After visiting Tokyo, I spent two days in the town of Nikkō. Lying in the mountains north of Tokyo, two hours away by express train, Nikkō is famous as the location of Tōshō-gū, the shrine of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

Tokugawa Ieyasu reunified Japan in 1600, ending the warring states period and creating the Tokugawa Shogunate, which lasted until 1868. Ieyasu asked that upon his death, a small shrine would be built in Nikkō where he would be enshrined as the nation’s guardian kami. His will was honored, but the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun, who idolized Ieyasu, had the modest shrine converted into the over-the-top buildings that remain today.

Nikkou Toushou-guu Gate

This gate is looking a bit faded, but the almost excessively ornate construction – over 500 sculptures on this gate alone – gives a good idea of the aesthetic of the shrine. This pagoda, meanwhile, has been given a fresh coat of paint.

Nikkou Toushou-guu Pagoda

Pagodas are usually associated with Buddhist temples, not Shinto shrines, but the distinction is blurred in Nikkō. Granted, the two institutions were often intertwined before the Shogunate fell and the new government decided to “purify” Shinto of foreign influences, but the mix is quite striking in this case. There is a Shinto gate . . .

Nikkou Toushou-guu Torii

. . . and the surroundings are appropriately forested, but otherwise the complex doesn’t look very shrine-like.


Breaking from the monumental . . .

Nikkou Toushou-guu 3 Monkeys

If not for the crowds of people snapping pictures, one might not notice the carvings adorning the shrine’s stable, but these are the original See/Speak/Hear-No-Evil monkeys. This is a play on words, by the way, since the Japanese phrase (which is much older than the imagery) uses an archaic negative suffix, “zaru,” and the word for monkey is “saru.” I’ve known this bit of trivia for a couple years, but what I didn’t know until I saw them is that the 3 Monkeys form just one scene in a series of panels depicting a life cycle.


A short distance from Ieyasu’s shrine is Taiyū-in, a shrine the 3rd Shogun commissioned for himself. Past its outer gates, it’s intentionally more subdued than Ieyasu’s, as you can see with this drum tower.

Nikkou Taiyuu-in Tower

But while Taiyū-in isn’t as overwhelming, just as much craft went into its construction.

This door belongs to what is commonly called the Peony Gate.

Nikkou Taiyuu-in Botanmon

And this is nicknamed the Dragon Palace Gate.

Nikkou Taiyuu-in Ryuumon

The inner shrine lies beyond, but it’s not open to the public.


Although it’s been rebuilt numerous times, this bridge dates to Nikkō’s founding, a thousand years before the shrines made the town famous.

Nikkou Shinkyou Bridge

Picturesque, eh? While the town itself isn’t particularly attractive, the surroundings are gorgeous. The temperature is also much cooler than in Tokyo, which was very welcome. But alas, my two days in Nikkō were quickly over and I was soon on a train speeding back to sweatier climes.

Nikkou Train-View


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9 Responses to “Nikkō”

  1. Doug Says:

    If your readers want to dig a little deeper into the wise monkeys, see

    Another wonderful set of photographs. Do you know what the covered area on the right side of the rice field is? It looks like a shade area but for what purpose? We don’t grow much rice here in the Yakima Valley, ya know.

  2. Nicole Says:

    I never knew the hear/see/speak no evil was of childhood; or that there was more to it – that is really cool.
    I liked the drum tower. And that bridge scene is gorgeous! Definitely picturesque.
    Ahh, and your last picture – taken from the train? as you sped back to heat and humidity?

  3. kevinjames Says:

    Yup, I took the last picture from the train. I think another crop is being grown on the right, but I don’t know what it is.

  4. Patrick Says:

    I haven’t commented in WAY TOO LONG, but I have been reading and following along. Great stuff as always.

  5. kevinjames Says:

    Thank you, sir. And I’m always glad to have confirmation that a friend hasn’t been eaten by bears or fallen into the mouth of a volcano.

  6. yeray Says:

    Dear friends, I have an alternative interpretation about the three monkeys:

    The three monkeys theory

    Maybe you have seen some figures that represent three monkeys, one deaf, one blind and a dumb one…
    The first time I meet this figures they were disposed in column, in the top was the blind monkey, in the middle the dumb and in the bottom the deaf monkey. I think about this combination and arrive the conclusion that the communication was not possible. The blind monkey in the top has the best perspective, if he is blind and the group becames blind. The dumb monkey in the middle can hear from the top but can not say anything to the deaf monkey in the bottom whatever can not hear…
    So if we put the monkeys this way the communication is not possible between the monkeys and the surroundings and beteen the monkeys. There are different ways of putting the monkeys but all of them except one dont awoll communication.

    The correct combination is this
    In the top must be the deaf monkey, that sees and tell to the middle whatever he sees, in the middle the blind monkey that hears from the top and talks to the bottom, in the bottom the dumb monkey that hears from the middle and sees…If you put the monkeys this way the communication is possible, and they can arrive and solve problems that they couldnt if they are alone or in the bad hierarchy. Itch monkey have two virtues and one defect, but if you put them in the correct way they can work as one unity with no defects…This is an axample of unity in diversity.
    Another similar parabole can be found in the case of the sheeps, the dogs and shepherd, in this case the shepherd is in the top, he sees and tell to the dog whatever he sees, his virtue is perspective of future, in the middle is the dog that hears from the top , his virtue is strenght, he speaks the sheeps that are in the bottom of the hierarchy, they hear from the dogs, sees and in silence obey..The problems came when the sheeps dont want shepherds and the wolf occupy the power…
    In our society there are a lot of blinds in the position they must not been (in the top), they dont have perspective of future, or worse when the top positions are occupied by dumb monkeys that see perfectly but they are used to make silence because they own interests and to protect they corrupt possition!!

    If we put the monkeys the correct possition we found a bonding state were communication is possible and all the monkeys can work as an unity and solve problems and arrive places were they couldnt if they are alone like tradition puts them or if they are in antibonding states, or what is the same corrupt states…

    Autor Yeray Santana Aday
    Theory Intellectual protection
    Note My political theory is being silenced by the media worldwide, the newspaper and all the printed media doesnt want to hear anything about my discovery and point of view.
    Note sorry for the mistakes but I think that the idea is very clear!!(see also spanish version).

  7. yeray Says:

    Dear friends, if you want you can look at this fothograpy of the three monkeys in the correct order, my father bring it from Tailand years after I made the discovery. Have a nice day…

  8. yeray Says:

    Dear friends,
    in the followin adress you can read and see a photograpy about mi theory, have a nice day. Yeray. Canary Islands.

  9. yeray Says:

    If you want to read about my theory of the three monkeys in english and see an extrange potography please copy the following direction:

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