By Karyn Lo
‘Nikko is Nippon’!!!!!!! The first time I saw this slogan splashed all over the trains en-route to Tochigi Prefecture, I did a double take. Wait, what? If Nikko is Nippon then…? *silence* Catchy or not, the tiny town of Nikko turns out to be a charming place to get your fill of Japanese temples and shrines, and worth more than just a day trip in Tochigi Prefecture. Also, nearly everything there screams I AM A WORLD HERITAGE SITE LOOKATMELOOKATMEEEE.
The shrines and temples of Nikko are World Heritage sites, and the most famous of all is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. You know, the famous Shogun, the first one that founded the Tokugawa shogunate? Yup. Also, the temples on the main grounds of the mausoleum are very gaudy and colourful – something that is rare for Japan.
The money-shot and postcard perfect location at Nikko would probably be the Yomeimon Gate, which leads up to the main mausoleum. It is very shiny, very white, kind of blinding when the sun is beginning to set, and is covered in over 500 carvings. It is also called ‘The Gate of the Setting Sun’, because people can never be tired of gazing at it. Apparently. I dare you to try – this area is incredibly infested with tourists. Did I say infested? I mean, crowded.
The entrance fee to Toshogu Shrine is expensive considering all things, but it is worth going in. I highly recommend heading into Honjido Hall, which is to the left before you enter the Yomeimon Gate. Inside, there is a beautiful dragon painting on the ceiling called ‘The Crying Dragon’, and you can hear the dragon ‘cry’ thanks to the guides who introduce the hall to visitors. I won’t spoil it too much, but let’s just say the acoustics in the hall are just amazing.
Worth mentioning (as everyone goes on about them) are the two well-known murals in the Toshogu Shrine precinct; the ‘Sleeping Cat’ and the Sanzaru ‘Three Wise Monkeys’. Opposite the ‘Three Wise Monkeys’ mural is my favourite mural – which I like to call the ‘Hairy Elephants’ mural. The real name is ‘Sozonozo Elephants’, meaning ‘Imagined Elephants’, but I prefer my interpretation.
Next on the list in that area worth visiting is on the west side of the complex. The Rinno-ji shrine houses the Taiyuin Mausoleum, where Tokugawa Iemitsu is enshrined. This shrine is much less crowded, and is nestled prettily among the trees. The Haiden worship hall is very eye catching, with its carvings of peonies.
The Shinkyo is a wooden bridge at the outskirts of the shrine complex, and is very picturesque during the height of each four seasons. You’d recognise it easily if you are a ukiyoe buff. It is technically part of the Futarasan Shrine, which the main parts are on the shrine grounds near the Toshogu and Rinno-ji Shrines. The bridge is ranked as one of Japan’s three finest bridges together with Iwakuni’s Kintaikyo and Saruhashi in Yamanashi Prefecture.
So, the real question remains… IS NIKKO NIPPON?!
8:00 to 17:00 (until 16:00 from November to March) ¥1300 (shrine), ¥1000 (museum), ¥2100 (shrine and museum)
8:00 to 17:00 (until 16:00 from November to March)
¥400 (Sanbutsudo only), ¥300 (Treasure House and Shoyoen Garden)
8:00 to 17:00 (until 16:00 from November toMarch)
¥200, for the paid area
Local Bus Passes – For Foreigners (worth getting if you’re without a car)
Nikko City Area Pass
¥2670, covers round trip from Tokyo, all buses in Nikko, and trains between Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen. Valid for 2 days.
Nikko All Area Pass
¥4520 April-Nov, ¥4150 Dec-March, covers the round trip from Tokyo, all buses between Nikko and Okunikko, and trains between Nikko and the Kinugawa Onsen area. Valid for 4 days.
A car is really the way to go, if you’re not heading up from Tokyo. The trains are convenient if you are going from Utsunomiya city and also within Nikko itself, but a car will get you to the plentiful onsen in the area, and help you avoid the sardine-packed buses in Nikko. Definitely consider the various passes available to save money on transport!
Have you ever tried gyoza in Utsunomiya city? Well, you should. Because they are plain fantastic. Drool. I’ll never forget…
If you have a car, driving up north to Fukushima is highly recommended. One of my favourite locations in Fukushima Prefecture is Aizu.
Did I mention onsen? Nikko is nestled in the mountains of Tochigi, and there are many many many onsen worth visiting.
Be prepared to beat off other tourists with a large umbrella, or perhaps a selfie stick. This location is very popular with Japanese tourists, and is gaining attention with overseas tourists.
The main shrines and temples in Nikko are currently going through renovations, albeit in various stages. If you’re planning a trip out there, best to be aware of what will be covered in tarp, and what isn’t.
Renovations scheduled at the Toshogu and Rinno-ji Shrines.
Special events at the Shinkyo Bridge