunate Iemitsu. This sculpture of Ieyasu in the Karamon of the main chamber where Ieyasu is enshrined depicts him as a Chinese Emperor. The reconstruction of Tôshôgu Shrine by Iemitsu is a reflection of the artisanship and the architectural splendour of the Edo period.

These craftsmen are repairing decorative gilded fittings called Kazari-kanagu. First they burn off dirt and old gilt and then re-gild using traditional techniques of the Edo period. Lacquer has protected the wooden structure from the humid Nikko climate. We can see numerous layers of lacquer showing through this cut surface. It tells us something of the long history of restoration work. Lacquer coating involves more than 30 different procedures. All restoration work still uses the same materials and processes as used during the Edo period. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko focused the arts and skills of the time to demonstrate the power of the Edo Government. The magnificence of Nikko has been protected, preserved and passed on by a long line of past and present master craftsmen using Edo period techniques to this day.

Sign up to get a Weekly Email from

* indicates required

medievalverse magazine