Nikko is one of Japan's main attractions, famed for the Tōshō-gū shrine, the vermillion Shinkyo bridge and the Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss park. But beyond these well-known attractions, Nikko has a less-discovered side which I'm about to unravel. Deep in Nikko's heart, lies an off the beaten path onsen, a Samurai house and a hiking trail which takes you back in time, where Gods once fought for the land. Here, you will encounter myriad waterfalls, lakes and stories awaiting to be brought to light.
Join me on a journey of adventure, mystique and secret sights. Here is everything you need to know about Nikko, Japan.
Why visit Nikko Japan?
Located just two hours away from Tokyo, Nikko is home to various hidden treasures worth travelling to Japan for. I've wanted to visit Nikko because of the Shinkyo bridge. Once I arrived, I realised Nikko has so much more to offer. I discovered delicious local specialities, a zen cedar avenue and some of the most attractive waterfalls I've ever seen. Although Nikko is known mainly for the Tōshō-gū shrine and the Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss park, in reality, there is a lot more about this place than meets the eye. You will need at least 2 days to discover the region, enjoy an epic hike, eat as much as you can, and soak in a Japanese onsen.
I wanted to visit Nikko because I wanted to uncover some less touristy, more authentic and truly Japanese areas.
Our adventure started on the 26th of April 2017. It was 8 am, when G and I met our guide, Sam, waiting for us at the Asakusa station in Tokyo. Sam is a freelancer for Beauty of Japan as well as a Wilderness Medical Associate. We thought, what better person to have with us, showing us around off the beaten path in Nikko!
We had a well thought through plan on how to spend the next two days meandering around Nikko, discovering little-known sights, and learning about the Japanese way of hiking the mountains.
Day 1 in Nikko
Our train left Asakusa just after 8 am. We had our Nikko All-Area Passes ready, which had included one round trip on the railway between Asakusa and Tobu Nikko Station. The pass also comes with unlimited bus rides in specific zones.
At around 9:45 am, we got off the Revaty train. The weather was gorgeous and the sakura trees were still in bloom. There was a sweet morning smell in the air and the roads were perfectly quiet. We bought a small cup of coffee and made our way towards our first stop on the itinerary: the Watanabe Sahei Sake Brewery!
The Watanabe Sahei Sake Brewery was real fun. In all honesty, I knew nothing about sake, but thankfully I learned so much. The owner, a fun Japanese guy with exceptional English skills, took us around the brewery and explained how sake is made. He was incredibly keen to answer all questions we had. The best part? We got to try five different types of sake. We would strongly recommend stopping to see this brewery. You will meet a fun and bubbly person, get to learn a lot and start the day with sake first thing for breakfast. Hard to resist this, right? Did I mention it is entirely FREE? Yup, all you need is to email the brewery in advance and tell them about your visit.
The Cedar Avenue
After the Sake tour, we had a quick stroll towards the famed Cedar Avenue in Nikko. Imagine this long and wide road, lined with over 13000 beautiful Cedar trees. The Cedar tree or Sugi is the national tree of Japan. This road is over 35 km long. Our guide, Sam, told us that back in the Edo period rickshaws was used to travel between Tokyo to Nikko. Hard to imagine a man running and pulling a cart for such long distances, with barely any time to rest.
Special lunch at Nagomi Chaya
After learning so much already, our bellies started requesting food. Our guide already had a reservation made for us, for 12:30 pm. Our restaurant, Nagomi Chaya, was located about 15 minutes walk from the main Nikko train station. What was great about this place is that without a guide, it would have been incredibly unlikely that we would have ever figured out this place was a restaurant. Nagomi Chaya had a small entrance, which leads to a wonderful and traditional looking establishment. For lunch, there were two options only: the standard traditional kaiseki cuisine or the Nikko special kaiseki, which contains Yuba (tofu skin). The former was JPY 1500, the later, was JPY 2500. We went for the standard version and left fully satisfied. Plenty of food and a delicious dessert to leave us all happy. A siesta was all we needed, but the day was still young with so much left to do.
