Travel Japan: Nikko

The Guard in Toshogu Shrine Entrance
A famous Japanese saying proclaims Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na. Most tourist literature translates this as "Don't say 'magnificent' until you've seen Nikko". Nikko, the temple town is mostly famous for Toshogu, Japan's most lavishly decorated shrine. Nikko National Park adds scenic landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails to the temples and shrines. Nikko and the surrounding area, specially  Lake Chuzenji are well known for their beautiful autumn colors (koyo). In the average year the colors start descending from the higher elevations of Yumoto Onsen in early October, are best around Lake Chuzenji and reach the town of Nikko in the first half of November. Oku-Nikko is famous as a hill station in summer time for its cold weather. Average temperature of August in central Nikko is 21-22 Celsius degrees, and 18-19 degrees in Chugushi Shrine near the Lake Chuzenji. Average temperature of January in Senjogahara plateau is -7 Celsius degrees. The lowest temperature sometimes goes down to -20 Celsius degrees. Also, skiing areas are arranged because of a large amount of snow. Reasonably, Nikko is often called "the natural refrigerator". Shinto shrine and Buddhist temples had been harmonized well since Priest Shoto civilized Nikko.

What to See in Nikko:
Central Nikko:
The central area is an entrance of Nikko. Altitude of this area is the lowest in Nikko. The central Nikko is a temple town of Toshogu Shrine, Rinnoji Temple, Futarasan Shrine and Taiyuin Mausoleum.

Toshogu Shrine:
Tōshō-gū shrines are found throughout Japan. The most famous Tōshō-gū is located in Nikko. It is one of Japan's most popular tourist destinations. The Toshogu is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, which ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. The shrine complex consists of more than a dozen Shinto and Buddhist buildings. The whole campus is set amidst a beautiful forest. Initially a relatively simple mausoleum, Toshogu was enlarged into the spectacular temple complex seen today by Ieyasu's grandson Iemitsu.

You can find lots of wood carvings and gold leaves used to decorate all the buildings.

The story of THREE MONKEYS in Toshogu is one of the most popular story here. Sculptures of monkeys and their different behaviours are put on the Shinyosha (Sacred Stable) and each of these are used to reflect different aspects of life in different time.

Unless you intend to visit only the Toshogu, it is recommended to purchase a combination ticket (1000 JPY), which also includes admission to the Rinnoji, Taiyuinbyo and Futarasan Shrine.

The Shinkyo Bridge:

The Shinkyo Bridge ("sacred bridge") stands at the entrance to Nikko's shrines and temples, and technically belongs to Futarasan Shrine. The bridge is one of Japan's finest bridges. The current Shinkyo was constructed in 1636, but a bridge of some kind had marked the same spot for much longer, although its exact origins are unclear. Until 1973, Shinkyo was off limit to the general public. It underwent extensive renovation works in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and visitors can now walk across the bridge and back for an entrance fee.

Rinnoji Temple:
Rinnoji Temple is a generic name of 15 subordinate temples. Rinnoji, the most important temple in Nikko, was founded in 766 AD by the Buddhist hermit Shoto near Shinkyo Sacred Bridge. A statue in his honor graces the temple park.

Rinnoji quickly became a popular retreat for mountainous worship and many ascetics visited there. Bishop Tenkai built Toshogu Shrine, and Nikko became more popular than ever before. In 1655, the successor Shuchouhoushinno renamed himself as Rinnoji-no-miya. The name of Rinnoji Temple was derived from the former successor. The temple's main building, the Sanbutsudo, houses large, gold lacquered, wooden statues of Amida, Senju-Kannon ("Kannon with a thousand arms") and Bato-Kannon ("Kannon with a horse head").

Construction Notice: The Sanbutsudo Hall is currently undergoing major renovation works, which are scheduled to last until March 2021. During this period, the temple hall is covered by a huge scaffolding structure, but it remains open to tourists. 

Lake Chuzenji, Mt. Nantai:
The Chuzenji lake was created by an eruption of Mt. Nantai which blocked the water of river. The lake has a surface area of 11.62 km² and a circumference of 25 km. Its elevation at the surface is 1,269 m (4,124 ft), and the water reaches a depth of 163 m (508 ft). Altitude of this lake is the highest in the natural lakes in Japan. The Yukawa is the principal source of water. It drains through the Kegon Falls.

The Lake Chuzenji is a popular fishing area. Rainbow trout and Sockeye salmon are mostly found in this lake.

