Nikko, Japan, located in the mountainous Tochigi Prefecture, surrounded by beautiful, dense forests, was established in 766 by Buddhist and Shinto priests who sought isolation, tranquility, and a connection with nature. Nikko is now the site of more than 500 temples and shrines, which blend traditional Shinto and Buddhist beliefs and art and religious styles. Nikko ended up being one of our favorite places we visited in Japan and one of my favorite places I’ve ever been.
The city is also home to several fantastic onsens, or natural hot springs, which are the perfect way to soak away soreness from hiking in the mountains, visiting the city’s massive Kegon Falls (accessible up the mountain by bus), and other natural wonders around the town. If you’re in Japan, Nikko is the perfect weekend trip because it’s only a 2-hour train ride northwest of Tokyo!
To order prints of my photographs from Nikko, click here.
History of Nikko
As I mentioned above, Nikko is a nearly 1,300-year-old city founded to benefit Buddhist and Shinto religious figures to study and practice their ideas in peace. Interestingly, since many Buddhist and Shinto priests were vegetarians, the city is still one of the best places to enjoy traditional Japanese vegetarian and vegan cuisine, like the local specialty made from soybeans called Yuba, which is a bit sweet and definitely savory.
Nikko is also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, meaning that there are numerous sites around the city that the government of Japan and the United Nations are trying to preserve for future generations to carry on the traditions of the region and to help preserve the knowledge and culture of Nikko for future generations to understand, learn from, and enjoy. To see more UNESCO World Heritage Sites I’ve visited, click here.
Japan’s first Shogun, who helped unite a warring Japan, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, is interred in Nikko at Toshogu Shrine, which is one of the most ornate and impressive shrines in all of Japan. Covered in elaborate carvings, gorgeous lacquer, and gilded in gold, copper, and bronze, Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s shrine is an incredible sight to behold and absolutely worth the trip to Nikko alone. My husband and I couldn’t stop saying “wow!” during our time here; it’s simply stunning!
Japan’s imperial princes have maintained residences here since the year 1300, which brought a source of income and prestige to the area, along with numerous historical relics that were gifted to the local priests and monks or were given to the city. Visitors to the Nikko Treasure Museum can view these beautiful items such as scrolls, jewelry, clothing, swords, and more.
Have you ever heard of the “3 wise monkeys” saying, “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil“? Those monkeys, Mizaru, Kikazaru, and Iwazaru, and that phrase originated in Nikko. By the way, Nikko does have a rather large wild monkey population. They have been known to chase or even attack people who have food near the waterfalls, so I don’t recommend eating in those areas, and definitely don’t try to pet or take selfies with them. People have been hurt trying this, and there are signs all over warning visitors that while the local monkeys may look cute, they aren’t always friendly.
Where to Stay in Nikko
When planning out our long itinerary for our trip to Japan, we realized we could extend our day trip to Nikko and turn it into a weekend trip, which has been one of the best decisions during our journey so far. Unfortunately, this made it impossible for us to book a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, because they were all full. However, we found an opening at the Nikko Station Hotel Classic, which was not only conveniently located directly across the street from the train station (yet still absolutely silent at night while we were sleeping), but it was also close to downtown, near the bus station, and had a wonderful in house onsen!
Our room was spacious, clean, and had an excellent view of the mountains and woods surrounding Nikko, and the staff were so kind and helpful and allowed us to check-in early for no extra cost. If you’re looking for a fantastic hotel with a great location, excellent staff, fantastic views, and posh surroundings that won’t break the bank, I can’t recommend the Nikko Station Classic Hotel enough.
Where to Eat in Nikko
Nikko is one of the best places in Japan to visit if you’re vegan or vegetarian because all of the restaurants have options for those diets, which we loved. Even if you eat fish and meat, there are also many great options for you as well! Below were some of our favorite places to dine while in Nikko:
Vegetarian Ramen & Gyoza (or standard ramen) at Gyoza no Umecyan
Incredible, fresh sushi & sashimi at Komekichi Kozushi served in a traditional tatami mat restaurant.
Shaved Ice made from Natural Spring Water in Nikko from Shogetsu Himuro.
Taiyaki (custard or red bean-filled fish shaped waffle-like pastries) from Taiyaki Cart (pictured above, located near the exit to the shrines near bus stop 7)
Yuba Sushi (Yuba is the local specialty I mentioned above), from ZEN
We stocked up on snacks at the local Family Mart (owned by 7/11, but far nicer than the convenience stores in the United States), such as water, mixed nuts, fruit, and some nice cheeses to eat while we walked around the national park and the city. It’s great if you’re not sure where you’ll eat next!
What to Do in Nikko
We spent an entire weekend exploring the area’s temples, shrines, pagodas, and tori gates. Nikko had some of the most incredible views, most splendid architecture, and incredible natural beauty of anywhere I’ve visited. It is for these reasons that Nikko is one of my favorite places I’ve ever visited. Be advised that most temples and shrines close at 4 pm, however during special events, some of the temples and shrines are lit up with spotlights and lanterns, and visitors can stay after the sunsets to enjoy the temples in their evening glory. Some of my favorite shrines in the area were the Toshogu Shrine, Futarasan Jinja, and the Taiyoinbyo Shrine. Some shrines offer combined shrine tickets, which saves you money while still helping to preserve and maintain these incredible historical and cultural landmarks.
