Many places in Japan take visitors back in time to the Edo period, but few that go even further back than that. Nikko is one of them, a place that transports visitors back to a time, centuries past when Shinto enveloped Japan, and the land was all waterfalls, bridges, shrines, and gardens. Nikko is a place where natural beauty and Shinto tradition still reign over the area, and all of this can be found only a short journey away from Tokyo.
Marvel at Toshogu Shrine
Considered the highlight of any trip to Nikko, Toshugu is one of the most lavish shrine complexes in Japan and one of the best things to do in Nikko. You approach the complex via a winding path lined with trees while passing under carved gates, which gradually get grander as you go. Carved mythical creatures like chimera and phoenixes, as well as famous scenes like the "three monkeys," adorn the colorful gates; some gates like the Yomei-mon (listed as a Japanese National Treasure) feature over five-hundred carved figures. The shrine itself is the final resting place of the first Tokugawa shogun, his tomb itself can be found in the pagoda-like structure within the complex. Look out for the sleeping cat carving that sits above the entrance!
Wander Rinnoji Temple
Nikko’s most important Buddhist temples, it was founded in the 8th century by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk who initially brought Buddhism to Nikko. It’s a peaceful place to walk around, and you can enjoy the Japanese garden at the back, which is particularly beautiful in the spring and fall. Inside, you can find splendid sights like the Three Buddha Hall, which features three carved 26-foot wooden buddha statues, representations of Nikko’s mountain deities, that are decadently covered in gold leaf. Opposite the temple, you can find the temple house which holds several Buddhist and Tokugawa-related treasures.
Cross the Shinkyo Bridge
Spanning the Daiya-gawa river with lush forest and seasonal colors in the background, this red bridge is one of the most iconic images in Nikko. The bridge can be found along the Takino’o Kodo trail, which will also lead you to Toshogu Shrine, Takino’o Shrine, and several smaller shrines and temples. The bridge was built in the 17th century and is associated with a tale of Shodo-Shonin, who found the river too deep to cross, so the river god offered two serpents as a bridge for him. The bridge represents this spot where he was finally able to cross the river.
Sample Buddhist Vegetarian Cuisine
Nikko is one of the best spots for trying traditional Buddhist cuisine, typically eaten by monks, which is known as shojin ryori. The small vegan dishes served over several courses are a delicate balance of flavors created out of foraged items, tofu, root vegetables, and greens and are a treat for the body as well as the eyes. One of the best places to visit if you’d like to try this unique experience is Gyoshintei, where you’ll eat overlooking their landscaped garden, sit on tatami floors with cushions, and are served by staff wearing kimono. The surroundings and impeccable dishes make this one of the best things to do in Nikko.
Hike Around Lake Chuzenjiko
Nikko’s crown jewel, found at the base of the Nantai mountain Chuzenjiko, spans 15 miles and is the result of an eruption from the volcano around 20,000 years ago. For people who love hiking, the journey around the lake is a dream with thick forests and surrounding mountains to admire. There are also key spots to visit on the way like Chuzenji Temple, the British Embassy, and the Italian Embassy Villas, which are have remained open to the public for viewing. If you don’t fancy hiking, however, you can hope in one of the sightseeing boats and enjoy the view of the lake. For panoramic views of the lake, waterfalls, and mountains, take the Akechidaira Ropeway to the 4,830-foot viewing platform; the journey up is just as stunning as reaching the top.
See Some of Nikko’s Spectacular Waterfalls
Unsurprisingly Nikko’s mountainous landscape lends itself to some fantastic waterfalls! The biggest is Kegon, which is considered to be one of Japan’s best waterfalls and flows from Lake Chuzenjiko over the side of a gorge for 100 meters. There are two ways to see the falls, from a free viewing platform that you can walk to, or you can hop into an elevator down to the bottom of the falls to the other viewing platform. If you’re looking to enjoy the spray and mist of the falls for epic photographs, then the $5 fee is very worth it. Ryuzu waterfall is just as majestic and is said to resemble a dragon’s head as the stream splits into two before hitting the pool below. You can follow the Yukawa River to see the falls from a free viewing platform.
Visit Katayama Sake Brewery
Open since 1880, this award-winning sake brewery creates its renowned spirits using water drawn from an underground mountain spring named "sake spring." It's considered to be one of the three spiritual water sources of Nikko and perfect for delicious sake. Katayama brewery still uses traditional centuries-old methods to press the grains of rice to make sake rather than a modern press, which is said to produce purer sake. Visiting the brewery means you'll be able to take fascinating tours of the premises, taste various kinds of sake, and purchase bottles to go home or sake-related products. You can also view the making and pressing process if you contact the brewery in advance.
Walk Along Kanmangafuchi Abyss
This riverside walking trail treats you to scenic views as well as rows of stone Buddhist Jizo statues that are thought to protect travelers and children. Ghostly in nature, they offer a striking scene as each of the figures wears a red bib and hat; the statues are said to be uncountable as you will always reach a different number. The cascading abyss itself was formed over seven thousand years ago by an eruption from Mount Nantai and can also be enjoyed from the woodland trail. Just a short walk from sites like Shinkyō bridge, make sure not to miss this spiritual detour.
Relax in Nikko’s Hot Springs
If you’re coming to Nikko for a little relaxation, then you’re in luck! There are more than a dozen hot spring resorts in the area and several notable onsen that you can sink into after a day hiking. The green waters of Yumoto Onsen are a must-visit, situated next to Lake Yunoko surrounded by three mountains. The water is high in sulfur, giving it a milky color that purifies the skin and relaxes the muscles. Many of the resorts have private onsen, which you can use by the day for a fee if you’re not planning on staying over. If you just want to soak your feet after your walks and don’t fancy the whole onsen experience, then head to the footbath Ashi-no-yu where you can soak your feet along with your fellow travelers.
Explore Tamozawa Villa
A quick walk from Toshugu shrine, you’ll find one of the most significant wooden buildings in Japan with over 106-rooms to wander. With a mix of early modern Meiji period and Edo architecture, the villa was built in 1889, with parts of it having been initially moved from Tokyo. Although it was shut for several years, it was later restored, and both the house and garden are open to visitors with several exhibitions to learn more about the house and its history. Along with an interesting mix of western and eastern furniture, you’ll notice carpeted rooms as well as tatami rooms, chandeliers, and sliding doors. It's an eclectic mix that is sure to fascinate you.