The Three Wise Monkeys, carving on the stable of Tosho-gu Shrine, Nikko, Japan © MichaelMaggs

Nikko Toshogu Shrine

In his Last Instruction, Lord Tokugawa Ieyasu requested his heirs to ‘enshrine my dead body at Kunozan for the first year of my death, and build a small shrine at Nikko and enshrine me there as the God; I will be the guardian of Japan’. In 1617, in accordance with his wishes, his son Tokugawa Hidetada founded the Nikko Toshogu Shrine as his mausoleum. Today there is a common saying in Japan – ‘call nothing kekko (beautiful, magnificent) until you have seen Nikko’.

The site of the shrine, the mountain town of Nikko (‘sunshine’), some 70 miles north of Tokyo, was already a religious centre at the time of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

The main shrine buildings of the Nikko Toshogu Shrine were rebuilt by the third shogun, Tokugawa Iemitsu in 1636, and represent the climax of the Gongen-zukuri (avatar construction) style of Japanese shrine architecture. Although Tokugawa Ieyasu wanted ‘a small shrine’, Tokugawa Iemitsu’s shrine is of majestic size and importance. Contemporary accounts of the construction record that 4,541,230 workmen were involved in its construction, and it took nearly 18 months to complete. The finest craftsmen in Japan were assigned to the construction of the shrine, which included 568,000 ryo (383 kg) of gold and 100 kan (375 kg) of silver. Today eight of the shrine buildings are designated as national treasures, while a further 34 are important cultural properties.


Spring and Autumn Grand Festivals are held at the shrine each year. These include the Togyosai or Hyakumon-ozoroi Sennin Musha Gyoretsu (‘the hundred articles set, thousand warrior parade’), a ritual that is observed twice annually to keep alive the memory of the arrival of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s remains from Kunozan to Nikko in 1617.


On the first day of the Spring Grand Festival Yabusame (horse archery) is performed.

Yabusame is the ceremonial art of shooting whistling arrows from a galloping horse at a series of stationary targets. The sport probably started during the Heian period, and is closely related to the ancient horse archery games of mainland Asia.

The current practice of yabusame is almost exclusively considered a religious rite: as well as being an offering to the gods, the results of the shooting at the three targets are used in some centres as a divination ritual for the year’s harvest.

The baba or ‘horse track’ on which yabusame is performed, is straight and 240 metres in length. Three square cedar wood targets or mato are inserted diagonally on bamboo poles at about head height, 2 metres from the track at its left side. The first is set 35 metres from the start, and the following two targets are set 75 metres apart, leaving 45 metres at the end of the track to slow the horses down. At the right of the track is a judges’ stand, and a target keeper and his assistants sit by each target. The first three ite or riders wear medieval-style costume based on medieval hunting gear, and are called yabusame-ite. The remaining riders, of which there can be 12 to 17, wear Edo period-style costume, and are called hiragisha. Officials at the start and end of the track signal with large fans that the track is clear. The first rider reads a solemn vow from a scroll at the start of the track, and then performs a ceremony called Age-ogi in which he tosses a ceremonial fan into the air as he starts his horse. When a hit is scored the target keeper raises a stick with a white paper tassel into the air to signify it. If a rider scores a full set of three hits (kaichu), he is presented with a long white silk sash by the master of ceremonies from the judges stand. The broken fragments of the cedar targets are considered lucky, and are signed and dated and distributed after the event as souvenirs.

Did you know?

First commercial steel melting

Benjamin Huntsman of Sheffield is widely credited with the first commercial melting of steel in around 1740, using his crucible process. However, the melting of steel had long been practiced in central Asia and India and was known as Damascus steel.