It may only be a short train ride north of Tokyo's metropolitan intensity, but Nikko feels a world away. The town and namesake national park comprise a centuries-old center for Buddhist and Shinto mountain worship, and travelers can find their bliss among the area's scenic onsen, trails, lakes, and waterfalls. Nikko is also home to a number of UNESCO-listed shrines and temples, including the most extravagantly decorated shrine in all of Japan.
You won't reach Nikko on the typical Kyoto-Tokyo travel route, so it's generally best visited as a side trip from Tokyo. Ambitious travelers can get there and back in a day, but given the transport time involved (see Getting There below), spending one or two nights makes for a more comfortable and worthwhile experience: you won't have to choose between shrine-hopping or hiking, and you'll beat the crowds to Nikko's most popular sights. After your visit, return to Tokyo or continue to geothermal wonderland Hokkaido or the rugged and remote Northern Honshu region.
When to Go
Dazzling foliage and crisp weather make Autumn the star season for a visit to Nikko. Leaf-peeping peaks in October and November (both in terms of colorful display and photo-snapping crowds), meaning slow-moving traffic through town and on scenic roads like winding Irohazaka. This is also a great time of year to soak in a traditional onsen—Yumoto is a good choice, offering baths with vistas of the changing leaves.
Summer is hot, humid, and full of tourists, but Nikko National Park is at its best. Check out Lake Chuzenji, one of the highest altitude lakes in the country, which stays relatively cool and is a nice place for a scenic hike. Once you're back in town, beat the heat with some kakigori, Nikko's version of shaved ice with toppings like matcha, lemon milk, and melon syrup.
Northwestern Nikko transforms during winter, becoming an ideal destination for snow sports. Head to the resorts of Oku-Nikko for downhill skiing and snowboarding, snow-shoeing and cross-country skiing, and snowy landscapes that make postcard-perfect panoramas.
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Nikko is about 78 miles north of Tokyo, and with multiple express railway options between the cities, it makes for an easy overnight excursion. Tobu Railways operates direct trains from Asakusa and Shinjuku/Ikebukuro to Tobu-Nikko station, with a 2-hour ride each way. The more expensive limited express trains require no transfers and run once or twice per hour, while the somewhat cheaper express and local trains (not available from Shinjuku) can require up to three transfers. Japan Rail Pass can't be used on these trains, but JR service is also available to Nikko, requiring a transfer in Utsunomiya.
Busses are available from Narita Airport and Gumma Prefecture, with availability depending on the time of year. Once you're in Nikko, most of the main sights are clustered together, about 1.5 miles from the train station—hop on a city bus, or take the 30-minute stroll to get to the heart of the action. Travelers interested in touring the national park will want to rent a car or sign up for a guided day tour, though there are some hiking trails that start within walking or city bus distance from the center of town.
Highlights & Hidden Gems
One of the most famous shrines in Japan, UNESCO-listed Toshugu is a large complex with several notable buildings. Its entrance is guarded by both Shinto Torii and Buddhist gates, mirroring the country's overall integrations of the two religions. Just inside, you'll find a five-tiered pagoda from the 19th-century and the "Dutch Candelabra," a gift to the Tokugawa shogunate from the early days of foreign trade. Throughout the complex, visitors will notice hundreds of stone and iron lanterns, gifts to the Tokugawa family from feudal lords.
Visit the stable building to view the famous triptych of three wise monkeys, the origin of the mantra "Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil." The ornate portable shrine believed to transport the spirit of Tokugawa Ieyasu is also on display, used primarily during the grand procession of the shrine’s annual festival each May—and a climb of 200 steps through the forested mountainside behind the shrine brings you to the grave of Tokugawa Ieyasu, where the faithful come to pray to the shogun-turned-deity.
Nikko National Park
Take even a short drive on National Route 120 into the hills of Nikko, and you'll see for yourself why the Japanese Imperial Family still make this their go-to vacation spot. Start with Lake Chuzenji at the foot of sacred Mount Nantai—take a scenic boat tour, have tea at the historic British Embassy villa, and stroll on lakeside trails (it's possible to walk around the entire lake in a 15.5-mile loop). Or, view it from above via Chuzenjiko Skyline road.
Nearby Kegon Waterfall is the most famous waterfall in the park (and the second-tallest in all of Japan). Take in the 328-foot cascade from a free observation deck, or pay a small fee to take an elevator down to the bottom for prime viewing. Ryuzu Waterfall is another must-see, especially in Autumn when changing leaves make for an even more dramatic sight. Stretch your legs with a walk upstream from the falls along a pleasant nature trail.
Activities in the national park are endless. Spend a day hiking to the top of Mount Nantai, take a gondola to the top of Akechidaira Plateau, or stroll (or cross-country ski) through the Senjogahara Marshland.
Walk this riverside path in central Nikko, lined with more than 70 stone statues—known as Jizo, a Bodhisattva spirit who watches over the dead and protects travelers. The abyss itself is a volcanic valley formed 15,000 years ago by the erupting Mount Nantai. From the walking path, enjoy views across the river of the Nikko Botanical Garden, another worthy attraction. It is especially beautiful in sakura (cherry blossom) season, typically running from April to early May.
Founded in the year 767, Futarasan is the oldest shrine in Nikko. The structure is much less ornate than its neighbor Toshogu—and also much less crowded. Named for Mount Nantai, Futurasan was built in honor of three mountain deities and houses artifacts including two swords that are National Treasures of Japan. Further into the national park, you can visit Futurasan's two sister shrines: one at the top of Nantai, and the other on the north shore of Lake Chuzenji.
Travelers who want nothing more than a relaxing onsen soak can beeline to Nasu Shiobara, a geothermal area in the northwest corner of Nikko National Park. You can spend the morning at Nasu Onsen on the slopes of volcanic Mount Nasudake, and the afternoon in forested Shiobara Onsen. Done relaxing? Aforementioned Nasudake is also a great hiking spot, home to numerous trails, suspension bridges, and waterfalls.
Where to Eat
Try lunch at Zen and order the yuba tasting menu. Yuba, also called "tofu skin," is a byproduct of boiled soymilk and a regional specialty—this is the place to try it with a number of outstanding dishes in one sitting. If you don't make it to Zen, not to worry: you can find yuba in everything from soba to sweet custard throughout Nikko.
Save a meal for the old-world dining room of the famous Nikko Kanaya Hotel, the first Western-style hotel in all of Japan. It's been in operation for more than a century, and with its excellent location (across the street from Toshogu) and laundry list of famous guests, it is an attraction in its own right—but dinner is elegant, with a mix of Japanese and French cuisines.