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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

Kyoto is affectionately known as the heart of traditional Japan, its historical and cultural centre. The second biggest city in Japan is built around several famous temples, a castle, palace and dozens of museums. Some old areas of the city dating from the Edo period are well preserved and still lived in, often popular with tourists by day and drinkers by night.

Transport
By shinkansen its going to cost you around 15,000yen, but you’ll be there in 3 hours from Tokyo.
Local trains will take forever, and at 10,000yen its not much of a saving
Night buses are perhaps the best public transport option. These cost between 5,000 – 9,000 yen depending on the type of seat. You could try “cocoon”, where each seat is in an individual pod and reclines almost horizontally. Although you get some privacy and it was very quiet, the cocoon seats may be too small for tall travellers. Its the most expensive way to travel but might be worth it for a good night’s sleep, or just for the ergonomic space-travel style of the pod.
Much cheaper, but less cool, are the standard seats. These usually recline a little. I paid 6,000 yen for one, and was surprised to find slippers, an eye mask, bottled water and facial wipes provided free of charge!

When?
Kyoto will have something to offer all year round. It is most popular during hanami (cherry blossom viewing) and koyo (autumn leaves viewing) so expect crowds during May and November. Summer will be hot and humid, but the winter may be milder than in Tokyo.

Where to stay
As you’d expect Kyoto has a ton of hotels and hostels to suit all budgets. These range from huge concrete megaliths to rooms available in the temple’s monks quarters. The famous landmarks are scattered throughout the city, so first decide whether you’d like to be near the train station, in the middle of the nightlife, or next to a well known temple.

What to do
Temples
Kyoto is full of temples, especially in the north-eastern side of the city where they’re lined up along the Philosopher’s Walk. The most famous one include Kinkakuji (with the beautiful Golden Pavilion which seems to levitate over a tranquil pond), Ginkakuji, and Kiyomizu with its high veranda offering a commanding view. Temples can occupy a lot of space, with a Zen garden or lake and several smaller shrines on the same site.
I’d suggest leaving a lot of time for each of the major temples, and expect it to be busy – on my visit to Kinkakuji there were busloads of Junior High school students

It can be refreshing to visit much smaller or less well known temples too, often within a few minutes walk of the major attractions but extremely quiet.
Budget around 600yen for entrance to the famous temples, many of the smaller ones are free to visit but please leave a small donation in the box outside

Nijojo (Nijo Castle) is a wonderfully restored gem near the city centre. Manicured gardens and canals seperate it from the busy roads, and its easy to imagine it during the ______ period where the Toshigawa shogunate ran all of mainland Japan from within its elaborately decorated walls. High points include the screen paintings inside, the corridors of nightingale floors, and the gardens, which were carefully planted to ensure one plant or tree looked its best in each month.

The Imperial Palace is preserved from when the Japanese Emperor resided in Kyoto (the Emperor now lives in central Tokyo)

Gardens are another huge draw to Kyoto. These range from the small but World Heritage certified Ryoanji zen garden, to large painstakingly maintained gardens with snaking paths and multiple viewpoints. Ryoanji is an enclosed dry garden, in which gravel and rocks serve as metaphors, possibly for islands in a vast ocean, although there are many interpretations of it. Although this part is well known, it is surrounded by a wider garden featuring a large lake, forested parts, and several flowering plants. Even people with no interest in gardening can be surprised by the level of dedication it takes to keep these gardens in peak condition – gardeners may pick up leaves individually, or clip the moss on rocks using nail scissors.
Ryoanji’s walled garden is probably the most famous Zen garden in Japan, although the atmosphere of tranquility and meditation can be diluted by swarms of tourists. Try and go during off-peak times to get a better impression

Traditional areas are just fantastic. There’s Gion, the geisha district, with two-storey wooden houses where geishas and their apprentice maikos live and continue traditional arts, such as dancing, plays and playing instruments. There are several walking tours of Gion offered in Japanese and English, and are well worth checking out to gain more knowledge of the area and how geishas lived.


Its more lively neighbour, Pontocho, is a series of inviting narrow streets lined with bars and restaurants, lit by the red lanterns of izakaiyas. Go by day to notice the old style guttering and architecture from when these were houses of working people, or in the evening to really enjoy the nightlife. Or go twice.

Traditional arts are still widely practised in Kyoto. If you can afford it, you can see geisha or maiko performances, attend a tea ceremony, try on a kimono, or try akebane flower arranging.

Links

http://www.hyperdia.com
http://www.willerexpress.com
http://www.japan-guide.com
http://www.hostelworld.com