The famed Shinkyo bridge
We couldn't visit Nikko and not stop to admire the wonderful Shinkyo bridge. Have you ever wondered how come that everyone photographs the bridge completely empty? How come that it's not always busy with tourists? Well, funny story. Shinkyo bridge can only be crossed by the Royal Family. Should you wish to stand on the bridge, you must pay, but you are not allowed to cross it either way. This makes it pretty special and fantastic for photography lovers who want to capture the Shinkyo bridge alone.
The story behind the Nikko Tōshō-gū shrine
What do you know about the Tōshō-gū shrine? You might have heard that it's a Unesco Heritage Site. You might know that it belonged to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. What you might not know, though is that this very well known shrine, was in fact, part of an amusement park.
Once upon a time, the entrance was free, and people from all around Japan used to come and visit the Tōshō-gū shrine. The lavish decorations were subject to amusement, talk and admirations. Groups of people paid for a guide, to take them around the grounds and show them colourful decorations and explain the meaning of various embellishments.
One of the most common sights is perhaps the Three Wise Monkeys which embody the proverbial principle "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil".
As we were passing through, our guide pointed at some sculpted elephants and told us that back then, in Japan, nobody saw elephants in real life. Many came to the Tōshō-gū shrine specifically to see this elephant-like creation, sculpted based on folk tales and ideas on how these creatures look like.
You probably need a full day to admire the Tōshō-gū shrine in all its splendour. Admire the pagoda, and find your way up to the mountain, to commemorate Tokugawa Ieyasu, where he now rests.
Kanaya Hotel Samurai house
After the Tōshō-gū shrine, about 10 minutes away, we found a fantastic little Samurai house. The place was small and well kept, ran by a sweet, little old lady. The house itself had Edo period features, as well as Meiji added-on parts. It was really great to time travel from one room to another. We learned how the fire was used for cooking and heating for two rooms at the same time. Rather ingenious, as everything else Japanese.
The Nikko Astraea Hotel
After a long day, we finally got a bus to our hotel: Nikko Astraea Hotel. The hotel is located high in the mountains, in a quiet area, surrounded by trees and flowers. You have fantastic walking opportunities around and the views, ah the views! We loved the hotel because of its location. Dinner and breakfast were both included, as well as unlimited access to its onsen. Dinner was crazy big with so many options, we couldn't finish it all. Breakfast was the same. The hotel has an indoor and outdoor onsen. The hotel doesn't have a policy against guests with tattoos, which makes this onsen fantastic. However, they do advise that you visit the onsen after hours, as Japanese people often feel uncomfortable when they see guests with tattoos. The onsen is open 24/7 which means that you should always wait until late to get the baths for yourself. I went there at around 9 pm and there was nobody around! I literally had the whole onsen for myself. It was by far the most amazing and liberating experience I've ever had.
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I got naked (as you should when entering an onsen), then went outside and got into the hot water. The onsen had views towards the high pines and you could look at the stars. It was one of the most incredible evenings spent in the mountains. When was the last time you soaked in hot water, whilst entirely naked, with views of forests and starry skies? Hard not to love the idea. I searched for so long for an onsen which allows guests with tattoos and there you have it. All you need is to ensure you go there after hours and you are safe! I would go back to this hotel over and over again.
Day 2 in Nikko
We left Astraea Hotel at around 8:30 am after a huge breakfast. We started our trail with a quick stop at the Kitsukuma pond, which is about 10 minutes walk from the hotel. We continued our hikes towards Senjōgahara, translated to "the battlefield". This is a 4 square kilometre area in Nikko, located at approx 1400 metres above sea-level. The area is vast and a little swampy depending on the season. The area acquired its name due to myths and legends. It is said that once upon a time there was a battle here, between the Serpent and the Centipede God. The God of Mount Nantai transformed himself into snakes and the God of Mount Akagi transformed himself into centipedes. They were battling for the ownership of Lake Chuzenji and it seems that Mount Nantai won.
