Nikko provides the perfect setting for those who want to combine exploring nature with a bit of reflection. The area is so beautiful – it almost seems like an escape to a distant world. Blessed with mountain landscapes and centuries-old monuments, it sure is one of those places to leave you gaping in awe and enchantment. The best way to experience it is to succumb to its slow pace. Take your time and indulge all your five senses as you go about Nikko’s nature, history, and culture.
1. Visit a World Heritage Shrine – Toshogu Shrine
Toshogu Shrine is the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. A designated World Heritage Site by UNESCO, it is comprised of grand monuments and structures adorned with intricate carvings inspired by religious beliefs and philosophy. Adding to its otherworldly beauty is the lush forest that envelopes it. The long approach to the shrine is towered over by centuries-old cedar trees. It stretches for 37 kilometers and is considered to be the world’s longest tree-lined avenue.
Address: 2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi
2. Appreciate the surrounding scenery at Kinu Tateiwa Otsuribashi Suspension Bridge
Nature in Nikko is so effortlessly attractive that a mere stroll on a bridge is a worthwhile activity in itself. With the rushing Kinugawa river below, stone cliff faces on both sides, and teeming plant life, hanging out in mid-air like this is a nice way to appreciate the surrounding sights and sounds. In the fall, it is one of the best places to be mesmerized by autumn colors. This bridge, by the way, is a 150-meter suspension bridge that sways gently with the breeze. Just a stone’s throw away from the Kinugawa Onsen train station, it’s a cheap thrill for adventure seekers and a nerve-racking walk for those with fear of heights.
Address: 1436 Kinugawaonsen Ohara, Nikko-shi, Tochigi-ken
3. Visit the great Kegon Falls
One of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan, Kegon Falls is a 100-meter drop of rushing water from the nearby Lake Chuzenji. The main waterfall is flanked by twelve smaller ones and is surrounded by stone walls and verdant forests. There are two observation decks in the area – an upper observation platform that is free of charge, and a paid one located at the base of the falls. There is also an alternate view, one that includes Lake Chuzenji in the background. This scene is captured from the Akechidaira Observatory, a ropeway-accessed spot near the top of Irohazaka Road. Catch this in autumn and you’re in for a jaw-dropping visual: Kegon Falls standing out among red and orange mountains.
Address: Chugushi, Nikko, Tochigi
Price: ¥550 (Paid observation deck)
4. Enjoy Yuba, a Nikko delicacy
Yuba or tofu skin is a must-try food item when traveling to Nikko. It is served everywhere – as street food and in restaurants, prepared in overwhelmingly diverse ways. The simplest way to enjoy it is to eat it fresh, fermented, or deep-fried; but don’t be surprised if it’s also added as an extra ingredient in popular dishes like ramen, udon, gyoza, Japanese curry, and even burgers. For dessert, there’s yuba ice cream and cookies with yuba cream filling. It really is quite fascinating how the locals can get so creative with the use of this food item. Don’t worry about trying as many different yuba dishes as you can. It is, after all, one of the healthiest food.
5. Glide down the river onboard the Kinugawa Boat Cruise
Explore the Kinugawa River onboard a traditional wooden boat. Down the river, passengers get to enjoy up close the surrounding trees that change color with the seasons; the imposing rock boulders that the boatmen skillfully avoid; the life forms nurtured by this thriving ecosystem, and a little bit of adventure as the boat navigates through minor rapids. The entire journey takes about 40 minutes to finish. It is best to make a reservation and call first before going, as the tours are highly dependent on weather and water conditions.
