Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture
Nikko – a town with a lot of history, winding up a river valley past elaborate shrines to Oku-Nikko National Park and the Japanese Alps.

Lake Yunoko

Lake Yunoko

Transport

At 120km from Tokyo, Nikko can be reached pretty easily by train, even close enough for a day-trip if you’re really pushed for time.

The fastest way from central Tokyo is of course by shinkansen. The  line runs direct from Asakusa to Nikko, takes about 2 hours and costs 1320Y. Another alternative is to use JR line trains, heading from Ikebukuro via Omiya to Utsunomiya, then taking the JR Nikko line – altogether this takes just over 2 hours if you time your connections well, and costs 4820Y, including the seat fee for the shinkansen. Local trains will be about half this, and get you there eventually.

Check out the Tobu Nikko Free Pass available from Asakusa Station, which from 3,600Y  includes a return trip from Tokyo, free travel to the National Park and shrines on buses, and discounts or free entry to various spots.

Decorative detail at Toshogu

Decorative detail at Toshogu

When?

The most popular time to visit Nikko is in autumn to see the leaves changing colour, a tradition known as koyo. Nikko is famous as a koyo viewing area, and expect heavy traffic during those 2 weeks of the year. As a picturesque and convenient escape point from Tokyo, Nikko is often pretty busy at weekends around the shrines. However, since many tourists seem to come for an afternoon, visit the Toshugu Shrine then immediately return to Tokyo, once youre away from the World Heritage area Nikko is suddenly very peaceful. The many hiking trails surrounding the Oku-Niko area are quiet, and at night even the main road or station front is a ghost town (more on this later). A couple of weeks after hanami (cherry blossom viewing) madness withdraws from Tokyo as the petals fall, the trees further north in slightly colder Nikko come into bloom, so expect more poeple around then, but the rush is much less noticeable than during koyo. From mid-November Nikko becomes very cold, shops close at 4pm and heavy snowfall can close the roads leading to the Oku-Nikko park.

Shinkyo Bridge

Shinkyo Bridge

Where to stay

There are ryokan and small hostels dotted liberally around Nikko, but some are much further away from the town than you might imagine. Checking the address on a map or Google to make sure it`s within walking distance of the station if you aren`t driving could be a good move, although some hostels will offer a free pick-up service from the station at certain hours.

Smaller roads are poorly lit at night, so plan your route carefully and carry a torch if your hotel is pretty far out

Things to do

World Heritage area

The Toshogu shrine is the Sistine Chapel of Kanto: breathtakingly intricate, beautifully preserved, and heaving with tourists. The site is pretty vast, entered via a `museum of treasures` (mostly ancient and ornate Buddhist statues) which then leads into a temple courtyard, up a gentle slope to the many-storied pagoda that marks the beginning of the wonders, and follow everyone else through the gates. Tori, the red gateways outside temple entrances, signify you are moving from the normal physical world into a higher and holier plane. The various gates around Toshogu have a similar effect, as though entering a land of fantastic colours and strange beasts.

Toshogu

Toshogu

Not far from here is the Shinkyo Bridge arching over the river, which you can take pictures of from the modern bridge just downstream but sadly can`t go on.

A little out of town to the west is the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, or Narabijizo. Next to a vivid blue alpine river is a line of old, mossy jizo statues, ranging in size and age. Local folklore states that if you walk along counting them one way, then turn back and count them again you will get a different number each time.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

Hiking – Oku-Nikko Park

Irohazaka Winding Road is quite some feat of engineering and would make an ideal setting for a motorbike advert if not for the traffic. A series of hair pin bends lead steeply uphill to the Oku Nikko Park area, turning sharply and offering flashes of views down into the valley and over distant mountains before another lurching 120 degree turn. A separate road goes downhill, and once you see the twists and turns you`ll see why one-way traffic is a must on this thing. Irohazaka refers to a traditional way of writing the Japanese hiragana alphabet, so each turn has a letter – the first bend is “i”, the second “ro”, the third “ha” – looking out for these is one way to offset travel sickness.

Buses all travel to Lake Chuzenji, a high alpine lake with mountains rising from the shores. Mount Nantai towers over the faded town at 2486 metres, and to the north the land lifts to the Yumoto Highlands, passing waterfalls and marshlands. On the southern shore of the lake is Chuzenji Temple, with an ancient Buddhist statue carved from a single tree trunk, a watchtower offering good views over the lake, and a huge ceiling mural of a dragon.

Some buses will take you to Yumoto, an onsen town on the edge of Lake Yunoko. A good walk heads from there past the lake and Yudaki waterfall, back down the valley, over duckboards in the Senjogahara marsh to the Ryuzu Falls. There are several walks around here, and it might be worth buying a copy of the Oku Nikko Hiking Guide from the Tourist Information Office at Nikko Station.

 

Senjogahara

Senjogahara

Cycling around Chuzenji is a good way to take in most of the lake, a few places do cycle rental around there. Hardcore mountain bikers may want to try cycling up the Irohazaka road.. good luck.

Watersports in summer you can get out on the lake for a sightseeing cruise, or take an archaic row boat or swan shaped pedalo. One shop on the western shore had boats shaped like 1950`s style rockets.

Hot springs feel incredible after hiking. There are a few in Nikko itself, but the ones in Yumoto are said to have great curative properties. The smell is stronger than at some other onsen which can put some people off, but once you`re soaking in an outdoor bath you probably wont care.

Nikko has a lot to offer to fans of nature, history and hot springs, but dont expect a vast array of restaurants to be open if youre there mid-week:  on my trip in mid-April only the Gusto and the convenience store had reliable opening times, and the hostel owners told me most shops close at 4 or 6pm.

Links

Train Times – http://www.hyperdia.com

Accommodation – http://www.hostelworld.com

General information – http://www.japan-guide.com/e/e3800.html offers detailed information on the history of Nikko and has good recommendations

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