Nikko (日光) is a small town to the north of Tokyo, in Tochigi Prefecture.
HistoryThe first temple in Nikko was founded more than 1,200 years ago along the shores of the Daiya River. However, in 1616, the dying Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu made it known that his final wish was for his successors to "Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan." As a result, Nikko became home of the mausoleums of two Tokugawa Shoguns, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Unlike most Japanese temples and shrines, the buildings here are extremely gaudy and ornate, with multicolored carvings and plenty of gold leaf, and show heavy Chinese influence. Some sense of dignity is restored by a magnificent forest of over 13,000 cedar trees, covering the entire area.
However, for all of the grandeur the shoguns could muster, they're now over-shadowed in the eyes of many visitors by a trio of small wooden carvings on a stable wall: the famous three wise monkeys.
By planeAirport limousine buses operate two round-trips per day from Haneda Airport's terminals. It takes around 3 hours and costs ¥3300 each way.
By trainNikko has two major train stations: Nikko Station, served by Japan Railways (JR), and Tobu-Nikko Station, appropriately served by the private Tobu railway. The train stations are separated by only a few minutes walk and are around 2 km from Toshogu Shrine.
If heading from Tokyo like most others, deciding how to reach Nikko depends on your budget, and whether or not you have any sort of regional or national JR Rail Pass.
By Tobu Railway from AsakusaTobu Railway operates frequent service to Nikko from their terminal at Asakusa Station, which is connected to the Toei Asakusa and Tokyo Metro Ginza subway lines. Conventional commuter services take around 2 hr 30 min - 3 hr depending on the time of day and cost ¥1360, with several transfers required. A more convenient way to travel to Nikko is on one of Tobu's direct limited express services, which take 2 hours and are operated with either the older SPACIA trains or the newer Revaty trains. Services depart every 30-60 minutes, costing ¥2700 for the SPACIA or ¥2800 for the Revaty. All services stop at the station for Tokyo SkyTree.
The limited express trains that offer direct service to Nikko are called Kegon; there are also Kinu trains that you can use, but you'll need to change to a short local service at Shimo-Imaichi to reach Nikko.
Tobu offers a few travel passes for foreign tourists that wish to visit Nikko and surrounding areas. Passes for foreign tourists can be purchased online through Tobu's website, or in person at the Tobu tourist information desk at Asakusa station. The passes do not include admission to the world heritage shrines and temples.
- Nikko Pass - World Heritage Area: ¥2000 for 2 days. This pass includes unlimited train travel between Tobu-Nikko, Shimo-Imaichi and Kinugawa Onsen, unlimited travel on Tobu buses between Tobu-Nikko and the world heritage sites, and discounted admission to attractions in Nikko and Kinugawa.
- Nikko Pass - All Area: a 4-day pass costing ¥4520 from mid-April to November, and ¥4150 at other times. In addition to the features of the World Heritage Pass, the All Area pass includes unlimited bus travel from Nikko to Lake Chuzenji, Yumoto Onsen and Kirifuri Falls.
There are two more passes available to everyone, not just foreign tourists:
- Marugoto Nikko Free Pass: ¥4150-4520 for 4 days. This pass includes unlimited train travel between Shimo-Imaichi and Tobu-Nikko, and unlimited bus travel from Nikko to the world heritage sites, Lake Chuzenji, Yumoto Onsen and Kirifuri Falls.
- Marugoto Nikko Kinugawa Free Pass: ¥5630-6150 for 4 days. In addition to the features of the Marugoto Nikko Free Pass, this pass includes unlimited train travel between Shimo-Imaichi and Kinugawa, and unlimited bus travel on routes in the Kinugawa area.
Included in these passes is one round-trip from the Asakusa area on standard commuter trains. You can purchase separate reservation tickets for the direct limited express services on either the SPACIA (¥1340 each way) or the Revaty (¥1440 each way). A 20% discount is given on these tickets when purchased with a pass.
By JR from Tokyo StationYou can reach Nikko from Tokyo Station in around 2 hours by taking the Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsunomiya and changing to the JR Nikko Line. Since the one-way fare starts from ¥5060 unreserved, this travel option makes more sense for holders of the Japan Rail Pass or one of JR East's regional passes including the Tokyo Wide Pass.
By JR/Tobu from Shinjuku/IkebukuroJR and Tobu operate joint limited express trains a few times a day from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro stations that operate to Tobu-Nikko in 2 hours at a cost of ¥4000. One service operates directly to Nikko, while the others operate to Kinugawa and require a train change at Shimo-Imaichi. Regional JR East passes, including the Tokyo Wide Pass, fully cover this journey. Holders of the national Japan Rail Pass must pay a surcharge for the portion of the trip on Tobu tracks, in which case it may be easier to just take the JR to either Tokyo or Omiya to connect to the shinkansen.
