Most people visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, but this is a huge mistake. There are so many things to do in the region. We spent 5 days exploring the area where “untouched nature meets religious fusion.”
Things to do in Nikko, Japan
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About Nikko, Japan
Local Japanese know of the beauty of Nikko, but few foreigners have heard of this Unesco World Heritage Site and massive nature reserve. When we visited during the busiest time of the year, we saw few Westerners among locals scattered throughout the 1,147 square-km (443-square-mile) of Nikko National Park.
That’s not to say it wasn’t busy. Nikko is a gem known to thousands of tourists from Japan that visit to spy the magnificent Tokugawa shrine complex and surrounding area.
Having the chance to spend four nights in Nikko, we managed to take in all it had to offer and fell in love with not only the culture but the beauty and people of the land. If you visit Tokyo or anywhere else in Japan be sure to add Nikko to your list.
We had a private driver during our time in Nikko, but the beauty of this destination is that public buses go to all locations we list below.
1. Shinkyo Bridge
It is the most recognizable attraction in Nikko and it has the honour of being Japan’s oldest bridge. Located in the heart of downtown, tourists flock to see the Shinkyo Bridge and pay the 300 Yen to walk across the sacred site. But there is a way to see it without people.
Many day tours only have the option of a quick snap of the Shinkyo Bridge, but we had the good fortune of staying at the Historic Nikko Kanaya Hotel where we were a just short 5-minute walk to the bridge. Dave and I awoke at sunrise to set up our cameras well before any crowds surfaced from their slumber.
Having it all to ourselves, we imaged the legend of the Shinkyo Bridge and could see why the Shogun chose to make his home here.
This bridge represents the legend of the first priest of Nikko. Our guide Yoshi told us of the first priest that settled the area in 766. He couldn’t cross the Daiya River but was helped by two serpents creating a bridge and letting him across. When crossing the bridge, you are walking in the footsteps of legends. The bridge is simple in design, but the setting is stunning with rushing water racing through a deep valley.
2. Nikko Kanaya Hotel
The Nikko Kanaya Hotel is the oldest resort hotel in Japan. It is one of a handful of Japanese Classic Hotels that attracts the older more traditional patrons from Tokyo. Staying at the Kanaya Hotel is like stepping back in time. It’s a place where waiters serve five-course French-inspired dinners with white gloves and the staff treats you as if you are a visiting dignitary.
Nightly tours are offered sharing stories from 100 years ago when the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt, Albert Einstein and Charles Lindbergh graced their property.
The building could use a bit of an upgrade but the character is charming with a dark lounge complete with leather chairs and a fireplace that may or may not have been designed by Frank Lloyd Wright. So we wouldn’t want it to change too much.
But our traditional room was modern and chic complete with the usual state-of-the-art toilets found all around Japan. Many people who don’t stay at the hotel, often stop by for lunch or dinner to get a taste of old Japan. back to top
3. Tosho-gu Shrine
The number one attraction in Nikko is the Tosho-gu Shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Tokugawa Ieyasu was the most powerful man in Japan in 1600. He was named Japan’s first Shogun after uniting the country from fierce civil war. His Mausoleum is located within the Tosho-gu Shrine and is one of the most important shrines in all of Japan.
4. Tokugawa Ieyasu Shrine
To reach his mausoleum we first walked through the maze of temples before reaching the 207 stone steps leading to the inner shrine. It was opened to the public in 1965 and it is here that the first Shogun of the last and longest samurai government is laid to rest.
The shrine has gone through 3 different versions from the first wooden in 1617 to a stone version in 1683 and its final gold, silver and copper version reaching 5 meters tall that we witnessed today.
5. The Grounds of Tosho-gu Shrine
While the shrine is the most important monument in the Tosho-gu, the grounds are fascinating to visit. When entering there is a large 5 story pagoda just outside the Shinto Gate. Whenever we entered a Shinto Gate in Japan, I knew we were about to experience something special.
This massive complex includes original statues and pillars dating back to the 160o leading to the sacred storehouses and sacred stables. We also admired the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkey carvings that greet you upon entrance. Yoshi pointed out that the elephant carvings on the outer buildings were particularly interesting as nobody had ever seen an elephant when they were built.
You are allowed to go inside the temples (shoes off) but we only spent a short time as the tours were in Japanese and we wanted to take in the rest of the grounds which require time to really soak in.
