Nikko

Carvings in Toshogu

Nikkō (日光) is a small town to the north of Tokyo, in Tochigi Prefecture.

Understand

The first temple in Nikko was founded more than 1,200 years ago along the shores of the Daiya River. However, in 1616, the dying Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu made it known that his final wish was for his successors to "Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peace keeping in Japan." As a result, Nikko became home of the mausoleums of two Tokugawa Shoguns, Tokugawa Ieyasu and his grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List. Unlike most Japanese temples and shrines, the buildings here are extremely gaudy and ornate, with multicolored carvings and plenty of gold leaf, and show heavy Chinese influence. Some sense of dignity is restored by a magnificent forest of over 13,000 cedar trees, covering the entire area.

However, for all of the grandeur the shoguns could muster, they're now over-shadowed in the eyes of many visitors by a trio of small wooden carvings on a stable wall: the famous three wise monkeys.

Get in

Magnificent enough?

A famous Japanese saying proclaims Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na. Most tourist literature translates this as "Don't say 'magnificent' until you've seen Nikko", but there's another dimension to this Japanese pun: it can also mean "See Nikko and say 'enough'", since "kekkō" is used in Japanese as a very polite way of declining an offer and many find Nikko's shrines to be much too gaudy.

By plane

If landing in Tokyo, it's recommended that you spend one night within Tokyo before heading north to Nikko. In case you plan on going to Nikko straight away, head to the train:

From Narita Airport, take the Narita Sky Access commuter rail service to Asakusa station and change to one of the Tobu services listed below (¥3990 on the fastest services). From Haneda Airport, take the Keikyu Airport Line train service in the direction of Shinagawa and continue north via the Asakusa subway line to Asakusa station, and change to one of the Tobu services listed below (¥3360 on the fastest services). Allow between 3 and 4 hours to travel to Nikko from either airport.

By train

By Tobu

The fastest and most convenient way to access Nikko is on the private Tōbu Nikkō Line (東武日光線) from Tokyo's Tobu-Asakusa station. From the Tokyo Asakusa station, take exit 4, and the Tobu train station is visible once you reach street level -- it's at the same intersection.

Tōbu Railway runs all-reserved limited express services, known as tokkyū (特急) trains, to the area. These trains, which use Tobu's "SPACIA" railroad equipment, have comfortable, reclining seats, with vending machines and KIOSK available on most trains. One service, called Kegon (けごん) runs directly from Asakusa to Nikko in the morning, and back to Asakusa in the afternoon. There is one daily departure from Asakusa at 7:30AM, and depending on the season, there may be an additional departure at 9:30AM. The other service, Kinu (きぬ), departs from Asakusa more frequently, but branches off to Kinugawa so you will need to transfer at Shimo-Imaichi station (下今市) to a local train for the final 10-minute run to Nikko. This train is timed to meet the Kinu arrival. Both the Kegon run, and the Kinu run with transfer, take about 1 hour and 50 minutes.

Regular direct trains, which depart from Asakusa about each hour, cost ¥1360 each way. Rapid, or Kaisoku (快速) trains, take two hours; the slower Section Rapid, or Kukan-Kaisoku (区間快速) takes 2 1/2 hours. You must board one of the last two cars, since the train divides en route.

In addition, Tōbu Railway offers a few convenient passes for Nikko and the Kinugawa hot spring area, which can be used only by visitors to Japan. Note that these passes do not include admission to the shrines.

  1. 2 Day Nikko Pass allows unlimited train access in the Nikko and Kinugawa areas, unlimited bus travel between the JR/Tobu Nikko train stations and Nikko's main temples and shrines, and includes some discounts for nearby attractions. ¥2670 for two consecutive days. This pass replaces the former World Heritage Pass, which is no longer sold.
  2. All Nikko Pass allows unlimited train access in the Nikko and Kinugawa areas, unlimited bus travel between the JR/Tobu Nikko train stations and Chuzenji, Kotoku-Onsen, Yumoto-Onsen and Kirifugi, and includes some discounts for nearby attractions. ¥4520 for four consecutive days. Recommended for visitors coming to see Nikko's lakes and falls.
  3. Kinugawa Theme Park Pass covers round-trip fare, bus pass and admission to Tobu World Square, Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura or both. Pass prices range from ¥4080 to ¥7380 depending on the pass purchased.

These passes allow one round-trip between Asakusa station and Shimo-Imaichi station (where the Tobu line splits), and unlimited train rides from there to both Tobu-Nikko and Kinugawa-Onsen stations. On the return trip towards Asakusa you are permitted to exit at Tochigi station (for transfer to the JR Line), or at Tokyo SkyTree station.

You can get these passes at Tobu Sightseeing Service Center, right next to the north exit of Tobu Railway's Asakusa Station. Staff who can speak English are available. Passes can also be purchased online at Tobu's web site.