By busTohoku Express Bus operates one daily round-trip service from Tokyo Station, reaching Tobu-Nikko staion in 3 hr. The trip costs ¥2500 one way or ¥4000 round trip. The bus from Tokyo leaves at 07:50, and the return trip from Tobu-Nikko leaves at 16:00.
There is also a twice-daily bus service from Yokohama station, which is the same bus that serves Nikko from Haneda Airport (4 hours, ¥3300).
To reach the shrines, you can take a Tobu Bus (bus stop 2C just outside the Tobu Nikko train station, bus fare included in Tobu's World Heritage Pass, about a 6-minute bus ride to the UNESCO World Heritage area), or you can get up close and personal with the neighborhood and use your own two feet, following the pedestrian signs along the main road (Route 119). Getting off at bus stops 81-85 on the Tobu 2C bus line will get you to the shrine and temple area. Halfway between the stations and shrines, there is another Tourist Information Center (591 Gokomachi area; Tel. 0288-53-3795) where you ca get maps, ask questions (some English spoken), use the Internet (¥100/30 minutes), and quench your thirst with water from a small, ladle-drawn waterfall. Also if it is raining, they very happily lend out umbrellas and you are able to drop these off on the way back. Allow about a half-hour or so to walk from the train station to the shrine entrance.
The JR station has various tourist bus passes for the Nikko area from the JR ticket office. As an example, a ¥2000 ticket will get you 2 days of unlimited rides to and back from the Chuzenji onsen area lake area, which is discounted from the posted fares. The back of the ticket includes a helpful map showing the numbered stops and where the ticket if valid.
TōshōgūThe burial place of dynasty founder Tokugawa Ieyasu and the most extravagant temple in Nikko. Ieyasu was buried here immediately after his death in 1616, but the present complex was built in 1634 on the order of his grandson Iemitsu. The shrine took 2 years to complete with the efforts of 15,000 workers. Although the surrounding shrine is very ornate, the tomb itself is surprisingly simple and unassuming.
- After two flights of steps you will reach the Sacred Stable, housing a white horse. The most famous symbol here is the carving of the three wise monkeys, who "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". They're part of a curious series of carvings about the life cycle of a monkey, from giddy childhood to fearful old age. Nearby, you can also find an interesting approximation of an elephant, carved by an artist who had clearly never seen one.
Yakushi-dō HallThe Hall of the Medicine Buddha is known for a dragon painting on the ceiling. A monk is usually on hand to speak (Japanese only, some broken English if you're lucky) and strike a special block which produces a sharp, piercing echo if struck directly below the dragon's mouth. This is said to be identical to the cry of a dragon — not quite the roar of English legend but an attention-getter all the same.
Yomei-mon GateAn incredibly ornate gate with over 400 carvings squeezed in. To the right of the main hall is the way to Ieyasu's tomb. Look out for another famous carving, this time of a sleeping cat (nemuri-neko). There are 200 stone steps, and steep ones at that; and then you finally reach the surprisingly simple gravesite itself.
Taiyuin-byōIemitsu, the 3rd Tokugawa Shogun and grandson of Ieyasu, is buried here. Smaller, although much more beautiful than Tōshōgū. The main hall and mausoleum can only be viewed from outside. Unlike Tōshōgū, the tomb itself is not accessible to the public.
Rinnō-ji TempleFounded by Shodo Shonin, the monk that introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. Known for its three large Buddha figures (at the Sanbutsudoh Hall portion of Rinnoji Temple) and for the beautiful and peaceful Shōyō-en Garden (逍遥園), the temple is closed for renovation until 2020. The entrance price allows you to see one of the three Buddhas and the renovation works.
Futarasan ShrineIt was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the monk that introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. The existing structure, built in 1617, is the oldest in Nikko. The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Nikko's three holy mountains: Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho, and Mt. Taro.
There are a few other sites near the temple area:
phone: +81 288-54-0535This much-photographed red bridge separates the shrines from the town of Nikko. In feudal times, only the shogun was permitted to cross the bridge, and even today it's barred from pedestrian traffic — although there's a 4-lane highway rumbling right past. You can get a nice view from the sidewalk, but to set foot on the bridge and look down into the gorge below, you'll have to buy a ¥350 ticket from the booth nearby.
Takino-o Shrinephone: +81 288-54-0535This often overlooked mountain shrine is situated slightly up the mountain behind Toshogu and provides a welcome relief from the more crowded areas of Sannai. It takes its name from the picturesque waterfall that greets you at the base of the entrance. You can get there by walking for about 15-20 minutes along an ancient and atmospheric stone path that begins behind the Toshogu Shamusho (office). This path also features several other notable sites such as the Kyosha-do Hall (Japanese Chess pieces are left here as offerings for hopes of a safe birth), the worship hall Kaisan-do and the gravesite of Shodo-Shonin (the latter two are maintained by Rinnoji Temple).