6. Rinnoji Temple
Right next door to Tosho-gu Shrine is the Buddhist temple of Rinnoji. It was a breath of fresh air entering the temple grounds away from the crowds of Tosho-gu.
Something we found interesting is how Shinto and Buddist shrines were built beside each other. We learned that even though they are different religions, they work in harmony. Shinto and Buddist religions blur the lines and you’ll often see people worship both Buddhism and Shintoism as the Shinto belief is more fluid and believes in the wisdom of how to live life in harmony with nature.
We could feel the sense of calm when visiting Rinnoji and understood what the purpose of these pagodas and temples was in the first place.
7. Zen Experience
Taking part in a Zen experience helped me to feel a sense of calm and peace that I desperately needed after suffering from jetlag and the crowds of Tokyo. It had been a whirlwind few days flying from Canada and then exploring Tokyo but the Zen Experience brought me back to my centre.
This is an extraordinary experience where a Buddhist Monk leads a meditation in the Rinnoji Temple. I wondered how it would go with not understanding the language but then understood that the language of tranquillity is all the same. Clear your mind, relax and Just Be.
He walked clockwise around the temple as I sat in silence. With each breath, I felt more relaxed and the 20-minute meditation flew by. Before I knew it, he stopped in front of me where I bowed my head and he seemed to almost give me the blessing of the Queen knighting a soldier.
Through my translator he then said I have now learned three things “To adjust my aspiration, to adjust my body, and to adjust my mind.” I hope that stays with me because I need some adjusting!
8. Kanmangafuchi Abyss
The Kanmangafuchi Abyss is not only a picturesque glen filled with winding rivers and waterfalls but also a collection of Bake Jizo; statues that care for the dead overlooking the river.
The temple monk told Joshi that previous monks made these statues to commemorate those who had died. Locals have decorated the Jizo statues with red capes and caps to ward of spirits from their children.
I was told that the statues have a mystical element. That when you count them, the two numbers aren’t the same. Not one to give up a challenge, I counted them and for the first set I counted, I came out with the same number. But then I was told I have to include the second set as well. When I counted that one, I had two different counts. 82 and 84. Oooh!
9. Akechiddaira Ropeway
Our next stop in Nikko was the Akechiddaira Ropeway. This gondola takes you up for a panoramic view of the region.
Dave was excited to take a photograph of the winding roads he saw on the Internet where a photographer claimed it was from the platform at the top of the Ropeway. But we quickly learned that the photographer that claimed this was the view lied and he/she actually took his photo with a drone. Note: Drones are not allowed in Nikko as it is a National Park.
We are not a blog that ever promotes breaking the rules so we didn’t put up a drone to take that shot. Shame on that photographer for lying about how he/she got the shot, and for flying a drone in a National park! But I digress. When visiting the Ropeway, give yourself plenty of time.
10. Nikko Ropeway
Traffic can be high if you are visiting during the fall colours and just a short while outside of the town of Nikko we hit a traffic jam going up the mountain. The mountain has 47 hairpin turns. Yes, being Japan, they are so meticulous that they actually have numbers on each turn to keep count.
The ropeway stops halfway and the lines are long. We waited in line for about 45 minutes before getting on the gondola. Luckily there are toilets, shops, and food stalls so you can tag-team out of the line to take a look around.
Note: Japanese public toilets are unlike anywhere we’ve ever been. They are pristine. Many have heated seats and bidets and they are spotless. If you ever want to go to a public toilet, Japan is the place to do so.
11. Mount Hangetsu
If you like a good hike, Mount Hangetsu an excellent one. It’s about a 30-minute hike up from the high parking lot of Mount Hangetsu to the summit and it’s a beautiful walk that offers panoramic views.
Our party set off about an hour before sunset through a well-marked trail. It can get very cold in Nikko outside of summer so be sure to dress in layers. We saw people on our way down walking up in t-shirts and a skirt. We warned them that the sun was going down and it was cold, but they just giggled. But it can be dangerous when the weather sets in, so be prepared.
While at the summit, the snow came in and we cut our sunset photography session short. We didn’t mind though, because we had beautiful dramatic views of Lake Chuzenji and the surrounding mountains being engulfed by clouds.
When you reach the top, there’s a small lookout platform that makes for a good base. But it is small, so if photography is on your mind, get there early to reserve your spot!
12. Kegon Falls
Did You Know: Kegon Falls is ranked as one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls. Plunging 100 metres from Lake Chuzenzi, Kegon Falls is powerful. You can view it from three different platforms. The water is so powerful that our guide tells us the cliffs are moving back a few inches each year.
