The city of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture is one of the brightest lights in the Japanese sightseeing firmament, which is apt, given that its name literally translates to “sunshine.” With some amazing attractions from World Heritage sites dating back to the eighth century to picturesque hiking trails and relaxing hot spring resorts, it’s easy to see why some Japanese people like to say, “Never say kekko (you haven’t seen anything!) until you’ve seen Nikko.” Visitors who’d like to confirm that for themselves but only have about 30 hours to do so, should consider the following itinerary:
9:00 a.m.: Rinnoji temple
Historic and beautiful but still relaxing enough to not feel overwhelming from the get-go, Rinnoji temple is the perfect place to start exploring Nikko after catching an early train (around 6:30 a.m.) from Asakusa in Tokyo via the Tobu Nikko Line.
Rinnoji is a Tendai Buddhist temple with a 1,200-year-long history. Its most famous building is the Sanbutsudo hall, a deep vermillion and majestic structure, the current version of which dates back to 1645. The hall houses statues depicting Nikko’s three mountain deities that guests can admire from a special elevated path due to the site undergoing major renovation work that is expected to last until March 2021. Also found at Rinnoji is a treasure house exhibiting national treasures and important cultural properties, including sutras, religious art and paintings of the Tokugawa shogun. Additionally, when visiting Nikko in the fall, guests should not miss Shoyoen, a beautiful garden considered one of the best fall foliage viewing spots in the area.
9:45 a.m.: Nikko Toshogu shrine
Considered a symbol of Nikko, the Nikko Toshogu shrine (located a short walk from Rinnoji temple) enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shogun who founded the military government that lasted in Japan for more than two centuries.
Uniquely ornate, Toshogu’s architectural style is probably best described as “Japanese baroque.” Despite that, the sprawling complex’s many paths fill visitors with feelings of peace and serenity as they guide them through natural sceneries or past fascinating cultural properties. This includes everything from the carvings of the three “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” wise monkeys, to the Gojunoto five-story pagoda, where each story represents one of the basic elements of existence: earth, water, fire, wind and the void.
Gohonsha (the Main Shrine) is a central part of Toshogu. A designated National Treasure, it’s where many festivals and other events are held each year, although it too is currently undergoing repairs that should conclude sometime in 2020. Of particular interest is also the grand Yomeimon Gate, known as the Main Gate of the Imperial Court or Gate of the Setting Sun. Covered in more than 500 carvings depicting people from all walks of life, one could spend an entire day admiring one of the most impressive structures in all of Toshogu.
12:00 p.m.: Futarasan Shrine and Shinkyo Bridge
Just a five-minute walk from Toshogu stands the magnificent Futarasan Shrine, one of the most important places of Shinto worship in all of Nikko. Dating back to the mid-eighth century, it deifies Mount Futara (also known as Mount Nantai), which, in an etymologically interesting but complicated to explain way, is the source of the name “Nikko.”
The entire precinct of the Futarasan Shrine is an astonishing 3,400 hectares and also includes the mountains of the Nikko National Park. But while it is a significant center of mountain worship, the shrine is also very popular among people praying for children, easy deliveries and marital bliss.
Futarasan offers amazing views of historic buildings combined with the splendor of Nikko’s nature but one of its main draws is actually the Shinkyo Bridge that belongs to the shrine. The bridge measures 28 meters in length and more than 7 meters in width while standing about 10 meters above the river below it. Although it has only been opened to generals and imperial court messengers, not much is really known about the origins of Shinkyo other than that it was rebuilt in 1636. The vermilion-lacquered wooden structure is today considered one of the three most beautiful bridges in all of Japan.
1:15 p.m.: Nikko Woodcarving Village Craft Center and lunch
While heading to the next destination, either 30 minutes by foot or 10 minutes by bus, it’d probably be a good idea to get some food. Especially recommended are Nikko specialties like soba or Nikko-yuba, tofu skin served in a variety of ways, including in raw form or dried, fried and eaten with soba. For lovers of something with a little more kick to it, try the popular shisomaki tōgarashi — spicy Japanese red peppers that have been pickled in salt and then wrapped in Japanese perilla. And for dessert, visitors might consider manju steamed buns with sweet red bean paste, yōkan sweet bean jelly, or anything with the famous Tochi Otome strawberry variety produced in Tochigi.
From there, Nikko explorers should visit the neighboring Woodcarving Village Craft Center where, under the watchful eye of experts, they can experience firsthand the art of nikkōbori (Nikko-style wood carving) starting from ¥920. Said to originate from the work of master craftsmen who worked on the Toshogu shrine, nikkobori requires a special bent-tip gouge and primarily uses plant life as its main theme.
