The "Shrines and Temples of Nikko" refer to the Toshogu and Futarasan-jinja shrines and the Rinnoji temple as well as their surroundings.
Toshogu is where Ieyasu Tokugawa (ruling from 1603 to 1605) is enshrined; he was the first shogun of the Edo Shogunate, which flourished between the 17th and 19th centuries. As many as 127,000 craftsmen were involved in constructing the shrine, using the highest level of technology available at the time. The two-story "Yomei-mon Gate", decorated with brilliant colors and over 500 sculptures, is particularly famous. It is also called "Higurashi-mon (sunset gate)", because people spend all day long gazing at its beauty.
If you pass under Yomei-mon, turn right and enter the avenue leading to the shrine at the back, you will see the "Sleeping Cat" overhead, a national treasure created by legendary master Hidari Jingoro. The story behind the carving is that the cat was to ward off mice, because it is situated near the gate leading to the grave of Ieyasu. In the "Shinkyusha (sacred stable)" for the horses serving God, there is a series of 8 carved boards on which the life of a monkey is illustrated, from birth to pregnancy, caricaturing human life. One of the sculptures, the "Three Monkeys", is famous throughout the world for the "see no evil, hear no evil and speak no evil" poses. The carved monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth, respectively, were inspired by the Buddhist teaching that if we do not hear, see or speak evil, we ourselves shall be spared from evil, and the theme was chosen here in the belief that the monkeys would protect the horses from disease. In addition to these carvings, there is also one of an elephant, purely from imagination, in a temple called "Kamijinko".
The "Shinkyo Bridge" acts as a gateway to the shrines and temples of Nikko and is one of the three most unusual bridges in Japan. According to legend, when a certain saint tried to cross the rapids of the Daiyagawa River, two snakes formed a bridge for him to walk across. The arch-shaped bridge covered in vermillion lacquer supported by stone piers is most attractive in the fall when the mountain trees are a dazzling red and yellow.
Some must-see sights in Futarasan-jinja include the vermillion lacquered shrine pavilion and the "Bakedoro (haunted garden lantern)" next to it. The lantern is rumored to change into a spooky shape when lit at night, and it still bears the scars from numerous sword strikes made by startled samurai warriors. Rinnoji is one of the temples representing the Tendai School of Buddhism along with Hieizan Enryakuji (Otsu City, Shiga prefecture) and Kaneiji (Taito-ku, Tokyo). A gold leaf wooden Buddha, 8.5 meters high, is enshrined within the main hall.
Access: By the Tobu-Nikko Line for 1 hour and 50 minutes from Asakusa Station (Tokyo) to Tobu-Nikko Station. There are hourly rapid trains between Asakusa and Nikko, which take about two hours and cost 1,320 yen one way. Tobu is offering various free passes, which include the round trip from Tokyo to Nikko and unlimited use of buses in the Nikko area. The Japan Rail Pass is not valid on Tobu trains.
By Japan Railways (JR) (for Japan Rail Pass holders)
Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen (from Tokyo or Ueno Station) to Utsunomiya Station and transfer to the JR Nikko Line. With a good connection at Utsunomiya, the one way trip takes about 100 minutes. Due to its high cost (about 5000 yen one way), this option is probably only attractive to holders of the Japan Rail Pass.
JNTO Travel Trips - Nikko (PDF)