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Nikko, Japan

Nikkō (日光) [1] is a small town to the north of Tokyo, in Tochigi prefecture.


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'."

The Nikko tourism board put their own spin on the famous saying: "Nikko Is Nippon."

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. 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.

The fastest and most convenient way to access Nikko is on the private Tōbu Nikkō Line (東武日光線) [2] from Tokyo's Tobu-Asakusa station.

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 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 7:30 am, and depending on the season, there may be an additional departure at 9:30 am. 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 shuttle 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.

In addition, Tōbu Railway offers two convenient passes for Nikko, which can be used only by visitors to Japan.

1. All Nikko Pass [3] allows unlimited buses and train access in the Nikko and Kinugawa area and includes some discounts for nearby attractions, but does not include entry to the shrines. Valid for 4 days, cost ¥4400. Recommended for visitors coming to see Nikko's lakes and falls.

1. World Heritage Pass [4] covers a round-trip to Nikko and Kinugawa and includes admission to the shrines. Valid for 2 days, cost ¥3600. Some discounts for Kinugawa Theme Park are also included.

View of Shoyoen, Rinnoji Temple
View of Shoyoen, Rinnoji Temple

For the sights in the temple area, it's best to buy a combination ticket (社寺共通拝観券, ¥1,000) that covers Toshogu, Rinnoji and Futarasan, as separate admissions are ¥600 each. You can buy this at any of the three sites. Guides can be arranged (Tel. 0288-54-0641) for the three sites at ¥5500 for 1-20 people.

* Tōshōgū (東照宮). (8:00am-4:30pm Apr-Oct, to 3:30pm Nov-Mar) The burial place of dynasty founder Tokugawa Ieyasu and the most extravagant of the lot. Ieyasu was buried here immediately after his death, but the present complex was only built in 1634 on the order of his grandson Iemitsu. The shrine took 2 years to complete with the efforts of 15,000 workers.
o After two flights of steps you will reach the Sacred Stable, housing a white horse. The most famous symbol here is the carving of the three wise monkeys, who "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". They're part of a curious series of carvings about the life cycle of a monkey, from giddy childhood to fearful old age. Nearby, you can also find an interesting approximation of an elephant, carved by an artist who had clearly never seen one.
o Yakushi-dō Hall (薬師堂), the Hall of the Medicine Buddha, is known for a dragon painting on the ceiling. A monk is usually on hand to speak (Japanese only) and strike a special block whose sharp, piercing sound is said to be identical to the cry of a dragon — not quite the roar of English legend but an attention-getter all the same.
o Yomei-mon Gate (陽明門) is an incredibly ornate gate with over 400 carvings squeezed in.
o To the right of the main hall is the way to Ieyasu's tomb, entry to which costs an extra ¥520. Look out for another famous carving, this time of a sleeping cat (nemuri-neko). There are 200 stone steps, and steep ones at that; and then you finally reach the surprisingly simple gravesite itself.

* Taiyuin-byō (大猷院廟). (8:00am-4:30pm Apr-Oct, to 3:30pm Nov-Mar) After completing Toshogu, Iemitsu himself was buried here. Smaller in scale (but not by much), this is generally held to be artistically superior to its predecessor.

* Rinnō-ji Temple (輪王寺). (8:00am-4:30pm Apr-Oct, to 3:30pm Nov-Mar) [5] Known for its three large Buddha figures, the real reason to visit is the beautiful and peaceful Shōyō-en Garden (逍遥園). Note that the garden charges a separate ¥300 admission, which also gets you into the temple's treasure hall (宝物殿 Hōmotsuden).

* Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社 Futarasan-jinja). (9:00am-4:30pm Apr-Oct, to 3:30pm Nov-Mar) [6] Directly to the west of Toshogu and the oldest structure in Nikko (1617). The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Nikko's three holy mountains Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho and Mt. Taro.

There are a few other sites near the temple area:

* Shinkyō (神橋). This much-photographed red bridge separates the shrines from the town of Nikko. In feudal times, only the shogun was permitted to cross the bridge, and even today it's barred from pedestrian traffic — although there's a 4-lane highway rumbling right past. You can get a nice view from the sidewalk, but to set foot on the bridge and look down into the gorge below, you'll have to buy a ¥350 ticket from the booth nearby.

* Kanmangafuchi Abyss. A long series of jizo protector statues on the side of a hill, some adorned with hats and bibs, some crumbling with age, with a river, small waterfalls and rapids below. Legend says that the statues change places from time to time, and a visitor will never see them in the same order twice. It can be tricky to find - at Shinkyō, instead of heading up the steps to the temple area, follow the road around to the west (to the left, if you crossed over the bridge) and walk a short distance - look for signs along the way.

* Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park (Tel. 0288-53-6767; open 9:00am-4:30pm, closed Tuesdays). Built for the Emperor Taisho in 1899, the former imperial villa also served as a hide-out for Hirohito during World War II. It's next to the Botanical Garden.

* Nikko Botanical Garden (Tel. 0288-54-0206; open 9:00am-4:30pm, closed Mondays and Dec.-mid-April). Has plenty of the local flora and gardens that were said to be favorites of the Emperor Taisho. It's now an adjunct to Tokyo University.


There are several campsites in Nikko, although only Narusawa (0288-54-3374) and Ogurayama (0288-54-2478) are open year-round; several others run from April to mid-November or July to August.

* Daiyagawa Youth Hostel (大谷川ユースホステル). Tel. 0288-54-1974; [7]. A cosy and very friendly place which can be a bit narrow at times, but it's the obvious choice for budget travellers with ¥2730 for a bunk bed. The owner is very hearty and is happy to lend guide books and answer questions. Either walk about 10 minutes uphill on the main street or take the bus to the tourist information centre, from there take the first right and follow the road up the river for a few minutes. It's a bit tucked away and directly at the Daiyagawa river.

* Catnip Bed & Breakfast (キャット二ップ). Tel. 0288-54-3120; [8]. This comfortable family-run B&B is a fair hike from the station but the 40 minute walk is beautiful and the owners promise you a free beer on arrival. Alternatively you can take the #6 bus or arrange to be picked up from the station. The rooms are spacious and charming, with shared bathrooms. A bargain at ¥5000 per adult or ¥4000 for children for the first night, there is a ¥1000 discount for each subsequent night and a hot breakfast is included in the price. The owners speak fantastic English.

permalink written by  garisti on June 18, 2007 from Nikko, Japan
from the travel blog: Viaje por Asia
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