There are many historical building around the lake such as Futarasan Chugushi Shrine, Chuzenji Temple, Camping site and the second house of foreign embassy. Chuzenjiko ('ko' means lake, so 'Chuzenjiko lake' is a wrong phrase, it will be either 'Chujenjiko' or 'Chunzenji lake') is especially beautiful in mid to late October, when the autumn colors reach their peak along the lake's shores and surrounding mountains. And during Japan's hot summers, the lake's high elevation (1269 meters above sea level) keeps the area cool and comfortable, which in the past has attracted foreign embassies to build recreation villas along its shores.

People can hike around the entire circumference of Lake Chuzenji via hilly lakeside walking trails, or can enjoy the lake from sightseeing boats that depart from Chuzenjiko Onsen. Panoramic views from above are possible from along the Chuzenjiko Skyline, an eight kilometer long former toll road which can now be used free of charge.

Generally speaking, central Nikko is recognized as Nikko while area of Lake Chuzenji, around Mt. Nantai and Yumoto are called Oku-Nikko (Inner Nikko). History of Oku-Nikko began when Priest Shoto succeeded to climb the Mt. Nantai in Nara-Heian period. Nikko developed as a training area for ascetics until Edo period, and developed as a resort area from Meiji era.

Kegon Waterfall:

There are 48 waterfalls in Nikko, but Kegon waterfall is the most famous among these. The falls were formed when the Daiya River was rerouted by lava flows. About twelve smaller waterfalls are situated behind and to the sides of Kegon Falls, leaking through the many cracks between the mountain and the lava flows. At 97 m high, it is one of Japan's three highest waterfalls, namely, Nachi waterfall in Wakayama prefecture, Fukuroda waterfall in Ibaragi prefecture and Kegon waterfall in Nikko.

People could not get close to the fall until 1900 when Gorobei Hoshino built a teahouse near the basin of the fall. It took him 7 years to build. Now there is elevator which can take you to the extreme close to the falls. Also, Kegon waterfall became a noted place of suicide when 18 years old high school student, Misao Fujimura, a Japanese philosophy student and poet, jumped into the fall in May 1903. The story was soon sensationalized in contemporary newspapers, and was commented upon by the famed writer Natsume Soseki. This led the famed scenic falls to become a notorious spot for lovetorn or otherwise desperate youngsters to take their lives.

Irohazaka Winding Road:
This famous road connects Lake Chuzenji with the main town of Nikko. It ascends more than 400 meters and is named "Iroha Slope" because its original 48 turns (now there are only 30) were equal to the number of characters in the Japanese syllabary, formerly referred to as "iroha". Autumn colors along the road can usually be enjoyed from mid October to early November, and often causes traffic jams in this road.

Italian Embassy Villa:
Hours: 9:00 to 16:00 (until 17:00 in July and August)
Admission: 100 yen donation
Closed: December through March and Mondays
This building complex was the former summer residence of the Italian Ambassador to Japan. It is located on the shore of Lake Chuzenji and was opened to the public.

Chuzenji Temple:
Hours: 8:00 to 17:00 (shorter hours in winter)
Admission: 500 yen
Chuzenji Temple is a must see place in this area. The temple was built around a unique statue of Kannon. The statue was carved out of a tree trunk Many centuries ago and it still stands today with its roots in the ground.

How to Reach Chuzenji Lake:
Chuzenjiko Onsen is connected with central Nikko by Tobu bus. The buses leave from JR and Tobu Nikko Station and are bound for Chuzenjiko Onsen or Yumoto Onsen. There are about three buses per hour. The one way trip from Tobu Nikko Station to Chuzenjiko Onsen takes about 50 minutes, costs 1100 yen and is covered by several Tobu free passes. A 2-day pass for unlimited bus rides between Nikko and Chuzenjiko Onsen is available for 2000 yen at Tobu Nikko Station.

How to Reach Nikko:
See here.

What to Buy in Nikko:

good luck charms at the shrines, souvenirs, various taste of cookies, key rings, wooden stick and other wood products, phone straps of Hello Kitty, new and used kimono, antiques and knick knacks.


  1. Liked it a lot. It reminds me of my stay in Japan too! thanks a lot for devoting your time to put such a wonderful travelogue.

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  2. Lovely, lovely.
    You have reminded me Japan and my stay there. I feel you should have searched for more dramatic light. I know it is easy to comment than doing it...