I didn’t visit Nikko until I moved to Japan, thinking it would be a bit too crowded for my personal taste. But once there I soon realised this had been a terrible mistake of mine, for Nikko is a beautiful mountain town with nature in every direction, temples and shrines —some grandiose, some hidden— and so many restaurants and good food that it’s worth a visit for the culinary aspect alone. It has enough to see to fill in a weekend trip from Tokyo, especially if you head to Oku-Nikko or the Kinugawa area. I will tell you about my visit to Nikko. I had the chance to visit during the “Yayoi-sai” festival, celebrated every year during mid-April as a welcome to Spring (I’m writing it now but this visit was done pre-covid).
- Transport: I bought the Nikko Pass World Heritage Area which offered a bit of a discount on the trains. It covers the roundtrip from Asakusa, the Nikko temple area and most of the Kinugawa Line (except the last stop to Ryuo Gorge).
- What to eat: Nikko’s famed speciality is yuba, tofu skin, made through the boiling of soy milk. It may sound a bit strange at first, but it is actually quite a popular dish in Japan, especially in high class restaurants, so it’s worth a try. I’m a fan of the “raw” yubs myself, the one that looks like paper sheets, but there are different cooked versions too. There is also a shop in front of Tobu-Nikko station which sells some absolutely delicious hot salted manjuu made from yuba, yubamanju. The place is called Sakaeya. Definitely try it while there!
- Where to sleep: I stayed at a place called Nikko Guesthouse Sumica. It is part guesthouse, part minshuku (a minshuku is a traditional Japanese inn, but it differs from a ryokan in its more laid back and informal ambience). There are some nice traditional rooms there for a good price.
WHAT TO DO
After the two hour train ride, I reached Tobu-Nikko station. The first thing I did was put on my jacket, the air in Nikko was chilly compared to Tokyo, and the second, accept a tree branch given to me which was, as they said, “for the festival”. With this little mystery, I took the next bus and soon arrived to Nikko Bridge.
Nikko Bridge is the entrance to the temple area of town. In Spring, when I visited, perhaps it is not the best time to photograph it… but in summer all the plants and mountains of the bridge’s surroundings are a vibrant green and, in winter, the scenery is covered in white snow suitable of ancient Japanese legends. In those moments, the red lacquer of the wood seems to shine more. In October, the show of autumn colours almost camouflage the bridge, making it seem like a natural part of the scenery.
But you mustn’t be concerned if you are visiting in Spring like myself: if you truly want to enjoy lacquered treasures and fiery reds, all that is needed is a small effort for the uphill in front of the bridge and soon you’ll find yourself at Nikko’s famous shrines. The shrines in Nikko are some of the most intricate and captivating of the country. Among them, the mausoleum of the most famous shogun of Japanese history: Ieyasu Tokugawa. Simply visiting the shrines can take a couple hours. I didn’t visit Toshogu because it was very expensive and crowded, but I did see Taiyuinbyo which was very nice and Nikko Futarasan where they were doing a shinto ceremony. Rinnoji was under scaffolding at the time so I didn’t go in.
A friend had recommended a walking trail behind the shrine area, so after my morning of culture I followed an empty road that seemed to lead to nowhere. But my map assured me I was on the right track and, indeed, soon I was arriving to a stairway into the forest, framed by tall cedars. The mountains around Nikko are known for having bears, so I made sure to sing to myself as I walked to avoid any encounters. The end is marked by a small waterfall and, at the top of the steps, Takinoo Inari Shrine. It is an easy trail for anyone of any level.
Later I went to the last spot of the day, Kanmangafuchi Abyss. Here there is a long row of Jizo statues overlooking the rocky river. Jizo is a Buddhist figure, protector of the dead, especially children. I spent the remainder of the day resting ath the minshuku and enjoying the festival.
For my second day I took the train from Nikko down to Shimo-imaichi, a couple stops, and walked along the cedar avenue for a while. It was actually a lot longer and taller than I was expecting and looked very scenic!
Then I hopped on the Kinugawa Line and spent the day in Ryuo Gorge. Ryuo-kyo has a little shrine next to a waterfall, you can go down to the river edge, and a walking trail along some marshland-type area at the top of the cliffs. There are dozens of waterfalls from the cliffs down to the river and two bridges with good views of the full gorge. I had lunch there at a restaurant near the train station.
Finally, after the gorge I went to Kosagoe station and walked to Suzukaze onsen. The walk itself is very nice, there’s another bridge and a bamboo forest, and the onsen has outdoor baths overlooking the gorge of that area. It was one of my favourite baths in Japan I’ve visited so far! A woman drove me back to the station on the way back, when she saw me walking, and she actually dropped me off at Kinugawa-onsen station so I could see the koi fish banners in the square.
With that, I took the trains back to Tokyo, it was already properly dark by the time I arrived back home.