Never say beautiful until you’ve seen Nikko
Our second of the day trips from our base in Tokyo was for this incredible place, the first touch to the “real Japan”, although I’ve already known this when I went 5 years ago to Kyoto. Still in a way, much more secluded than the big metropolis, and completely surrounded by national parks and great scenery. It is everything combined, the beauty of the nature, the history of ancient constructions; shrines, temples and mausoleums and the people that makes this place one of the most remarkable landmarks in the entire Japan. Their people have a say for the city: Never say ‘kekkō’ until you’ve seen Nikkō, (kekkō meaning beautiful, magnificent). They are right; see it for yourself and enjoy this UNESCO World Heritage Site listed city.
Coming from “the big city”, Tokyo, 140 kilometres distance in between and where temperatures were at the maximum of the year, around 30 centigrade; here in Nikko it can all change quickly. Generally, slash it in half, usually around 15 to 20 max. Be prepared and know this beforehand, it can get quite chilly especially towards the afternoon and of course during the night. Also this is a high humidity region where rain is normal. Don’t get caught by surprise!. Yet bearing these facts, we were not impacted at all and in fact, we did struggle a little bit with the high temperatures and humidity. You’ve been warned anyway, please do check the weather in advance and keep a track with the daily fluctuations.
As for visiting the historic area, a day is well more than enough, hence why this is the perfect day trip from Tokyo, and if you were wondering, why the hordes of tourist buses coming for the day since the morning then disappearing later in the afternoon and almost no one by the evening. Perhaps if I could recommend a good tip, is getting some pre-packed food with you for your lunch. The reason is simple, once you are in the UNESCO area, within the 3 major shrines there is almost nothing to grab bearing the cafe at one of the museums, but gladly there are plenty of vending machines all over; still, heading back to the nearest area with some better choice is not straightforward but rather a great loss of time in having to do a back and forth.
Other than that, there is not really much more you should know beforehand to make you aware of in this brief introduction to the city. What relates to the sites to visit, their costs and the transports is well explained in the next sections. For more information about Nikko check Wikipedia and Wikitravel sites. Japan’s currency is the Yen (JPY, ¥). Please note that any price reference is true as from when this guide was created, therefore check prices in advance as with the time they change.
What to see and do in Nikko
- Shinkyō (God Bridge) Over the Daiya River, considered one of the three most beautiful bridges in Japan; marks the main way to the Futarasan Shrine, although right across you will come first to the grounds of the Rinnō-ji, then Tōshō-gū, and as last the Futarasan jinja. The bridge is closed for visitors but you can admire it from the parallel road bridge getting of the bus.
- Rinnō-ji Shrine A large complex of 15 Buddhist temple buildings, founded in 766 by the Buddhist monk Shōdō. It’s home to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun. Among the important sights in the complex is the Three Buddha Hall featuring gold-leafed statues, and lavish ornamentation in general. ¥400 entrance fee, however only to see one of the Buddhas and some of the renovation works since the complex is going through and painstakingly restoration due for completion in 2020. Open from 08.00am until 16.30pm.
- Tōshō-gū Shrine Dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate who was buried here immediately after his death, although the present complex was built in 1634 on the order of his grandson Iemitsu. Among the buildings, finely carved in wood with countless decorations, are two gates, the Yōmeimon, known as “higurashi-no-mon” (meaning that one could look at it until sundown, and not tire of seeing it), and the Karamon. The pagoda, at 5 levels with each of them representing one element: earth, water, fire, wind and void in ascending order. ¥1300 admission fee, open from 08.00am until 16.30pm.
- Futarasan jinja The last and most important of the three shrines within the UNESCO area, founded in 767 by Shōdō shōnin, taking its name from Mount Nantai, also called Futarasan hence an important example of ancient type of mountain cult. Most of the current buildings in the complex date from 1617, making it the oldest structures in Nikko. It is located just opposite to the west of Tōshō-gū. Open from 9.00am until 16.30pm. Entrance fee of ¥200.
- Taiyu-in Temple Literally west from Futarasan, it was not originally planned in my route, however as I saw it in the distance, I could not let the chance go. It turned to be impressive and one of my favourites in Nikko, and one of the less visited so it’s great to avoid the hordes of tourists. Entrance fee of ¥550.
Located 140 kilometres north of Tokyo, the best and straightforward way to reach Nikko is by railway, and here, you have two options. First of all, unfortunately any Japan Railway Pass holder cannot benefit in the only direct route with Tokyo, private Tobu railway. It departs from Tobu-Asakusa Station, and if this is your option chosen, the get yourself the 2 Day Nikko Pass even if you only go for a day trip since this is the best value including the return trip in regular trains only (not included the faster ones, called Spacia), and also unlimited buses through the UNESCO area costing ¥2670 per person (around £18). The journey will take around 2 hours.
The other options is using your JR Pass. This involves a change of train. First you need to take a Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo Station or Ueno to Utsunomiya (around 40 min journey time) and then change there for the Nikko Line which you can use your pass. The overall journey will take you approximately 2 hours, same as if you would be taking the direct Tobu railway.
Once you arrive at Nikko train station, right from the door you can take the Tobu Bus from stop 2C directly into the UNESCO area, and then continue on foot in between the three main shrine complexes, or you can walk all the way from the station along the main street to the God Bridge in around 30 minutes passing nice old traditional houses.
For further information about transports in Tokyo, check the relevant travel guide here.
Since we did not stay overnight in Nikko as we came for a day trip from our base in Tokyo, I cannot recommend any place to stay. The city boasts a fair amount of hotels, but very limited. In any case, run your search across some of our preferred affiliate hotel search engine such as Hotels.com, Booking.com, Expedia, Otel.com, Agoda, Opodo, LateRooms or Ebookers. This will give you a good overview on the situation, availability and prices. But if Tokyo is your main base (highly likely as majority of tourist do), here you can find a very complete guide with the three different hotels I’ve ever been in the city.