Yudaki Falls in Nikko
As we continued our journey, our guide told us about the fauna and flora present in the Nikko National Park. He explained that there are bears in the woods and we learned that Japanese people use a small bell to hike with. They believe the sound made by the bells will scare away the bears. We found this really adorable as we met a few Japanese people who were all carrying cute little bells with them.
It didn't take too long before we reached the Yudaki Falls. We saw pictures of them in the past, and they have long been on our bucket list for Japan. Honestly, the pictures don't do these falls any justice. They are so incredibly beautiful and peaceful to looks at.
There are a nearby toilet and a store full of sweets and savoury items. We stopped to have a quick snack and drink some hot tea. Of course, we choice an epic spot, overlooking the falls. This was proper heaven.
Yunoko lake in Nikko
A few minutes up the hill will take you at the top of the waterfall, which will enable you to enjoy a different view of the Yudaki Falls. Walk another 5 minutes and enjoy the beautiful and calm Yunoko lake! Nothing better than breathing in fresh air whilst admiring a gorgeous lake, surrounded by mountains. Hard not to fall in love, right? This is the off the beaten path which we loved so much about Nikko. There is so much to be discovered in this world.
Yumoto Onsen Japan in Nikko
As part of the Nikko National Park, there is a secret called the Yumoto Onsen. This is a small hot spring town, in the middle of raw nature. We had a wonder around the Yunodaira Marsh, then went to the free of charge Foot onsen. Yes, you read this correctly: a foot onsen! What can be better after a long hike, than a soak your feet in hot springs full of minerals? Works like magic and it's entirely free of charge. Omg, please don't ever take me away from Japan. I love this place.
Lunch at Tonkatsu Asai
Unfortunately, we had to leave the beautiful Foot onsen behind and take the bus towards the Chuzenji lake. We were pretty hungry, so we couldn't wait to see what our guide, Sam, had in mind for lunch. We stopped at a little hole in the wall called Tonkatsu Asai. There was quite a big queue, but after about 35 minutes we got to sit down and enjoy some Tonkatsu. The food was good, and since we love Tonkatsu, we couldn't have asked for any better lunch after a few hours of exploring.
The Chuzenji lake in Nikko
Many know of the Chuzenji lake which is an area of outstanding natural beauty. The lake itself looks fantastic and has a few similarities to the Milford Sound. The area, the mountains behind, the weather, it all reminded me of New Zealand. We stopped to check out the British Embassy, which our guide really wanted to show us. Upstairs, they have a small coffee where they serve proper British tea with scones and milky Earl Grey. We wished we would have had some more time to indulge ourselves a little. We loved the building as the exterior was all black. We honestly thought that it was painted this way, but we learned that there is a specific Japanese technique of charring the wood in order to obtain the black colour. Rather interesting and definitely cool.
Kegon falls in Nikko
Once ready to leave the Chuzenji lake behind, we had one more stop, at the Kegon falls. The main falls have a height of approximately 97 metres but there are 12 smaller falls which are leaking through many cracks. The falls were formed when the Daiya River was rerouted by lava flows. The place can get really crowded during the Autumn when many come to see the foliage. Look at this waterfall! Doesn't this look amazing?
Kanman - ga -Fuchi Abyss park in Nikko
We took another bus, only that this time we stopped close to the Kanman-ga-Fuchi Abyss park. I long wanted to see this beautiful place and I honestly couldn't wait to get off the bus and enjoy a stroll around the path. As beautiful as in the pictures, the path towards the entrance was lined with trees. The Kanman-ga Fuchi is known for the row of statues which have red hats and bibs. These are Jizo stones also known as Ghost Jizo who are meant to look after the dead.