Nikko is known for its waterfalls and Kegon Falls is certainly the most impressive. I love how Japan makes everything easy. If this were Canada, we’d have to spend the day hiking up and down to the base of the falls. But in Nikko, you wait in line from the parking to board an elevator that takes you down. Once you exit the elevator, there’s a long underground walkway leading to the platforms that have a café, a souvenir shop and a photography shop.
13. Kayaking Lake Chuzenzi
For something out of the ordinary a kayaking trip on Lake Chuzenzi is in order. It’s an easy paddle and they supply all the gear including wetsuits, pdf’s, booties and gloves.
We kayaked on the last day of the season, so it was a bit nippy outside, but we were toasty warm once we had on all our gear. For the time of year, it was surprising to see just how many people were out on the water.
Our guide Kenny has a dream to go kayaking in the Yukon, but today he took us around the lake to take in the views.I am always impressed with the Japanese culture, they get out and enjoy the outdoors. And they look like a million bucks doing it!
14. Public Baths at Kinugawa Kanaya
Nikko is known for its hot springs and the Kinugawa hot springs have been used since the 1600s for their healing purposes. Staying at the Kanaya Kinugawa Hotel overlooking the water, set the stage for an extraordinary two nights in Kinugawa. We had never experienced a public bath in Japan, but if there is one place to do so, it is here at this hotel.
Tokyo’s elite frequent this hotel to spend a weekend unwinding from stress doing nothing but enjoying 2-hour meals and countless hours relaxing in the rotating baths. Men and women go to separate baths and the baths are rotated daily to give each sex a chance to experience the outdoor hot tubs, different steam rooms and saunas.
There is a very strict etiquette to visiting a Japanese bath, so stay tuned on our Youtube channel and upcoming blog posts to find out how to visit a Japanese Public Bath.
15. Ryuokyo Canyon
I must admit, we didn’t know what to expect from the Ryuokyo Canyon. When asking Yoshi what it was all about, we thought, “okay, we’ll walk down, look at a canyon and walk back up freeing up some time in our schedule to see some other things. It turns out, that Ryuokyo Canyon is not to be missed!
The walk down was long and we crossed many people huffing and puffing their way back up the stairs. We weren’t thrilled about having to climb back up after the fact, but once we got there, all our inhibitions disappeared. A river runs through the deep canyon wall like a serpent which lends well to its name, “Valley of the Dragon King”.
Visitors can walk across rope and suspension bridges, there are platforms to the lookout and forested trails. The four-km hike rivals many of the great canyon hikes of the world and Nikko has made it very easy with steps, boardwalks and bridges. Give yourself at least a half-day to explore.
14. Katayama Sake Brewery Tour
I think the highlight of our time in all of Nikko was our Katayama Sake tour. A family run organization since 1880 runs daily brewery tours where you can learn of the traditional methods that they still use today.
Our guide was very gracious and took his time to tell us of the processing that happens over the winter from October to February. They still do a lot by hand and only brew small batches.
We treated ourselves to a bottle of their best sake, which won the gold medal at the Japan Sake Awards in 2017. It is so good!
17. Make Soba Noodles at Kirifuri
If you ever thought the noodles you eat are not made with love, you’ll think again when you take a Soba Noodle cooking class. Most soba chefs are men and I can understand why. They knead the dough by hand folding it 20 times each way over and over again until it is mixed to perfection. Chef shared his grandmother’s secret recipe with us and Dave worked hard kneading dough.
We arrived at the Kirifuri Camp expecting a quick lesson before eating a big bowl of noodles for lunch. It turned into a 90-minute workout where we learned that making Soba Noodles is no joke! He thought that was hard enough, but then the rolling and cutting began and he realized that there is a lot more to cooking noodles than just throwing them in a pot. the Dough kneaded with strength rolled to perfection and cut with precision.
Making soba noodles is a work of art.
The end result is nothing short of delicious. We’ve had many a noodle soup in our day, but we’ve never just enjoyed eating a mound of noodles. If you love cooking classes, this is one to try in Japan. It showcases traditional methods in a family run establishment that clearly puts a lot of pride and love into its noodle making. back to top
18. Shave Ice at Shogetsu Himuro
I know what your thinking, so what it’s shaved ice, I’ve had it in Hawaii, or I can get a snow cone at the fair. But did you know Shave ice originated in Japan and like everything there, they take it to a whole new level! The shave ice of Shogetsu Himuro is world renowned.
