Journey to Nikko: Where Japan's History and Nature Converge

by Nana Young

Join us on a trip through the sacred mountains, beautiful natural landscapes, and religious shrines of Nikko. This is the place to escape from the bustle of city life and embark on a spiritual journey that brings you closer to nature. 

Discovering the Wonders of Nikko

Tourists at Toshogu Shrine temple in Nikko, Japan.

Nikko is a Japanese city in Tochigi Prefecture, in the northern part of the Kanto Region. The city has a massive area of over 1,440 square kilometers, but despite its land mass, it only has a population of 76,452 people. This brings its population density to just around 53 people per square kilometer. This density is shockingly low. For comparison, Tokyo has a population density of 6,363 people per square kilometer.

Nikko’s low population density isn’t a problem. In fact, it makes the city one of the best venues for a peaceful retreat. The first buildings in the area that is now Nikko were Buddhist temples built in the 8th century. When the village of Nikko eventually developed around the structures, it quickly became a major attraction for visitors, especially during the Edo period (1603–1868).

Today, Nikko maintains its status as a prime tourist attraction for local and foreign visitors. It’s famous for its scenic beauty, sacred mountains, and spiritual landmarks dedicated to the Buddhist and Shinto religions. Join us as we embark on a journey through this vast landscape and provide you with insights on things to do in Nikko City.

The Gateway to History: Nikko's UNESCO World Heritage Sites

Nikko Toshogu is the world heritage symbolizing Nikko, Tochigi, Japan

Any natural or cultural landmark with a significant impact on its surrounding areas and the world is worthy of being declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Nikko's most famed attractions meet these requirements and have rightly received the UNESCO designation.  This complex of landmarks has been tagged the Shrines and Temples of Nikko. It consists of two shrines and one temple, with over 100 religious buildings in them. Let’s have a closer look at them.

The Nikko Toshogu Shrine is a massive site that took more than 127,000 people to construct in 1617. It’s a complex of over a dozen religious buildings, including the Honjido Hall, the Yomeimon Gate, and a five-story pagoda (a Buddhist temple built like a tied tower). One of the most fascinating aspects about the shrine are the imaginative carvings all over the complex. The shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the pioneer of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the bringer of 300 years of peace to Japan after the feudal era.

Golden roof of Yomeimon Gate and the Bell tower of Toshogu Shrine in Nikko, Tochigi, Japan

 

Futarasan-Jinja Shrine is another major complex in the area. Built in 784, it’s one of the oldest shrines in Japan. Futarasan-Jinja is dedicated to the surrounding mountains and their three deities. The shrine's mountain paths connect many of the temples, making it a famous  hiking trail in Nikko. Other popular attractions are the lacquered shrine pavilion and the Bakedoro haunted lantern, rumored to change shape at night. According to legend, samurai warriors who were terrified of the apparition struck the lantern with their swords, leaving scars on it that exist to this day.

The stone lantern in garden in Nikko Futarasan Jinja, Nikko, Japan.

 

Built in 766, the Rinnoji Temple was the first of its kind in Nikko and predates even the first villages of the ancient city. You can view countless artifacts and monuments in the area. The temple also houses a lush Japanese-style garden and gold statues of Kannon deities.

Rinnoji Temple in Nikko, one of many top attractions

Exploring Nikko National Park: A Natural Paradise

Kegon beautiful Waterfalls which tumbles from Lake Chuzenji to a stream, must see natural attractions

Nikko town sits at the entrance of the vast mountainous landscape of Nikko National Park. The shrines and temples we discussed above are part of this park. In fact, it stretches out into three different prefectures: Tochigi, Fukushima, and Gunma, covering an area of 1,149 square kilometers. The park is easily accessible from multiple cities in Japan, including Tokyo and Nikko. Offering a perfect blend of spiritual experiences, exciting adventures, and serene pursuits, Nikko National Park is one of Japan’s best tourist attractions, particularly for people interested in spirituality.

The park offers volcanic mountainous landscapes, including those of the sacred Mt. Shirane (2,578 meters), Mt. Nantai (2,486 meters), and Mt. Chausu (1,917 meters). You get to see impressive waterfalls like the 60-meter Ryūzu Falls and the 97-meter Kegon Falls, one of the three highest in the country. You also get to see Lake Chuzenji, which was created some 20,000 years ago after the eruption of Mount Nantai.

