January 16, 2018

Seeing it ALL in Nikko

While not exactly a hidden gem per say, the Nikko area is a destination that many overseas visitors to Japan fail to properly experience.

Two Shinto priest walk up a staircase at Nikko's Toshogu Shrine

Ah, Nikko…

Few popular locations are simultaneously both well known by many tourists and at the same time so egregiously misunderstood. On that note, I’d like to welcome you back to another installment of my area guides. I’ll be diving into the weeds to ensure that readers are able to get the most of their visit to Nikko. As with all other articles in this series, this will be a long post so I suggest you grab yourself a cup of joe before reading further.

First, let’s start by taking a look at what makes Nikko so special. Located high in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, this region is home to a spiritual enclave with roots dating back over one-thousand years. As I’ve written before, Nikko’s collection of shrines and temples was originally founded in the late 700’s by the monk, Shodo Shonin. Since then, it has continued to exist as a place where Buddhism and Shinto could flourish alongside one another.

A thousand years later, Nikko’s roots are still tangible. Despite its protracted legacy though, today Nikko is perhaps more famous for its connection to the Tokugawa clan. The region is home to the ornate Toshogu Shrine which enshrines none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. This extraordinary leader is credited with finally uniting all of Japan following over a hundred years of bloody civil war.

In addition to its rich history, Nikko is also home to breathtaking natural vistas. The region boasts scenic mountain landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, and hiking trails. Though beautiful year round, Nikko is particularly popular with the locals in autumn when the trees begin to turn. The entire countryside is set ablaze with vibrant hues that will make your jaw drop. If you can, be sure to schedule a visit sometime during the months of October and November.

Before moving on, note that there’s enough content in the Nikko area to fill up a whole week. I’ll be proposing a two-day itinerary that will cover the essential tourist attractions with a side trip to Edo Wonderland in the nearby hot spring town of Kinugawa Onsen. This will allow you to get the most out of your visit to Nikko while not detracting from other locations across Japan.

Finding Accommodations in Nikko

A view of the mountains of Nikko from the Tobu-Nikko Station

No matter which way you slice it, you’re going to need to spend at least one night in Nikko. While there are some articles out there that will claim a day trip is possible, I’ve found this not to be the case. Simply put, Nikko is just too far away and has too many things to see. Unless you want to rush from attraction to attraction, invest in staying the night. You’ll thank me later…

As for where to stay, luckily Nikko is able to accommodate all budget ranges. The area offers everything from high-end luxurious ryokan with their own hot springs to hostels with bunk beds. You’re really spoiled for choice here. Do some research and choose whichever accommodations work best for you and your group. As a destination, Nikko is fairly well known by foreign tourists and many of the listings are available in English.

If possible, try to book as close to the Shinkyo Bridge as possible. The reasons why will be apparent later but suffice to say that doing so will cut down on travel time to and from Nikko’s historical sites. If you can’t find anything in the vicinity, fret not. Just know that you’ll need to also account for the extra trip when planning your schedule.

Getting to the Historic Nikko Area

A train pulls into one of Nikko’s two stations

To reach Nikko, you’ll need to venture deep into the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture. Thankfully though, this isn’t as challenging as it seems. Nikko is home to two train stations; one operated by the Tobu Group and another by JR. The former has express trains that depart periodically from both Ikebukuro and Shinjuku whereas the latter is covered by the JR Rail Pass.

I’m going to go ahead and recommend that you take Tobu Group’s 7:36 AM LTD. EXP NIKKO 1 train as it offers direct access. That said, those on a budget might consider making the most of JR Rail Passes by opting for the slower JR route. Regardless of how you get there though, be sure to consult Hyperdia or a similar service to help make sense of the train connections.

Note to those who are not exactly morning people, It would definitely behoove you to consider staying an additional night in Nikko. Rather than starting the day down in Tokyo, just head up in the late afternoon on the day prior to your excursion. This way, you’re already in Nikko and don’t need to worry about waking up super early to catch the first express train.

Day One in Nikko: The Shinkyo Bridge

Nikko’s iconic Shinkyo Bridge spans the rushing waters of the Daiya River

As alluded to before, I’ll be proposing a two-day itinerary. I’ve planned things so that you can easily see all the top attractions in Nikko while dodging most of the crowds at the Toshogu Shrine. Unfortunately, for the night owls out there though, this means getting a very early start but the alternative is suffering for hours on end while waiting. Trust me on this one. Nothing spoils a trip to Nikko like a two hour queue!

