According to Japanese locals, you can’t say that any trip to Japan is complete without visiting Nikko—an enchanting mountainous area just a couple of hours north of Tokyo, filled with UNESCO World Heritage Sites, natural wonders, and breathtaking views all year round.
When I visited Nikko during a recent trip to Tokyo, I already had expectations that it was going to be nothing quite like my other visits all around Japan. What I ended up experiencing was nothing short of incredible, beyond what I could ever hope for.
Here’s everything I saw and did in Nikko, with beautiful photos to prove it.
Getting to Nikko
The first thing you need to do when planning your day trip to Nikko is to get the Nikko Pass! This all-you-can-ride pass lets you freely travel around the Nikko and Kinugawa areas by train or bus, and gives you special discounts for tourist facilities, transportation, souvenirs, and food. You can get this pass at the Tobu-Asakusa Station or get a digital ticket via Klook!
Getting to Nikko from Tokyo is easy because it only takes one train ride. We rode the SPACIA Limited Express from Tobu-Asakusa Station, which requires a seat reservation. All seats are a large swivel recliner type with a footrest and a folding table attached below the windows. If you’re traveling in groups, you’ll be delighted to know that you’re free to turn a pair of seats around so you’re all facing each other. Otherwise, you can reserve a compartment room which is located in Car number 6 and comfortably accommodates four passengers.
From Tobu-Asakusa Station, it was a direct 2-hour ride to Tobu-Nikko Station where we then met up with our tour guide, Rui-san, and our chauffeur for the day.
Mount Hangetsu (Hangetsuyama)
A hike up to the summit of a mountain wasn’t exactly in my plans when I decided to go on this day trip to Nikko, but I thought that if Rui-san—in his dressy coat and white sneakers—was evidently so eager to take us to the top, I knew that the view was going to be worth it.
And, gosh, it was.
Although not technically located in Nikko but rather in Utsunomiya, Mount Hangetsu was an unchallenging 15-minute hike along a well-marked trail through verdant trees. Even I, a physically unfit person, made it through without giving up halfway, and I admit that it was likely because of the cool breeze, the tranquil sounds of the forest, and the glimpses of the surrounding landscape and the city from a distance that kept me going.
At the top, I was immediately rewarded with a panoramic view of all the mountains, including the mystical Mount Nantai, and the glistening Lake Chūzenji. It was the perfect spot to pause, be still, and admire the captivating scenery all around me.
This gem nestled in the mountains of Nikko was formed over 20,000 years ago following the eruption of Mount Nantai and has since been a well-loved destination for locals and tourists because of its clear blue waters that so beautifully reflect the changing colors of the seasons.
We took a leisurely boat ride around Lake Chūzenji to truly soak in the views, and if you’re up for it you can disembark at certain stops to check out the surrounding areas such as the Chūzenji Temple, the historic Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park, and British Embassy Villa Memorial Park. The boat ride took only an hour with a helpful audio guide playing in the speaker in both Japanese and English.
Located at the northern end of Lake Chūzenji and what could be my favorite spot during the entirety of my Nikko tour is Kegon Falls. The water, which originates from the lake, plunges down a cliff at a height of 97 meters, making it one of the tallest waterfalls in the country.
Kegon Falls was also formed by the volcanic eruption of Mount Nantai and has since become this magnificent spectacle that you can see at the Kegon Falls Observation Deck.
There really are no words to describe how beautiful the falls are, so I’ll let the pictures do all the talking.
Nearby Ryuzu Falls is also worth a visit. Ryuzu translates to “dragon head” referring to the shape of the way the water cascades down the rocks, resembling a dragon head.
They say that both waterfalls are a sight to behold particularly in Autumn and Winter, but I think they’re just as wonderful in the summertime.
Onsen at Chūzenji Kanaya Hotel
One thing you must do when in Nikko is try its relaxing hot springs. There are plenty of onsens that you can visit around the town but I had the luxury of going to the onsen at Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, a historic long-standing establishment that blends Japanese hospitality with Western comforts.
Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel’s onsen facility is fed by natural hot spring water that is rich in minerals. There’s an indoor and an outdoor bath, both of which I thoroughly enjoyed, awash with peace and utmost relaxation. This was my first time experiencing an onsen too. Completely unforgettable!
Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel was a lovely place to stay in too and is worth considering if you’re checking in for a night at Nikko. It has plenty of other amenities, comfortable guest rooms, and elegant dining options, and is also a great location with many nearby attractions.
Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel is not to be confused with Nikko Kanaya Hotel which is just as wonderful to stay at as a guest. While Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel puts you in the middle of Nikko’s natural beauty, Nikko Kanaya Hotel keeps you close to the central area of the city and the UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nikko Kanaya Hotel is also Japan’s oldest Western hotel and has a lot of history within its walls, where it has welcomed many distinguished guests and prominent figures from around the world like Helen Keller, Albert Einstein, and John Lennon.
The Shrines and Temples of Nikko
No trip to Nikko is complete without visiting its Shrines and Temples, which are collectively a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
One notable shrine you shouldn’t miss is the Toshogu Shrine, Nikko’s most famous and elaborate one dedicated to the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. The complex includes several buildings, all of which are worth marveling at, and features many intricate sculptures and wood carvings, particularly of the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys.
We also got to see the Rinnoji Temple, founded in the 8th century and is considered the “most important” temple of all of Nikko with its large gilded wooden statues of the three Buddhist deities Amida, Senju-Kannon, and Bato-Kannon housed inside the Sanbutsudo Hall; and the Taiyuinbyo Mausoleum, which is where the remains of the third Tokugawa Shogun is laid.
I absolutely loved going around all these shrines and temples, learning about the history and significance of each place thanks to Rui-san, and making wishes whenever I could. I even spotted a deer!
One tip I should share with you is that if you want to bring home a souvenir or memento from your visit to these shrines, purchase for yourself an omamori (a protective amulet) and/or a goshuin (a calligraphic stamp or seal with a design that’s distinct to the shrine you visited).
These shrines and temples are a must-see and will take you half a day to tour everything. Don’t rush!
To end my two-day stay in Nikko, we visited the Shinkyo Bridge, a sacred river crossing, found at the entrance of Nikko’s shrines and temples. This red bridge crosses over the Daiya River and has been in place for centuries though it’s not known for sure how it originated.
There are a couple of ways that you can admire Shinkyo Bridge: from the roadside where you can take the most beautiful photos of it amid a stunning nature backdrop, or by crossing the bridge itself by paying the entrance fee.
It was a wonderful way to conclude this day trip. I remember going directly to the Tobu-Nikko Station afterward carrying a heart so full.
Nikko is definitely marked down to be one of the most beautiful and unforgettable experiences I’ve ever had in Japan and I look forward to when I can go there again with my family or friends. I highly suggest you go on this day trip too the next time you’re in Tokyo to have a taste of something beyond the touristy attractions in the bustling city.
‘Til we meet again, Nikko.
Special thanks to Tobu Railway.
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