Nikko is known for its pure water and they’ve been making shave ice here since 1894. The delicious treat we had is made from a nearby lake that is meticulously cared for over the winter months. Ice grows at an inch per day over the winter and it is cut up in blocks, removed and transported to coolers where it is used for the next year to make dessert for visitors.
Lines can be up to an hour long at H?getsu Himuro and once we tasted it, we could understand why. It takes about 5 minutes to make each portion and when it is served, they recommend eating it immediately. The ice was so light and fully that it felt like a cloud in your mouth. I have never tasted anything like it.
19. Ryokan – Tatami Experience
Japan is modern and high tech and zooming into the 21 century, but it is also filled with traditions. When staying at hotels like the Kanaya Kinugawa Hotel or the Hotel Shikisai on Lake Chuzenji you must book a tatami room.
Stepping into one of these hotels transports you back in time. You are encouraged to wear the Yukata robes provided to dinner and around the entire hotel.
20. Dinner in a Yukata
We changed into our robes, put on the socks and slippers and donned our vest for dinner and felt like a Samari going to royal court. They even supply silk pouches to hold your cell phones and room keys while using the amenities.
While enjoying a very long and extravagant meal, the staff transformed our sitting area into a tatami room putting down mats and the largest most feathery duvets we’ve ever used. It was the coolest thing to see our room transformed from modern chic to traditional feng shui. I don’t think I’ve ever slept so well abroad.
21. Ryuzu Waterfall
This is another popular waterfall that gains even more attraction during the fall colours. You don’t need to hike to them, there is a restaurant and souvenir shop right at the viewing platform just a short walk from the parking lot. But it is worth mentioning because of its beauty.
It’s a popular spot for photographers and there are hoards of people standing on the platform trying to capture that perfect image of the twin falls.
22. Senjogahara Marshland
It wasn’t on our schedule but I’m glad we made it here. Senjogahara Marshland is a beautiful spot for hiking that is almost entirely on a boardwalk. It is about a 6.5 km walk that goes past waterfalls and temples. It takes approximately 2.5 hours as its easy terrain.
We didn’t have time to hike it all, but what we did see was stunning. It’s particularly beautiful during the fall colours and we had the chance to capture the essence of why this hike is so popular.
23. Tobu World Square
It’s a quirky spot in downtown Kinugawa. Tobu World Square is a miniature theme park that is worth a visit. With buildings like the Petronis Towers, Eiffel Tower and The Vatican, you’ll take a tour around the world looking at the most fascinating architecture found on earth.
Each building is a replica of famous landmarks and buildings on a scale of 1:25. There are more than 100 buildings from the Pyramids of Giza to the Empire State Building.
We got a kick out of walking around the different sections and were fascinated with the detail that went into the structures. If you take some photos at the right angle, you could actually pretend that you are in Greece or Japan. I hope they update it soon as the last exhibit to open was Tokyo’s Skytree Tower.
There are so many buildings that I’d love to be included from the Middle East, Hong Kong and Shanghai.
How to Get to Nikko, Japan
The Tobu Limited Express isn’t a high-speed train, but instead a modern railway that takes you on a scenic tour from Tokyo to Nikko with the choice of general class seating or private compartments.
When you purchase a Nikko Pass, your ticket includes round-trip rail from Tokyo, access to the Akechiddaira Ropeway and discounts at many participating venues in Nikko. It’s a good thing the trains aren’t too fast, or else you’d miss the scenery along the way.
As we leave Tokyo, the massive city slowly fades as we travel through suburbs located along the route. After an hour of watching life along the rail, buildings give way to fields and mountains.
We are in Nikko for the fall colours and soon the mountainous region bursts out of the flatlands revealing splashes of reds and orange.
We’re excited. It’s our first time in Japan together and we are visiting one of Japan’s most sacred regions. The place where Japan’s first Shogun is laid to rest.
Home to Shinto and Buddhist religions dating back to the 1600s, Nikko is one of the top spots in Japan to explore the scenic and the sacred. So bring it on!
Nikko is a special place to visit in Japan. Even though the crowds were large, we saw few tourists. I remember running into a woman from America who stopped our guide to ask why so many locals visit the place. She wondered where all the tourists were?
There’s something satisfying about going to a place where it feels like a local secret and that you are one of the few foreigners among the locals. Even if those tourists tend to be in the thousands.
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Our trip to Nikko is brought to you by Tobu Japan Trip but all opinions are our own.