Futarasan Shrine: A World Heritage Destination in Nikkō, Tochigi
Guideto JapanTravel History
Centuries of Tumultuous History
Futarasan Shrine in Nikkō, Tochigi Prefecture, has as its main object of veneration the 2,486-meter peak Mount Nantai. Futarasan is indeed an older name for the mountain, said to come from Fudarakusen, meaning “a mountain home to the bodhisattva Kannon,” or Avalokitesvara. The characters 二荒 (futara) in the name can also be read as nikō, providing the root of the place name Nikkō.
Nikkō was founded as a religious site by the monk Shōdō (735–817). In 766 he forded the Daiya River, which flows down from the nearly 100-meter-high Kegon Falls, and built a small hermitage, naming it Shiunryūji, a temple that is today called Shihonryūji. In the following year, he constructed a shrine dedicated to the mountain Futarasan. Over the years this would take the form of the Betsugū Hongū-jinja that is now part of the Futarasan complex. Shōdō remained in the area, in 782 making his first ascent of Futarasan and building yet more shrines: Okunomiya on the peak itself and Chūgūshi on the shore of Lake Chūzenji.
Over the centuries that followed Nikkō gained a name among ascetics who viewed its mountains as sites for spiritual training and as presences to venerate in their own right. In the Kamakura period (1185–1333), the area flourished under the protection and sponsorship of the military leader Minamoto no Yoritomo (1147–99). With the successful siege of Odawara Castle in 1590 by Toyotomi Hideyoshi its fortunes waned once more, as the local lords, who had allied themselves with the defeated Later Hōjō clan, were stripped of their lands. But a return to glory came with the dawn of the Edo period (1603–1868). The first three heads of the Tokugawa shogunate—Ieyasu, Hidetada, and Iemitsu—were all supportive patrons of the Buddhist monk Tenkai, who became the chief priest of the Nikkō temples; in 1617 Tōshōgū was erected as a memorial to Ieyasu, who had died the year before.
Futarasan Shrine was moved to the west side of the new Tōshōgū, where a magnificent hall was constructed to house it. The entire site was governed thereafter by Kan’eiji, a temple erected by Tenkai in what is now Tokyo’s Ueno district, whose authority as one of the ancestral temples for the Tokugawa clan ensured that Nikkō would thrive for the remainder of the Edo period.
Up through the end of the Edo period, while Buddhism and Shintō were blended in a flexible form of syncretism, the temples and shrines in the area were collectively labeled Nikkōsan. Following the Meiji Restoration of 1868, though, the new government passed a series of laws aimed at separating the native Shintō faith from the Buddhist religion. The Tochigi complex found itself divided into its constituents—Futarasan Shrine, Tōshōgū, and Rinnōji—and the Nikkōsan name was given to the latter Buddhist temple for use as its sangō, or “mountain name,” a practice dating back to the early days of Buddhism in China, when many temples were sited in remote mountainous areas. In 1998 the Japanese government designated the area as historic site under the collective name Nikkōsannai; the following year they were inscribed by UNESCO as “Shrines and Temples of Nikkō” on its World Heritage list.
A Cultural Site with Plenty to Offer
The areas formally classified as part of the Futarasan Shrine precincts cover some 3,400 hectares in all, encompassing the peaks of three mountains (Mount Nantai, Mount Nyohō, and Mount Tarō), along with Kegon Falls and the famed Iroha-zaka series of hairpin turns taking cars up from the lower Nikkō area to Lake Chūzenji. In the central World Heritage area in town at the bottom of the hill, the bridge Shinkyō spans the Daiya River with its famous crimson arch. This, too, is a part of Futarasan Shrine and one of the properties included in the World Heritage designation. When the monk Shōdō first came to the area and found his way blocked by the river’s fierce rapids, two snakes are said to have appeared and formed a bridge for him to cross, a tale giving this span its other name, Jabashi—“the serpent bridge.”
Futarasan Shrine contains 10 structures that have been designated as important national cultural properties, including the haiden and honden halls and the torii gate at the entrance to the central shrine area. The honden main hall, a complex, grand structure built in the yatsumune-zukuri (eight-ridged) style, is concealed behind the haiden worship hall and closed to the public, but a fine view of it is available from the Shin’en garden on the west side. The garden itself is home to a number of sights worth viewing, including the Mitomo Shrine and Hie Shrine, two subshrines in the compound, the Daikokuden hall, and the Bake-tōrō, a large copper lantern dating back to the late thirteenth century.
The shrine as a whole is built for the worship of three kami representing the mountains Nantai, Nyohō, and Tarō: the father, Ōnamuchi no Mikoto, the mother, Tagorihime no Mikoto, and the child, Ajisuki-Tahahikone no Mikoto. The paternal deity bears another name for Ōkuninushi no Mikoto, known as a god watching over romantic and other interpersonal connections. Futarasan Shrine thus built a name for itself over the years as a place to pray for good marriage prospects and domestic happiness. The shrine precinct is filled with “power spots” for visitors seeking luck in love, and it will take some time to pay respects at all of them.
Going Farther for the Full Shrine Experience
Also drawing more traffic in recent years is the Takinoo Shrine, said to have been built by the monk Kōbō Daishi (774–835), also known as Kūkai. This shrine lies high in the woods to the north of the main Futarasan Shrine. It takes around a half-hour of hard uphill walking through the trees to reach it, but many are willing to make the trek to pay their respects at the original grove of bamboo grass held to guarantee luck in love, along with a sacred rock bringing fortune in child-bearing and the three cedars venerated at this secluded shrine.
Visiting the Takinoo Shrine, deep in the woods, is like taking a trip back through time to a spot that retains the flavor of the pre-Edo-period days—a place to remind you of why Nikkō has long been a place of strong spiritual presence. The alluring honden hall and two-storied gate help to make this spot one of the properties constituting the World Heritage inscription.
If you’re heading farther up the mountain to see Lake Chūzenji and Kegon Falls, it’s well worth visiting Chūgūshi Shrine on the shore of the lake. This is not a part of the area inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage list, but its honden and haiden halls and its torii gate are all designated as important cultural properties by the government of Japan. This shrine is also the sole trailhead leading to the peak of Mount Nantai and the Okunomiya, the shrine at the top. Nantai’s official climbing season is from April 25 to November 11 each year. It takes around four hours to reach the summit, making it a trip to take seriously, with proper hiking gear and supplies.
Nikkō Futarasan Shrine
- Address: 2307 Sannai, Nikkō, Tochigi (main shrine); 2484 Chūgūshi, Nikkō, Tochigi (Chūgūshi)
- Open year-round
- Hours: 8:00 am to 5:00 pm (April–October), 8:00 am to 4:00 pm (November–March); entry possible until 30 minutes before closing
- Shin’en garden admission: ¥300
(Originally written in Japanese. Reporting, text, and photos by Nippon.com. Banner photo: The main structures of Nikkō’s Futarasan Shrine.)