Nikko Destination guide
Nikko travel guide - What to do, see and visit in Nikko
Table of contents:
Introduction to Nikko
Located in the Tochigi Prefecture will find Nikko, a beautiful, historic and peaceful place, away from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. The diversity of the landscape, from dramatic mountain ranges to serene hidden valleys makes Nikko tourism a perfect stop on your Japan itinerary. Located a quick two-hour trip from Tokyo, it can be visited either as a day trip or if you have the luxury of time on your side, it also makes for a fantastic base to explore the local area. Whether you’re a history buff, sunset chaser or nature fanatic, a Nikko visit promises to tick all of the boxes!
Nikko is full of authentic Japanese culture and interesting history. Known not only for its vast, rich nature but also for its many important temples and shrines. Traditionally, Nikko was the sacred land of mountain worship and is still famed today for its distinctive, mystical atmosphere. In addition to the fantastic Nikko sightseeing on offer, be sure not to miss the following things to do in Nikko.
Relaxing into a Japanese onsen is an experience not to be missed. The health benefits are far reaching, relaxing your body, mind and spirit. Tradition calls for total nudity is most authentic onsens which may sound extreme, but once you embrace bathing naked with others (of the same sex), it’s a really liberating and enjoyable experience. Nikko has many onsens to choose from, but Yashio is one of our favourites!
Treat yourself to an ancient Japanese speciality, made even more special in Nikko because of the pure-mineral rich water that is used. Kakigori, or sweet shaved ice, is characterized by a soft, cotton-candy-like texture and sweet yet subtle flavour. Especially when Nikko weather is at its hottest, there is no doubt that Kakigori is the best sweet treat to cool down!
Food is a cornerstone of Japanese culture; one's memory of a trip to Japan is often defined by its incredible wide range of cuisine options. A delicacy of Nikko is the deliciously diverse dish known as Yuba. Yuba is essentially a food made from the skin that forms on top of soy milk when heated, which in fairness, doesn’t sound like the most appetizing option on the menu however what makes Yuba so fantastic is how versatile it is. Most commonly used in ramen, soba or udon dishes but you can also find it in sushi, dumplings, burgers and even curry. The history of yuba in Nikko is intricately linked to the many shrines and temples which require the monks who live there to eat strict vegetarian diets, making yuba the perfect addition to their meals.
Art lovers should consider adding the Urushi Museum to their Nikko itinerary. As the only museum in Japan which specializes in Lacquer (Urushi) Art. The Museum offers a fascinating insight into the unique nature of Lacquer Art.
What To Do In Nikko
Nikko is one of the best value day trips to make from Tokyo using the JR Pass. For a relatively small city, there are so many things to do in Nikko. Ranging from ancient temples to stunning gardens and spectacular natural beauty, a visit to Nikko offers a complete break from city life. Once you have arrived, it is easy to get around on foot or by local bus. Buses run frequently from the city’s main stations to major tourist sites. All stops are numbered so you will have no problem finding out when your stop is.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine enshrines the most famous samurai leader and the founder of the Edo Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. The elaborate shrine complex was completed in 1636 and is the final resting place of Tokugawa. It is known as one of the best Shinto shrines to experience Japanese wooden sculptures.
Located just a stone's throw away from Tokugawa Ieyasu’s shrine lies his grandson's mausoleum. Whilst the two temples are neighbours, Taiyuin Temple is intentionally less luxurious than that of his grandfather, out of respect. A particularly interesting example of a Buddhism-Shinto hybrid architecture, Taiyuin is a great stop for history lovers to add to their Nikko itinerary.
Rinnoji is a collective name for some of Nikko’s most important and ornate temples, their elaborate structures dedicated to the gods. The temple complex consists of 15 temples and has been named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Nikko National Park is made up of serene lakes, mountainous forests and picturesque waterfalls. Standing amongst this gorgeous natural beauty is the Tamozawa Villa, one of the biggest wooden buildings in Japan. Tamozawa Villa was originally used as a former imperial summer house and today has been perfectly restored to show how former Japanese royalty used to live.
Around 7000 years ago, a violent volcanic eruption created Kanmangafuchi Abyss, which is now a natural walking course. The riverside walk is a few hundred metres long and makes for a pleasant afternoon stroll. In the wooded area of Kanmangafuchi Abyss, you will find a row of stone Jizo statues. How many exactly is up for debate as local folklore says that every time you count them, some disappear and then might reappear behind your back.
Futarasan Shrine is a Shinto shrine that is dedicated to Nikko’s three most sacred mountains: Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro. Whilst it may not be the most lavish or visually impressive shrine in Nikko, it does carry significant religious importance.
The Botanical Gardens in Nikko is an institute for research and education, and are owned and operated by the prestigious University of Tokyo. The focus is to enrich the collections of temperate and alpine plants of Japan for the purpose of botanical research. For those looking for a nice area to wander through or perhaps to have a picnic lunch, the Botanical Gardens are the perfect spot.
Shinkyo is a beautiful bridge stretching across the Daiya River, located at the entrance of the Nikko Toshogu and Futarasan Shrine. It is locally known as a sacred bridge and is considered important cultural property.