Kanmangafuchi AbyssA long series of jizo protector statues on the side of a hill, some adorned with hats and bibs, some crumbling with age, with a river, small waterfalls and rapids below. Legend says that the statues change places from time to time, and a visitor will never see them in the same order twice. It can be tricky to find - at Shinkyō, instead of heading up the steps to the temple area, follow the road around to the west (to the left, if you crossed over the bridge) and walk roughly half an hour following the river - look for signs along the way. You will be walking through a residential area. If you pass the Turtle Inn, you are heading in the correct direction.
Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Parkphone: +81 288-53-6767Built for the Emperor Taisho in 1899, the former imperial villa also served as a hide-out for Hirohito during World War II.
phone: +81 288-54-0206Has plenty of the local flora and gardens that were said to be favorites of the Emperor Taisho. It's now an adjunct to Tokyo University.
Lake Chuzenji-area attractionsThe Lake Chuzenji-area can be reached by taking bus #1 or #2 from the Nikko or Tobu-Nikko train stations and remaining on the bus past the temple area. The journey takes approximately 1 hour.
Kegon FallsOne of Japan's top 3 waterfalls, Kegon Falls features a 97-meter drop. A viewpoint offers spectacular photo opportunities. In the winter, the falls freeze, offering a unique scene.
- Akechidaira View Point (Bus stop #23) - You can take a cable car (¥730 9AM-4PM) to a viewpoint of Mount Nantaisan, Kegon Falls, and Lake Chuzenji.
- Lake Chuzenji - (Bus stop #26) - The highest lake in Japan, this lake has cool temperatures in the summer and is surrounded by summer villas of the rich. Sightseeing boats (hourly, 09:30-15:30; winter: 10:30-14:30) offer spectacular views.
- Chuzen-ji temple is a 700m- walk south from the red Buddhist gate along route 250.
- An additional 700-m walk will bring you to the former ambassador villas for Britain and Italy. The properties have now been returned to Japan and converted to memorial parks with beautiful views of the lake. Admission to both for ¥300 includes a self guided tour of the building including the history of properties and notable figures. Traditional English tea service also available.
Nikko National ParkOffers plenty of hiking opportunities.
- National Route 120 heads from the center of town into the park, passing Mt. Nantai and Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖 Chuzenji-ko) on its way to the Senjogahara Plateau, where the gods of Mt. Nantai and Mt. Akagi are said to have battled for possession of Lake Chuzenji - with several animal and insect transformations and archery experts involved in Mt. Nantai's eventual victory. There's a 6.3-km walking course on the plateau; allow a little over two and a half hours. Lake Chuzenji is surrounded by hiking trails ranging from 4.6 km (1½ hours) to 19.7 km (6 hours), and also has rowing and motor boat facilities in the warm season. The area is sometimes called Oku-Nikko (奥日光 Oku-Nikko), meaning "Inner Nikko".
- Route 120 then crosses over the Yukawa River and passing the Yudaki Falls, Lake Yunoko and the Yumoto spa and ski slopes to the northwest of the city, eventually reaching Mt. Shirane and Lakes Kirikomi and Karikomi, which have their own walking courses.
- Once inside the park, special "low-pollution hybrid" buses run from a depot at Akanuma, near the Yukawa River and the Ryuzu Falls, to the nature preserve at Senjugahama, on the western shores of Lake Chuzenji. Parking is free at Akanuma, but the road to Senjugahama is closed to all other vehicles.
Nikko Yumoto Onsen Ski ParkNear Lake Yunoko and Yumoto Hot Spring.
Many stores also sell yuba, the 'skin' that forms on top when making tofu, in packages that can be taken home to enjoy.
Hippari DakoEnshrined in Lonely Planet, every other foreign tourist to Nikko seems to stop here for yakitori (Japanese chicken kebabs) and noodles, so you might as well join the crowd. Every available space is plastered with business cards and scribbled recommendations from visitors. Their menu contains several vegetarian options as well. This restaurant is generally not recommended among locals and seems to thrive off the fact that they speak English.
phone: +81 288-53-3232address: Tokorono 1541Wagyu (Japanese beef) steak restaurant. Reservation needed. The dress code is not too strict, but no sandals, no running wear.
Shiawaseya HakuunA great place to have a cup of tea and something sweet whilst waiting for your train or bus. Endless green tea comes with everything. Try the anmitsu (¥400) a dessert made up of fruit, bean jam and molasses.
