Exploring Nikko, the Resting Ground of the Tokugawa Clan

February 16, 2020

Note: this post was re-posted from my old website, originally published in March 2017.

Day 1

Many people have attested that Nikko, a small town in Tochigi prefecture, is one of the must-visit places in Japan. There are so many blog entries about this place, and the information about it is abundant. Well, they are not wrong. Nikko is special due to its close relationship with the Tokugawa family, the ruling clan that started the Edo period in the history of Japan. So in early January just right after the new year, I decided to visit the town on a two days trip using seishun 18 kippu just like my previous trips.

Nikko line train that connects Utsunomiya and Nikko.

Departing from Sendai by train, I arrived in Nikko almost six hours later. It was already past noon but with the clear skies, I straightforward jumped into the core of my trip: the shrines and temples of Nikko, listed in UNESCO’s World Heritage List. The town of Nikko is small and rather touristy, but in exchange, it provides all the amenities you’d want from a trip. I was not at the right season to visit the area since the withering of the trees and the absence of snow made the whole scene rather bland. One has to come in autumn or mid-winter to experience the full beauty of Nikko.

View of Nikko from Tobu Nikko Station.
Shinkyo Bridge. You need to pay just to cross this bridge though…

After crossing Shinkyo Bridge, I reached the heritage complex. At the time, Rinnoji Temple, Nikko’s most important temple, was still under renovation due. As of now, the renovation has already been completed. After Rinnoji I visitedToshogu, the lavish mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, which was awe-inspiring. The details on the ornaments — that includes the famous trio of three monkeys, imaginary elephant, and sleeping cat, are just superb.

Just look at the details here. AMAZING!
Hear no evil, talk no evil, see no evil.
The roofs in Toshogu, looking majestic.

Visiting Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, Ieyasu’s grandson and third Tokugawa shogun was also the highlight of my trip. I just loved the ambiance of the establishment that features a mix of Buddhist and Shinto architecture. Before leaving the complex I decided to stop by Futarasan Shrine, an older shrine right next to Toshogu. I also enjoyed this place despite the crowd of people flocking the area. There are two more Futarasan shrines, one at the shore of Lake Chuzenji and another at the peak of Mount Nankai in Oku-Nikko.

Entrance to Taiyuinbyou.
The courtyard leads to the entryway. I feel small here with the size of those humongous trees.

As I came rather late at noon, I could not visit more places such as Tamozawa Villa, Nikko Botanical Garden, and Kanmangafuchi Abyss. I reckoned they should be visited under a more appealing time of the year anyway.

Fried chicken skin. OMG I love these!

Because I could not find cheap accommodation in the town of Nikko itself, I made a reservation at a business hotel in Utsunomiya, a bigger city in the prefecture. Utsunomiya is basically just a large transportation hub for Shinkansen trains, but aside from that, it boasts itself as the city of gyoza (meat dumplings). Right in front of the station, you would find a restaurant called Utsunomiya Gyozakan where you could enjoy tasty meat dumplings! Just don’t mind its slightly weird mascot character Kenta-kun.

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The famous gyoza restaurant in Utsunomiya, Gyozakan.

Day 2

Arrived at Oku-Nikko the next day, I was greeted by rather fickle weather. It was bright and blue the moment I boarded on the bus towards Oku-Nikko, but once I got off the bus the clouds covered the skies as if they may rain down anytime. And it did — in the form of a snowfall that later turned into a flimsy, windy storm. Unhindered, I pressed onward.

Kegon Falls in early winter.

First stop, Kegon Falls. This waterfall is supposed to be the most beautiful one around, 100 meters tall with eye-candy surroundings. Again, due to the unfortunate time, the view was quite dull. Funny story here when I got some snacks at a local cafe. Two Japanese men talked to the middle-aged store lady, (jokingly) flirting with the lady. I had to hold my laugh hearing how they told her they’d date her if she were 10 years younger.

Next, I came across Chuzenji Temple. This is the temple that gives Lake Chuzenji its name. The view to the lake is pretty astounding and I enjoyed a free trip conducted by the temple monks there. The last place I visited in the vicinity of the lake was Ryuzu Waterfall, a spot that you should be visiting in autumn instead of winter.

Chuzenji Temple. Looks beautiful during the snowfall.
A shot of the temple’s window. I just like how the reflection turned out.
The viewing platform of Chuzenji Temple.

During winter, I found some attractions are closed due to hazardous terrain such as Hangetsuyama, an observation platform supposedly to give the best look at the lake. Also, Senjogahara Marsh is pretty alluring to see, although it is best to go when you can actually go hiking around the area.

A frozen traffic light in Oku-Nikko.

My last stop in Oku-Nikko was Lake Yunoko (literally means “hot water lake” due to the existence of renowned Yumoto Onsen). I did nothing there but to just roam around the lakeside in almost freezing temperatures. The howling wind makes the scenery rather intriguing, a reason for me to stop and set up my tripod to make time-lapse. Though it was devoid of tourist attraction other than the onsen, to me somehow this much smaller lake was more attractive to its bigger brother Lake Chuzenji.

A small boat anchored at the shore of Lake Yunoko.
Yunoko Onsen hotel.

At sundown, I boarded a bus to go back to Nikko because I needed to catch a train back to Sendai. I happened to sit right next to a traveler from Belgium and we chatted all the way back to Nikko Station. In the end, Nikko is a pretty amazing place to visit. Sure, with its legendary world heritage status and its super-duper easy access from Tokyo (perfect for one day trip from the capital), Nikko draws a huge number of tourists in any season, high or low. So perhaps if you are the type that prefers to go off the beaten path, Nikko might not be for you. Still, it holds to its position as the top destinations in Japan: it does not disappoint.

The picturesque Mount Nankai.

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About the Author

Jerfareza Daviano

Jerfareza is a weekend freelance photographer based in Sendai, specializing in portrait photography, family & couple photography and travel photography among others. Should you wish to hire him you can do so by checking out his photo plan page.

He won grand prize in architecture category of Sendai Starlight Festival 2018 Photo Contest.

Visit his photo portfolio for articles about travel in Japan especially Tohoku area and photography related stuffs.