Right in front of the path lined with the statues, there is a gorge which was born due to an eruption of the Mountain Nantai.
Why you need a Nikko pass
The best advice I'm going to give you is to get a NIKKO All Area Pass. You can buy it here. It is valid for 4 days (3 nights), it includes one round trip on the railway between Asakusa and Tobu Nikko Station and unlimited bus rides in designated zones. Without the pass, we would have ended up paying a fortune for buses alone. The buses are fantastic in the Nikko area, with stops everywhere you can think of in order to admire the landscape, start a hike, or chill by a special waterfall. The buses are essential. To properly enjoy Nikko, I truly recommend spending at least 2 days in the area. We spent one night and looking back, we wish we would have spent even more to explore everything around the Nikko National Park.
Know that the bus which takes you up and down the mountain goes on some seriously curvy roads. So be prepared to enjoy some crazy beautiful landscapes. I hope you won't get too scared, although even my heart stopped at certain hairpin curves. Adrenaline and photographic heaven? Yes, please!
The Nikko All Area Pass also offers you discounts including a percentage off at the Nikko Astraea Hotel, where we stayed. It seems very convenient and epic to just board the bus and get off in front of the hotel where you can get dinner, breakfast and enjoy the onsen facilities. Heaven for us!
How to get from Tokyo to Nikko
There are several ways to get from Tokyo to Nikko. The most convenient for us was to get the Tobu railway from Asakusa to Nikko. It was included in our pass so it made sense. It takes less than 2 hours and it's a stress-free ride. Pretty great and easy.
You can check our the Tobu Nikko Passes here.
Another option is to get a direct limited express from Shinjuku. The one-way journey takes two hours and costs 4000 yen. The JR Pass does not fully cover this journey, so it's better to take the subway from Shinjuku to Asakusa, get a Nikko Pass and grab the train directly from Asakusa instead.
You can also take a JR from Tokyo or Ueno Station to Utsunomiya Station and transfer to the JR Nikko Line. This journey is covered by the JR Pass, however, it's a little more cumbersome than simply taking the direct line from Asakusa.
What is the best hotel in Nikko?
This one is a little subjective as I didn't get a chance to enjoy all hotels in the Nikko area. I am sure you can find all sort of establishments for all budgets, but the Nikko Astraea Hotel really stole my heart. I always wanted to visit a Nikko ryokan and in all honesty, if it wasn't for our guide recommendation, I probably would have never known about this hotel. I loved that it was located in the heart of the mountains, in such remote place. I loved that it was quite a journey to the hotel because it made me really appreciate the quiet which surrounded this beautiful place. Maybe I am biased, but having the chance to enjoy the onsen all by myself in the middle of the night, admire the stars, wear a yukata and eat more types of food in one meal than during my whole trip in Japan...just wow. So in my mind, the Nikko Astraea Hotel is the best hotel is Nikko.
For an off the beaten path Nikko onsen, this is your best bet.
Understand the Nikko weather
We loved hiking in the Nikko National Park and in all honesty, we were lucky with the weather. Although it was the end of April, it was still quite cold and hiking gear was kinda needed. We hiked in our urban shoes, but there were icy, snowy and muddy patches. We didn't have waterproof jackets or trousers but I could see why that was a must. The Nikko weather is ever changing, so make sure you come prepared. We arrived at the lakes and enjoyed clear skies, but in a matter of 60 minutes, the clouds started descending down the mountain and towards the lake. Be sure to always be prepared when visiting the Nikko National Park.
We loved our time in Nikko and we can't wait to return and soak in the onsen a little longer. We are so thankful to our guide, Sam, who was incredibly knowledgeable and fun. We couldn't have done this without the help of Beauty of Japan and Tobu Railways. Thank you, both for helping us plan the best two days in the Nikko area. We loved every part of it!
Are you guys ready to spend your time exploring Nikko? Do you have any questions we can help you with? Please let us know in the comments section bellow!