Toshogu Shrine (東照宮, Tōshōgū) is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. Ieyasu is enshrined at Toshogu as the deity Tosho Daigongen, "Great Deity of the East Shining Light". Initially a relatively simple mausoleum, Toshogu was enlarged into the spectacular complex seen today by Ieyasu's grandson Iemitsu during the first half of the 1600s.
The lavishly decorated shrine complex consists of more than a dozen buildings set in a beautiful forest. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture. Visitors may note that Toshogu contains both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It was common for places of worship to contain elements of both religions until the Meiji Period when Shinto was deliberately separated from Buddhism. Across the country, Buddhist elements were removed from shrines and vice versa, but at Toshogu the two religions were so intermingled that the separation was not carried out completely.
Among the many buildings at Toshogu, particularly notable ones include a pretty five story pagoda in front of the main entrance gate. The main pillar of the pagoda hangs ten centimeters above ground - an interesting feature installed to combat the lengthening and shrinkage of the wood over time. The interior of the pagoda is only periodically open to visitors at a separate fee.
The paid area starts at the entrance gate. Upon entering, visitors will first come across a group of ostentatiously built storehouses. Of the many colorful and elaborate wood carvings that decorate the storehouses, the most famous ones are those of the "see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil" monkeys and the Sozonozo Elephants ("imagined elephants") that were carved by an artist who had never seen elephants.
Past the storehouses stands the renowned Yomeimon Gate. It is perhaps Japan's most ornate structure, giving off a grand and imposing air with its intricate decorations and architectural features.
A path to the left of Yomeimon leads to the Honjido Hall which features the "Crying Dragon". This is a large painting of a dragon on the ceiling of the hall, which is thus named because a bright ringing sound can be heard when two pieces of wood are clapped directly under its head due to the acoustics of the hall. The clapping of the wood is frequently performed to visitors by a priest.
Beyond Yomeimon is the main shrine building, which consists of the praying hall (haiden) connected to the main hall (honden) behind. The halls are dedicated the spirits of Ieyasu and two other of Japan's most influential historical personalities, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Minamoto Yoritomo. Visitors are allowed to enter the richly ornamented building but photographs are not allowed.
To the right of the main shrine building is the Sakashitamon Gate, whose transom bears the famous carving of the Nemurineko (sleeping cat). Sakashitamon marks the start of a long flight of stairs that leads uphill through the woods to Tokugawa Ieyasu's mausoleum. The ascent takes about five minutes, after which visitors will meet the relatively subtle and austere, yet dignified mausoleum.
Located outside the paid shrine area, the Nikko Toshogu Museum (Homotsukan) was opened in 2015 to commemorate the 400 year anniversary of Tokugawa Ieyasu's death. Inside this modern building is an impressive collection of the former shogun's personal effects from armor and swords to writing utensils and letters that he wrote.