Anyway, you’ll want to begin by mustering your group at Nikko’s gorgeous Shinkyo Bridge. This beautiful structure is one of Japan’s three most beautiful bridges and marks the entrance to the shrines and temples. The current bridge dates back to 1636 but an archway of some sort has spanned the river beneath for much, much longer. Furthermore, for a small entrance fee you can even walk across it.

You’ll find the Shinkyo Bridge located at the end of a long slope that rises from the train stations. Truth be told, the sacred bridge is hard to miss but here’s a Google Map just in case. You can reach the Shinkyo Bridge and the starting point for this itinerary either via bus or on foot. While the former is indeed faster, the latter will take you by a number of charming shops. While the bus is of course the faster option, I recommend you make the hike at least once.

Note that if you plan to follow my suggested itinerary, you’re going to want to have everyone gather at the Shinkyo Bridge no later than 10:00 AM. If you take the 7:36 AM LTD. EXP NIKKO 1 up in the morning, this will leave you with just enough time provided you don’t dilly dally. For those who prefer to sleep in, consider staying over the night before in Nikko as mentioned.

Day One in Nikko: The Toshogu Shrine

The Nikko Toshogu Shrine’s ornately decorated gate that’s known as the Yomeimon

After taking in the exquisite beauty of the Shinkyo Bridge, it will be time to make a beeline for the Toshogu Shrine. This is by far Nikko’s most popular site and it would be wise to check the shrine off the list first before the busloads of tourists descend upon it. During peak times, the wait to enter the shrine can easily exceed an hour or two; you can sidestep the worst of it by visiting in the morning. Note that the entry fee is priced steeply and will run you 1,300 yen.

As previously noted, the Toshogu Shrine is the final resting place of none other than Tokugawa Ieyasu, the man who finally unified all of Japan after years of civil strife. Supposedly, the structure was originally nothing more than a simple mausoleum but was later enlarged by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu into the deific complex we see today. The impressive grounds are home to more than a dozen buildings and are situated amidst the forest.

Though there are of course many a beautiful shrine throughout Japan, few can hold a candle to the lavish Toshogu Shrine. The architecture employs extensive use of gold leafing which is a stark contrast to elsewhere in Japan where simple austerity has long been the norm. The Toshogu Shrine’s Yomeimon (pictured above) is perhaps the most ornately decorated gate in all of Japan. It was recently restored in 2017 and is an absolute wonder to behold.

The Nikko Toshogu Shrine’s famous “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys

Throughout the complex you’ll also find elaborate wood carvings that will blow your mind. The Toshogu Shrine is famous for its series of “see no evil, speak no evil, and hear no evil” monkeys. Unknown to most though, these are actually part of a longer sequence that details the entire circle of life so be sure to look carefully. There are also a fair number of other animals such as a sleeping cat and some elephants that were carved by an artist who had never actually seen one.

Astute travelers may note that the Toshogu Shrine sports both Shinto and Buddhist motifs. As I’ve written about before, it was common for places of worship to be both Buddhist and Shinto until the religions were deliberately separated during the Meiji period (1868 — 1912). Though many shrines across the country were stripped of their Buddhist elements, the two faiths were so intermingled at the Toshogu Shrine that a clean separation was not really possible.

Lastly, note that just outside of the actual shrine area, you’ll find the newly opened Nikko Toshogu Museum. This was erected to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Tokugawa Ieyasu’s death. Inside, you’ll find an impressive collection of the former shogun’s personal items on exhibit as well as a small movie theater. You can purchase a combined ticket that will cover entry to the Toshogu Shrine and the museum for 2,100 yen.

Day One in Nikko: Futarasan Shrine

The most centrally located of Nikko’s Futarasan Shrines

Directly next to the Toshogu Shrine stands the antediluvian Futarasan Shrine. Far more ancient than its gaudy neighbor, Futarasan Shrine’s roots date back to the founding of Nikko itself. The shrine was erected in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who set up the entire spiritual enclave in Nikko. Futarasan Shrine is dedicated to the area’s three most sacred mountains: Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho and Mt. Taro.

