With its many temples amid lush green and hilly forests, Nikko really is an open air museum. A 2 hour train ride from Tokyo will bring you straight to a dazzling piece of Japanese history. UNESCO World Heritage combined with beautiful nature: that’s Nikko in a nutshell. Spend a day here and you’ll be ready to face the hustle and bustle in Tokyo again.
It’s not without a reason that Nikko is visited by thousands of travelers and Japanese inhabitants every year. There are few other places beside Kyoto and Nara where you’ll find this many temples within walking distance of each other. Of course, the drawback is that it can get really crowded here, especially during high season and weekends. The spirituality of the place can feel a little lost. If you want to avoid the crowds, your best option is to stay overnight in Nikko and get up early in the morning to discover the national park. Don’t worry about being bored. The region has plenty of gorgeous sights in store, especially in fall when the forests show their most beautiful colours.
Tip: The national park is quite big and has many small and bigger temple complexes on offer. Keep in mind that you have to pay a separate fee for every temple. It can be wise to choose which ones you really want to see beforehand if you’re limited in time or budget.
Sights in Nikko
Right before you enter the National Park, you’ll pass the pretty red Shinkyo Bridge. You can walk on it if you’re up to pay a fee. But let’s be honest: that’s money down the drain since you’ll get the best view from the bridge that connects the main road to the park.
One of the most beautiful sights, and therefore also the most visited one, is the Toshogu Shrine. The complex consists of multiple buildings and serves as the final resting place for Tokuwaga Leyasu. He’s the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from the 16th century well into the 19thcentury. The buildings are nicely decorated with Shinto and Buddhist elements, a combination which is rather rare in Japan. In front of the entrance, you’ll also find a five storey high pagoda.
The biggest and most important temple in Nikko is Rinnoji, found at the beginning of the national park. When we were there, reconstruction works were being done so we didn’t go in. But when they’re done, you should definitely go in. We’ve heard it’s really worth a visit.
Kanmangafuchi and the Jizo statues
If you’ve had enough of temple hopping at some point, you’ll be glad to hear about Kanmangafuchi. This pretty piece of nature consists of an abyss of a few hundred meters long through which a river flows. The path that runs along the river is an easy walk and home to another must visit: the Jizo statues. 70 Buddha statues are lined up in a row, like guards watching out over the river. Jizo is the protector of children who die before their parents do. He’s the god of smiles, enemy of bad spirits, he who heals the wounds of a mother who’s lost a child and guardian of travelers. Jizo statues are often ornated with red hatsand bibs, the colour of protection and safety. Whatever may be true, they sure make for great pictures and their presence adds to the mystery of this place.
Lunch in Nikko
One of the specialties of Nikko and surroundings is Yuba, literally translated as ‘tofuskin’. This traditional tofu is made from the top layer popping up on soy milk during the creation process. This layer is then being dried and re-hydrated, which gives it a rubbery texture. We’re normally not big on tofu: it’s often a tasteless sponge that feels too much like caoutchouc. Yuba, however, tasted surprisingly good!
We had lunch at Kishino, where Yuba is on the menu. Don’t be scared off by the souvenir shop behind which this tiny restaurant can be found or the uninviting setting. The grannies running the restaurant and shop prepare delicious dishes, perfect for a budget friendly lunch.
How to get to Nikko?
Nikko is approximately 150 kilometers away from Tokyo. It’ll take you two hours by train to get there. Your first option is the Tobu Express running direct lines to Nikko, but which is covered only in part by the JR pass. Another option is to switch trains at Omiya and Utsonomiya. The latter option may sound complicated, but the Japanese railway system is so well set up that it’s really a piece of cake. We took the first direct Tobu Express from Shinjuku Station to have enough time to spend a full day in Nikko. On the way back, we took the route with the two stopovers.
Be aware that Nikko has two train stations that are located at walking distance from each other, so check which one you need for your return journey. When we arrived, we asked about the return schedule in both stations, which came in very handy.
The national park with all its temples is a 30 minute walk from the square in front of the station. 5 hours should be enough to cover most of the area, depending on how soon your saturation point for temples is reached 😉