Nikko is usually proffered as a weekend or daytrip from Tokyo, but you could easily spend weeks exploring this place. Prepare to happen upon shrines and statues galore, monkeys, waterfalls, lakes, hot springs – the list goes on and on. This beautiful and eerie place will stay with you long after you leave.

Between UNESCO world heritage shrines and temples, and the surrounding national park of lakes and mountains, Nikko has so much to offer; especially if you’re willing to leave the beaten path and explore.

It’s best seen in autumn when the Japanese maple trees glow a bright red and set an amazing backdrop to the shrines and lakes, but is well worth a visit at any time of year – just check ahead that everything will be open, as certain things may not be running in the winter months. Our quick guide should give you an idea of what to see and do while you’re here.

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo via flickr

From Lake Chuzenji to Lake Yuno

To the west of Nikko town lies the sacred mount Nantai, and at its foot, Lake Chūzenji. Get the bus from either of the train stations, and enjoy the views from the Irohazaka winding road, which have been known to cause traffic jams during autumn. The bus stops off at a ropeway before it reaches the bus terminal in Chūzenji onsen town. At the terminal, you can get maps in English which show the many different hiking and walking routes.

Don’t miss the Kegon waterfall, nestled between the mountains. You can view it for free from the top or pay to go down in a lift for a closer look.

On the northern edge of the lake, are the Ryuzu falls, or “dragon” falls, named so for their resemblance to a dragon’s head. Get the bus up to the smaller Lake Yuno, connected to Chūzenji by the Yukawa river, and admire the ‘splendour and feminine qualities’ (or so the sign says) of the Yudaki falls. From there, head to the small town of Yumoto onsen, where you can soak in a hot spring if you so please. Keep your eyes (and ears) open for the monkeys which can be spotted on rooftops or in the trees.

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by Reginald Pontinio via flickr

In and around Nikko

Spend some time wandering around the town of Nikko where there are many specialist craft shops, including woodcrafts, pottery, and painting. Here would be a great place to buy some handmade sake cups as a souvenir. There are also a couple of antique shops with some interesting items.

At the top of the main road is the Shinkyō bridge, which serves as the symbolic entrance to the sacred shrines and temples (you can pay to walk on the bridge but will enter from the road). 

‘It used to be known as Yamasuge-no-Jabashi (Bridge of Snakes with Wild Sedges) after an old legend concerning the priest Shodo Shonin. It is said that when Shodo and ten disciples tried to cross the river Daiya, they found the current to be too strong. They began praying fervently for a way to cross, and the god Jinja Daio interceded on their behalf. He appeared carrying red and blue snakes, which he threw across the river. The snakes intertwined to form a bridge.’ (source)

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by Hardo Müller via flickr

The shrines and temples

Nikko’s world heritage shrines and temples comprise 103 separate buildings, each very different from another. Rinnōji temple’s main hall is currently under renovation (to be complete in March 2019), but inside are many important artefacts and Buddhist images, including the Senju-Kannon, the Kannon with a thousand arms. If you go the top floor you can get a good view of the surroundings and the giant jigsaw puzzle that is the renovation. There is a pretty garden behind the main hall.

The Tōshogu shrine complex is the biggest in Nikko, and contains the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, a shogun (ruler) of Japan from 1543 to 1616. Outside the main gate is the five-story pagoda. At the gate, you will notice the fierce Niō guardians on either side. One has an open mouth to ward off evil spirits, the other a closed mouth to retain good. Inside, you can see the small but iconic carving of the “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkeys. Look out for the elephant carvings, called the “imagined elephants”, because the artist had never seen elephants in real life. Don’t miss the famous sleeping cat carving by the path up to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb.

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by Demis Gallisto via flickr

Inside the honjido hall is an impressive ceiling painting, known as the “crying dragon”, because if you clap together two pieces of wood underneath the dragon’s mouth, it will make a ringing noise. The priests are happy to demonstrate.

Wander along to the Taiyu-in temple and shrine complex housing the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, who wished to be buried in Nikko to honour his grandfather. Along the way, notice the many toro (stone lanterns). Taiyu-in is smaller than Tōshogu, as Tokugawa Iemitsu ordered that his shrine would not exceed his grandfather’s in grandeur. It has a more relaxed feel and many intricate designs.

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by Aapo Haapanen via flickr

Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa

It’s well worth a visit to the large and beautiful Imperial Villa. Originally built in 1899 but restored in 2000, the villa provides an insight into Japan at a time when western designs were being explored. There are many traditional Japanese features, such as the sliding doors and tatami mats, but in some rooms, like the billiard room, European styles prevail.

The location where the current emperor spent his childhood summers, there are zen courtyards and intricate screen paintings depicting traditional court life, and the gardens are framed at every turn by various differently shaped doors and windows. You can even learn a bit about how the villa was made, with displays explaining how the nail-less joints, sliding doors, and lacquering are constructed.

The enchanting garden has tiny paths and stepping stones, and the soothing sound of the stream and the mirror of the pond offer a tranquil setting. Afterwards, go to the café within the grounds for matcha and anko (a sweet made from red bean).

Walk down to this gorge and count the eerie jizō (monk) statues which run alongside the river. They are referred to as the bake (ghost) jizō because it is said that if you count them as you are walking down, then again back up, you will have a different number. You will see many jizō around Nikko, and Japan, especially if you go to temples. They are usually dressed in bibs and knitted hats, as a way to ‘accrue merit for the afterlife’.

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by Francisco Antunes via flickr

Nikko Woodcrafting Centre

One of the things Nikko is famous for is its woodcrafts. The town centre has many family-owned shops which sell ornate plates and small pieces of furniture carved from wood. If you fancy trying your hand at it, head to the woodcrafting centre. Here, you can etch pictures onto wood, with the choice of a compact mirror or a plate, in the traditional Japanese style.

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by DavideGorla via flickr

The Food of Nikko

As in the rest of Japan, Nikko has some specific foods that it’s well known for. One of these is yuba, which is tofu skin (nicer than it sounds). It’s sweet and comforting and often served in a roll shape or in soup. Yuzumisodango are sticky balls of rice served on a stick, with a sauce of yuzu (a sour citrus fruit) and miso. You will also see lots of small packets of anko, which are popular omiage (souvenirs).

If you're looking for a day trip or weekend getaway from Tokyo to see the fall colors of Japan, look no further than Nikko!

photo by Kentaro Ohno via flickr

My favourite thing about Nikko is the things you walk into unexpectedly, like a temple amongst some houses, or a shrine in the trees. A welcome respite from the chaos of Japan’s cities, if you’re fortunate enough to have more than a couple of days here then slow down to allow some time to just roam, and to take in the peaceful atmosphere and spiritual energy that defines Nikko.


This is a guest post by Annabella Barker.

bio-picAnnabella is from Surrey, England, but has lived in Thailand for six months, and Japan for one year, teaching English. She has done most of her travelling in south-east Asia but has recently been to Israel and Jordan. Annabella looks forward to many trips in the future, thanks to the continual inspiration of fellow travelettes!