When one talks about Nikko, it is easy to associate it to a very common impression that the area, situated in the northwestern rural area of Tochigi prefecture, as a fairly accessible day trip for anyone if you are around Tokyo with free time to spare. What people do not know is that Nikko itself has spots and activities that can easily make up a full 2 weeks itinerary. The area consists of famous World Heritage Sites, lakes , waterfalls, plateaus to hot springs and even theme parks. My trip to Nikko had me underestimate just how vast the amount of things you can do up on this gem of a place. I knew it was a big destination for the famous resting place of the Tokugawa clan as well as a place well-known for it's ski resorts but the options just blew me away the moment I went into the tourist information centre. Since I'm on a day trip here, I decided I'll just cut my regrets short and went directly to do what I've came here to do: Visit the famous temples and get my token charm for my visit to Tochigi.
How to get there
Getting yourself from Tokyo to Nikko is really straightforward. Get yourself to Kitasenju station where you will take the Tobu Line straight to your destination. However, it is important to note that the train itself will stop at a station called Shimo-Imaichi(下今市) station. What you need to do when it stops there (or even back when you're in Kitasenju station) is to move to the last 2 carriages of the train itself. Reason being the Tobu Line actually SPLITS INTO 2 SEPARATE DIRECTIONS. The majority of the carriages will head to the onsen town of Kinugawa while the last 2 will eventually take you to the Tobu Nikko Station, your eventual destination.
What will greet you immediately as you step out of the train station is the view of the magnificent mountains. Bonus snow cap points on top of it if you come during chillier seasons. The rows of houses that line the streets with the backdrop of the mountains almost makes you feel like you're being transported to a quint little town at the base of the French Alps instead.
Heading to the World Heritage Sites
Heading to the cluster of temples is fairly easy. All that was needed to do is to head to the tourist information centre right beside the gates of the train station and get yourself a one-day bus pass like that in the picture. This allows you to take the bus that goes around all of the World Heritage Sites in Nikko. Even if you think it's alright for you to walk during your temple-hopping, I still think 500yen it's a really cheap price to pay to get yourself to the beginning of your tour by bus and heading back to the station at the end of the day.
It is good to note that the World Heritage Sites are located right at the point where 2 rivers, Watarase and Kinugawa, meet. During my trip, I took the bus straight to the Toshogu temple. What I would've done differently if I had gone earlier or during summer seasons when there is more daylight is to stop at the bridge that goes over Kinugawa River before this as it is a really photogenic place, and I would bet the Watarase River is too.
Nikko Toshogu - Resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu
The entrance is the Toshogu is one that you will never miss even if you want to as this is where most of the crowd will be. The path is paved by pebbles right up to the gates of the temple with trees lining up both sides of it. It is almost reminiscent of the pebbled path that leads up to the Meiji shrine back in Tokyo.
The Toshogu the centerpiece of the collection of temples and is a massive ground which consists of various complexes. This includes but not exhaustive of:
The Five-Story Pagoda. The pagoda itself is inaccessible .
The scared stables which contrary to the primates you see that are synonymous to the structure, houses sacred horses of the shrine(that was nowhere to be found).
Three Scared Storehouses that keeps harnesses and costumes for a scared procession of 1000 samurais.
The Gohonsha or the main shrine. This is where people come to pray and all the magic happens during festivals. As can be seen in the picture, it is undergoing maintenance works as of 2017, but you can still admire most of the grandeur of it's crafts.
The Nemurineko(眠り猫), or The Sleeping Cat, which symbolizes the "Spirit of Ieyasu". Amusingly, this is also designated as a National Treasure in Japan.
Pass through the gate that consists of of The Sleeping Cat and you will be invited to ascend up a HUGE flight of stairs. It's definitely a climb and a half.
As you huff and puff up the never-ending steps, you'll end up to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the famous Tokugawa Shogunate that would eventually rule Japan for over 250 years.
The mausoleum itself is a peaceful, tranquil spot high up in a forested area in the mountains.
Incidentally, 2017 marks exactly 400 years since the construction of the Toshogu, so events and festivals that will happen in the precincts would most likely be a lot livelier than usual If it's an experience you want, 2017 is a great year to visit Nikko Toshogu Temple.
Taiyuin - Resting Place of Tokugawa Iemitsu
The Taiyuin in comparison to the Toshogu, though still a rather elaborate complex in itself, is modestly tucked away at a corner of the World Heritage trail in Nikko. This comes as specific instructions from Iemitsu himself to be laid to rest in an area where it doesn't take the attention away from the temple that his grandfather is enshrined in.
Taiyuin's relatively peaceful demeanor though, does make it a good spot for really good photos with the absence of the crowd, attracted away from the allure of the immense Toshogu, ironically making Iemitsu's temple a more photogenic spot instead.
The mausoleum of Iemitsu
What really gets me about these places is just how intricate the craftsmanship of the entire complexes are. It's extraordinary to believe that everything from the gates to the ornaments that decorates the temples are painstakingly hand-crafted. It exemplifies the effort that the artisans put into their crafts and the pride they put into making an infrastructure into a work of art.
Though Nikko possess some of Japan's finest religious complexes, it also has a few questionable landmarks. The Shinkyo Bridge is one of them, though through no fault on its own.
As a bridge, you could probably take a guess that this is probably one of the only ways to be able to cross into the cluster of temples back during the feudal days, but fast forward to the present, it kind of looks like a shadow of it's former self. The thing about the Shinkyo bridge is, it just doesn't lead you anywhere now. As shown from the above photo, the point at which I was standing is the only access point onto the bridge. The other end of it is abruptly seal off as the access point literally puts your foot into the middle of a road. What's more, it costs 400 yen just to be able to let you walk on the bridge. A bridge that you can't even get to the other end of it. It's almost sad to see such a significant feature of Japanese history compromised by today's modern necessity.
That being said, it is unfair to end my story of Nikko on such a sour note. The place is in fact a great destination to visit, whether it be just a day trip or an entire elaborate vacation. Nikko is a place of great nature(Mountains), History(World Heritage trail), recreation(Hikes and ski resorts) and relaxation(Onsen and ryokan). The amount of things to do in this place is so vast, I'm not even able to scratch just the history aspect of it with only this article alone. However with this post, I hope that I am able to provide people with a window view of what can be offered by a truly wonderful location on top of one of Japan's most popular destination.