A Journey Through Edo Wonderland

Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura is a Japanese cultural theme park in the Kinugawa Onsen area of Nikko, Tochigi, Japan

Nikko is such a unique place that even its theme parks don’t follow the same principles as those in other major cities. Introducing Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, a theme park that recreates historical Edo-period Japan. The park is located in Nikko’s Kinugawa Onsen area. If you've always been fascinated by the role of Nikko in Japanese history and the culture of the people who lived in the Edo period, here’s your chance to see firsthand what life was like back then.

Everything about the town, from the architecture to the townspeople’s dressing, has been rewound back in time to match the Edo style. You too can rent a costume and dress just like the inhabitants back in ancient Japan. Edo Wonderland offers more immersive cultural experiences through games, shamisen (three-string Japanese musical instrument) workshops, archery, and live shows. The town also contains shops selling souvenirs such as prints, teapots, and fake weapons. But not all of these shops are real. Some are simply replica pieces that showcase how craftsmen did business in the past.

The Architectural Marvel of Rinno-ji Temple

Rinnoji Temple, best during fall colors

Earlier, we mentioned the Rinno-ji Temple. Seeing that this is the most influential temple in Nikko, our journey wouldn’t be complete without a more thorough exploration. Founded by Shodo Shonin in the 8th century, the temple was one of the first attractions for early visitors to Nikko. Buddhist monks would come to the temple from far and wide in search of solitude and spiritual upliftment. Today, the Rinno-ji Temple remains a site for Tendai monks to learn how to deny themselves physical or psychological desires and attain their spiritual goals.

Sanbutsudo is the main attraction at the temple. It houses three wooden statues lacquered with gold. These statues represent the three Kannon deities of the surrounding mountains: Amida, Senju-Kannon, and Bato-Kannon. These deities were enshrined at Futarasan Shrine, another landmark that we’ll explore later in this post. There’s a treasure house opposite the Sanbutsudo, with exhibits for Buddhist and Tokugawa enthusiasts. Behind this treasure house lies the beautiful Shoyoen Japanese Garden, which is the perfect place to view and take photos of autumn leaves, especially in early November when their vibrant colors are at their aesthetic peak. 

The Sacred Futarasan Shrine

Shinkyo Bridge during Autumn in Nikko, Tochigi, Japan

The Futarasan Shrine is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three sacred mountains, Mt. Nantai, Mt. Taro, and Mt. Nyoho. Together, the mountains are known as Nikko Sanzan. The exact date on which the shrine was built is unclear, but evidence suggests it was shortly after the founding of the Rinno-ji Temple. Shodo Shonin was also responsible for building the shrine and introducing Buddhism to Nikko. Today, Futarasan Shrine holds immense significance in Japan, as it’s considered the point of intersection for all religions in the country. It’s also the venue for the Yayoi Festival.

Most of the shrine grounds are free to explore. However, there’s a small paid area featuring a garden, a spring, some halls, and a few old trees. The Shinkyo Bridge, one of the finest bridges in Japan, is one kilometer away from the main shrine grounds but is still a part of Futarasan. There are more shrines next to Mt. Nantai and Lake Chuzenji. 

Nikko's Hot Spring Haven: Soaking in Tradition

Yumoto is a small hot spring town in the back of Okunikko and part of Nikko National Park.

Nikko is located in a volcanic area, which means there are hot springs. Eight of these springs have been turned into onsen resorts. These resorts are a combination of bathing facilities, traditional inns (ryokans), and hotels. Bathing in a hot spring is considered spiritual cleansing. People in Nikko also enjoy the health benefits of bathing in the spring’s mineral water, such as pain relief and clearer skin. Let’s highlight popular onsen resorts in Nikko where visitors can experience traditional Japanese bathing.

  1. Kawamata Onsen: Enjoy the steamy waters of this onsen and their dramatic geyser. The hotels and ryokans are lined along Lake Kawamata. The resort is famous for its open-air baths and scenic mountain views.

  2. Kinugawa Onsen: This consists of two hot springs, namely Taki Onsen on the west and Fujiwara Onsen on the east. It boasts about 80 ryokans and hotels. Some of them offer traditional experiences, while others are similar to Western accommodations.

  3. Okukinu Onsen: You can only gain access to this onsen via shuttle bus or on foot. There are four hot springs here: Kaniyu, Teshirozawa, Nikkozawa, and Hatchonoyu.

