Nikko is a stunning World Heritage Site in Tochigi – about 2 hours Northwest of Tokyo by train. You could get there and back in a day if you really wanted to, but we highly recommend making this a long-weekend trip.
This magical area has a long history of sacred mountain worship. In summer and autumn it really comes alive with colours, textures and scents.
There’s so much to see and do in Nikko! Make sure you wake up early and pack your walking shoes plus plenty of layers (it does get a little colder further up the hiking trails).
We booked a really unique bed and breakfast, Earth Hostel Riverhouse, next to a river in the mountains. We had our own room, access to a huge old bathroom (converted onsen), and free pancakes for breakfast – definitely the fuel we needed for our first day of exploring.
There are plenty of other places to stay in and around Nikko town to suit all budgets.
Nikko town is such a charming base – just big enough to have an interesting stroll past every bar, restaurant and shop. We headed for the famous Shinkyou bridge at twilight and then stopped in for some drinks and a light dinner at a tiny izakaya.
World Heritage Shrines and Temples
Just north of Nikko town you’ll find the World Heritage temples and shrines, including the final resting place of the famous Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. This area is usually very crowded (even more so during public holidays) but it’s spread out so you can enjoy all the sights at your own place. Allow half a day or so for a casual stroll around.
The whole area is very soothing, with tall cedar trees and mossy ground. The main sites you’ll want to see are:
- Toshogu Shrine, where the famous Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried (see the lavish decoration from the outside for free, or pay to go in)
- Futarasan Shrine, founded in 782 and dedicated to the Nantai mountain god
- Rinnoji Buddhist Temple, founded in 766 and dedicated to Nikko’s three mountain gods (with golden Buddhist statues to represent the gods)
To get away from the crowds we recommend spending some time at the new Toshogu museum where you can learn about Tokugawa Ieyasu; the Shogun who brought Japan it’s 260 years of peace during the Edo Period. You’ll find exhibits of his armour, ceremonial swords, paintings and his favourite possessions. You can also watch a 20 minute animated movie about his life and upbringing, which gave a lot more context.
Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji
After another restful sleep at the bed and breakfast, we hopped on a bus to Kegon Falls (one of three best waterfalls in Japan). We soaked in the cool, fresh air and the rustic alpine architecture in the little town by the waterfall and lake. The falls are really impressive, and apparently even more so in winter when they freeze over.
Lake Chuzenji is just a short walk away. As soon as you arrive in this area you realise the air is different – thinner, clearer, more surreal somehow, like in a dream. The shore is dotted with cafes and couples walking hand in hand, enjoying the view. The lake is usually packed full of Japan’s much-loved swan boats – you can hire one and take a paddle around (it is worth it if you have some spare time, we enjoyed it!).
Take a bus round the lake towards the north and you’ll find Ryuzu falls, another beautiful waterfall and the starting point of many of Nikko’s walking trails.
This long trail winds through various different landscapes; from riverside paths and ancient forests to lush grassland and mysterious marshes.
We spent the first hour of the walk feeling like we were in an enchanted fairy land. All we could hear was the trickling of the river, the gentle rustling of animals and the jingling of small bells when we passed other hikers.
The green woods soon gave way to dry marshland – so different from the lush forests earlier. The golden grasses were surrounded by jagged mountains, and dotted with popular picnic areas. The wooden track wound it’s way through the marshes and we were reminded to ring big bells every few hundred meters, to scare away any hungry bears!
The marshes turned into a golden forest area which eventually led us up to the breathtaking Yudaki falls. The traditional shops at the rest area definitely came in handy. We tried some local fried manju (traditional dessert with a filling) and met a lovely Japanese family who were on holiday in the area.
Yumoto Onsen and Lake Yunoko
Don’t turn back yet! Eventually you’ll arrive higher up the mountain at Lake Yunoko and Yumoto Onsen, with weary feet and ready for a steaming hot foot onsen. The outdoor foot onsen is free, but you’ll need to pay for the traditional full onsen dotted around the forested area. Have a break, enjoy the fresh air and then hop on a bus to get back down to the main town centre.
You’ll leave Nikko feeling entirely rejuvenated – we promise!
Getting there: If you’re going for more than two days, buy the All Nikko Pass on the Tobu railway line. This includes return train tickets from Tokyo and a 4-day bus pass allowing you access to the mountains, waterfalls and shrines. There is also a 2-day Nikko Pass which only lets you travel around the shrine area.
Getting around: To get to the shrine area, catch the World Heritage tour bus from Tobu-Nikko or JR Nikko Station. To get to the Lake Chuzenji and Yumoto Onsen areas, take the busses bound for each area from Tobu-Nikko or JR Nikko Station
What to eat: Yuba dishes are a local specialty – try the yuba ramen. Yuba is the thin skin that comes off while boiling soymilk (and yes it is delicious!)
Have you been to Nikko? What were your favourite things to do?