Unlike with the Toshogu Shrine, most of Futarasan Shrine is free to enter. That said, there’s a small area out back that will cost you a few yen to explore. This paid section features a forested garden with an offering hall containing a massive blade, some sacred trees, and up close views of the shrine’s main hall. While not necessarily a MUST, I’d suggest you pop out back as it is a nice addition to Futarasan Shrine’s free areas.

Note that there are actually two more Futarasan Shrines located even higher up in the nearby mountains of Nikko. One sits atop Mt. Nantai whereas the other is on the northern banks of nearby Lake Chuzen-ji. Unfortunately for the intrepid adventurers out there though, both of these are too far removed from the rest of Nikko’s attractions to warrant a visit (unless you’re able to budget for an additional day that is).

Day One Nikko: Taiyuin-byo

Nikko’s ornately decorated Taiyuin-byo, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu

Though Tokugawa Ieyasu’s lavish shrine is by far the most popular attraction in the area, he’s not the only shogun enshrined in Nikko. Located only a stone’s throw away from Futarasan Shrine, Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu also has his own complex. Known as Taiyuin-byo, this solemn site is a stark contrast to the ostentatious Toshogu Shrine. Its reverent modesty belies a hidden beauty. You can actually sense the great esteem Iemitsu held for his heroic grandfather Ieyasu.

Taiyuin-byo is a place I’ve covered in-depth before so rather than reinvent the wheel, I’ll direct you to this post instead if you’re interested in learning more. Suffice to say, if you’re in the area, you’d be wise to also pay your respects to Iemitsu. Though the ornate Toshogu Shrine is indeed magnificent, there’s something in the air at Taiyuin-byo that makes it feel even more sacred. I can’t quite convey it in words but you’ll just know it when you feel it.

Before moving on, please note that entry to Taiyuin-byo will run you 550 yen. You can also purchase a combined ticket which will grant you access to Rinno-ji for 1,000 yen. As this will be our final destination for day one, you can save a bit of cash by opting for the combined ticket when entering Taiyuin-byo.

Day One Nikki: A Local Lunch

A bowl of yuba, Nikko’s local specialty

At this point, your tummies will be rumbling; lucky for you, there are plenty of establishments to choose from. My suggestion is you head to this point and then search for something that looks appetizing. You’ll find that there’s a lot of traditional Japanese cuisine on offer. There’s still a lot more left to see so be sure to opt for something that will hold you over until dinner.

Shout out to the vegetarians out there, I suggest that you try something with yuba in it. This ingredient is made from tofu skin and is one of the meibutsu for Nikko and Tochigi Prefecture. It’s long been a staple of the area due to the high concentration of Buddhist temples in the area (traditionally monks are prohibited from consuming meat).

Day One in Nikko: The Imperial Villa

Nikko’s Tamozawa Imperial Villa during the months of autumn

After refueling, make your way towards the dazzling Tamozawa Imperial Villa. This unique structure seamlessly blends traditional Japanese architecture with that from the later Meiji period (1868–1912). Many of its 106 rooms were sourced from a building that once served as the Tokyo residence of a Tokugawa branch family. You’ll find the Tamozawa Imperial Villa located about 10–15 minutes walk away from Taiyuin-byo.

The Tamozawa Imperial Villas is one of Japan’s largest wooden buildings. That said, while still impressive in both size and girth, the present day dwelling is only one third of its former self. In years gone by, the villa was used as a summer getaway for the Imperial Family but suffered greatly from neglect following World War II. Luckily for you though, it has since seen extensive renovations and is now open to the public as a museum.

In addition to the peculiar mix of Japanese and Western architecture, the Tamozawa Imperial Villa is also rife with other curious cultural motifs as well. Inside, you’ll encounter both carpeted and tatami floors that are contrasted against a hodgepodge of hanging chandeliers and Japanese sliding paper doors. Further accentuating this alluring mishmash, there’s even a perfectly manicured traditional garden that surrounds the entire villa!

Entry to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa and its mesmerizing gardens will cost you 510 yen. Like with many of Nikko’s other attractions, this is a bit on the steeper side but what awaits inside is more than worth it. As you walk its charming halls, try to remember that much of the structure was lugged all the way up to Nikko from Tokyo!

