Last Updated on 09/10/2021 by secretmoona
Less that two-hour train ride from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, you will find Nikko (日光), a beautiful city. It’s a perfect destination for a break of two days or more. Nikko also has an incredible history and offers important Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, natural hot springs, national forests and waterfalls. Anyone planning to attend Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics should spend some time in Nikko with this Guide to Nikko.
Nikko is highly recommended to anyone looking for something a little different from the usual Japanese itinerary. Nature lovers will feel at home surrounded by the natural park, hot springs, lakes, waterfalls and walking/hiking trails. It appeals to history lovers too with a number of UNESCO World Heritage sites including the famous Toshogu shrine.
Guide to Nikko: Things to do and see
Things to do in Nikko
Let’s take a look at all the things you can do in the area. This ultimate guide to Nikko includes some of the top things to do if you have two days or more. Without further ado, let’s explore the spots you shouldn’t miss in Nikko.
Cross/admire Shinkyo Bridge
Shinkyo Bridge is the picture-perfect bridge marking the entrance to Nikko’s shrines and temples. It crosses the Daiya River and is surrounded by a landscape that seems like a painting. This beautiful vermillion lacquered structure has been named as one of Japan’s three most beautiful bridges, so it’s no wonder tourists wait in turn to take a picture! Built in 1636, the bridge has been rebuilt several times. Visitors can walk across but I believe it’s better to look at the bridge than crossing it.
Address: Shinkyo, Nikko City, Nikko, Tochigi | Admission: ¥300
Visit Toshogu Shrine
Following on from admiring the sacred bridge, we made our way towards the shrines and temples of the UNESCO World Heritage site via the Nikko Forest. The site is composed of more than 100 religious buildings. However, Toshogu Shrine (東照宮, Tōshōgū) is the most popular of all. It is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Shogunate which united Japan during the Edo Period.
Japan is full of beautiful religious buildings but Toshogu is amongst the best. Upon seeing it, you can’t but admire the work that has gone into building it. You can tell that the best architects and craftsmen have been called to design this building. From the impressive wood carvings, bright colours to decoration with gold leaf, it is a stark contrast to the more sober shrines across the archipelago.
Look out for the different animal carvings such as the “sleeping cat”, imaginary elephants (they have been done by a craftsman who had never seen one!) and the famous “see no evil, hear no evil and do no evil” three monkeys of wisdom that represent the blind, the mute and the deaf.
Address: 2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi 321-1431 | Admission: ¥1300
Situated next to Toshogu, Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社, Futarasan Jinja) was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who introduced Buddhism to Nikko. The shrine, dedicated to the deities of Nikko’s three most sacred mountains: Mt. Natai, Mt. Nyoho and Mt. Taro, is less impressive than the other shrines. However, it blends well with nature and mountains surrounding it.
This shrine is made of several buildings most of which can be visited for free however there is a small area which costs a small fee. The Shinkyo Bridge previously mentioned is part of this shrine. The main building is accessed by an imposing torii gate.
Address: 2307 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi 321-1431 | Admission: Free – ¥300 (paid area)
Ieyasu is not the only shogun enshrined in Nikko. His grandson Iemitsu also has it own mausoleum although not as extravagant. Both are similar in terms of details but Taiyuinbyo (大猷院廟, Taiyūinbyō) is simpler. Iemitsu made that decision out of respect for his grandfather. Entry can be combined with the ticket to Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺, Rinnōji). Like Futarasan, Rinnoji Temple includes several buildings. The main building hosts the three gilded wooden buddhas.
Address: | Admission: ¥550 or ¥900 (Taiyuinbyo and Sanbutsudo)
Be aware that Toshogu shrine is very popular so, during peak times, the wait to enter can exceed an hour and even more. It was extremely busy during our visit, with hordes of tourists so I would recommend visiting Toshogu first. After battling with the other tourists, we decided to give it a quit.
The beauty of Nikko is not limited to its three major sites. Other wonderful places to see, in the city as in its surroundings.
Explore Tamozawa Imperial Villa
The Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park surrounded by cedars and pines trees is a perfect blend of Japanese architecture. The villa was once used as a residence for the Tokugawa family and summer vacation spot for the Imperial family. Unused following WWII, it has now been renovated and transformed into a museum. The villa has been decorated with a mix of Japanese and Western furniture.
Within the 106 rooms, you can find both tatami mats and carpeted floors, chandeliers in big contrast with sliding doors. What makes the visit even more enjoyable is the peaceful traditional garden surrounding the villa.
Address: 8-27 Honcho, Nikko City | Admission: ¥510
This spot although a little scary for some was one of my favourite attractions in Nikko. This little hidden gem was only about 10 minutes walk from the villa. This wooded site, is known as the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, has a row of stone Bake Jizō (ghost jizo) statues.
It is said that nobody knows their exact number because apparently each time you count them, you end up with a different number. I didn’t bother counting as I was enjoying the surroundings. The row of statues, the river and waterfalls along the way make this area a peaceful attraction.
Address: Nikko, Tochigi 321-1415 | Admission: Free
Kinugawa River boat tour
We decided to stay in Kinugawa Onsen, a small riverside town known for its complex of onsen hotels. One of the fun things to do around the area is to take The Kinugawa Line Kudari River Cruise, a boat ride down the Kinugawa River. The wooden boats are a great activity to do as you get to experience the beauty of the area and enjoy scenic views of the valley.
The ride is enjoyable any season but I find it more impressive in autumn with the yellow, orange and red leaves. After 40 minutes ride, a shuttle bus takes people back to the starting point near Kinugawa Onsen station. If you are looking for something a little more thrilling, you can go rafting instead.
