Nikko is a small city situated about 135km North of Tokyo between picturesque mountains and waterfalls surrounded by lakes, wild monkeys, hot springs and hiking trails. It’s a 3-4 hour journey by train from Shinjuku station on the Tobu-Nikko line and cost me about ￥1320 one-way, ideal for a long weekend get away from the hustle and bustle of the city.
I packed my bags and grabbed the first train of the morning out of Tokyo heading north. It was mid June and sweltering hot in Tokyo but the temperatures dropped the further North I travelled. By the time I arrived in Nikko it was drizzling and the whole city was covered in a layer of thick mist making it look enchanted.
I took a cab up to Nikko Park Lodge where I stayed for the long weekend. It was only a twenty minutes’ walk from the town centre but all uphill and not that easy to find for first timers. Nikko Park Lodge was laid-back and run by a very friendly Buddhist gentleman who is fluent in English. The lounge had big comfortable sofas and a warm stove for the winter. And you could get a lovely vegan ‘zen’ dinner if you booked it in advance. Shortly after I arrived the owner sat down with me and marked out all the sites of interest and little hidden gems on a map.
Backpacker hostels have always been a great place to meet other travelers and after chatting to my new roommate for a while, we decided to team up and explore the shrines and temples together.
On our way to the temples we were greeted by Shinkyō Bridge. This red bridge separates the shrines from the town of Nikko but pedestrians are barred from crossing this bridge as, in feudal times, only the shogun was permitted to cross the bridge. This red bridge spanning over the gorge is a stunning introduction to Nikko!
We bought a combination ticket for the shrines in the temple area, we were allowed to use these tickets over a period of 2 days so we didn’t have to rush and try and see everything on our first day.
Our first stop was the most famous temple in Nikko named Tosho-gu. It is Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and very famous for its detailed and colourfully painted wooden sculptures and gold leaf.
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 the Tokugawa Shoguns, which are on the UNESCO World Heritage List.
This shrine is most famous for its trio of small wooden carvings on a stable wall, the famous three wise monkeys, representing the Buddhist doctrine “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil”, they have become a symbol of Nikko and famous through out Japan. In every souvenir shop I found something with these three monkeys, even a hello kitty version of them which I could not resist buying. This shrine was established in 782 by the Buddhist priest Shodo Shonin (735-817) and is dedicated to Nikko’s three sacred mounts: Nantai, Nyotai and Taro.
After 2 flights of steps we reached Futarasan-jinja Shrine.
Walking trough the shrine I noticed a lot of paintings of Chinese sages, dragons and other mythical creatures more Chinese than Japanese. Inside the Hall of the Medicine Buddha (Yakushi-do Hall) the ceiling is covered with a painting of a dragon, of which unfortunately no flash photography is allowed.
There was a monk standing by who struck a special block whose sharp, piercing sound is said to be identical to the cry of a dragon. Not knowing what a dragon really sounded like we had to take his word for it. The walls outside are covered in relief carvings of elephants, but it looks as if the carver had never seen a real elephant before trying his hand at carving them.
A short walk from Toshogu shrine is a smaller version of this shrine named Taisyuinbyo. It was filled with Shinto, Buddhist and Chinese elements. Just before we reached the shrine it began to rain so we had to hurry to get inside and not get soaked. The rain accompanied by the mist gave this shrine a mystic feeling.
Rinno-ji Temple is a huge wooden Buddhist temple of the Tendai sect. It had impressive large gold-lacquered statues of Buddha, but the best thing about the temple wasthe Shoyo-en garden which was covered in pink blossoms. Luckily for us it had stopped raining again so we could walk around the garden and enjoy the beauty it offered.
After spending some time at the shrine hunger overwhelmed us and we headed off to Hippari Dako (on main street just before the shrines). This quaint little restaurant was enshrined in Lonely Planet, and highly recommended by the owner of the lodge. Every other foreign tourist to Nikko seems to stop here for yakitori (Japanese chicken kebabs) and noodles (¥500), and leave evidence of their visit by sticking their business card or a note on to the wall. Every available space is plastered with business cards and scribbled recommendations from visitors. The owner is a very friendly lady and wouldn’t let us leave before we tried her plum sake. Not a big fan of sake I was a bit skeptical at first but will admit plum sake now officially my new favourite drink.
To end our first night in Nikko the two of us went to a lovely little out door hot spring just up the road from the lodge. It was the first time for me in a hot spring and I must admit I was a little scared to try out the whole naked in a spring with other people thing. It was surprisingly not as uncomfortable as I thought it would have been. Nobody stares at you and everybody acts as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. You get undressed and have a wash before you get into the spring, some people even wash their hair before getting in. The outside spring was the best because whenever you got to hot in the water you could always just sit on the side and cool off in the breeze. We spent most of the evening lounging in the hot spring covered in mist with a light drizzle around us.
It was a perfect start for a relaxing weekend in Nikko.