Exploring Nikko, the Resting Ground of the Tokugawa

Many people have attested that Nikko, a small town in Tochigi prefecture, is one of the must-visit places in Japan. There are so many blog entries about this place, and the information about it is abundant. Well they are not wrong. Nikko is special due to its close relation with Tokugawa family, the ruling clan that started the Edo period in the history of Japan. So in early January just right after new year I decided to visit the town on a two days trip using seishun 18 kippu just like my previous trips like this (to Shirakawa-go) and this / this (to Hokkaido).

Departing from Sendai with normal train, I arrived in Nikko almost six hours later. It was already past noon but with the clear skies I straightforward jumped into the core of my trip: the shrines and temples of Nikko, listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The town of Nikko is small and rather touristy, but in exchange it provides all the amenities you’d want from a trip. I was not at the right season to visit the area since the withering of the trees and the absence of snow made the whole scenery rather bland. Do come on autumn or mid-winter to experience the full beauty of Nikko.

After crossing Shinkyo Bridge, I reached the heritage complex. I was a bit disappointed that Rinnoji Temple, Nikko’s most important temple is currently covered by huge scaffolding structure for renovation due March 2019 (you could still go inside though). However, visiting Toshogu, the lavish mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, was awe-inspiring. The details on the ornaments — that includes the famous trio of three monkeys, imaginary elephant and sleeping cat, are just superb. Still, some of the structures inside are undergoing renovation so expect some scaffolding here and there.

Visiting Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, Ieyasu’s grandson and third Tokugawa shogun, was also the highlight of my trip. I just loved the ambience of the establishment that features a mix of Buddhist and Shinto architecture. Before leaving the complex I decided to stop by Futarasan Shrine, an older shrine right next to Toshogu. I also enjoyed this place despite the crowd of people flocking the area. There are two more Futarasan shrines, one at the shore of Lake Chuzenji and another at the peak of Mount Nankai in Oku-Nikko.

As I came rather late at noon, I could not visit more places such as Tamozawa Villa, Nikko Botanical Garden and Kanmangafuchi Abyss. I reckoned they should be visited under a more appealing time of the year anyways.

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The courtyard that leads to entryway to Taiyuinbyou. I feel small here with the size of those humongous trees.

Because I could not find cheap accommodation in the town of Nikko itself, I made a reservation at a business hotel in Utsunomiya, a bigger city in the prefecture. Utsunomiya is basically just a large transportation hub for shinkansen trains, but aside from that it boasts itself as the city of gyoza (meat dumplings). Right in front of the station you would find a restaurant called Utsunomiya Gyozakan where you could enjoy tasty meat dumplings! Just don’t mind its slightly weird mascot character Kenta-kun.

Arrived at Oku-Nikko the next day, I was greeted by an indecisive weather. It was bright and blue the moment I boarded on the bus towards Oku-Nikko, but once I got off the bus the clouds covered the skies as if they may rain down anytime. And it did — in the form of snowfall that later turned into a flimsy, windy storm. Unhindered, I pressed onward.

First stop, Kegon Falls. This waterfall is supposedly to be the most beautiful one around, 100 meters tall with great surrounding. Again, due to the unfortunate time, the view was quite dull. Funny story here when I ate snack at a local cafe. Two Japanese men talked to the middle-aged store lady about (jokingly) flirting the lady. I understood the whole story and had to hold my laugh hearing how they told her they’d date her if she were 10 years younger. Of course, once I finished eating I let them know I heard the whole thing. I just love seeing they laughed heartily.

Next I came across Chuzenji Temple. This is the temple that gives Lake Chuzenji its name. The view to the lake is pretty astounding and I enjoyed a free trip conducted by the temple monks there. Last place I visited in the vicinity of the lake was Ryuzu Waterfall, a spot that you should be visiting on autumn instead of winter.

During winter, I found some attractions are closed due to hazardous terrain such as Hangetsuyama, an observation platform supposedly to give the best look at the lake. Also Senjogahara Marsh is pretty alluring to see, although it is best to go when you can actually go hiking around the area.

My last stop in Oku-Nikko was Lake Yunoko (literally means “hot water lake” due to the existence of renowned Yumoto Onsen). I did nothing there but to just roam around the lakeside in almost freezing temperature. The howling wind make the scenery rather intriguing, a reason for me to stop and set up my tripod to take time-lapse. Though it was devoid of tourist attraction other than the onsen, to me somehow this much smaller lake was more attractive to its bigger brother Lake Chuzenji.

At sundown I boarded a bus to go back to Nikko because I needed to catch a train back to Sendai. I happened to sit right next to a traveler from Belgium and we chatted all the way back to Nikko Station. In the end Nikko is a pretty amazing place to visit. Sure, with its legendary world heritage status and its super-duper easy access from Tokyo (perfect for one day trip from the capital), Nikko draws a huge number of tourists in any season high or low. So perhaps if you are the type that prefers to go off the beaten path, Nikko might not be for you. Still, it holds to its position as the top destinations in Japan: it does not disappoint.

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The picturesque Mount Nankai. Oddly enough the weather only became clear just when I was about to get back. Luck is never on my side =P

Access information From Tokyo:

Take Shinkansen from Tokyo Station to Utsunomiya Station then change to JR Nikko line to Nikko Station (125 minutes approx).

From Sendai:

Take Shinkansen from Sendai Station to Utsunomiya Station then change to JR Nikko line to Nikko Station (141 minutes approx).

Useful websites Official website of Nikko City Tourism Association (English):

Click here

Nikko World Heritage Site official website (English):

Click here

Nikko All Area Pass (English):

Click here

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