While I have visited Tokyo many times, I was dying to visit someplace outside the city for a change. By that time, I have heard so many good things about Nikko that I finally made it my mission to see what the fuss is all about. There is an old Japanese saying: “日光を見ずして結構と言うなかれ“, it means “Don’t say you are satisfied until you have seen Nikko”; Now that I do have seen Nikko, I can honestly tell you that the oldies did make a good point. The Toshogu, among many other historic shrines and temples, were indeed magnificent and it would have been a waste if you miss Nikko during a trip to Japan. While I can’t deny that there is already so much to see, eat and do in Tokyo, Nikko is definitely my number one choice of Tokyo city excursion – if you have time to make it, hop on a train and let’s get going!
Nikko does not lie exactly within the capital metropolitan area, the city is in Tochigi Prefecture, yet it’s still close enough for a quick spin if you only decided to spend a day in the town. Nikko can generally be accessed via bus and train, but driving may be an option as it’s easier to get to some other places. I will explain how to get around in Nikko soon enough.
How to get to Nikko
I took off in Asakusa at the Tobu Asakusa Station – if you have a JR Pass, please check if it’s available for the Limited Express SPACIA. It is the most convenient way to go to Asakusa and it takes about 2 hours and 40 minutes. There are a number of trains daily and they leave the station rather frequently – redeem and reserve a ticket with your JR Pass, book your ticket on the internet, or simply buy a ticket at the train station. I recommend booking a ticket if you are visiting Nikko during the peak season, it allows you to skip the line and make sure you have a seat with the schedule you want.
Ways to buy train tickets:
- Go Ticketless by signing up and becoming a member of Tobu Keitai Net.
- Book a ticket online and receive the tickets at the train station
- Purchase a ticket at the station in the ticket office or from the vendor machine
- Redeem a ticket with a valid JR Pass
As the train took us all the way to the Tobu-Nikko Station, the classic and historic sites are about 2.3 kilometers away from the station. Technically, it’s okay to walk and it takes about 20 to 30 minutes, depending on your speed. However, you will be walking on an upward slope to the site and you may also consider taking a bus to the Shinkyo Bridge. The bus stop is right outside the main entrance of the station and it has clear signs about the bus schedule, where they are going, and their routes. usually, a long queue is immediately formed as most visitors from the train head to the same place, act fast if you are visiting during the peak season.
Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls
I visited Nikko in June on a rainy day and to my surprise, the temperature dropped quite low to almost 10 Degree Celcius (especially at Lake Chuzenji, it’s almost like winter)! Remember to check the weather and take a jacket with you, even if you are visiting in the middle of the year. Most bus heads to Toshogo and Mount Nantai run through the main street of Nikko where shops, souvenir stores, and restaurants are lined up along the street. If you still have time after visiting Toshogo, have a leisure walk back to the station, check out the local souvenir and handicrafts, and try some Japanese snacks before hopping on a train back to Tokyo!
If you are looking for a place to buy a souvenir or a snack, check out Yubafujiya, Yuzawaya, and Aburagen. I am a fan of the beancurd sheet and Yuba is a 140-year old restaurant with delicious beancurd sheet snacks that you can buy home. There are also many cafes in the Lake Chūzenji area that is a great place for afternoon tea. Check out Cafe Owl, Yuzawayasaryou, Shoo gezu cafe.
Anyway, once you reached the Shinkyo Bridge and Futarasan Shrine which dates to the year 767, this is a checkpoint to the Toshogo area. Some visitors go on to Lake Chuzenji, Mount Nantai, Chuzenji Onsen, Yumoto Onsen, Kegon Falls, and Ryuzu Falls, which is about another 20 to 30 minutes by bus. These places are all part of the Nikko National Park and are another popular destination for hot springs, nature, and hiking. Especially in fall to see the foliage that covers the entire Mount Nantai. I ventured up there but as I said since I was there in June and it was raining, the lake and the mountain are masked by clouds and the temperature dropped very low. I couldn’t quite see Kegon Falls (One of the Three Great Waterfalls of Japan) with the fog, but I could hear the thundering sound as it cascaded down the cliff to the low. On a sunny day, there are all sorts of activities that visitors could do on the lake, from boating, taking a ropeway to the peaks, jogging along the lakefront, walking through the Odashirogahara, enjoying a scenic hike through the mountainous landscapes, to going skiing at a ski resort.
Nikko’s Shrines and Temples
Follow the sign and walk along the trail that leads you to the World Heritage Nikko Shrines and Temples – that includes Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple and its Taiyuan, Nikko Toshogu Shrine, Nikko Futarasan Shrine, and Daigomado. I was on a day trip and I couldn’t enter all these places; if you do have more time, don’t forget about the Rin-no-Ji Treasure House, Kosugi Hoan Museum of Art, and more.
Futarasan Shrine’s cultural properties:
- Honden – Main building enshrining the three deities of the Futarasan shrine.
- Karamon – Gate in front of the Honden.
- Wakimon – Gate of the Sukibe.
- Sukibe – Roofed wall enclosing the Honden.
- Haiden – Worship hall.
- Torii – Copper torii marking the entrance to the shrine.
- Shinkyō – Wooden arched bridge.
- Betsugū Taki-no-o-jinja
- Massha Mitomo-jinja
Toshogu is the main course of the entire trip to Nikko. In fact, Toshogu, Nikko Futarasan Shrine, and Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple are combined as the “two shrines and one temple”. All visitors come here for the lavishly decorated architecture that has a history of over 1,200 years. These sites remained as a manifesto to the world the essence of Japanese architecture. It has been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s.
Tōshōgū was built for one of the most well-known historic figures throughout Japan history – Tokugawa Ieyasu, three of the most important political leaders in the Sengoku period. There are 103 buildings listed in the World Heritage, and there is so much to discover in the rooms of the buildings. Walking through the Giant Dori, Omotemon, and Yomeimon, the Gojunoto (Five-story pagoda), and building roofs are decorated with intersected woodworks that intricately support the top of the structure and solidly cancel out the swaying force in an earthquake. Flying dragons, dragon horses, and lions are the most commonly seen creatures. Some of the most notable places on the site include the Three Wise Monkeys, Sozonozo Elephants (imagined elephants), the dragon fresco on the ceiling, the ancient cedar in the forest, and the Zuijin guardian statue, and the “nemuri-neko” (sleeping cat) carving… I learned so many things from the art of Japanese culture and history.
For a one-day excursion, Toshogu is a must-see; Besides, the temples and the shrine look breathtaking in the fall. I think I will come back next time in the fall to revisit all the details of architecture and continue on to explore the beauty of the Nikko National Park has to offer.
Tōshōgū’s cultural properties:
- Honden, Ishinoma, Haiden – Building enshrining the deified image of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tōshō Daigongen.
- Shōmen Karamon
- Haimen Karamon
- Tōzai Sukibe – Roofed cloisters enclosing shrine buildings.
- Tōzai Kairō and Kugurimon
- Kyōzō / Kamijinko / Nakajinko / Shimojinko
- Mizuya – Stone building sheltering the water basin.
- Okusha – Building enshrining the remains of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
- Kariden – Building enshrining the deified image of Tokugawa Ieyasu, Tōshō Daigongen in case of repair works on the main Honden.
- Otabisho – Building used in the Togyosai festival.
- Kyūokusha – Stone gate of the Kyūokusha. Reconstructed in a new location after destruction in an earthquake.