Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan.”
And with those words, allegedly spoken by Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu as he lay dying in 1616, Nikko became the home of the mausoleums of the Tokugawa shoguns, and a UNESCO world heritage site.
I’ve always been a sucker for both history and nature. When I saw that a town just a short trip away from Tokyo could combine both of those things into one spectacular day trip, well, I couldn’t resist.
Getting to Nikko
There are several ways to get to Nikko, but if you are like me and have a JP Japan Rail pass, then you will want to catch the fast train from either Tokyo or Ueno station in Tokyo to Utsunomiya and then change to the JR Nikko line. Despite having to change trains, everything is incredibly straight forward. And since Nikko is such a popular destination, arrows from the train stop to the platform for the Nikko line are painted on the ground. You really can not miss it.
Nikko has two train stations which are next door to each other, and if you are taking the JR line you will arrive at the Tobu-Nikko station.
Getting around Nikko
If you only have a day, you will want to bite the bullet and invest in one of the Nikko bus passes. The basic bus pass is the World Heritage Pass which is a loop around the temples. If you are only interested in seeing the temples and have a bit of time, you may forgo this pass all together and just walk. It’s really not that long of a walk from town to the temples, but the bus pass does eliminate walking up a hill. Keep in mind that entrance to the temples is not included in the bus pass.
The bus pass that we opted for was the Chuzenji onsen which included the temple route as well as a pass out to Lake Chuzenji.
What not to miss in Nikko
Taiyu – in
Taiyu-in was the first UNESCO shrine in Nikko that we visited, and was easily my favorite. The shrine is the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu. Taiyu-in has many similar elements to it’s more elaborate neighbour Toshu-g0, but it is smaller and much quieter. I actually preferred it as it was much more peaceful and also for the impressively carved gates with protective deities standing guard.
A Toshu-go shrine is actually the name for any Shinto shrine, but the most famous is located in Nikko. This shrine is also one of the most famous UNESCO listed shrines and temples in Nikko due to a small carving on a stable. The famous carving in question? It’s the “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys. But it is more than just a couple carved monkeys. This incredibly lavishly decorated shrine holds more than a dozen buildings, set in a beautiful forested area. It is a pleasure to wander around, and if you have a bit of extra time, I definitely recommend renting an audio guide. The buildings are all ornately carved and no shortage of gold leaf was used in their construction. Also of note are the carvings of elephants done by an artist who had never seen an elephant.
When you are all templed out, catch the bus for about an hour to the lakeside village of Chuzenji. Located high in the mountains, the climate here is notably cooler than in the town of Nikko. Lake Chuzenji is the starting point for several treks and walks, and we saw quite a few people in their trekking gear hanging around town. But it’s also lovely for a day trip as well. A short walk from where the bus drops you off at the entrance to town is Kegon Falls, a 100m tall waterfall. You can pay a small entrance fee to take an elevator down to the base of the falls, or you can see it for free from a viewing platform. Other attractions for day trippers are paddle boat trips on the lake, and the Nikko Natural Science museum.