The small town of Nikko in Tochigi prefecture, a few hours north of Tokyo, is home to the lavishly-decorated Toshogu Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the once-most powerful man in feudal Japan: Tokugawa Ieyasu. In addition, the surrounding area encompassing Nikko National Park is popular for spectacular autumn scenery in October.
Set in a serene cedar forest around 100 kilometers north of metropolitan Tokyo, Toshogu was inscribed in the UNESCO World Heritage list in 1999 along with neighboring Rinnoji Temple and Futarasan Shrine.
Day 1: World Heritage Nikko
Nikko could be done as a long day trip from Tokyo. However, since we were visiting in the peak autumn season where traffic jams going up to Lake Chuzenji are the norm, we decided to stay overnight at Narusawa Lodge, a local minshuku (Japanese-style bed and breakfast).
The Tobu Section Rapid train we took pulled in at Tobu-Nikko station two hours after leaving Asakusa Station. We were not in a rush so we decided to leave our things first at Narusawa Lodge upon arrival in Nikko. The lodge was quite a distance from town, but was still within Japanese “walking distance”. Our stomachs grew hungry from the long walk and dictated the first agenda of the day: lunch! We found this quaint eatery by the town’s main road.
The whole interior of the eatery, including the ceiling, is plastered with greetings posted by diners from all over the world.
I ordered tsukune (skewered meat balls), yakitori (skewered chicken), rice and yakisoba for lunch, all for a total of Y850.
After having our fill, we started the walk towards the Sannai area, the collective term for Nikko’s World Heritage temples and shrines. Just a few steps from Hippari-dako is the Shinkyo Sacred Bridge, the vermillion-colored bridge standing at the entrance towards Sannai. The bridge is technically part of Futarasan-jinja, and is hence part of Futarasan’s world heritage status. In the past only messengers of the Imperial Court were allowed to cross the sacred bridge. Today, ordinary tourists can cross the bridge in exchange for 300 Yen.
The first temple one encounters coming from Shinkyo Bridge is Rinnoji Temple. The temple dates to the 8th century when Buddhism was introduced to Nikko. Three Buddhist deities: Bato Kannon, Amida Nyorai and Senju Kannon are enshrined at the Sanbutsudo Hall.
Straight ahead on the cedar tree-lined gravel road, a stone torii welcomes visitors to what is possibly the grandest mausoleum in Japan, the Toshogu Shrine. The first Tokugawa shogun, Ieyasu, was enshrined here after his death in 1616. His last wishes asked for a “small shrine”, but that was far from the mind of his grandson Iemitsu who built this extravagant complex around Ieyasu’s tomb.
Well-preserved to this date, the intricate design of the buildings of Toshogu is a complete turnaround from the usual minimalist shrine architecture elsewhere in Japan. Coming into the courtyard fronting Yomeimon Gate, visitors gather at one side of the sacred stable to ogle at the wood carvings of the three wise monkeys who “hear no evil, speak no evil, and see no evil”. According to legend, monkeys are guardians of horses, hence the monkey carvings on a stable.
On the left side when facing Yomeimon, another set of carvings stand out, this time on the sacred storehouses. These are called the “sozonozo elephants” – which means imaginary elephants. Upon closer look, one will understand why they are called such: one of the elephants more closely resemble a pig with trunk and tusks!
For me, the highlight of a visit to Toshogu is the stunning Yomeimon Gate. Strikingly detailed carvings compete for space in what many say is the most intricately designed shrine gate in Japan. Also particularly noteworthy is the Japanese attention to detail; whoever is responsible for maintaining this cultural treasure is doing a great job painting even the tiniest of details on the dragon carvings.
Finally, a short walk westward between the towering cedar trees brought us to Futarasan Jinja, a Shinto shrine that predates neighboring Toshogu by nine centuries. The shrine is dedicated to Nikko’s three sacred mountains: Nantai, Nyoho, and Taro. The name Futarasan is derived from Mount Nantai’s alternate name: Futara-san.
Day 2: Oku-Nikko
Our call time on day 2 was 8:00 a.m. Narusawa Lodge prepared a simple breakfast for us before we checked out and bid our hosts farewell.
Our day 2 agenda would be a trip to the mountains of inner Nikko, or Oku-Nikko as it is more known. We boarded one of the buses for Lake Chuzenji outside the Tobu-Nikko station. After passing central Nikko, the road ascends into the mountainside on what is called the Irohazaka winding road. Irohazaka is in fact 2 one-way roads, one for ascending and another for descending the steep slopes going to Lake Chuzenji. There are a total of 48 hairpin curves, each named according to the 48 characters of the Japanese alphabet.
The change in elevation was soon evident as the scenery turned into autumn hues. Seeing that weather was clear, we dropped by the Akechidaira Ropeway just before the final tunnel approaching Lake Chuzenji. Weather in the mountains can change quickly so it is advisable to have a backup plan in case of adverse conditions.
The Akechidaira Ropeway ascends to an altitude of 1,473 meters to an observatory overlooking Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Falls, and Mount Nantai. We arrived just in time for a clear blue autumn sky and a sea of red and yellow foliage. The trees around Lake Chuzenji and Mount Nantai were just reaching their peak autumn colors.
For lunch, we looked for a restaurant that served yuba, a traditional specialty in Nikko. Yuba is the thin film that forms on top of soymilk when making tofu. It is then skimmed off, dried, and then added to the usual Japanese fare such as soba and ramen. Like tofu, it doesn’t really have a strong taste, the added flavor to the ramen that I ordered was subtle.
At the Kegon Falls observatory, the trees beside Kegon Falls were also at their peak autumn colors.
We spent the rest of the day walking around the shores of Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, looking for trees bedecked in autumn colors.
Nikko is best accessed by Tobu Railways from their Asakusa station in Tokyo. For this trip, we used an All Nikko Pass, which includes one round trip from Asakusa to Tobu-Nikko and unlimited rides on Tobu buses in the Nikko/Oku-nikko area within 4 consecutive days. Japan Rail Pass holders can take the Tohoku shinkansen from Tokyo to Utsunomiya, and transfer to the JR Nikko line to Nikko.