While visiting shrines and temples around Nikko and throughout Japan, be sure to snag a Goshiun Chou, which is a book full of blank pages that you can have stamped for ¥200-¥800 at each shrine you visit, along with the shrine’s name, date, and seal. These are really beautiful and unique souvenirs to bring home with you, and reminisce on all of the incredible places you’ve seen! The funds from these go to help preserve the shrine or temple you are visiting.
We took a 45-minute bus ride (roughly $10 per person each way) up Mount Nantai to see Nikko National Park and see one of Japan’s largest falls, Kegon Falls. The water here falls 97 meters to a large pool and river at the bottom, and it’s just exquisite! Take the elevator down to the water fall’s observation deck for ¥500 per adult to get closer to the falls and take better photographs. It’s impossible to walk to get to the spot the elevator takes you. The view is absolutely incredible, plus the fee goes to maintaining the national park and their nature conservation efforts. Hence, there’s no better way to spend your money.
Explore Lake Chuzenji by sailing on it in the spring, summer, and fall. At 163 meters deep and 25km in circumference, the lake’s clear blue waters are great for fishing (with the proper permits), swimming in designated areas, or having a picnic along the edge of the lake. This area is wonderful because rhododendrons and ferns grow all along the lakeside, making it stunning in the warmer months.
If your hotel doesn’t offer an onsen, head up the mountain and soak away your worries in hot spring water, and enjoy the incredible views of Nikko. Nikko is also a fantastic spot for stargazing because there is so little light pollution. We could see the Milky Way Galaxy during our visit despite the city’s abundance of street lights.
Like many cities in Japan, Nikko has its own app! Use the Nikko Navi App to get around town, find information about the city, understand the bus routes, and find hidden gems around the city. It’s free! If you don’t want to use their app, you can head to Nikko’s train station or their tourism information center down the road from the train station, and ask for free maps and visitor guides in English, Japanese, Korean, or Chinese, get directions and recommendations, or purchase pre-paid bus passes.
Otherwise, Nikko is an extremely easy city to navigate because you can walk just about anywhere you need to go. However, I don’t recommend hiking up the mountain to the waterfall or the onsen, it’s way too far, and the roads up the mountain are not designed for foot traffic, making it very treacherous and risky. When in doubt, don’t be afraid to bring your map to a local shop and ask for directions. Better yet, rent a mobile wifi hotspot from the airport (I loved using my Sakura Wifi I picked up from the Narita Airport!), and use your phone as you normally would navigate Nikko.
Safety in Nikko and the Surrounding Woods
The hotel staff warned us not to wander into the woods at night or go too deep into the evening during the day because there are bears, wild boars, wild monkeys, and even reports of wolves in the area. We asked if they ever came into town, and the hotel’s manager said he never had that happening, and we never saw any of these animals. Still, it’s definitely something to be aware of, especially if you plan to hike into the beautiful hills around the city.
When the snow melts and runs down the mountains during the spring, and it rains more heavily, the ground can become unstable, and mudslides do occasionally occur. If you do hike out in these conditions, be sure to let people know where you are going, which paths you will be taking when you plan to return, and bring a GPS with you, so if you get stuck, injured, or stranded, it will be much easier for you to be found. I met many people hiking in the forest and returned year after year to travel different paths throughout the woods, so use common sense, and you will be just fine.
Instagrammable Spots in Nikko
Please keep in mind that many Japanese people hold the sites within Nikko as sacred places.
Please be respectful when visiting and photographing these areas, and remember that we are guests in their country, and we must follow their rules.
If you see signs that say not to take photos, honor their wishes and, just as I did put the camera away and enjoy these places without technology in hand. Read this post for more information on Japanese Temple & Shrine Etiquette.
Nike National Park
Nikko’s Pink Train Station
The Red Shinkyo Bridge
Statues of bronze, copper & gold around Nikko
Toshogu Gojunoto Five-Story Red and Gold Pagoda
Cities Near Nikko
Many people recommend visiting Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, but I recommend spending at least two full days in Nikko, especially if you’d like to see all of the incredible historical sites the city has to offer.
Hakone & Mt. Fuji
3 Hours via JR Rail Lines
In the shadow of Mount Fuji, this beautiful lakeside town offers visitors a glimpse at the slow-paced life of similar mountain villages around Japan. Explore active volcano sites via cable cars, hot spring onsen baths, hiking, boat rides, and swimming.
1.5 Hours via JR Rail Lines
The capital city of Japan is home to more Michelin Starred restaurants than anywhere in the world. Explore everything from flowering arranging and sumo wrestling to sushi-making classes, citywide festivals, and incredible museums.
1.5 Hours Via JR Rail Lines
Home to Tokyo Disneyland and Tokyo DisneySea, Tokyo DisneySea is an expression of Disney stories like The Little Mermaid, Aladdin, and many others.
Have you ever been to Nikko? Let me know in the comments below!
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