4:00 p.m.: Kanmangafuchi Abyss
Located a 15 to 20-minute bus ride from the previous spot, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss is the result of the volcanic eruption of Mount Nantai. But from that furious exhibition of nature’s power came something beautiful in the form of a scenic river area perfect for light hiking and clearing one’s mind. The abyss is also home to about 70 stone statues of the Bodhisattva Jizo, known as Bake Jizo (Changing Jizo) because they are supposedly impossible to count. Legends say that people who try to confirm how many statues there are always end up with a different number. Perhaps they are just distracted by the views of the Nikko Botanical Garden located across from the Jizo statues. It’s impossible to tell.
Whatever the case might be, from its spring verdure to its autumn leaves or winter snows, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss has something to delight tourists all year round.
Evening: Hoyo Center Nikko Hot Spring
The Hoyo Center Nikko Hot Spring is an onsen with the egalitarian soul of a public bathhouse, which perhaps explains its low prices at ¥410 per person, and the fact that unlike many similar facilities in Japan, it accepts people with tattoos. The facility is located in the middle of a residential area not too far from the city center, but its baths look out at a calming, green vista, making it just the place to relax after a long day of sightseeing and hiking. The hot spring offers towels for sale but provides no other amenities. The last entry is at 8:30 p.m.
Night: Nikko Kanaya Hotel
The Nikko Kanaya Hotel is the oldest resort hotel in Japan, with a history that goes back to 1871. That’s when Dr. James Curtis Hepburn (the creator of the eponymous Latin alphabet transliteration system of the Japanese language) stayed at the private residence of Zenichiro Kanaya. Following his guest’s suggestion, Kanaya later turned part of his house into the Kanaya Cottage Inn in 1873, which over time became the Nikko Kanaya Hotel. The hotel has welcomed the stay of iconic visitors such as Isabella Bird, Albert Einstein and Helen Keller. With so much history under one roof and the seamless mixing of Japanese and Western aesthetics, the Nikko Kanaya Hotel is the perfect place to spend the night at and rest up in preparation for further exploration of Nikko.
The following day
Morning: Irohazaka route
From Tobu-Nikko Station, tourists can board a bus or a taxi that will take them up to the Oku-Nikko area through the Irohazaka road. “Mesmerizing” is really the right word for it: Irohazaka is actually two roads — an ascending and a descending one — and consists of a total of 48 hairpin turns corresponding to 48 characters of kana, the Japanese syllabary. That’s actually how the roads got their name. “Zaka” comes from the Japanese word for “slope” while “iroha” comes from the first three kana used in the old ordering of the Japanese alphabet. But it’s not necessary to know that to appreciate Irohazaka, one of the best places in Japan to admire the country’s foliage.
10:00 a.m.: Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls
After traversing Irohazaka, visitors will arrive at Lake Chuzenji, the highest natural lake in the country, found at an elevation of over 1,200 meters. Hot spring resorts and historic sightseeing spots abound, but the entire Chuzenji area is most famous for its hiking opportunities along the entire 25-kilometer circumference of the lake. Hiking course guides, as well as detailed information on Nikko’s nature and history, can be easily obtained at the nearby Nikko Natural Science Museum. From scenic trails to more challenging routes, Chuzenji caters to almost everyone. Additionally, a popular sightseeing boat operates on the lake between the months of April and November.
A local sightseeing spot also worth mentioning is Kegon Falls, one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in all of Japan and part of the Eight Views said to perfectly encapsulate the beauty and the spirit of the Showa Era (1926 to 1989). At nearly 100 meters in height, it’s truly a sight like no other, which one can admire up close from observation platforms set up near the falls. An elevator also goes down to the falls’ basin, allowing visitors to get as close as possible to this deafening display of crashing water. Depending on the season, Kegon offers diverse beauty, like lush green sceneries in spring or frozen blue landscapes in winter.
3:00 p.m.: Utsunomiya’s gyōza
Although not part of Nikko proper, no visit to the area would be complete without stopping at Utsunomiya, a pleasant 40-minute journey via the JR Nikko Line, on the way back to Tokyo for some gyōza. What Naples is to pizza, Utsunomiya is to these delicious meat and vegetable dumplings, which are served pan-fried, boiled or deep-fried. With more than 350 restaurants in the city to choose from, a late gyōza lunch or early dinner at Utsunomiya is an easy and delicious option.
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