When a waterfall has been painted by many different artists, you know it’s going to be good. Once you’re ready to view Kirifuri Waterfall in real life, you can access it via an easy 10 minute hike from the parking lot. Towering at an impressive 75 metres tall, the waterfall is surrounded by dramatic cliffs, and its expansive nearby forest makes for a beautiful kaleidoscope of colours year-round. The beauty of Nikko travel is the diversity; in the morning you could be learning about the intricate history and in the afternoon, viewing jaw-dropping natural scenery.
This historic Kanaya Hotel has been a well-preserved example of a late-samurai residence. Since 1973 It has also been an early-hotel for foreign visitors. Today it is known as Japan’s oldest western-style resort hotel and is a popular addition to Nikko sightseeing.
For centuries people would make the journey to Irohazaka for a profound religious experience, however the modern-day calls for lovers of the art of drifting cars. With 48 hairpin bends, the twin roads are encased in a spectacular show of trees, especially during autumn when the leaves turn burnt shades of reds and oranges. With views of Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Waterfall, the natural beauty of the area is absolutely not to be missed.
For the ultimate escape from the city, head into nature and check out some of Nikko’s many fantastic hiking trails. Some of our favourite trails include Mt Nakimushi or Lake Chuzenji Obseravtaion Course which both take around four and a half hours. Senjogahara is almost entirely on a boardwalk, making for easy walking without sacrificing beautiful scenery. The entire loop takes around 2 hours 30 minutes but if you would like to extend it, you can carry on past Yudaki Falls and Lake Yunoko to Yumoto Onsen to relax after your hike. For something a little shorter, the Lake Sainoko and Senjugahama Course takes around an hour and twenty minutes and is just 3.2km.
Just two hours from Tokyo lies Nikko National Park, a sprawling haven of picturesque waterfalls, historic lakes and historic temples. The park comprises 250,000 acres of ancient trees and mountain vistas to enjoy. Escape the sights and sounds of the city to experience the serenity that can only be found in nature.
Whether you choose to stay in a Ryokan (a traditional Japanese Inn that typically features tatami-matted rooms and communal baths) or a hotel, chances are there will be an onsen nearby. A few of our favourite Nikko onsen include:
- Yumoto (literally “origin of hot water”) is a small hot spring town in the back of Okunikko and is a part of Nikko National Park. The onsens here offer both indoor and outdoor hot spring baths.
- Kingugawa Grand Hotel Yumenotoki is surrounded by lush Japanese gardens, fitted with large windows offering views to the mountains. You can select between spacious public baths or reserve a cosy private bath.
- KAI Nikko is a hot spring ryokan located beside the stunning Lake Chuzenji and Mt. Nantaisan. Choose from public or private cedar-lined baths.
Nikko Travel Tips
Whilst Nikko is often a side trip in itself, for those who have more time, the areas around Nikko offer fantastic scenic beauty and local culture. Okunikko is the mountainous region of Nikko that lies at a higher elevation, deeper into the mountains west of Nikko's city center. Whichever time of year you choose to visit Nikko, you will be in for a treat.
With an altitude of 1753m, Hangetsuyama is an imposing mountain at the southeastern corner of Lake Chuzenji. Near the summit is an observation deck which can only be described as offering phenomenal views of the Okunikko region. Whilst the trail is rather steep, it is absolutely worth it for the unforgettable views.
Created some 20,000 years ago when Mount Nantai erupted and blocked the river, Lake Chuzenji is a scenic lake with a circumference of 25km. Considered a sacred spot, the lake was closed to women, horses and cows until 1872. Today there are many watersports including water skiing, kayaking, windsurfing, parasailing and wakeboarding. Alternatively, pack a towel and a good book and head to the shores for a refreshing dip. Set at over 4000ft, Lake Chuzenji certainly won’t be the warmest lake you swim in, but it might just be the most scenic!
Senjogahara is a scenic marsh extending to the north of Lake Chuzenji and at the west foot of Mount Nantai. The 5km hiking trail connects the Yudaki waterfall to the Akanuma Nature house. At an elevation of around 1400m, the trail is a haven for nature lovers and bird watchers.
Edo Wonderland is an incredible history theme park which has recreated Japanese town life during the Edo Period. The cultural theme park is a wonderful example which brings together culture, history and authentic Japanese ambience. Live performances include a ninja show, water-magic shows and oiran dancing. Full of many exciting things to see and do, Edo Wonderland is a super fun experience for the entire family.
Whilst Nikko may not be one of the first towns that you think of when you are planning your visit to Japan, the underrated nature of it is what makes it so very special. With all of Nikko’s famous shrines clustered within a two kilometre radius from the Tobu and JR Nikko Station, a day trip is very possible from Tokyo. However, if you have a few days to spare then getting amongst Nikko nature is a phenomenal way to immerse yourself in true Japanese culture. Travellers are often drawn to Nikko for the famous temples and shrines but once they arrive, find there’s so much more that the entire area has to offer.
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