The city of Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture is overflowing with charms. Its shrines and temples are a registered UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the area also offers an abundance of history and culture, vast natural beauty, hot springs, and more.
One of the best things about Nikko is how easy it is to get there. It takes about two hours to get to Tobu Nikko Station on the Tobu Railway from Asakusa Station, or on the JR-Tobu Railway Limited Express running directly from JR Shinjuku Station. The Shinkansen stops at Utsunomiya Station, and from there it’s about 45 minutes to JR Nikko Station on the local line. Read on to learn about some of the best features of Nikko in four categories: history, culture, natural beauty, and hot springs.
Experience the history and culture of Nikko, a UNESCO World Heritage Site
The Shrines and Temples of Nikko as a World Heritage Site consists of a total of 103 structures (nine National Treasures and 94 Important Cultural Properties) included under the Shrines and Temples of Nikko, grouped within two Shinto shrines (Toshogu and Futarasan-jinja) and one Buddhist temple (Rinno-ji), as well as other surrounding historical sites in the cultural landscape.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine is the best place to start your tour. It is dedicated to the first shogun—Tokugawa Ieyasu, who founded the Tokugawa shogunate in 1603. The Edo period would continue for more than 260 years, producing a flourishing of distinctively Japanese artistic and cultural achievements, among them sumo, kabuki, and fireworks. The magnificent main shrine at Nikko Toshogu was a hub of artistic achievement during the early Edo period, and is definitely worth seeing.
Nikko Toshogu Shrine was rebuilt in its current form by Tokugawa Iemitsu, the third Tokugawa shogun and a great admirer of Ieyasu. The Taiyuin, the third shogun’s mausoleum, is located on the grounds of Rinno-ji, which collectively refers to halls, priests’ quarters, and fifteen sub-shrines in addition to the Taiyuin. There is so much to see here, including the Shoyoen Japanese garden built during the Edo period.
The Japanese people have worshipped mountains and nature at sacred mountain sites since ancient times. A Buddhist monk named Shodo Shonin brought Buddhism to and founded the first temple in Nikko in 782. He felt a divine presence at Mt. Futara (Mt. Nantai), and set out on a harsh journey to its summit.
Nikko Futarasan-jinja enshrines the sacred spirit of Mt. Nantai. It is thought to bestow worshippers with good luck and happy partnerships. At the Mt. Nantai summit that Shodo Shonin once climbed is the Nikko Futarasan-jinja okumiya, or rear shrine, while the Nikko Futarasan-jinja chugushi, or middle shine, is built on the northern cliffs of Chuzen-ji Lake—which lies halfway up the slopes of Mt. Nantai. The shrine grounds cover a huge area some 3,400 hectares in size.
Head to the Okunikko area to enjoy lake and mountain activities in a gorgeous natural setting
About a 45-minute bus ride from central Nikko City will take you to the Irohazaka scenic driving course—a winding mountain road with 48 curves. Pass through the road and head out to the Okunikko area. Once you get to Okunikko, you’re greeted with the vast mysteries of nature, including Mt. Nantai, Chuzen-ji Lake, and the 97-meter Kegon Falls.
The best activities in Okunikko are the ones that put you in touch with nature. You can enjoy canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding in Chuzen-ji Lake between spring and early fall. Nikko National Park showcases the beauty of each of Japan’s four distinct seasons, and there are hiking trails that can be enjoyed year-round. Stop by the Nikko-Yumoto Visitor Center to get information on a customized hiking route based on your skill level and the amount of time you have.
Average temperatures in Okunikko stay below 20ºC even in midsummer, a fact which around the year 1900 drew Western diplomats to build second homes and embassies here around Chuzen-ji Lake to spend their summer months.
Some of these structures remain still today in the British Embassy Villa Memorial Park and the Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park, and are open to visitors. These landmarks are a great way to think back on the history of the scenes that make up the Nikko Mountains and Chuzen-ji Lake, once so attractive to Japan’s foreign dignitaries.
Kinugawa Onsen offers gorgeous valley views
If you come to Nikko, don’t forget to enjoy the hot springs while you’re here. The Kinugawa Onsen area is very easy to get to from central Nikko City.
If you arrive via Kinugawa Onsen Station, head first to the Kinugawa-Kawaji-onsen Tourist Information Center just in front of the station. They can tell you which hotels and inns allow day access to their hot spring baths. The waters at Kinugawa Onsen are simple alkaline hot springs. They have a smooth feel and are thought to be good for soothing neuralgia and promoting general relaxation. Make sure you take advantage of the stunning views while you’re here by choosing a facility with an outdoor bath overlooking the Kinugawa River.
The Tobu Railway sells an area-wide Nikko pass called the Marugoto Nikko Tobu Free Pass that gives you unlimited access to the trains and buses in Nikko at a discount price—a convenient option if you’ll be traveling around to the places mentioned in this article. Nikko is so full of amazing sights that it’s impossible to see it all in a day, so make sure you stay a few nights and give yourself a chance to take it all in.