Just north from Tokyo, Nikko makes for an ideal day trip away from bustling city-life and is well-known for its outstanding natural beauty and numerous UNESCO World Heritage sites. The completely unspoiled nature of the National Park is held in high-regard and admired by many – hardly surprising considering the namesake of this serene city is ‘sunlight’! A mountain view greets visitors on arrival and the surrounding forests add to the beauty of the momentous temples that lie scattered around this tiny city.
Rich in historic and spiritual value, the ornate Chinese influenced shrines of the Tokugawa Shoguns that lie over the iconic Shinkyo red bridge are sacred sites. Toshogu Shrine is arguably the most renowned, with its wooden carvings of the ‘see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil’ monkeys, as well as its five-story pagoda. To admire it at its finest, we recommend visiting near the end of your day as the evening light casts a golden tone through the mossy stone lanterns over the glimmering gold leaf and colourful decorations. Just a few steps away, Rinnoji Temple houses impressive Buddhist statues and is particularly ravishing when surrounded by fiery red autumn leaves. A former Emperor’s summerhouse retreat, Tamozawa Imperial Villa, can also be found nearby, with its surprising mixture of Japanese and western interior design and intricately painted wooden sliding doors. A splendid garden has been carefully maintained behind the main corridors and makes for a splendid view through the Zen circular window.
If you set off early, you will have time to take the switchback road up to Chuzenji Lake plateau, an area of remarkable natural beauty with three magnificent waterfalls, including the dramatic Kegon falls, and a couple of very good Japanese-style ryokan if you would like to unwind and stay for the night. Chuzenjiko Onsen can also be found here, so make sure to take a soak in a natural hot spring onsen bath, if time allows.
Up here in the alpine air stands a magnificent Futarasan shrine, overlooking the shimmering lake. This Buddhist shrine is a real highlight, especially if one’s lucky enough to witness the monks paying their respects by performing a bowing ritual to every deity.
The autumn months are by far the best time to visit Nikko, as the supremely colourful foliage that adorns every twist and turn of this historic gem are acclaimed throughout Japan. To avoid the bustling crowds, we recommend visiting on a weekday.