Nikko is a magical region of Japan – a place of misty waterfalls, mirror-smooth lakes and temples dripping in gold, easy to reach from Tokyo in two hours. Read our guide on why you need to visit now...
There is a saying in Japanese: ‘Never say kekko [beautiful] until you’ve seen Nikko.’ This rural region of Japan, just two hours north of Tokyo, looks as if it’s been painted from an artist’s imagination. Waterfalls cascade down enormous rock faces, aquamarine lakes reflect the towering mountains like mirrors, and ornate shrines adorned with intricate gold carvings stand stoically among the cedar trees.
Much like Tokyo, Nikko is one of those places you have to visit to understand: words and pictures can’t capture the sense of awe you’ll feel as you stand in front of one of Japan’s oldest shrines, or beneath Nikko’s colossal waterfall as its misty spray coats your cheeks. But for those curious to get a taste of what Nikko is like, read on. Here we give you our guide to this mystical region of Japan…
Nikko is located in Tochigi Prefecture – a two-hour train journey from Tokyo on Tobu Railways. The city of Nikko is small, but the surrounding countryside is big. This is where you'll find most of the key sights, including the lakes, shrines, waterfalls and walking.
Kegon Falls drops nearly 100m straight down, as if someone has painted a white streak on the rock face with a single brush stroke. It’s Nikko’s most prized natural jewel, ranked as one of the three most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. You can look on from an observation platform accessible on foot – but for the best views catch an elevator through the rock, whisking you 100m down to the foot of the falls. Down there, all you can hear is the thunder of water, with the cool misty spray a welcome refresher in the warm summer sunshine.
The area has a long tradition of mountain worship, with the region’s many UNESCO-listed shrines and temples arranged neatly on the mountain slopes – the first constructed back in the 8th century. The most famous is the lavish Shinto complex of Toshugu Shrine, reached visa Shinkyo Bridge. This was the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the last feudal Japanese military government, the Tokugawa Shogunate, which ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. On one of the shrine’s outbuildings you’ll find the revered carvings of the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ – allegorical figures that depict the ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ principles of Tendai Buddhism.
Not far from Kegon Falls you’ll find Chuzenji Lake. This is one of the highest lakes in the country, lying at an altitude of over 1,250m. It was formed more than 20,000 years ago, following the eruption of Mount Nantai – an enormous volcano that looms over the water like a green giant. One of the best ways to take in the scenery is by boat: the Tobu Chuzenji-ko cruise loops the lake in just under an hour. You can also hop on the nearby Akechidaira Ropeway cable car for views of the blues and greens of Nikko National Park or – if you’re feeling active – hike the 25km trail that traces the edge of the lake.
Kinugawa Onsen is known across Japan for its warm, inviting waters. This hot spring resort town lines the banks of Kinugawa River, where you can bathe at one of the many onsen that overlook the water. For a less well-known (but arguably more tranquil) experience, head to Yumoto in the north-west of Nikko – a tranquil hot spring area circled by the volcanoes and mountains of Nikko-Shirane, Nantai and Nyoho. Here the waters are milky white due to their high sulphur content, making them silky smooth to the touch. Sink up to your neck in the open-air baths as the cool mountain breeze prickles your skin. At night, the stars frame the countryside like Christmas lights, making it hard to imagine you’re only two hours by train from the world’s largest metropolis.
No visit to a Japanese city would be complete without visiting at least one or two unusual attractions. Tobu World Square is a great place to get your ‘quirky Japan’ fix as you stroll between 1/25 scale reproductions of over100 world-famous buildings, including 47 World Heritage Sites. Stand beside the Statue of Liberty, walk past the Taj Mahal, and pose beside Barcelona’s grand cathedral or France’s Arc de Triomphe. After your world tour, head to the Alpine Roses park, where you can stroll gardens filled with over 170 varieties of red, pink and yellow blossoms.
When in Nikko, do as the locals do: eat yuba. This delicious dish is made from the skin of tofu and served a variety of ways. There are noodle dishes like yuba ramen, yuba soba and yuba udon, as well as deep-fried yuba, yuba sushi, yuba dumplings and, of course, raw yuba.
On a hot day, nothing beats a bowl of cold soba. These noodles are made from buckwheat, usually served chilled over bamboo with a dipping sauce (though hot varieties are also available). The climate in Nikko produces high quality buckwheat seeds, and when combined with the pure mountain water that is used to boil the noodles, it’s easy to see why Nikko’s soba ranks among the best in the country.
Nikko’s shrines were described as “the most wonderful work of their kind in Japan,” by Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, who was one of the first outsiders to discover Nikko after Japan reopened its borders in 1853. She documented the region’s beauty in her book, Unbeaten Tracks in Japan, writing, “I have been at Nikko for nine days, and am therefore entitled to use the word ‘Kekko!’”
Nikko Kanaya Hotel – located between Tobu Nikko Station and Kegon Falls – was once a residence of samurai warriors during the Edo period. In 1888, the house became an inn known as Kanaya Cottage Inn. It was here that explorer Isabella Bird stayed for 12 days during the 19th century, when she described the region as 'kekko'. Much of the building is still as it once was, as if caught in time. Over the years, the inn developed into a hotel, transforming into the Nikko Kanaya Hotel you can stay in today. In 2014, the original Samuri house – standing beside the main hotel – was registered as a nationally-designated cultural property, now open to the public as the Kanaya Hotel History House.
The Tobu Railway connects Tokyo to Nikko in 110 minutes, leaving from Asakusa. With their Nikko Pass, you get return trains from Tokyo, unlimited transport within designated areas of Nikko for four days, plus great discounts in the area, from JPY4,150 (£29) in winter (December 1 to April 19) and JPY4,520 (£32) during Summer (April 20 to November 30).
All images: Courtesy of Tobu Railways or Dreamstime
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