Address: 1414 Ohara Kinugawa Onsen, Nikko, Tochigi
Price: ¥2,700 (Adult, Highschool Students), ¥1,200 (Children ages 4 & up), Free (Children ages 1 to 3)
Website: http://linekudari.com (Japanese only)
6. Have a relaxing soak at an onsen
Having a nice relaxing bath at an onsen is the best example of taking things slow in Nikko. The most accessible ones can be found along the Kinugawa River – in particular, the areas of Kinugawa-Onsen and Kawaji-Onsen. In both places, most onsen ryokans accommodate day trip guests, though staying overnight is really the best way to enjoy the experience. Savor the stillness and spend some time to heal the mind and body. You definitely won’t be missing the world outside while literally immersed in this relaxing space.
7. Drive up Irohazaka in autumn
Autumn is the season when Nikko is the prettiest. Everywhere in this mountain town is practically a good spot to admire fall foliage, but some spots are just more breathtaking than the rest. Among these is Irohazaka – the famous winding road that connects the low-lying areas of Nikko to the upland regions around Lake Chuzenji. These zigzags of concrete are but tiny breaks in the dense cover of trees dominating the area. Come autumn months, the slopes burst with hues of red, orange, and yellow. It is indeed a distracting beauty that adds to the driving hazards of this already dangerous highway. The good thing is there are a couple of viewing pit stops along the way to take in the scenery. The one not to miss is the Akechidaira Plateau near the top of the road, where from this point, you can ride a ropeway to reach an observation platform. The view from here is truly a spectacular thing to witness. Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Falls, and the forested slopes of Nikko come together into a single panoramic frame.
8. Visit the beautiful Chuzenji Lake
Nestled in the mountains that tower over Nikko lies the scenic lake of Chuzenji. It was formed some 20,000 years ago after the eruption of Mt. Nantai. Today, it is a site of natural wonders and likewise a source of spiritual energy for the many who believe the place to be sacred.
There are several ways to experience Chuzenji Lake. A popular option is to join a sightseeing boat cruise that departs from the lake’s southern shores near Chuzenjiko Onsen. Tours are available from April through November and are a choice between a short 10-minute shuttle across the lake or a 60-minute journey around it.
Those athletic enough who’d rather exercise instead can alternatively embark on a walk along the lakeside trails. The hike is easy but hilly and covers about 25 kilometers circumferential distance. For an elevated view, there’s an observation deck at the top of Hangetsuyama – a mountain on the southeastern coast of Chuzenji. There are, of course, hiking trails up this mountain, but if you want a speedier and less strenuous option, you can either take a bus or taxi to get there. Finally, after soaking in the sights, might as well also soak your tired body in an onsen. Go for a few hours of relaxation in one of the many hot spring resorts in Chuzenjiko before heading back to central Nikko.
9. Enjoy a casual hike at Ryuokyo
Ryuokyo is the section of the Kinugawa River highlighted by beautiful gorges. Located south of Kawaji Onsen, the hiking trail to explore this area starts at Ryuokyo Station and is a 7-kilometer journey upstream. Though classified as a beginner’s course, it is not without its share of mini-adventures. The trail takes you through interesting rock formations, small waterfalls, meandering streams, rich vegetation, and a few pleasant surprises. Needless to say, this stretch is extremely photogenic at any given time of the year. However, as with all the attractions in Nikko, autumn makes these surroundings more special.
10. Meet ninjas and samurais at Nikko Edo Wonderland
Nikko Edo Wonderland is a theme park that depicts the life back in the time of the samurais and ninjas. Here, you can view different Edo-period townscapes; eat the popular dishes from that era; dress-up – as a ninja, a geisha, a samurai, or as an ordinary person in Edo-era; and watch a host of cultural performances. For kids, they can even sign-up for ninja training! The whole experience at Nikko Edo Wonderland is a throwback trip that is enjoyable for kids and adults alike. A lot of very old-school Japanese fun is in store for you.
Address: 470-2 Karakura, Nikko, Tochigi
Price: ¥4,700 (Adults), ¥2,400 (Children ages 6 to 12), Free (Children ages 5 & below), ¥3,290 (Senior)
All price information in this article is as of January 2017.
Thumbnail image is from Flickr.