Address: 1414 Ohara, Kinugawa Onsen, Nikko-city | Admission: ¥2,800
Take a dip in hot springs (onsen)
Japan is sitting on a volcanic bed so has many natural hot springs across the country. Naturally, Nikko which is surrounded by mountains has lots of onsen sites. When in Japan, onsen is a must even though it can be daunting for first timers. Either stay at a ryokan or hotel with hot springs or buy a day pass to access some hot springs.
The hot springs each offer a different atmosphere and spring quality. Also, each will have a distinct colour, smell, feeling to the skin, and effect. The hot spring of Kinugawa has been famous for its effect to heal burn injuries. No matter the onsen type, as soon as you step into the steaming hot water, you instantly forget about all your worries.
Experience a ryokan stay
Japanese inn or ryokan are not like the standard western hotel. These types of establishments are usually on the high side so they shouldn’t be booked just to sleep, bu for to experience: onsen bath and kaiseki ryori dining. Typically Japanese people take less vacation so when they do, they like to spend it at a ryokan, soak in a hot spring and refresh their body and mind.
During our stay in Nikko, we stayed in Kinugawa Onsen. Our ryokan – Tsuganoki – was the perfect spot for an introduction to onsen and ryokan stay. The Japanese inn was small with only 2 public baths (one indoor and one outdoor). They felt intimate enough for an onsen virgin like me to soak away my fatigue and stress.
Chances are that your ryokan will include dinner and breakfast, be sure to allocate time to enjoy the sumptuous food. The kaiseki ryori is a work of art and is, in my opinion, an experience that should be ticked off during your trip to Japan.
Try Nikko’s best food
Japanese food is rich as each region has its own specialities. The natural mountain water of Nikko is not only used for the hot springs but also for the production of sake and to make crushed ice. This is how pure the water is! If you have spent time in Japan in summer, you will know how popular these summer sweets are. Other local dishes include soba (buckwheat noodles), yuba (tofu skin), Tochigi wagyu (enjoyed as sukiyaki, shabushabu, yakiniku or simple steak). The clear-water rivers also produce some delicious freshwater fishes like ayu (trout).
Things to do near Nikko
Visits to the temples and shrines of Nikko are usually accompanied by a tour in the remote area of Okunikko or Northern Nikko. Two days was not enough to do most of the attractions available in the region. If I ever plan another trip to Japan, I will be going back to enjoy the beautiful landscape, preferably during a different season. Other sights that we didn’t see but wanted to explore are:
Nikko National Park
Start with Lake Chuzenji which was created when Mount Nakai erupted. It’s a symbol of natural beauty. If you have the Tobu Nikko All Areas Pass, be sure to hop on a cruise boat and enjoy the beautiful scenery. Follow by visiting the Italian and British Embassy villas. These villas were the summer vacation home of the Italian and British embassy staff and their guests during the Meiji period. Both buildings sport western and Japanese design features. Alternatively, you can go on a lakeside trails and walk around the entire lake (around 15 mile.)
Kegon-no-taki (Kegon Falls) is one of the top three waterfalls in Japan. At 97 metres high, it is the highest of the 40+ waterfalls in Nikko. Ryuzu Waterfall is another must-see.
There are many walking and hiking trails along the national park.
Edo Wonderland is the perfect attraction for lovers of traditional Japanese culture. This theme park is a reconstruction of a town from the Edo period. Visitors can rent clothes and discover traditional buildings, shops, museums, restaurants, attractions and live shows to be transport edback in time.
Tobu World Square
The other theme park invites people on a world tour instead. You can explore a miniature version of some of the most famous sites in the world. They are divided into zones: Japan (ancient and modern), Asia, Europe, America and Africa (Egypt)
Practical information – Guide to Nikko
In addition to this guide to Nikko, you will be able to find all the information you need to prepare your trip by visiting Nikko City Tourism Association.
Getting to Nikko from Tokyo
Although Nikko is located deep in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, it’s easily accessible from Tokyo. Nikko is reachable via the Tobu Railway and Japan Railways (JR) and makes a good one or two day trip from Tokyo. You can get the Nikko:
By Tobu Railway from Asakusa Station
From Asakusa station, you can either get on the fast and expensive Tobu Limited Express trains or the cheaper but slower local trains. The limited express between Asakusa and Tobu-Nikko Station takes about 2 hours and costs approximately 2500 – 2800 Yen each way. The local trains cost 1360 Yen but takes about 45 minutes longer and requires more changes.
For international visitors, Tobu Railway offers two discount passes which include a return trip and unlimited travel in the area. Nikko World Heritage Area Pass (2000 Yen) includes round trip between Tokyo and Nikko as well as unlimited travel between Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen. The pass is valid for 2 days. The Nikko All Area Pass (4150/4520 Yen) is ideal if you plan to stay longer as it is valid for four days and allows you to travel further. Please note that you will have to pay a supplement with both passes for the express train from Tokyo to Nikko.
By a limited express from Shinjuku Station
Direct limited express is also accessible from Shinjuku Station. Take the JR Saikyo Line to Omiya Station (30min), then the JR Tohoku Main Line (Utsunomiya Line) to Utsunomiya Station (30min), and finally the JR Nikko Line until JR Nikko Station (42min). The journey takes two hours and costs 4000 Yen.
By Japan Railways (JR)
This option is best for JR Pass holders. Take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen (from Tokyo or Ueno Station) to Utsunomiya Station and change to the JR Nikko Line. This journey takes about an hour and 45 minutes with a cost of about 5500 Yen one way or free with JR Pass.
Hopefully, this guide to Nikko would have inspired you to take a trip to the city. If you have already been to Nikko, what was your favourite experience?
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Where to next?
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