Using SPACIA trains with these passes require an additional reservation ticket (¥1340 each way on weekdays, ¥1440 on weekends). Pass holders are eligible to purchase SPACIA tickets for a 20% discount.

By JR

Travel by JR costs more and takes longer, and isn't really worth considering unless you have a Japan Rail Pass, in which case you can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (Yamabiko, Tsubasa or Nasuno) from Tokyo Station or Ueno to Utsunomiya Station, then connect to the JR Nikko line.

The normal fare from Tokyo Station, if not using a rail pass, is ¥5060 each way (With a reserved seat on the Shinkansen, ¥5580) with a journey time of around 2 hours depending on connections. Using regular JR commuter services, the trip will take 2 1/2-3 hours for ¥2590.

By JR and Tobu

In March of 2006, JR East and Tobu began joint limited-express service from Shinjuku station to the Nikko area.

This service offers one daily round-trip between Shinjuku and Tobu-Nikko station. The Nikko limited express departs Shinjuku in the early morning and makes stops at Ikebukuro and Omiya before continuing via JR and Tobu tracks to the Tobu terminal at Tobu-Nikko. The one-way journey lasts about two hours.

Other limited express trains depart Shinjuku for Kinugawa, so you will have to transfer to a shuttle train at Shimo-Imaichi for the final run to Tobu-Nikko. This also takes about two hours. This service is all in addition to Tobu's regularly-scheduled Kegon and Kinu service into and out of Asakusa.

Seat reservations are mandatory, and the fare for this journey is ¥4000 each way. Japan Rail Pass holders must pay an additional surcharge covering the portion of the trip over the Tobu tracks. On the other hand, holders of the JR East Rail Pass and JR Kanto Area Pass may use the service to Nikko at no additional charge; the trip is fully covered. Unlike the regular Japan Rail Pass, the other two JR Passes also cover local Tobu trains between Shimo-Imachi and Tobu-Nikko, and Shimo-Imaichi and Kinugawa-Onsen. You will have to pay separate fares for any services that are not covered.

There are luggage lockers at Tobu-Nikko Station and JR Nikko Station.

Get around

The JR and Tobu stations both have a Tourist Information Center open during daytime hours. Both stations are about two kilometers to the west of the shrine area.

To reach the shrines, you can take a Tobu Bus (bus stop 2C just outside the Tobu Nikko train station, bus fare included in Tobu's World Heritage Pass, about a 6-minute bus ride to the UNESCO World Heritage area), or you can get up close and personal with the neighborhood and use your own two feet, following the pedestrian signs along the main road (Route 119). Getting off at bus stops 81-85 on the Tobu 2C bus line will get you to the shrine and temple area. Halfway between the stations and shrines, there is another Tourist Information Center (591 Gokomachi area; Tel. 0288-53-3795) where you ca get maps, ask questions (some English spoken), use the Internet (¥100/30 minutes), and quench your thirst with water from a small, ladle-drawn waterfall. Also if it is raining, they very happily lend out umbrellas and you are able to drop these off on the way back. Allow about a half-hour or so to walk from the train station to the shrine entrance.

See

Shinkyō
View of Shoyoen, Rinnoji Temple

Up until 2013, a cheap combination ticket was sold that included access to Tōshōgū, Rinnō-ji and Futarasan. Following a disagreement in pricing, the combination ticket is no longer sold and you will have to purchase admission to each site separately.

There are a few other sites near the temple area:

About 7 km west from the temple area, next to the Lake Chūzenji:

Do

Buy

Aside from the usual good luck charms at the shrines and souvenir shops selling phone straps of Hello Kitty in local dress there are several interesting secondhand shops along Hippari Dako selling used kimono, antiques and knick knacks. Many stores also sell yuba, the 'skin' that forms on top when making tofu, in packages that can be taken home to enjoy.

Eat

Yuba, the 'skin' that forms on top when making tofu, seems to be everywhere in Nikko. Even if you're not a fan of tofu, it tastes pretty good, especially with soba (buckwheat noodles in a soup broth). Yuba is also one of the most typical edible omiyage from Nikko.

Drink

There is a small alcohol shop across from the station that is run by an old couple and has an interesting selection of world beers.

Sleep

Nikko can be covered in a busy day trip from Tokyo, but it's also a good place to spend the night, especially in a traditional Japanese ryokan guesthouse. The shrines are quite atmospheric early in the morning and at dusk, when the tour buses are not around.

Budget

There are several campsites in Nikko, although only Narusawa (+81 288-54-3374) and Ogurayama (+81 288-54-2478) are open year-round; several others run from April to mid-November or July to August.

Mid-range

Splurge

Go next

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