Culinary Delights: Tasting Nikko's Local Cuisine

Yuba soba, a local dish from Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture

Some of the best parts of visiting Nikko are the local cuisine and other culinary offerings of restaurants and shops in the city. We’ll be exploring three must-try local cuisines. Perhaps the most popular local food is yuba, made by scooping tofu skin off boiling soy milk and serving it in sashimi style. Some variants of the dish involve frying the ingredients and others pair them with other foods like udon or manju.

Another tasty local cuisine in Nikko is its specialty soba noodles. This dish is unique to the region because it’s made from quality buckwheat noodles and fine water from Nikko’s clear mountainside streams. Fresh buckwheat is sold every autumn in the local market.

Kaiseki ryori is a multi-course meal that’s popular in Nikko. It consists of a starter (aperitif or appetizers), main course (soup, sashimi, yakimono, grilled seafood, etc.), shokuji (rice, miso soup, or pickles), and dessert (sweets like fruits, sorbet, etc.).

Seasonal Splendors: Nikko Throughout the Year

Autumn foliage in Nikko, Japan

The best part about Nikko’s scenic beauty is how it evolves with the four seasons of Japan. During spring, you get to experience the blooms of the cherry blossoms, thanks to sakura trees as old as 200 years in the area. Visit Monzenmachi no Sakura to enjoy hanami (cherry blossom viewing) while you shop for sweets and souvenirs at the nearby stores.

Summertime comes with the annual Ryuo Festival in multiple onsens. Also, many people go to Lake Chuzenji to cool off and watch the mesmerizing waters. During the fall, you can see the vibrant autumn leaves of rowan and maples from the shores of the lake. In the winter, Nikko’s clear air and long nights make it an ideal location for stargazing. Be sure to stay warm by wearing multiple layers of clothing and taking the necessary precautions.

Outdoor Adventures: Hiking and More in Nikko

Mountains and Lake Chuzenji in Nikko, Japan.

It would be an absolute crime to spend most of your time indoors in a city like Nikko. There are so many interesting things to see and do outside. You can never go wrong with a visit to Nikko National Park, where the World Heritage area offers several hiking trails. You can also book a full-day tour of the park and other parts of the city. For nature lovers, the best scenic spots include Lake Chūzenji, Ryuzu Falls, Kegon Falls, Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park (formerly the imperial family residence), Shinkyo Bridge, and the Toshogu Shrine garden area.

Staying in Nikko: Accommodations for Every Traveler

Famous Kanaya hotel made in traditional wooden Japanese style design on street with people in Tochigi prefecture

You won’t have a problem finding where to stay in Nikko. There are countless options, including Japanese-style, Western-style, budget-friendly, and luxurious hotels. You can easily find a suitable minshuku (Japanese BnB) or pension (family-run establishments) in the town area.

The standard hotels are concentrated in central Nikko. So, go there if you want the best options. Closer to the outskirts of the town, you’ll find many onsen resorts with their respective ryokans and guest rooms. Go for these options if you have extra cash to spare and would like to enjoy regular hot baths. You can also enjoy the local cuisine in the dining room or hotel restaurant.

Getting Around Nikko: Travel Tips for Visitors

Local train at Nikko train station - Japan, Tochigi Prefecture

The city is two hours away from Tokyo on the JR Nikko Line. There are only two railway stations in Nikko but both are vital for getting around the city on a budget. Tobu-Nikko Station and JR Nikko Station are about two kilometers from the major attractions (main shrines and cultural landmark areas) of the city. Hence, you can travel to them via a 10-minute bus trip or a 30- to 40-minute walk up the connecting street.

A Nikko pass (a one-day transport pass that excludes the limited express train) is valid for both of the possible bus lines to get you from the stations to the attractions and back. The first is a regular bus that stops at Shinkyo and Nishisando bus stops, close to the shrines. Another option is the circling World Heritage Meguri Loop bus that stops at Omotesando.

Nikko's Timeless Charm

Snow Toshogu shine the unesco world heitage in Nikko,Japan. Best Day trip from Tokyo

Nikko is a destination that beautifully blends natural beauty with deep cultural heritage. We urge you to visit Nikko, retreat into its scenic paradise, and explore its unique cultural experiences, outdoor adventures, and culinary delights. Now that you know a bit more about life in Japan, share your love for the country through gifts. Visit Bokksu Boutique and pick out an authentic Japanese gift item to send to your friend or loved one.

 

 


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