Tired of the daily routine of slogging to a gray building full of even grayer coworkers?
Then buy your train ticket, pack your day bag and head off to the historic city of Nikko, a 1 hour 40 minute train ride north of Tokyo in Tochigi Prefecture, where one day soon you can take to the streets, not with the customary legion of trippers, but with throngs of far more colorful revelers dressed as samurai, archers and Shinto priests.
The “1,000 Samurai Parade,” held every May 18 and Oct. 17, commemorates the 1617 enshrinement at Nikko of the remains of Ieyasu Tokugawa, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate.
Winding its way around town, the parade is a visual extravaganza: Besides columns of marchers in vivid reds and blues, shrine maidens will perform traditional dances at the parade’s departure and arrival points. Don’t forget your camera.
Whether it’s Japanese tradition, treks through the wilds or even theme-park entertainment that is your thing, Nikko is a must-see destination that last year drew more than 6 million visitors.
Located at the foot of Mount Nyoho in western Tochigi, Nikko has been a center for religious activity since the eighth century, and boasts some of Japan’s most famous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines — so famous, in fact, that in 1999 UNESCO designated them collectively as a World Heritage site.
Many visitors make their first stop the Toshogu Shrine, the site of Ieyasu’s enshrinement. Among the many attractions of the complex is the Yomeimon Gate, where more than 400 wood carvings take on varying hues depending on light conditions. Japan’s top craftsmen worked for more than 12 years, finally completing the structure in 1636 — to the tune of an estimated 200 billion yen in current terms.
Close by is Rinno-ji, a Buddhist temple built in 766 whose regal Sambutsudo (Three Buddha Hall) houses statues of Amida Nyorai (Amitabha Buddha), Senju Kannon (a bodhisattva with 1,000 arms) and Bato Kannon (a divine being depicted with a fierce countenance).
Every bit as interesting is the Futarasan Shinto Shrine, actually a complex of several shrines to deities associated with the sacred mountains of Nikko. Legend has it that waters from a fountain there, Futara-Reisen, will help keep you young.
Forming a majestic stage for Nikko’s religious buildings is the Nikko National Park, an area of mountains, forests, waterfalls and lakes that encompasses not only the city of Nikko itself but also extends into the neighboring prefectures of Fukushima, Gunma and Niigata.
Northwest of Nikko, the terrain soars upward to the large and pristine Lake Chuzenji at 1,269 meters, which is presided over by the extinct volcano Mount Nantai. The waters of the lake cascade through a barrier of trees into the 99-meter-high Kegon Waterfall.
Nestled in the lake’s forests is the elegant Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park, which was constructed in 1928 from Japanese cedar and — as its name implies — until a few years ago served as a retreat for Italian diplomats. Visitors there can gaze at the lake from wooden benches.
Also close to Nikko is the Kirifuri Highland, a plateau reaching altitudes of up to 1,600 meters that is home to deer, monkeys and other wildlife that keep hikers company as they work their way up the slopes. As suggested by its name (kirifuri translates as “falling mist”), the area is shrouded in fog throughout much of the year.
After walks through temples and up thigh-busting mountain paths, it may be time for some lighter fare, especially if you have kids in tow. Look no further than the theme parks of the Kawaji and Kinugawa areas north of Nikko.
For starters, near the Tobu-Kinugawa Line’s Shin-Takatoku Station, and just off Route 121, you can indulge your inner cowboy at the American-style Western Village, which features a 25-meter replica of Mount Rushmore, an old-time locomotive, galloping horses and — duck! — a shoot-out show performed by stunt men.
For the Japanese nostalgia equivalent, go further north to Edo Wonderland, home of “samurai” and period “merchants” who go about daily tasks as they would have been performed centuries ago. (Don’t be surprised, by the way, to encounter a duel between sword-swinging samurai and their meddlesome “ninja” foes.)
Cross the Kinugawa River to the east and you arrive at Tobu World Square and its miniature lookalikes of the Empire State Building, the Parthenon, Egyptian pyramids — among scores of other copies built to 1/25 the size of their architectural originals. It is, indeed, a small world.
Lest you should wear yourself out before returning to the drudgery of workaday reality, take a dip in a bath at the Kinugawa Hot Spring, which — by now you shouldn’t be surprised to learn — also has a bit of history behind it.
First discovered in 1691, the soothing waters here were off-limits to all but nobility and the Buddhist monks of Mount Nikko. Eventually, however, common folk were granted entry, and after a railway service was introduced in 1927 it developed into one of the largest hot-spring resorts in Japan.
The area is also a good place to stay over should you be traveling from afar. A night in a traditional room at the Marukyo ryokan (Japanese inn) costs between 10,000 yen and 15,000 yen per person, including breakfast and dinner.
The Asaya Hotel, for its part, has both Japanese- and Western-style rooms, with a higher price range up to about 20,000 yen each for a couple, which also includes breakfast and dinner. (Don’t forget to ask for a dish of raw fish made with local delicacy yuba, fresh soymilk skin.)
There’s a little something for everyone. Perhaps it’s why Japanese old-timers have a saying: “Never say kekko ['I've had enough'] . . . until you’ve seen Nikko.”