While not as well-known as Kyoto, this mountainous region a couple of hours north of Tokyo is home to one of Japan’s most celebrated shrines.
The saying goes that you haven’t seen beauty until you’ve seen Nikko. Cradled in the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is famous for its exquisite scenery and stunning complex of temples and shrines. In autumn, the most popular season to visit, the mountains are painted in vibrant reds and oranges as the leaves change.
It’s possible to do Nikko in a day, especially if you stick to the central area, but to see all that Nikko has to offer spending a few days is ideal. Shinkyo Bridge, a gorgeous vermillion structure belonging to Futarasan Shrine, marks the entrance to central Nikko. The complex including Rinnoji Temple, Futarasan Shrine and Toshogu Shrine is designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the buildings are connected by a peaceful walking path lined with cedar trees.
Toshogu is the undisputed crown jewel of Nikko. The lavish, colourful shrine was built for Ieyasu Tokugawa, the founder of the Edo Shogunate— the last Shogunate in Japan. Among the hallmarks of Toshogu is the famous wise monkeys carving (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil), which can be found above the sacred stable. The sleeping cat carving, attributed to the famous carver Jingorou Hidari, is also considered a national treasure.
This year marked the 400th anniversary of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s death and was commemorated with festivals throughout, including a procession of a thousand decorated “warriors” escorting a portable shrine. Early morning is the best time to visit as the crowds can be overwhelming during the day. The shrine is open from 8 am, though visitors should be aware that Toshogu is undergoing renovations until March 2019.
The Taiyuinbyo is a less elaborate version of Toshogu dedicated to Iemitsu Tokugawa, the grandson of Ieyasu Tokugawa and third Shogun of the Edo Shogunate. Futarasan Shrine is dedicated to Nikko’s mountain deities, and Rinnoji Temple was founded by the Buddhist monk who brought Buddhism to Nikko in the eighth century.
The Kanmangafuchi Abyss is a bit of a walk from the complex, but it’s worth the extra effort. A white river rushes beneath the trees while a famous line of statues depicting the Buddhist bodhisattva Jizo sit sentinel along the gorge in various stages of preservation. It’s said if you count the statues you’ll never come up with the same number twice. Because of the distance, there are fewer tourists here and it’s a nice break from the busy air of the temples.
About an hour’s bus ride up the Irohazaka Winding Road leads to Oku-Nikko, or inner Nikko. Beautiful Lake Chuzenji and its namesake shrine dominate the area. Also of note is pristine Kegon Falls, and a hike through the picturesque Senjogahara marshlands is like walking through a painting.
The Yumoto Onsen area boasts hot springs rich in sulphur which are smelly, but great for the skin. The annual Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival, an exhibition of snow sculptures, takes place here in January and February. These incredibly detailed sculptures draw tourists every year, and there are light and music shows once the sun sets. Best of all, this festival is free.
Edo Wonderland theme park (Edomura), in the Kinugawa Onsen area, recreates medieval Japan—including an edge-of-your-seat ninja show. It’s a good place to pick up souvenirs like sweets or engraved ninja stars.
Nikko is easily accessible by train, and discount passes like the All Nikko Pass are available from Tobu Railway. The pass is valid for four days and includes round-trip fare from Asakusa in Tokyo to Tobu Nikko station, rides on Tobu buses, and access to Toshogu, Futarasan and Rinnoji. For more information see www.tobu.co.jp/foreign/pass.
Nikko Kamen 【日光仮面】
Cities and prefectures in Japan are in a heated battle for best mascot. Nikko Kamen (loosely translated as “the masked Nikko”) is Nikko’s superhero- inspired mascot.
Experience Nikko’s true natural beauty
Taking the Irohazaka Winding Road to inner Nikko is an experience in its own right. The road is famous for its dizzying turns and beautiful mountain vistas.
The town of Yumoto Onsen is centred on a hot spring, so this water isn’t imported. Enjoy a mineral-rich soak after a long day of sightseeing.
At Edo Wonderland, visitors can experience Japan’s Edo period through ninja shows and even by dressing up as one of the townspeople.
Nikko’s eats and treats
Yuba: Nikko’s hometown delicacy
Yuba is the skin that forms on top of soy milk in the process of making tofu. It became popular in Nikko due to the number of vegetarian Buddhist priests in the area, who exist on a diet heavily made up of soybeans. Yuba is served in a number of ways including cooked in soy sauce, deep-fried and served in udon soup.
Lemon gyunyu: Forget lemonade. Try Lemon Milk!
Kanto Tochigi Lemon is a milky, lemon-flavoured drink that’s famous in Tochigi Prefecture. Though it’s not quite milk and not quite lemonade—and doesn’t necessarily include either in its list of ingredients—it’s definitely a unique treat: the super-sweet drink tastes like the leftover milk in a bowl of fruity breakfast cereal. Skip the bowl and go straight for the good stuff! Just start off with a small box, as the sugary taste can be overwhelming for the uninitiated.
Nikko has tons of omiyage (souvenirs) for travellers hoping to bring home a piece of this beautiful city. From a buffet of delicious regional delicacies to gorgeous handicrafts, there’s a lot to choose from. Try a bottle of local sake, made with Nikko’s highly lauded rice and clear mountain water. Or pick up a Nikkobori carving featuring flower motifs such as the cherry blossoms or peonies. And don’t miss out on the area’s stunning Ashioyaki ceramics.
Collon Tochiotome Strawberry flavour
Tochigi Prefecture is famous for its Tochiotome—big, bright red strawberries known for their bal- anced flavour. The limited-edition Collon available in Tochigi Prefecture uses Tochiotome for its filling.
Mizu-youkan is a refreshing, jelly-like dessert made of Japanese sweet red beans ground into a paste. In Nikko, mizu-youkan is made with Tochigi’s pure mountain water.
All photos courtesy of Nikko City Tourism Association unless otherwise noted