Nikko is one of the gateways from Tokyo that with Kamakura is recommended most often. It’s a mystical place where temples and nature coexist in harmony. Of course, nowadays it is famous especially for the Unesco Heritage temples and the colorful Toshogu, appreciated by tourists who visit Nikko in a day from Tokyo. But in the Nikko mountains, there is much more to explore.
The history of Nikko begins 1200 years ago, in 766, when the monk Shodo Shonin arrived in this place and founded the current Rinnoji temple, before climbing and reaching the top of the sacred Mount Nantai and founding the Chuzenji Temple, overlooking the homonymous lake at the foot of one of Nikko’s three sacred mountains. Nikko thus became the meeting place and fusion between the Buddhism brought by the monk and the Shinto spirituality of nature and the sacred mountains of Nikko.
After the riots of the Sengoku Jidai, the era of warring states, Nikko returned to shine when Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first Shogun of united Japan choose Nikko as its burial place, becoming the deity protector of Japan.
Visiting Nikko means feeling the energy released by nature, from the tall cedars that rise to the sky, the onsen hidden in the lush valleys. It’s the purity of Nikko’s water, it’s the energy of autumn colors. Nikko is often visited as a day trip from Tokyo, but if you can, treat yourself to a night here, soak in its onsen surrounded by this powerful nature and calmly visit the natural areas as well as the temple area.
Things to do in Nikko
Visit Nikko means absolutely to visit the Temples area, Unesco World Heritage since 1999.
The entrance to this area is marked by the famous Shinkyo Bridge, the scarlet red bridge that crosses the Daiya River. According to legend, a snake turned into a bridge when Shodo Shonin arrived here, to allow him to cross the bridge. From here, you enter the Nikko forest which houses the various temples and shrines visited every year by crowds of tourists.
The modern hustle and bustle probably hide that mysterious and solemn charm in this area…My first visit to Nikko dates back to 2014, on a hot August day, when dazzled by this “first taste of real Japan” (I had only seen Tokyo before) I was impressed by such a wealth of detail. The second time, six and a half years and much more Japan visited later, and also thanks to the almost absence of tourists on a gray weekday during Covid-19, I was able to perceive the spiritual energy of this place. Which is much more than a tourist stop to photograph for collection.
Nikko-Zan Rinnoji Temple
The first temple encountered in the UNESCO World Heritage Temples area of Nikko is Rinnoji Temple. This is the temple that developed from the temple founded by the monk Shodo, basically the birthplace of Nikko. Inside there are the golden statues of the three Buddhas which thanks to the syncretism between Shinto and Buddhism are thus considered the true form of the three Nikko mountains (Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro). This complex also includes the Kaizan-do hall, where the monk Shodo Shonin is buried, and an indoor garden that must be spectacular during the momiji season in mid-November.
Admission: every day from 8.00 to 17.00 (16.00 from November to March) – 400 yen + 300 yen for the garden and the treasure room
Burial place of Ieyasu Tokugawa following to his will, it was his nephew Iemitsu who enrich the place bringing it to the current splendor. The Yomeimon gate is probably the image that comes to mind if we think of the temples of Nikko, followed immediately after by the famous three monkeys “I do not see, I do not hear, I do not speak” which are carved on the sacred stables, part of the story of the virtue that every person should follow.
Other notable elements are the five-story pagoda donated by a Lord of Obama (Fukui prefecture), the elephants on the sacred warehouses, sculpted by the artist following his imagination, since he had never seen these animals, and the sleeping cat.
The area that certainly strikes the most is the one around the rich Yomeimon portal, with its over 500 sculptures and richly decorated and colored carvings, perhaps too sumptuous and gaudy compared to the general sobriety and delicacy of Japan. But it is by crossing the door with the sleeping cat and climbing the stairway steeped in nature that we arrive at Ieyasu’s burial place.
A tip: if you are not particularly a fan of bottled green tea, get some water BEFORE entering the Toshogu and climbing the stairs to the tomb, because the drinks machine at the top will only offer you bottles of green tea!
Admission: daily from 9.00 to 17.00 (16.00 from November to March) – 1,300 yen + 1,000 yen for the Tokugawa treasure museum
To the right of the Toshogu Shrine there is the Taiyuin Mausoleum, the burial place of the grandson Iemitsu Tokugawa, also richly decorated and gilded and I personally found it much more stunning than the Toshogu. Unlike Ieyasu’s tomb, Iemitsu’s burial site is not open to the public, but is located behind the Chinese-inspired Kokamon portal.
Admission: every day from 8.00 to 17.00 (16.00 from November to March) – 550 yen
We can consider the Futarasan Shrine to be the mystical heart of Nikko, the center of the mysterious power of the area. Also founded by the monk Shodo Shonin and dedicated to the Nikko mountains, it is actually divided into three shrines: one next to the Taiyuin, one on the shores of Lake Chuzenji and one on the top of Mount Nantai. The Shinkyo Bridge is also part of the Futarasan, as is the Takinoo Shrine, located in the heart of the forest behind the Futarasan complex in downtown Nikko.
