30 Hours (Give or Take) in Nikko, Japan


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Looking west across Lake Chuzenji. Kegon waterfall is behind and to the left about half a kilometer.

Translating literally as ‘sunlight’ or ‘sunshine’ Nikko, Japan greeted us with a slushy downpour, the alternating mix of drizzle and wet, heavy snow giving up its wintry pretenses and converting entirely to a sodden, pitilessly chilly rain after about 10 minutes. We’d been in Tokyo two hours earlier, where we hopped onto the Tobu Nikko line and headed up to this small city in the mountains about a hundred and forty kilometers north of the capital. It was a pretty ride, through the surrealistically enormous urban expanse of Tokyo and its environs before breaking free and winding through increasingly mountainous terrain towards Nikko, which is tucked into the bends and curves of a small river valley in Tochigi Prefecture.

Our first order of business was hostel location, our place of choice being the Nikkorisou Backpackers, a cozy, exceedingly quiet place located literally across the street from the bus stop and about a 2.5 minute stroll from the entrance to Nikko’s legendary Toshogu shrine complex. After dropping off the bags we made a break through the rain for Hippari Dako, a local noodle and yakitori (a Japanese chicken skewer) eatery that has been elevated to a kind of institution by Lonely Planet and numerous other travel authorities for the years and years of foreign currency and business cards scrawled with messages and left by visitors tacked to the walls. It was good, it was cheap, and warm food hit the spot after wandering around in the cold and the damp.

Nikko, Japan, travel, photography

Shinkyo Bridge, linking Nikko with the shrine complex.

Full, we wandered off to the shrine complex, past the Shinkyo bridge – a picturesque feudal remnant that connects the town to the shrines, and up towards a forest of ancient Japanese cedars that are staggering in size and age. Conventional wisdom predicts that it is easy to burn oneself out on shrines and temples in Japan, which is true, there are thousands upon thousands of them – many beautiful, of historical and cultural importance, and lauded in travel literature – but, Nikko is particularly beautiful due to the lavishly constructed mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns and the world famous cedar forest which was planted over 400 years ago by a feudal lord serving the first Tokugawa Shogun. The complexities of Japanese political history aside, the cedars in Nikko are awe inspiring, enormous pieces of the living past and the shady, peaceful hush that hangs over the entire complex is due largely to their sweeping needle covered boughs. Also be sure to check out the ‘Sacred Stable’ with its carving of the three wise monkeys – ‘hear no, see no, speak no evil’.

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A cedar lined road in Nikko.

After walking around the various shrines and struggling to maintain footing on slush and ice encrusted sidewalks, we headed back into town and grabbed a cup of coffee, some cheesecake, and hunkered down to wait out the last hour before check in. By this time the rain had been reduced to light, infrequent drizzles so our walk back to Nikkorisou Backpacker’s was at least semi-dry. We got checked in, stowed our things, then relaxed for a while. Nikkorisou is an adorable place, quaint, unique, with a traditional wood stove and Japanese living room, and the bunks were, like, the absolute perfect level of snug and warmth. We made a break for dinner around 6 or 7, getting into downtown right as the sky decided to let go again. So, forced by weather and desperation (there was almost nothing open), we ducked into a non-descript local joint run by a most excellent gentleman named Akira Asai who plied us with beers, spicy shrimp, noodles and polite questions about our lives and travels. A brisk walk back to the hostel through the rain and that it was it for our first 12 hours in town.

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Kegon Waterfall pouring down just below Lake Chuzenji

Day two brought sun and blue skies and we headed up into the surrounding mountains towards Nikko National Park to check out famous waterfalls, hopefully spot some wandering Japanese Macaques, and generally just enjoy snow and trees and gorgeous winter scenery. We stopped first at Kegon Waterfall, a 100 meter tall cataract at the outlet of Lake Chuzenji. It was much colder at higher altitudes, and my hoodie/rain jacket combo was a bit light for the fierce winds careening eastward over the lake, but out into the weather we went. Kegon is accessed by an elevator tunneled straight through the rock connected to an underground bunker style visitors’ area that in turn leads out to an observation deck built right into the walls of the gorge. We huddled for a bit, snapped some pictures, then made a quick café stop for coffee and pastry before catching a bus further up into Nikko National Park on Route 120.

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More views of the mountainous Nikko National Park

Our next stop was Yudaki falls, right below Lake Yunoko. From the falls we trekked maybe half a kilometer up a trail covered in about two and half feet of snow. Not the easiest climb, but not the longest either, and twenty odd minutes later we were at the lakeshore on a wooden bridge watching an early morning snow shower drop enormous flakes lazily across the water and mountains. Watched for a few minutes, headed back down the hill, and saw a wandering troupe of Japanese Macaques, or Snow Monkeys. Making their way along a hillside far from the road, the animals weren’t exactly close, but still cool, and curious to see a creature so often associated with jungles and tropical environments wandering around in a snow covered mountain forest.

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Hugging a 400-500 year old cedar.

After the monkeys we caught another bus back into town and checked out, returning to Tokyo around two or three in the afternoon. With only one night and less than 36 hours to explore, was Nikko worth the trip? I’d say absolutely. Nikko is actually probably perfect for one or two day trips, especially on an All Nikko Pass which provides unlimited access to buses and trains over a four day time period. Far from the frenetic pace of urban Japan and with no real night life to speak of the town is not the most exciting place to be after 7pm, but it is set in an absolutely gorgeous area filled with hiking and other outdoor opportunities. Nikko also perfectly illustrates one of the most impressive things about Japan: the near-perfect combination of ultra-modern mega-city living, small town life, and untouched natural beauty; all three seem to be in Zen like proportion, a harmony that is obvious after a day trip to Nikko.

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