STEPPING into the ancient, forested sanctuary of Nikko feels like stepping back in time 400 years – before the Western influence, before the steel-reinforced concrete apartments, before the buzzing illuminated signs and back to a quieter and more beautiful time.
NIKKO is always the first place that I recommend to friends that ask me about travelling in Japan. Nikko is a UNSECO World Heritage site that is only two-hours north of Tokyo. While it is possible to visit during a day trip from Tokyo, I feel that rushing through a place like this will ruin half of what is special about Nikko – the serene, picturesque Japanese experience that everyone who visits Japan craves.
The main attractions of Nikko are the old temples and shrines, most of which were built over 400 years ago. Granted, there are much older temples and shrines in Japan, but while they have survived, the area surrounding hasn’t; It’s a little hard to feel the connection to a 1300 year-old temple, when you’re hearing the industrial sounds of heavy traffic and seeing the visual pollution of the neighbouring concrete buildings, and their connected jungle of overhead power cabling.
In contrast, Nikko is set in a remote and mountainous area, surrounded by giant trees, pristine rivers and mountains. While there is a city nearby, the actual location of the temples and shrines is enveloped within a fortress of ancient pines, stretching up to dizzying heights that even light has a hard time penetrating. As you walk around this ancient site, you’re removed from all modern stimuli and teleported back to an era of shogunates and samurais.
If you’re lucky, you may even spot some wild monkeys roaming around.The temples and shrines within are the most spectacular that I have seen in Japan. The colours are vivid, the wooden carvings are elaborate and the scale is unmatched. There are many famous carvings, including the ‘hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil’ trio of monkeys and a carving of an elephant based purely on a written description. It’s far too easy to spend several hours looking at the details.
There is more to Nikko than just old buildings. The area surrounding is almost as popular with Japanese tourists, especially during the brief cherry blossom period in spring, and the equally brief and stunning autumn colours that set the region ablaze in vivid hues of red and yellow. One of Japan’s most famous waterfalls, the 97m-high Kegon Falls, also happens to be high in the hills surrounding Nikko.
Travel is only half experienced if local food is ignored. Nikko is famous for yuba, which is the skin that forms on the surface of heated soymilk. It’s a versatile ingredient that can be eaten raw, added to soup or even fried. There were several places to try Nikko yuba in all it’s variations, which I did and recommend. Raw it’s a little sweet, in soup it’s delicious and fried… just mmm. Apart from yuba, the other specialty of the area is
In my mind, Nikko is the ultimate Japanese experience. It is a culmination of exquisitely preserved cultural heritage set amongst equally exquisite and ancient natural surroundings.
This truly sets Nikko apart from any other location in Japan.
Due to the special tourism partnership between Nikko and Kutchan, the Tourist Information Center in Kutchan has a variety of brochures on the area should you desire more information.
Where: Nikko City, Tochigi Prefecture
Getting there: Trains frequently leave from Shinjuku and Asakusa in Tokyo.
When: Beautiful and popular in all seasons.
Cost: ¥1000 for combination entry to the temples/shrines