Day One in Nikko: The Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Many statues of Jizo sit in a row at Nikko’s Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Are you afraid of ghosts?

The next spot on this itinerary is one of my favorite hidden gems in Nikko. Known as the Kanmangafuchi abyss, this ravine is home to around 70 stone statues of Jizo. For many years, locals in the area have referred to these effigies as the Bake Jizo or “Ghost Jizo.” Why’s that you ask? Well, according to provincial folklore, the number of statues changes every time you try to count them!

Though I’ve visited Nikko many times, I’ve never been able to muster the courage to actually tally their sum. Chances are quite high that you’ll be the only one in the area. Imagine, alone with only the Bake Jizo and your thoughts. The air takes on a eerie mystical quality that is difficult to capture in words. Suffice to say, if you spook easily, be sure to bring a travel buddy to stave off the chills!

You’ll find the Kanmangafuchi Abyss here, about a 10 minute walk from the Tomazawa Imperial Villa. There’s no entry fee to worry about here as the Bake Jizo are located outside along the chasm. Still, I’d make sure to offer a few yen to the Jizo statues to ward off any spirited apparitions just in case.

Day One in Nikko: Ancient Rinno-ji

A statue of Shodo Shonin stands in front of Nikko’s Rinno-ji temple complex

Our final stop for the first day of this itinerary will be Rinno-ji. This site is the present day incarnation of the first temple set up by Shodo Shonin when he brought Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. Since that time, Rinno-ji has gone through several evolutions but has stalwartly endured throughout the years. As of just recently Rinno-ji’s renovations were completed and the temple is now again open for all to see.

To reach Rinno-ji, you’ll need to make your way back to the main collection of shrines and temples. If you’re coming from the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, just follow this map and head back towards the Toshogu Shrine. The massive vermillion temple complex is really hard to miss and tends to stick out like a sore thumb. Should you get lost, just look for one of the many signs that will guide to you Rinno-ji.

Entry to Rinno-ji will run you 400 yen but hopefully you will have already picked up a combination ticket back at Taiyuin-byo. There’s a treasure hall and a charming little garden on the temple grounds to check out but exploring will cost you a couple of hundred yen a piece. You can skip these freely without worry but if you’re visiting in autumn, the gardens are especially beautiful.

Day Two in Nikko: Kinugawa Onsen

A golden oni statue stands outside Kinugawa Onsen Station to the north of Nikko

After an arduous first day, be sure to head back to your hotel and get some much needed rest. Despite being a major tourism destination, Nikko is quite sparse when it comes to nightlife. Most shops and restaurants close surprisingly early meaning there’s very little to do once the sun goes down. Instead of wandering around aimlessly in search of non-existent fun, head to bed, and prepare for an early start on the following day.

Day two of this itinerary will take you to the nearby town of Kinugawa Onsen. Centered around the Kinugawa River, this adorable little town is home to many ryokan that line the riverbank. Nestled within a valley, Kinugawa Onsen was built up extensively during Japan’s economic bubble as a resort town for Tokyoites. While a tad less popular today, the area is also home to many large amusements such as Edo Wonderland (more on that in a second).

To reach Kinugawa Onsen from Nikko, you’ll need to take the Tobu Nikko line to Shimo-Imaichi and then transfer to another train bound for Aizukogen-Ozeguchi. The journey will take you about 30 minutes but you’ll be riding on local trains. And, this means? Double check the departure times on Hyperdia so you do not miss your train. After all, unlike Tokyo, these trains only run every half hour or so.

Once you reach Kinugawa Onsen, exit the station and look directly in front of you. In addition to the golden ogre pictured above, you’ll also find a free ashiyu foot bath waiting for you. Especially in the colder months, this can be a much-needed perk to both warm you up and start the day. What’s more, there’s even a great view of the mountains from the foot bath. Just don’t dawdle for too long!

Though I strongly recommend making the side trip to Kinugawa Onsen, those who rather skip it are in luck. Edo Wonderland (which I’ll cover next) offers free shuttle buses to and from Nikko. While there are only a handful of departures per day, this convenient and cost-effective option is great for those looking to spend a bit more time exploring the shrines and temples. Refer to Edo Wonderland’s official site for the latest bus schedules and pickup points.

