Nikkō may just be 125 kilometers North of Tokyo, but the air here feels quite different. Your 2- to 4-hour travel time (depending on where you’re coming from, and how you’re going there) will transport you to this city tucked well within the mountainous parts of Tochigi Prefecture.
The Shinkyo Bridge across the Daiya River welcomes you. The thin, cold mountain air forces you to slow your breathing, and take in the mountain landscape sprawled before you.
If you love the Zen moments temples are ought to have, but cannot seem to have them when in Asakusa or in Meiji Jingu, you’d be happy to find a UNESCO Heritage temple complex with the best preserved red-lacquered and gilded wood pagodas, while here.
After marveling at the centuries-old temples and shrines, don’t pass up the chance to try what we had crowned as “The Best Taiyaki in Kantō”, freshly made by an adorable grandpa in a food truck standing by one of the exits. Further down from the temple complex, you can stock up on souvenirs. Shops sell the deliciously intoxicating Yuzu liquor, alongside traditional side dishes, lacquerware, and wood products. If you are intrigued by Hokkaido’s Otaru Orgel, but cannot fly all the way up just to shop for music boxes, you’ll be delighted to find that they do have a branch along the highway here.
Move on towards the edges of the city, and you’ll find yourself at the foot of one of Japan’s sacred mountains, Mount Nantai, where Chuzenji-ko peacefully lies. Walking along the banks of the lake is relaxing and soothing. Snow-capped mountains backdrop the scene, but it is difficult to distinguish where the water ends, from where the mountains rise up.
If you cannot get enough of visiting a temple, making a wish upon whomever is enshrined there, and then drawing an omikuji before leaving, the Chuzenjiko area will not disappoint with its Chuzenji Temple and Futarasan Shrine. Not many tourists venture as far out beyond the shop-lined part of the road. Some days, the temple and the shrine will be all yours to explore.
Once you feel like frolicking in the snow is giving you frostbite, head back and run towards the friendly grandma in Adonis – she’ll make you a frothy cup of latte that will warm you right up.
If you have the energy to go as far as Oku-Nikkō, you’ll find Yu-no-ko in the middle of snowy landscape so quiet, you’d only hear the ducks quack. We promise that the cold would not be noticeable, especially when the smiling faces of villagers greet you warmly.
If skiing is your thing, gentle slopes await near the lake, by the Yumoto Onsen.
Walking towards the Onsen town off the highway, your legs will get toasty from the steam escaping from the vents along the dirt road. The overpowering sulphur smell somehow entices even the non-spa goers to take a glimpse at the small town.
If nature tripping is your game, you could bathe in the mists of Yu-taki, Ryūzu-no-taki, and Kegon-no-taki all you want. In winter, the Senjogahara and the Odashirogahara Marshland don’t look as navigable as they do in other seasons, but they offer calming views of endless snow-blanketed plains, while you’re on your way to Oku-Nikkō.
We know you’ll try to cram some more sightseeing on the day of departure. How about exploring the areas around the city center? Follow the river, dive into the residential area, and you’ll find yourself at the entrance of the Nikkō Botanical Gardens. The stone garden might seem interesting, but you can cut right through the gardens, and head out to gaze at the aquamarine of the Kanman-ga-fuchi Abyss. The rapids seem willing to suck you right in.
Narabi Jizo – most often referred to as “Bake Jizo” or Ghost Jizo – clad in red-knitted hats stand guard in front of the deep water pool. Knowing the reason why they are called Bake Jizo fills the encounter with an eerie silence. You almost feel like the statues are watching you, but only until a local runner in skin-tight black and neon green goggles comes rushing past you. Now, try counting them from one end, and then the other!
If you’re the type of person whose energy gets drained from staying too long in Tokyo, Nikkō will make the perfect rustic getaway for you. It will seem like a world away from the city’s neon-lighted revelry. For comfort and ease of travel, we suggest you take Tobu’s Limited Express, SPACIA. It is unlike the other skip trains, as it travels almost as fast as a shinkansen, with good legrooms to match. For the best experience, stay in a family-owned ryokan, where you will be treated very much like a family guest. If you are lucky, you’ll take part in a breakfast AND dinner feast with dishes made following the family’s secret recipes. They’ll even tuck you in at night. You’ll regret you only have 3 days to spare.