To mark the revival of this blog, I’ve decided to talk about one of my favorite places in Japan.
Situated in the mountains northwest of Tokyo, the village of Nikko was built in the late 700’s to be near Rinnoji and Chuzenji temples. It’s long been a popular tourist spot and features beautiful mountain scenery, onsen, hiking, and some of the country’s most amazing shrines and temples.
Because it’s a popular place to visit, getting to Nikko is pretty easy. You can take a shinkansen (bullet train) straight from Tokyo Station to Nikko or take a cheaper (though slightly slower) limited express from Kitasenju (another train station in Tokyo) to Tobunikko which is only a several minute walk from the main Nikko station. Or, if you’re really on a tight budget, you can save a few hundred yen (at the cost of an extra 30 minutes or so of travel time over the limited express train) and take a regular train to Utsunomiya then take the Nikko line the rest of the way.
What to See
Nikko biggest draw is its famous shrines and temples though there are many other thing to see in and around the town. As a note, be prepared to walk a lot while in Nikko. The buses outside Nikko Station stop near the shrines and some of the other major sites, but you’ll still have to spend a lot of time on foot.
You can grab a nice English map, listing all the major attractions, from the tourist info center at Nikko Station.
Shrines and Temples
Nikko’s famous shrines and temples (remember, temples are Buddhist and shrines and Shinto) are located in a picturesque wooded area a little outside of town. They’re a pleasant 15 minute or so walk from Nikko Station. Just follow the main road uphill until you reach Shinkyo Bridge then cross the street and follow the well-marked path. If you’re in a hurry, or just don’t want to walk any more than necessary, you can take the bus outside Nikko station instead.
Either way, you’ll soon end up near Rinnoji Temple. Your first stop should be the ticket booth. I recommend getting the combo ticket which will get you into all four shrines and temples for a reasonable price. Though there are some special areas such as the treasure museum and path to the sacred cat carving that will cost extra. Clearly marked paths lead through the forest from one building to another so finding your way around shouldn’t be a problem. Here’s a quick overview of what you can expect to see.
Rinnoji Temple is a large red building with a number of statues and other items inside. The most impressive pieces by far are a set of three large and elaborately decorated gold Buddha statues.
Toshogu Shrine is the most beautiful shrine I’ve ever seen. A seemingly endless number of elaborate carvings line the walls, all of which are different.
Even the stable is covered with carvings including one which has since become a rather famous icon worldwide…
Futarasan Shrine is nearly as impressive as Rinnoji or Toshogu, but it’s still a very nice shrine with some interesting artifacts on display including portable shrines that are carried around during festivals and an extremely long sacred sword.
Finally, Rinnoji Taiyuin is notable for the statues of various deities at its gates.
Nikko Edo Mura
Nikko Edo Mura (aka Nikko Edo Village and Edo Wonderland) is a theme park designed to recreate the look and feel of an Edo period (~1603 – 1868) village. It’s more of a living history museum than a true theme park so don’t expect any rides, but there’s number of displays about life during the Edo period (including blacksmithing, prisons, and ninja). Throughout the park, all the employees wear period appropriate costumes and, if you want to match, there’s a rental shop near the entrance if you want to spend your day as a wandering swordsman, geisha, nobleman, or the like.
There’s a lot of shows as well, which change throughout the year. Many of these are fairly historically accurate though the ninja shows are more for fun than anything else. I’ll note that some of the shows even have audience participation and they love bringing a confused foreigner up on stage. If that happens to you, just smile and do your best to play along. You’ll probably have fun.
As a whole, the park is fairly English friendly. Most of the signs and displays have English translations and you can enjoy the shows even if you can’t understand the actors. Restaurant menus, however, can be a bit tricky.
There’ are a lot of other things to see and do in and around Nikko. You can tour an old villa that once belonged to the imperial family, which is worth it if you haven’t seen a traditional Japanese house yet. While there, you can also stroll along a riverside path lined with bakejizo statues or visit the botanical garden.
Nikko has some waterfalls, onsen, and hiking as well, though if those are what you’re after you’re better off traveling a little further into the mountains to Lake Chuzenji (which I’ll talk about another time).
Shops and Dining
Nikko’s main street (the one leading up from Nikko station to Shinkyo Bridge) is lined with a number of little shops and restaurants. Nikko’s main specialties are wood carving and lacquer work and you can find a number of beautiful handmade items of all types.
When it comes to food, fish (from mountain lakes and streams) and yuba (a side dish made from tofu skin) are the featured items but if that isn’t too your liking there’s plenty of other things to be found. One of my favorite places is a tiny yakitori restaurant that’s easy to spot thanks to the large (and somewhat awkwardly worded) English sign in the window.
Nikko’s beautiful mountain setting and elaborate shrines and temples combine to make it one of Japan’s most popular tourist destinations and, in my mind, an essential stop for anyone visiting central Japan. One day will give you enough time to the see the shrines and temples, along with another nearby site or two (such as the imperial villa or botanical gardens) and spend some time browsing the shops. If you want to stay longer, Nikko Edo Mura can take anywhere from half a day to a full day depending on how much you enjoy the shows and displays and you can easily spend a day or more hiking around the Lake Chuzenji area. But however long you stay, Nikko is likely to be a highlight of any Japan trip.