Day Two in Nikko: Edo Wonderland

A parade of courtesans walks through Nikko’s Edo Wonderland

The Kinugawa Onsen area is home to many amusements such as the Tobu World Square and the Grand Maze Palladium. While both of these are worth a visit in their own right, I’m going to suggest you instead opt for Edo Wonderland. This family-friendly theme park goes to great lengths to recreate the historical atmosphere of the Edo period (1603–1868). The entire park is comprised of Edo style buildings that fabricate the illusion of being transported back in time.

What makes the whole facade of Edo Wonderland work? Simply put, the actors. Skilled beyond belief, they are masters of remaining true to character. One could easily spend the day watching how the characters engage with one another and the visitors. When or where possible, pay special attention to the dynamic interplay between the characters’ differing social ranks (such as samurai and peasant). While much of the linguistic nuance will be lost on non-Japanese speakers, it nevertheless remains a sight to behold!

A girl in a kimono gets her hair done at Nikko’s Edo Wonderland

One of the really cool things about Edo Wonderland is that you too can join in on the costumed fun. By doing so, you become part of the “cast” and the park’s performers will interact with you in character based on your disguise. This is great way to deepen your experience and add a unique twist to your Edo Wonderland visit. You can choose from a wide variety of outfits ranging from samurai and ninja to even a lord. Rentals prices start at 2,800 yen for both men and women.

Moving on, know that there are numerous shops and restaurants scattered about Edo Wonderland. While many of these sell trinkets and souvenirs, others offer unique opportunities to learn about traditional crafts first hand. The park is also home to some other historic buildings such as the kodenmacho which features grisly scenes of prison life and torture. No one said life in medieval Japan was easy!

Edo Wonderland is also home to many other great historical experiences. Several of these adventures are geared toward children; nevertheless, there are several options not to be missed. Chief among these are the House of Illusion which uses optical tricks to mess with your sense of direction, the treacherous Ninja Trick Maze, and a haunted temple that takes you all the way to hell and back (be sure to give King Enma my regards).

A group of ninja battle it out in a performance at Nikko’s Edo Wonderland

Finally, know that no visit to Edo Wonderland is complete without seeing at least one of the park’s ingenious live performances. Shows are held multiple times throughout the day and range from the comedic to reenactments of traditional water magic. The Grand Ninja Theater stages a daring display of swordsmanship and martial arts. Should you need another reason to visit, the Edo Wonderland cast members are known to break into impromptu micro performances when out and about as well!

You can reach Edo Wonderland by bus from Kinugawa Onsen Station. The short ride will take about 20 minutes and cost your a few hundred yen. You can purchase both round trip fare and your passes to Edo Wonderland at a ticket both in Kinugawa Onsen Station. If you made a side trip to the ashiyu foot bath as suggested, you’ll find it on your left hand side. If not, make a right turn upon exiting the station and you should see it immediately.

Day Two in Nikko: Heading Home

The river that runs through the center of Tochigi Prefecture’s Kinugawa Onsen near Nikko

After visiting Edo Wonderland, it will be time to think about heading back to Tokyo. Luckily, Kinugawa Onsen has direct access to Asakusa via the Tobu group’s limited express trains. The final run departs around 7:00 PM and pulls into Tokyo around 9:30 PM. This allows for, a few extra hours for exploring the area if you so desire. Just be sure to purchase your return tickets BEFORE going to Edo Wonderland to ensure you have a reserved seat.

If you’re looking to extend your adventures, the Tobu World Square and the Grand Maze Palladium are good places to begin. Alternatively, there are a lot of great onsen in the area as well. Akebi Onsen and Yudokoro Suzukaze are two neighboring homey hot spring towns and located only fifteen minutes away from Edo Wonderland. Back at Kinugawa Onsen, Kinugawa Hotel Mikazuki also has an affordable day-use onsen as well.

Lastly, for the outdoor enthusiasts, roaming up and down the banks of the Kinugawa River is the ultimate time-killer. Especially in autumn, the area gleams with electrifying colors making for the perfect side excursion. Just be sure to keep track of the time so that you don’t miss the last express train back to Tokyo. It’s a long haul home riding local trains…