Nikko can be covered in a busy day trip from Tokyo, but it's also a good place to spend the night, especially in a traditional Japanese ryokan guesthouse. The shrines are quite atmospheric early in the morning and at dusk, when the tour buses are not around.
BudgetThere are several campsites in Nikko, although only Narusawa (+81 288-54-3374) and Ogurayama (+81 288-54-2478) are open year-round; several others run from April to mid-November or July to August.
phone: +81 80-1215-4018address: Minami OkorogawaA remote hostel, surrounded by nature on the riverside with a ambient chillout lounge overlooking the river. Great Western breakfast.
phone: +81 288-26-0951address: 2112-7 Kiwadashima
phone: +81 80-6636-0288address: 1462-22 TokoronoA Japanese traditional guest house.
address: 5-12 Aioi-choA traditional Japanese guest house, located a few minutes from the Tobu and JR stations. Friendly owners.
phone: +81 288-54-0611address: Sannai 2335A traditional Japanese guest house walking distance to the UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples. The staff are helpful and friendly. The rooms are very clean, and the futons are comfortable. They have private half baths (sink and toilet). The main bathtub/onsen is public (shared among hotel guests), but you can reserve the private "family bath" for 50 minutes during your stay for no extra charge — this is a great way to get a private onsen experience, plus the antechamber to the private onsen has a sink and hair dryer. The dinner (¥3000 per person, served in a common dining room, reserve dinner time at check in on a first-come, first-serve basis — reservations for dinner can also be made at time of room booking) a great value (many dishes) and cultural experience. Breakfast is available for ¥1000, first service at 07:30. There is free coffee and tea in the lobby, as well as a public use computer with Internet. Information packets (in the guest room) are translated into English, Mandarin Chinese, Korean, and Spanish.
phone: +81 288-53-3663address: 8-28 Takumi-choAbout 15 minutes on foot from Shinkyō Bridge, in a quiet area near the Kanmangafuchi Abyss; includes a hot spring bath and internet access.
phone: +81 288-54-3120This comfortable family-run B&B is a fair hike from the station but the 40 minute walk is beautiful and the owners promise you a free beer on arrival. Alternatively you can take the #6 bus or arrange to be picked up from the station. The rooms are spacious and charming, with shared bathrooms. The owners speak fantastic English.
Forest Inn Nikko Teddy Bear Housephone: +81 288-25-3022address: 1543-507 TokoronoA place to rest your head for the night, and a private collection of teddy bears to peruse!
phone: +81 288-53-1201address: 2828-5 TokoronoThis laid-back, friendly and unapologetic lodge is about 20 minutes' walk from the town center, although the owner is happy to provide rides to and from the train stations (and to the temple area in the morning). There are twin, double and four-person rooms at ¥3990 per person. English is spoken. The lounge has comfortable sofas and a warm stove for the winter. Although most of the rooms have showers, there are lovely Japanese-style hot baths on the first floor. Zen yoga classes are offered every morning at 7AM for ¥300. A simple breakfast is ¥395 and the vegan 'zen' dinner (¥1800, reservation required) is recommended, but be prepared to spend a couple of hours waiting for your meal after the advertised starting time. Parking is available.
phone: +81 288-53-3168address: 216 Takumi-choAbout ten minutes to the temple area; includes a hot spa bath and internet access.
phone: +81 288-53-0082address: 1560 TokoronoA strangely French name for a pleasant little guesthouse a short walk from Toba Nikko station. Run by an old Japanese couple who moved here for the quiet life. The guesthouse has small and cosy western style rooms, a communal Japanese bath, and serves excellent breakfasts and dinners. Lifts to and from the station are easily arranged. Adequate English is spoken, credit cards accepted, free LAN internet in the lobby.
phone: +81 288-62-2141address: 2548 YumotoJapanese and Western-style rooms.
phone: +81 288-54-1010address: 6-48 Yasukawa-choModern ryokan with both traditional Japanese and Western Japanese rooms. Indoor and outdoor hot springs available 24 hours/day. Impeccable traditional Japanese dinners utilizing a multitude of fresh, local, seasonal ingredients. Choice of Western or Japanese style breakfast. Very personal service, English spoken well. Every room has a beautiful view of the Otani River. About 300 m from Tōshōgū Shrine.
phone: +81 288-54-0611address: 2335 SannaiA well-located ryokan used to English-speaking guests, the flip side is the large size and consequently impersonal service.
- Kirifuri Highlands — waterfalls, hiking and skiing
- Kinugawa — hot springs and the offbeat Tobu World Square/Edo Wonderland theme parks
- Yumoto — hot spring resort perched by another lake（yudaki-falls）, 30 minutes deeper into the hills.
- Those with an interest in pottery or steam locomotives may enjoy Mashiko on the way back to Tokyo.