This is Why a Nikko Day Trip is a Must Do
if you are planning a Nikko day trip, I've got the perfect itinerary and all the details for you!
Our day trip from nikko to Tokyo
Nikko is an easy day trip from Tokyo, accessible by an hour-long Shinkansen (bullet train) ride. We caught a 7-ish a.m. train and met up with our guide around 8. Since this was a stop on our way north to a ryokan and onsen instead of a day trip, when we met up with our guide at the train station, we put our luggage in lockers.
TRAVEL TIP: There are lockers in most train stations, but there aren’t many lockers in a station this small, so getting there early is important if you plan to use them, especially during a busy travel season. Also, not all the lockers fit large luggage pieces. We had a carry-on each.
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This was our first full day in Japan, and it did not disappoint!
IROHAZAKA WINDING ROAD
The first place we headed after meeting up with our guide was the Kegon Waterfall. You have to take a bus up to it, and it follows a one-way road called Irohazaka Winding Road with 20+ switchbacks up and again back down. If you struggle with motion sickness, see my post about curing that here. It’s an easy and short walk to the viewing platform from the bus stop.
I packed light layers because we were going to encounter a variety of weather situations. Nikko is north of Tokyo, and up in the mountains. It is not uncommon to find snow on the ground there in late March/early April. See my Japan packing and travel guide for tips on how I navigated the wide range of temps we encountered on this trip and still packed in a carryon.
In front of Kegon Waterfall was a man selling fish on a stick. Forget about hot dog on a stick, these were whole fish: skin, eyes and all, on a stick, roasting over coals. If it had been lunch time, we’d have gotten one, but not to worry, we had another opportunity to try this out that night. Spoiler alert: eat the fish on the stick. It’s marvelous!
Just down the road, maybe a quarter mile is Lake Chuzenji. It was created 20,000 years ago when Mount Nantai erupted and blocked the river. It was so still and beautiful. We would have loved to stay longer and walk around the lake, but we were trying to pack a lot into a short day. We hopped back on the bus and came back down the winding road.
We walked past the Shinkyo bridge, leading to the Futurasan Shrine. It’s ranked as one of the top three bridges in Japan. It’s right on a busy road. Unless you are planning to visit the shrine, this is one of those look and leave experiences.
We stopped for lunch and got some tempura shrimp with noodles. It was a perfect hot lunch on a cold, cold day. How do you say, "Can I get my tempura on the side because you are ruining the delicious crispiness by leaving it in my soup!" in Japanese?
TRAVEL TIP: Do be prepared to be deprived of water and protein. Every restaurant gives water in tiny little glasses that hold about 4 ounces, and if you want a refill, you have to ask. We bought a lot of bottled water.
After lunch we went to the Toshogu Shrine, which is a Unesco Heritage site. Online it seems like it’s just one building, but it’s actually a whole campus of beautiful buildings. This is important to know because it affects your schedule. If you think you are visiting one building, that doesn’t take nearly as much time as an entire campus. Allow for at least a few hours to make your way through it.
If you plan to go, be aware that there are approximately 1 gazillion stairs to get there and back. It’s not for the faint of knees and is not handicap accessible. Stopping for gasping breaks is also built into that time frame. Adam and I hoofed it to the top, but a lot of people had to stop all along the way.
This pagoda has a huge beam suspended from the ceiling, and the floors are loosely connected so that when earthquakes hit, the building can shift and sway and not fall. Earthquake and fire (which are often caused by the earthquakes and actually does the most damage) have destroyed most of the historical sites in Japan at least once, and several of them have been rebuilt more than once. This one has burned down one time. Each story of the pagoda represents an element – earth, water, fire, wind and ether or void – in ascending order
All of it is set in a beautiful forest, so if you can mentally erase the other tourists, it’s easy to imagine being here hundreds of years ago.
I wish I could tell you more about the buildings, but our guide spoke very minimal English, which we were really annoyed by. We arranged this through our hotel, it was quite expensive, and the concierge should have vetted her more carefully. This time was an exception. She was very nice, we just couldn’t communicate outside of hand signals, and that’s a problem. As we walked around I ended up telling my husband a lot of the history that I learned about Tokugawa before we came.
TRAVEL TIP: Usually a hotel concierge is a great resource for booking private guides, and in the past we’ve had very good success with it. For a day like this we sent a list of places we wanted to see in order of priority. If you don’t want to decide, you can also let the guide give suggestions or set the day entirely. I like to have a big say, but also appreciate their input.
This is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate (like a dynasty or royal family) that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. It was considered the Renaissance period of Japan. Ieyasu was known for being extremely frugal, so it was initially a relatively simple mausoleum. Toshogu was enlarged into the spectacular complex by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu during the first half of the 1600s. He had great admiration for his grandfather and wanted to honor him.
Before the trip I read the historical fiction novel Shogun, and it was a wonderful book. It covers the time period leading up to Tokugawa becoming shogun of Japan. I understand so much more about the Japanese culture and customs because they are still rooted in the Samurai, or Bushido, beliefs of this period. I got so much more out of this trip, and especially this site, because I knew a lot more about the history of Japan during this critical time, and most of the touristy sites are related to it. I highly recommend reading it, especially if you are heading to Japan. There was a mini series made from this book in the early 80s, but it does no justice to the book. Primarily because none of the conversations in Japanese have subtitles, and the viewers are missing out on hugely important conversations. Major fail. Anyway, read the book! It will make your trip so much richer!
