UNESCO World Heritage Site – that says it all, right? So come on over here and visit the age old shrines and temple, take a picture of the famous three monkeys and be able to say you have seen 9 National Treasures of Japan and 94 Important Cultural Properties all in one place. That sounds fancy enough. But besides being all cool and taking amazing pictures, the true hero in Nikko is nature and how these sites have remained in peaceful coexistence with it.
My advice is to spend at least two days in this wonderful place – and trust me, you’ll fall in love with it unless you’re a die hard city fan. It gets very quiet out here but if you love to recharge your batteries, breathe in some fresh air and relax in an onsen at the end of the day, you won’t need a spa stay any time soon.
Useful Things to Take
Not only is this site a stone’s throw from Nikko’s town centre with its many old and traditional shops and restaurants it is also placed at the foot of a mountain range that invites for walks along rivers and through forests. And that is only the start of what you can do. My advice is to invest in a two day bus ticket, which is sold at both train stations. And don’t worry, you will get enough opportunity for hikes regardless.
Your first stop should be the cultural site with all the temples. Make sure you get your maps of it, the bus schedule and the whole region from one of the tourist information – you wouldn’t want to miss one. And I can safely say the temple and shrine buildings look amazing in either weather. I was there both in brilliant sunshine and a cats and dogs kinda rain. The weather can shift quickly, apparently. So bring your parasol/umbrella.
Also, you won’t any big supermarkets and small mini markets and convenience stores instead. That means, if you are a backpacker, you should go BYO instant noodles. But that said, make sure you try the regional specialty of soy sweets (there are free samples in some shops) as well as the Yuba Manju. It is basically another of the famous manjus (rice balls filled with red bean paste) but this time salted and fried. And you cannot imagine how well that goes together! Get it for only 100 Yen in front of the Tobu Train station.
Day 1 – Temple Touring
Lazy tourists can hop on the buses that go through the area but it is really not that big and can thus be easily walked. Maybe take the bus to the feet of the many stairs, admire the bright red Shinkyō bridge and then get swallowed by the dense foliage of the forest. And no, it’s not scary. The top 3 you need to visit are Futarasan Shrine, Tōshō-gū and the Rinnō-ji Temple. The small carving of three monkeys you can find when you pay to visit Tōshō-gū.
Surrounding the temples are little houses with beautiful gardens as well as museums and once you are done with your visits, why not do the hike up to the Takinoo Shrine? You will walk next to the river and can even see a little waterfall while having the mountains rise in the distance. And at the end of your leisurely day, relax in the onsen that is just right next to the world heritage area, nestled in a bright yellow building.
Catch a ride and head out to lake Chuzenji for several hiking options. There are proper maps to be had with the different layouts of the walks to give you an idea of difficulty and length and each looked amazing. I chose to walk from Kegon Falls (very touristy) along the eastern side of the lake to the Ryûzu fall and Senjogahara Plateau. The whole walk was very scenic and full of great photo opportunities as the landscapes changed from pebble shores to broadleaf forest over bamboo shrubbery to grassland. At the last stage, I had to enter a wildlife zone with lots of signs warning me of wild bears and cheeky monkeys and in a moment of temporary delusion I actually thought I spotted a baby bear and stood for 15 minutes observing it. It turned out to be a very hair stone. Fail.
But if you get up much earlier than me and use the bus ticket solely for hiking trips, you can see so much more! There is another plateau, more waterfalls, mountains to be climbed and lots of local onsen to relax your tired body in. And let me tell you, onsen are a must in Japan! No amount of feeling squeamish should keep you away and that is saying a lot coming from me. Just see it like this, the Japanese are used to bathing completely naked and an awkward European would stick out solely for their odd behaviour. If you ask, they even explain the whole process to you. No weirdness involved (and most baths are divided into female and male – check beforehand!).
Day 3 – The Abyss
As your feet might be a bit sore and you plan on leaving today, let’s take it slow and only head over to the Botanical Garden and, more importantly, the abyss! The abyss is a confusing term as there is nothing such as a dramatic cliff or edge of mountain to behold. You will get rugged rocks and rushing waters but all very small but not less intriguing in their beauty. In fact, the whole icy blue waters on the smooth rocky river bed reminded me a lot of the amazing Atherton Tablelands in Australia.
Besides this wonderful creation of nature, you can see hundreds of Bake-Jizo, stone statues. Legend says they change places when you try counting them from right to left and left to right. Maybe something to try out whenever you are here? In any case you will see each statue wearing a bib and knitted hat in bright red – whether they have a head left or not. This is to give a prayer to the protector of wanderers and unborn or dead babies. You can actually find these statues all over Japan.
And there you have my personal highlights of my new favourite spot in Japan! My words couldn’t give it justice and I hope my photos will add some somewhat but that just means you have to plan it into your itinerary. And when you go, think of me and let me know if you’ve fallen in love with it, too.