Admission: every day from 8.00 to 17.00 (16.00 from November to March) – 200 yen
The area of the temples is generally overrun by hordes of tourists and it is therefore difficult to perceive the mystical essence of this place. But walking away for about 10 minutes from the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, there is a surreal place, where you can feel the supernatural energy that has pervaded Nikko’s nature for centuries. A natural gorge along the Daiya River, a consequence of the volcanic eruption of Mount Nantai 7000 years ago, along which there are many Jizo statues, protectors of travelers and children who were never born or died prematurely, which are part of the Jiunji Hondo Temple. A flood of the river destroyed part of the temple and some statues and it seems that if you try to count the Jizo, you always get a different number, this because of the “Bake Jizo” or ghost Jizo. I have not tried to count them, would you have the courage?
If you visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, you will probably only be able to visit this central area of Nikko and eventually also visit the Imperial Villa Tamozawa, a summer residence of the Emperor, now open to the public, and the historic home of Mr. Kannaya. which in 1872 converted into a guesthouse giving rise to the first version of the Hotel Kannaya, now located near the Shinkyo Bridge.
Chuzenji Lake area
If you have more days available (or decide to return to Nikko), you can take a bus that in about an hour will take you to Lake Chuzenji, a lake formed 20,000 years ago following the eruption of Mount Nantai that overlooks it. In the area there are also several hiking trails, including the one that leads from the Futarasan Shrine at the base of Mount Nantai to the Shrine on the top and you can admire the Kegon Falls, almost 100 meters high, considered among the three most beautiful in Japan.
Autumn is certainly the best time for this area.
On the shores of the lake there is also the Chuzenji Temple, linked to the Rinnoji and the story of Shodo Shonin, which houses a statue of Kannon carved by the monk in the wood of a single tree and offers a splendid view of the lake.
Visiting Nikko for longer than a day trip from Tokyo, you will also have the opportunity to relax in the onsen surrounded by nature in the area. The first time I was there, the owner of the Guesthouse drove us to Nikko Ogurayama Onsen Yurin, a local onsen surrounded by nature, where I had also spotted a deer quite close to the outdoor pool in which I was immersed! One of the strongest emotions that Japan has given me!
However, most of the spas and onsen are not in the central area of Nikko, but are more immersed in the mountains. There are some hotels and ryokans that offer thermal baths in the Chuzenji Lake area, or you can continue further by bus until you reach Yumoto Onsen, which literally means “source of hot water”. A simple village surrounded by the mighty nature of Nikko National Park.
Or, changing trains at Shimo-Imaci, you can reach Kinugawa Onsen, more modern and closer to the two theme parks in the area, Tobu World Square with the miniature world and Edomura, an Edo period theme park that sooner or later I will visit even if I fear a bit to be a tourist tacky and not at all authentic….
Continuing further, along a single-track railway section, we reach the locality of Yunishigawa Onsen, a place that I am not sure still exists or was just a dream, a parallel world. I decided to write a dedicated post to try to spread that magic to you.
Accommodation in Nikko
If you opt to visit Nikko on a day trip from Tokyo, the most convenient areas to stay to take the train to Nikko are either Shinjuku or the Ueno-Asakusa area.
For those who choose to overnight in Nikko, there are plenty of options, of various kinds and for all budgets. The best location is the one that goes from the station to Villa Tamozawa, as there are frequent buses that pass from here connecting the various points of interest.
We had a great time at the Natural Garden hotel, which looks a bit like a doll’s house from the outside, and offers a nostalgic 1960s Japanese atmosphere. It also has an indoor and outdoor hotspring and a nice veranda with a porch, where you can eat in the summer. The bus stop is right in front of the hotel, also very convenient to reach Lake Chuzenji, while for the temple area, it’s about 30 minutes on foot (or 10 by bus).
The first time I visited Nikko instead, I overnight at Narusawa Lodge, a very simple guesthouse in the area behind Nikko station, definitely more uncomfortable, but surrounded by nature.
For those who choose to stay overnight in one of Nikko’s onsen areas, I recommend leaving your luggage at the coin-lockers at the station (there are also those for large suitcases, 1,000yen), first visit the center, and only in the evening, retrieve luggage and move to the chosen location. So you won’t risk wasting a lot of time traveling to leave your luggage at the hotel.
Nikko – how to get there
You can get to Nikko either by using the JR or Tobu.
If you have days left on the Japan Rail Pass or plan to buy the Tokyo Wide Pass and then visit another covered destination, you can take the Shinkansen to Utsunomiya and then the local line to Nikko, taking just over an hour and a half. But be careful, if you stay more days or want to visit also Chuzenji lake, I suggest you also buy a bus pass sold at the Tobu station in Nikko (there are various, depending on the areas you want to cover).
Tobu instead offers very cheap 2 or 4 day passes, which include the return train from Tokyo to Shimo-Imachi plus unlimited use of buses and trains in the designated area. If you opt for the Kinugawa Onsen area excluding Lake Chuzenji, you just need the cheapest pass, otherwise, opt for the 4-day pass which covers the whole area. The only precaution: this pass is not valid for Limited Express trains and therefore to reach Nikko you can choose between a few trains and with 3 changes… taking about 2 and a half hours.
You can possibly pay a supplement and access the frequent and fast Limited Express.
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