We went to Japan during cherry blossom season, and this far north we didn’t expect to see any in late March, but look! We found one right in front of the shrine! Our first cherry blossoms of the trip. Most of the trees in Nikko bloom in late April. I was so excited!
What makes the Tokugawa Shrine so special is because it is extremely ornate with the wood carvings and gold leaf, much more than any other shrines or temples in the country.
Before entering a shrine there is a hand-washing ritual to make your hands and mouth clean.
TRAVEL TIP: This is one of many places in Japan where you have to take your shoes off to go into each building, and there are a lot of buildings, so wearing a pair of shoes that you can easily slip on and off is ideal. I knew this before going and intentionally wore my lace up sneakers because it was so, so cold (like 35 degrees and humid/rainy/cloudy/windy), and flats would have been miserable for me. I hate it when my feet are cold. In better weather I would definitely choose a slip on shoe. Today the warmth was more important.
While there are temples and shrines all over Japan, Nikko is worth the trip because it is very different from the others. Even aside from the temples, the region is breathtakingly beautiful. There are so many hikes and outdoor things to do. I would love to come back and see the foliage in the fall. You could easily spend a week in this region during the spring or fall doing all the outdoor activities the mountains have to offer.
Let's ignore that Clark Kent hair. I didn't bring a flat iron...and I regretted it every. single. day.
So many stairs. This was the final set of stairs we had to ascend, and there were 207 of them. I can’t even tell you how many stairs we climbed that day, but it was A LOT.
After the Tokugawa Shrine we went to the Imperial Villa and its 106 rooms. The villa was erected in Nikko in 1899, using parts of a residence that originally stood in Tokyo. Before being moved to Nikko, the building served initially as the Tokyo residence of a branch of the Tokugawa family and was later temporarily used as the Imperial Palace.
In Nikko, it was enlarged into a summer residence and retreat for the Imperial Family. During World War II, which they refer to as the Pacific War, the Emperor was kept there for a year to keep him safe from bombings. The palace was essentially abandoned after World War II, but in the year 2000, the villa was opened to the public after extensive renovation.
The rooms are mostly empty. After going to Buckingham Palace and former doge palaces, expectations are high when going to an Imperial Palace, but it is very minimal. Even when it was furnished and occupied it was sparse. That is how the Japanese culture was. This palace was only used in the summer because there is no way to heat the building, and even if there were, the walls are made of paper and wood, so no insulation to hold the heat in.
Throughout the trip we noticed that the gardens were also minimal, but soothing. They are the complete opposite of European gardens. Actually, everything about this period of Japan is the opposite of the European cultures of that time, all the way down to the diet. Minimal, simple, reverence for nature and things.
The current imperial palace in Tokyo is not easy to tour. You have to apply and have a background check completed, and the spaces are limited. If you want to see one, see this one.
KANMANGAFUCHI ABYSS AND NARABI-JIZO STATUES
Our last stop of the day was one of the things I was most looking forward to in Nikko, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss and Narabi-jizo Statues. The abyss (doesn’t that sound dramatic?) was formed by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. Abyss sounds so dangerous and Lord of the Rings-esque. This abyss is more like a small gorge with a river running through it.
The Kanmangafuchi Abyss is near central Nikko, but not exactly on the beaten path. You’re not likely to come upon it accidentally. It is only a few hundred meters long and has a riverside walking trail which leads to a row of about 70 stone statues of Jizo. The statues look out over the river and across to the Nikko Botanical Garden, but the botanical garden cannot be entered from the abyss. The botanical garden is also closed this time of year. If it had been open, it would have been on my list of places to go.
These statues are caretakers of the souls of travelers and deceased children. This group are referred to as ghost statues. There used to be 100 statues, but in the flood of 1902 several were washed away. Now there are 70-ish. They are called ghost statues because it is said that when you count them you’ll never get the same number twice, and you’ll never see them in the same order because they trade places.
Why are they wearing red bibs and hats, you ask? There are a few stories. One reason is since the Jizo are considered to be the guardians of children who died, some parents put their child’s bib on the statue to gain favor and protection for their little one in the afterlife. Another is that the Japanese believe that all things have a spirit and energy, and the Jizo need protection from the cold. Some relate it to a story of an old man who made 5 hats to trade in town to buy some moji (rice cakes) for him and his wife to eat for New Year’s, and when he saw the statues with their cold heads, he put his hats on them, including the one he was wearing, leaving him nothing to trade for food. The next day the couple found many moji under the eaves of their house as a reward for his generosity. The color red is most often used because it represents safety and protection.
Even though our guide spoke very little English, the one thing she did do was help us see all the things on our list in the very limited time we had. She navigated us from place to place very efficiently and kept us on track time-wise. I don’t think we could have made it to everything without her, and that made up for much of the cost. Unlike the other attractions, this one was fairly empty because not as many people know about it or how to find it. We only saw a few people, while everywhere else we went was packed. If you don’t have a guide, Google Maps can probably lead you there, so don’t pass it up.
TRAVEL TIP: As you plan your day in Nikko, if it is as packed as ours was, leave this as your last or first stop because it is always open since it’s just a path in the woods. As I mentioned in my other Japan travel posts, most tourist destinations in Japan are only open from 9-4, 5 or 6. If you get an early start come here first. Or come here after everything else closes, as long as it’s not after dark when you won’t be able to enjoy the beauty.
At this point we made a run for the train to take us north to the ryokan and onsen we were staying at. We had a dinner reservation and needed to be there by 6:30, and if you know me, I NEVER miss a meal.