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TRAVEL | Where to Go


Article | Dayna Hannah

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As the Japanese say, "You can't say kekkō (that you're satisfied) without seeing Nikko." Nikko City in Tochigi Prefecture is a picturesque town two hours outside of Tokyo. Surrounded by mountains and forests, its beauty attracted political and religious leaders over the centuries who built ornate temples and shrines.

Now, you can explore Nikko’s masterful architecture, walk down roads lined with Edo period homes, and take in the breathtaking natural scenery. To make the most of your day, leave early and avoid crowds by going on a weekday. Also, check out these fabulous destinations and things to do in Nikko!


Stretching over the Daiya River, the Shinkyo Bridge marks the entranceway to Nikko's UNESCO World Heritage Site area. Shinkyo has stood since 1636, although there's evidence that an earlier construction preceded it. Between October and November, the maple trees along the bank turn brilliant colors that attract visitors from all over the world.

Given its age, the Shinkyo Bridge was inaccessible until it underwent reconstructions in the late 90s and early 2000s. Now, you can cross it for a nominal fee, or take in the view from the sidewalk. After snapping a few pictures, cross the road and head into the forest which opens to the temple complexes.


In the 8th century, a monk named Shodo Shonin introduced Buddhism to Nikko and established Rinnoji. Considered the most significant temple in the area, it features fifteen buildings with intricate carvings and bright colors. The most well-known among them is the Three Buddha Hall (Sanbutsudo), which features golden statues of Amida, Bato-Kannon, and a thousand-armed Kannon.

Across from Sanbutsudo is a treasure house filled with historical Buddhist and Tokugawa artifacts, and beyond there, you’ll see the Shoyoen garden. Around early November, the maples that surround the central pond become fiery autumn hues. The gorgeous sight attracts both locals and tourists, so try to go to Rinnoji on weekday mornings in fall.


Neighboring Rinnoji Temple, you’ll find the elegant Nikko Tosho-gu, which enshrines Tokugawa Ieyasu’s spirit. From 1467 - 1600 AD, Japan was in a near-constant state of warfare across the county. Tokugawa unified the states and ushered in a relatively peaceful era ruled by shoguns.

Approaching Toshogu Shrine’s torii gate, you’ll find the admissions office next to a five-storied pagoda. Outside of the Main Hall, you can spot hundreds of wood carvings, including the legendary “Three Wise Monkeys.” Tokugawa’s mausoleum lies beyond the Sakashitamon Gate.


Near Toshogu Shrine, a moss-covered wall will guide you on your way to Futarasan Shrine. Shodo Shonin also built this place in 782 AD and dedicated it to the deities of Nikko’s three most sacred mountains. Although Futarasan doesn’t have as many embellishments as Toshogu, it represents the heart of Shintoism in Nikko.

Most of the grounds are free to enter except for a small area left of the Offering Hall. It features a small garden surrounded by cedars and a spring. Futarasan also holds the monumental Yayoi Matsuri in April. The 1200-year-old festival celebrates spring with a parade of floats and lively music.


Nikko is at the base of a national park but exploring it takes longer than a typical one-day trip. For a small dose of the outdoors, you can take a bus via the Irohazaka Winding Road to see one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. Along with Nachi Falls in Wakayama and Fukuroda Falls in Ibaraki, Kegon Falls is a must-see for any nature lover.

You can view the waterfall from a free observatory platform, but for a closer look, you'll need to pay out a few hundred yen and take a 100-meter deep elevator. Arguably, the best time to visit Nikko is in the fall, but Kegon Falls is equally impressive in winter when the water almost completely freezes over.


If you can’t get enough of Japan’s scenery and still have some time in your day, hop on another bus to head to Ryuzu Falls. En route, you’ll pass Lake Chuzenji and Mount Nantai, which are two of the most scenic locations in Nikko National Park. Ryuzu Falls stands at 210 meters and gets its name from its resemblance to a dragon’s head.

The autumn leaves surrounding Ryuzu Falls are astounding in early October, but it’s well worth the visit year-round. It's also a place where you can relax after an exhausting day. There's a small cafe that offers a stunning view for you to enjoy as you sip a cup of coffee or green tea.


You can take the Shinkansen part of the way to Nikko using the Japan Rail Pass, or board the Tobu Railway on the Nikko Line for a fair price. International travelers can also buy discounted rail and bus passes at places like Ikebukuro and Tobu Asakusa Stations by showing their passports.

Tobu Nikko Station has plenty of coin lockers on the first and second floors to drop off any extra luggage you might be carrying. Outside, you’ll immediately see several bus stops and maps written in multiple languages. Keep in mind that in some Japanese cities like Nikko, you get on the bus through the back door and off through the front.

Buses accept payments made in cash or by metro card. If you use a card such as Passmo or Suica, beep in when you board and beep out when you exit. With cash, you’ll see a ticket dispenser next to the card scanner. Show it to the driver when you get off, and they’ll let you know the price.


Being a small town, Nikko doesn’t have as many restaurant options as Tokyo, but there’s one unique cuisine worth trying. A visit to Nikko isn’t complete without sampling the regional delicacy. Yuba is a slightly sweet dish made from layers of skin that form on boiled soy milk, and it has a similar consistency to tofu.

You’ll have no problem spotting yuba restaurants near Nikko Tobu Station or downhill from Futarasan Shrine. After visiting the shrines and temple, you’ll come to an area with souvenir shops, restaurants, and cafes. Some of the buildings are former machiya (Edo period townhouses), giving you a chance to see how Nikko's ancient residents lived!


There are plenty of hotels to choose from within Nikko, but if you want to make your stay extra special, book a night at a ryokan. You can take a one-hour train ride from Nikko-Tobu Station to Kinugawa Onsen. There, you'll have a choice of luxury, resort-style, and economic traditional Japanese hotels. Check-in, slip on a comfortable yukata kimono, take a hot springs bath, stuff yourself with a kaiseki dinner, and sleep through the night!


If you want to make a two-day or longer journey, there are plenty of things to do in Nikko. Hikers won't want to miss Nikko National Park, which is so large it spreads over four prefectures! Superb destinations include Lake Chuzenji, Kirifuri-Kogen, Ryuokyo Gorge, and more.

If you're bringing the family and want to learn more about Japan's history, check out Nikko Edomura Wonderland. This theme park is a replica of how Tokyo looked during the 1800s and features reenactments of time-honored festivals, actors dressed as samurai, traditional arts classes, and ninja shows!

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