Nikko is a mountain town located 2 hours away from Tokyo. That makes it a perfect destination for one day trip. Nikko is not only full of rich history, amazing shrines but also is home to breathtaking natural vistas. The region boasts scenic mountain landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, and hiking trails. Nikko is famous during two seasons, sakura season and autumn leaves. Out of those two, I think, it is better to go there during October -November to look at awesome colors of trees. I was there during cherry blossom season, and everything still seemed winterish.
The shrines and temples of Nikko are on the Unesco World Heritage list. Click on the link to see the details.
How to get there
There are two train stations; one operated by the Tobu Railway and another by JR – JR Tohoku Shinkansen. Tobu line is faster, but it is not covered by the JR pass. So if you, like me, have the pass, go for a little slower train.
After you get to Nikko, it might be a good idea to buy the area pass. If you only want to see the temples, there is no need for that. But if you would like to go and see waterfalls or the lake, it will pay off to get the pass.
There are two different passes:
- The Nikko World Heritage Area Pass – a two-day pass for ¥2,000 that includes a round-trip train ride (though not on the limited expresses), unlimited train rides in the Nikko area, and unlimited rides on designated local buses
- The Nikko All Area Pass – a four-day pass for ¥4,520 (slightly less in the off-season) that includes the train and bus bits, plus unlimited rides on a bunch more bus routes
What to see
The earlier you get to Nikko, the bigger chances you have that you will skip the lines. Nikko is super famous, and there is a lot to see, so it might be a good idea to make it a two-day trip.
The Shinkyo Bridge
The Shinkyo Bridge is one of Japan’s three most beautiful bridges and marks the entrance to the shrines and temples. For a small entrance fee, you can walk across it. It is tough to miss. To get there, you can either walk or take a bus.
A legend says that when Saint Shodo arrived here, the water flow was so strong he could not cross the river. A god helped him by sending two snakes that turned into a bridge.
The Tosho-gu Shrine
Tosho-gu shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who unified all of Japan. During his time it used to be just a simple mausoleum but was later enlarged by Ieyasu’s grandson Ieymitsu into the lavish complex it is today. It is both Buddhist and Shinto shrine. Other places made the separation during Meiji Period, but those two faiths were so intertwined with each other that it was impossible to separate them in this shrine. It is also on UNESCO World Heritage List.
I had written before, that after all the temples in Kyoto I was pretty much done with them. But this shrine is something else. It looked amazing. Lavis decorations made with gold leaf, the ornaments, and carvings! Even though it was one of the more expensive shrines to enter, it was well worth it.
There are some things you should keep your eyes on:
- “See no evil, Speak no evil, and Hear no evil” monkeys.
- Sleeping cat
- Sozonozo Elephants – imaginary elephants that were carved by an artist who had never actually seen one. They look hilarious!
If you want to know more history and details about every building, check out this website.
Nikko Tosho-gu Museum
Right outside the Tosho-gu Shrine, there is a museum displaying an impressive collection of the shogun’s personal items. If you would like to see it, you can buy a combined ticket for 2100¥.
It is the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu. Taiyuin-byo looks similar to Toshogu Shrine in its layout and architecture, but it was built more modest on purpose, due to Iemitsu’s deep respect for his grandfather.
Compared to Tosho-gu shrine, Taiyuin-byo had almost no visitors. It was also half the price (~550¥). Even though Taiyuin-byo was not as richly decorated but I enjoyed how it looked. It gave you this serene feeling.
If you want you can buy a combined ticket to Rinno-Ji for 1000¥.
If you want to know more history and details about the buildings, check out this website.
Rinno-JI is Nikko’s most important temple. It was founded by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century.
I have not entered it as it was under renovation and became a big box with a picture on it:) I guess, I need to go there again:) Behind the treasure house, there is a lovely garden. I have read it is charming during the autumn foliage.
Many websites mentioned that this is worth visiting. I was running out of time, so I didn’t make it there.
The ravine is home to around 70 stone statues of Jizo lined up along the path but the river. They are also called “Ghost Jizo” as everytime you tried to count them the number changes 🙂 But this place is charming not only because of spooky states but also because it’s a lovely and peaceful spot.
You can walk from Toshogu Shrine to the start of the walking path in around 20 minutes (1.5 km). It’s right at the beginning of the walking trail into the gorge. You could also take a bus that’s heading in the direction of the lake (Chuzenjiko) to the Tamozawa bus stop near the Imperial Villa then walk about 10 minutes through the residential area to the entry.
For a Google map, click here.
Popular autumn spot offering fantastic views of autumn colors. You can take a ropeway up the observation platform further up the mountain for spectacular views over Kegon Waterfall and Lake Chuzenjiko.
It is also possible to hike there, and it should take around two hours.
To get there take a Tobu bus bound for Chuzenjiko Onsen or Yumoto Onsen and get off at the Akechidaira bus stop. The buses in the opposite direction DO NOT STOP at Akechidaira.
The Kegon Waterfall
A little bit further away (45 minutes by bus – Chuzenji Onsen stop), you can find Kegon Waterfall. It is one of Japan’s three most beautiful falls. Honestly, maybe because my timing wasn’t right (arriving in April), I did not find the fall anything extraordinary. However, I saw pictures of it during fall and it did looked much better then 🙂
There is a free observation platform that is easily accessible on foot, as well as from a paid platform at the base of the falls 100m down with elevator.
It is an excellent idea to buy the bus pass, I mentioned before as the trip to the fall and back will be more expensive without one.
If you have enough time, go check out the lake, walk around or rent a boat. It was so windy during my stay there that I barely managed to stay straight, so I had to cut my trip short.
There are several other waterfalls around, many great hiking trails. But it is impossible to fit them all during one day. Don’t forget that it is also an onsen place. So you can try combining that with visiting sights.
If I were to go there again, I would leave Nikko for autumn. There were not many cherry blossoms around and judging by all the pictures I saw on the internet, autumn is definitely a time to be there.