If you’ve ever flicked through a Japanese guidebook, you’ll have no doubt seen the countless recommendations that any visit to Tokyo isn’t complete without a side trip to Nikko. Located along Japan’s Romantic Road and about 125 kilometres north of the capital, Nikko is a small mountain town positioned at the entrance of both a National Park and a World Heritage Site, famous for its Shinto shrines, Buddhist temples and mausoleums.
My decision to visit Nikko was fairly split-second as I’d originally planned to spend the day elsewhere in the city, but upon leaving my hostel and seeing how beautiful the weather was after the storms the day before, I decided to make the most of it and head to the mountains instead. After discussing my best option with the friendly staff at Asakusa Station, I decided to pick up a 2 Day Nikko Pass as my Japan Rail Pass had not yet kicked in, an exclusive offer for those travelling in Japan with a tourist visa. For ¥2,670 (about £15) you get a return trip between Asakusa and Tōbu-Nikko Station, as well as unlimited travel on the World Heritage Tour Bus route, and other train travel in the Nikko area. Despite returning on the same day and knowing I would not be making full use of all of the extra travel that the pass includes, it still worked out cheaper than a standard return ticket on the train; bargain!
Located in the northwest corner of Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is known for its picturesque beauty and the adventures start with the train journey. Rather serendipitously, just as I was settling into my two and a half hour journey north, I was join by Will, a fellow solo traveller from Barcelona. As we were both on our own, we ended up spending the entire day together, which was a vast improvement on my original companion; sorry iPod, no offence intended! As we distanced ourselves from Tokyo, the high-rise buildings disappeared, open spaces and farmlands began opening up before us and snow-capped mountains begin to fill my peripheral vision. As we progressed towards Nikko, everything gradually began turning white, and by the time we arrived almost everything was under a foot or so of snow.
Exiting Tōbu-Nikko Station was an experience itself, and one that was almost other-wordly. With its timber houses, hiking stores and crisp, mountain air, if I were to have quickly looked around without taking in the exact details of my surroundings, such as the smell of fresh-baked red bean paste pastries in the air, illegible signage boards or the bright pink Hello Kitty shop on the edge of the town square, I could probably have convinced myself that I was somewhere in the Alps. Luckily for us, the stand we needed to catch our World Heritage Tour Bus was just across from the train station entrance. With shuttles running roughly every 10 minutes, we luckily weren’t waiting around in the cold for long.
Our first stop was the Toshogu Shrine complex. Nikko was a centre for Japan’s Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was even built, initially as a simple mausoleum. Nowadays, the shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, enlarged into a spectacular complex during the first half of the 1600’s by Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu. The complex consists of more than a dozen shrines, gates and pagodas, which are all lavishly decorated and set within a beautiful forest that was made even more impressive with the coating of snow. We easily made our way around the complex on foot, trying (and failing my case) not to slip over on the icy paths and stairways, taking in all that the site had to offer. From the 5 storied pagoda at the entrance to the large Torii gates, Toshogu contains both Shinto and Buddhist elements, which for those in the know will realise is quite unusual to find in modern Japan. The religions were deliberately separated from one another during the Meiji Period, so Shinto elements were removed from temples, and vice versa. At Nikko however, the religions were so fundamentally and architecturally intertwined that the building designs was never fully separated.
Entrance to the complex costs ¥1300 (£7), and the paid area starts at the first gate, just past the 5 storied pagoda. Upon entering, you pass some of the world’s most ostentatiously built storehouses, which are covered in intricate and colourful wooden carvings that you could spend hours inspecting individually. The most famous of the carvings at the site are the original hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil monkeys, which originates from the Japanese saying “mizaru, kikazaru, iwazaru”, or “don’t see, don’t hear, don’t speak”. Also nearby are the ‘Imagined Elephants’, which are said to have been carved by an artist which had never seen one in real life, and was working from literary and spoken word descriptions of people who had.
Before you reach the main shrine, you must pass through the renowned Yomeimon Gate, however it was being renovated during our visit, and so it was covered up by scaffolding; boo! Seeing as it is considered to be Japan’s most ornate structure, it’s no wonder that it’s due for a good lick of paint. These things always give me an excuse to go back in the future to see it properly, so I wasn’t too upset; the good thing about Nikko is that there were plenty of other things to see and do instead! The main shrine is located on the opposite side of the gate, and much like the rest of the buildings on site, maybe even more so, it is beautifully ornate. Inside Honjido Hall, the main room of the shrine, there is a large painting of a dragon on the ceiling that, when two pieces of wood are clapped together directly under the head, makes a ringing sound that has earned it the name of “Crying Dragon”. This is regularly demonstrated by a priest who only speaks Japanese, but it’s very easy to follow along regardless. Unfortunately, you’re not allowed to take photos inside the main shrine, so I guess you’re just going to have to visit to see it for yourselves!
It was soon time to move on, so we headed back down the mountainside, past the sake offerings, ema prayer cards and worshippers that are prevalent at all the major shrines and temples in Japan, until we were back where we started. Almost adjacent to the bus stop is Rinnoji, considered to be Nikko’s most important temple. It was founded by Shodo Shonin, the monk who actually introduced Buddhism to Nikko in the 8th century. The temple’s main building, known as the Sanbutsudo, is home to three large, golden statues of three manifestations of Nikko’s mountain deities; Amida, Senju-Kannon (also known as the “Kannon with a thousand arms”) and Bato-Kannon (the “Kannon with a horse head”).
Unfortunately Rinnoji is in the process of being completely taken apart and put back together again, after the original structure was found to be rotten with word worm. For a small extra fee, you can take a walk around the now scaffolded building and watch how the builders are putting this impressive structure back together. There are plenty of artifacts from the temple on display too, so it was fun to witness the old meeting the new in such a unique way. The redevelopment is scheduled to end in 2020 however, so if you’re planning a trip before then don’t get to excited to see the finished temple!
As it started to get a little darker, we made our way out of the complex, dodging the snow now falling in soaking clumps from the trees onto unsuspecting tourists below, and headed back to the main town. After a bowl of steaming ramen to warm our cockles back up, we jumped on the last train back to Tokyo, just in time to enjoy the sunset from the carriage window. Visiting Nikko was definitely one of the highlights of my stay in Tokyo, and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to escape from the hustle and bustle of inner city life, if only just for a few hours.