Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture is a destination favoured among international and local tourists. With its stunning mountain scenery and variegated foliage, Nikko is a choice location for admiring Japan’s distinct seasonal changes.
Visitors tend to flock to Nikko during two periods of the year – first, in April for hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and second, in November for the popular practice of ‘leaf peeping’. The jewel-toned reds, yellows, and oranges of the deciduous trees in senescence are dazzling in their aesthetic simplicity, unlike the equally impressive yet heavily festooned exterior of Toshogu Shrine. Yet Nikko, being only 140 kilometres north of Tokyo, is a city which should be appreciated for its numerous natural and architectural beauties all the year round.
With summer temperatures in Tokyo on a steady increase, why not travel to Nikko to enjoy a hike from Kegon Falls to Mount Nantai? Or, in spring, perhaps take an easy stroll around the Shrines and Temples of Nikko, a collection of 103 buildings and structures that were designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999? With its cooling mountain air, wonderfully preserved artefacts, and wide open expanses, Nikko is bound to delight you and make you want to see its visual transformations from season to season.
Getting to Nikko: Transportation and discount tickets
Perhaps the easiest, most comfortable, and most cost-effective way to travel to Nikko is via Tobu Railway, but there are more transport options available. Visitors can keep their transportation costs down by purchasing a 2-day Nikko Pass (¥2,000), which provides you with a round trip ticket from Asakusa Station to Shimoimaichi Station, plus access to the World Heritage loop bus. The 2 Day Nikko Pass is useful for those whose primary interest is the Shrines and Temples of Nikko.
For those who wish to visit the upper mountain areas, it is recommended that you purchase a Nikko All Area Pass (¥4,520) instead. For a pretty sweet package deal there’s the 2-day Nikko World Heritage Tour that includes train transport, a one-night hotel stay (with dinner and breakfast), entry to Chuzenji Onsen, plus the Nikko All Area pass for just ¥26,500.
The Nikko All Area Pass, as its name implies, allows visitors easy access to all of Nikko’s natural and historical wonders. Like the 2 Day Nikko Pass, the Nikko All Area Pass includes a return trip between Asakusa Station and Shimoimachi Station. Unlike the 2 Day Nikko Pass, the Nikko All Area Pass is valid for four days’ worth of sightseeing.
Visitors can travel with this pass on any of the bus routes that cover the World Heritage Sites, hiking trails, and Kinugawa Theme Park. As this is a discount option, visitors can only use rapid service trains and below. For those wanting to take the high speed and luxurious SPACIA train, they will need to pay an additional fee for the privilege.
Budget accommodation choices in Nikko
Nikko runs the gamut of accommodation options, from deluxe, five-star hotels with private onsen to modest, yet nonetheless decent budget accommodation. Affordability granted, there are a number of hostels which impress due to their friendly service, location, and amenities.
For both dormitory style (¥2,800–¥3,000 per bed) and tatami room (¥7,000–¥10,000 per room) accommodation, try Nikko Guesthouse Sumica. This hostel is within walking distance to both JR and Tobu Nikko Stations. Nikko Guesthouse Sumica is also about a 20-minute walk from the Shrines and Temples of Nikko.
The eclectic furnishings and walls lovingly graffitied by former guests lend a unique feel to Nikkorisou Backpackers. Located right next to the famous Shinkyo Bridge, Nikkorisou Backpackers is a fabulous choice for those hoping to catch some extra shuteye before a long day of sightseeing.
Mixed dormitory accommodation at Nikkorisou is priced at ¥3,000 per bunk during May-October. Female dormitory accommodation costs ¥3,000 per bunk, and private rooms can be had for between ¥7,000 and ¥8,000 per room. Rates between November and April are ¥300 more per room.
The Riverhouse doesn’t feel like a hostel so much as a family holiday home. Before a generous breakfast, take a walk along Black River, adjacent to the guesthouse. There you will see a variety of wildlife, from tanuki rustling in the bushes to blue-and-white flycatchers chirruping in the trees.
As a former onsen, the Riverhouse boasts not one, but two cavernous bathrooms where guests can lather up and admire their magnificent surroundings. Dormitory accommodation is available in the main house, while there are two private annexes located just around the corner for small groups (from ¥4,000 per person).
Things to do and things to see in Nikko
Due to the high concentration of natural and historical landmarks in the same area, it’s possible to see a great deal of Nikko over two or three days. Visitors may wish to dedicate one or two days to exploring parts of Nikko National Park, and save one day for the Shrines and Temples of Nikko. By no means an exhaustive list, below are some suggestions for making the most out of your brief trip to Nikko.
To enter Nikko National Park, one of Japan’s most beautiful national parks, hop on a bus bound for Lake Chuzenji at either JR or Tobu Nikko Stations. The 45-minute drive on the sinuous No. 2 Irohazaka Drive will lead you past Shinkyo Bridge and smaller waterfalls such as Urami Falls and Jakko Falls. Hop off the bus at Kegon Falls, which at 97 metres is one of the three largest waterfalls in Japan. From there, take a pleasant walk around Lake Chuzenji, or perhaps hire a paddleboat and do a few laps on it instead.
From Kegon Falls, go deeper into Nikko National Park towards Mount Oku-Shirane (not to be confused with Mount Kusatsu-Shirane). You will be met with Lake Yunoko and Yudaki Falls before reaching the foot of Shirane. Relax in one of the many complimentary foot onsen in this area, courtesy of the geothermal waters of Lake Yunoko.
Although not as impressive as Kegon Falls, Yudaki Falls is still worth a visit. Get up close and personal at the bottom of Yudaki Falls while cracking open a cold one made available to you via the adjacent conbini.
With 103 buildings and structures, it’s easy to lose track of time and place in the UNESCO World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko. Perhaps the three most popular and therefore not-to-be-missed landmarks are the Toshogu Shrine, Rinnoji Temple, and Taiyuinbyo.
Toshogu Shrine, built in 1617, is the mausoleum of the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Featuring elements of Buddhist and Shinto architecture, Toshogu Shrine is renowned for its highly ornate façade. Well-known features of Toshogu Shrine include the wooden inlay of the three wise monkeys (‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’) and nemuri-neko, a sleeping cat located near the karamon gate. Do note that certain buildings within the Shrine are closed for maintenance until the end of March 2020.
In proximity to Toshogu Shrine is Rinnoji, a Buddhist temple built in the 8th century and founded by the monk Shodo Shonin. Although the temple complex is currently under maintenance (until the end of March 2019), visitors can still access Sanbutsudo Hall and the treasure house just opposite it in order to view precious artworks relating to the three mountain deities of Nikko (Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho, and Mount Taro). Next to Sanbutsudo Hall is the classical garden, Shoyo-en, a pleasant space in which to relax and enjoy the seasonal imagery of Nikko.
Nearby Taiyuinbyo is the companion piece to Toshogu Shrine, being the mausoleum of Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu. Although less august than Toshogu Shrine, Taiyuinbyo still deserves attention, not least for its white dragon statue near the karamon gate and the Nio statues at the niomon gate.
With its abundant natural beauties and equally breathtaking cultural landmarks, Nikko is a city that captivates its visitors across the four seasons. Being only a short distance from Tokyo, it is a perfect place to decompress after a busy week’s worth of work. Whether soaking your feet in an onsen overlooking a lake or gazing upon centuries-years old carvings, Nikko is an unmissable travel destination in Japan.
While we do our best to ensure that everything is correct, information is subject to change. Originally published in June, 2015. Last updated in November, 2018.