When we come to Japan for the first time, there are many things we hope to experience.
For some, it is the intrigue and mystique of Japan’s many historical shrines and temples. For others it is the beauty of nature and biodiversity to be found in Japan’s remarkable countryside. Whilst others still, come to Japan purely to soak in the luxuriant onsen and take in some stunning views.
Japan has all of these wonders in abundance, and yet there are very few areas where one can sample all of these things in the same place.
Many years ago, early on in my Japan adventure, I discovered such a place.
That place was Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture.
Unlike some of the other tourist hotspots in the Kanto region, Nikko also draws large numbers of Japanese visitors every year. Its positioning, just 1hour north of Tokyo by Shinkansen makes it the perfect spot for a weekend retreat for those looking to escape the big city life for a short time. Indeed the combination of relaxing onsens, beautiful nature and historic sites really does make the perfect tonic to the often chaotic hustle and bustle of daily life in Tokyo.
The Japanese themselves have a saying that I think really sums up Nikko. Loosely translated it is: “Never say “kekkou” until you’ve seen Nikko”. Kekkou means “magnificent” or “highly satisfied”. When it comes to Nikko, truer words were seldom spoken.
From the moment you arrive in Nikko, the scenery is spectacular. Looking west across the city you can see the often snow-capped mountains that surround the city and play host to Nikko National Park. Some of these peaks go as high as 2000 metres. For those willing to venture into the park the rewards are some of the most stunningly scenic nature trails and some of Japan’s most breathtaking waterfalls. They really need to be seen to be believed.
Nikko’s indigenous wildlife is also famous both locally and internationally. Go into any tourist shop in the town and you will find numerous representations of one of the town’s proudest mascots, the Nikko monkey.
Monkeys populate the forests and hillsides around the town and as such have developed an almost symbiotic relationship with the town. Like the dear to be found in Miyajima or Nara, the monkeys have little fear of humans, and tourists should beware of their occasionally mischievous behavior.
Photo : *suika* on Flickr
These little creatures are undeniably cute however and it is tough to find them anything other than utterly adorable.
As I mentioned earlier, Nikko is also famous for its history with shrines and temples typically far older than those found elsewhere in Japan. Some date from as early as the 8th century AD.
Futarasan Shrine was, according to legend, built in the year 767 by a Shinto priest named Shodou.
One of the Shrines most famous features is its beautifully lacquered bridge which provides access to the shrine over the Daiya River.
Photo : David Kosmos Smith on Flickr
The bridge plays a big part in the legendary origin of the Shrine itself. According to the story, the bridge was created when Shodo summoned a Shinto god named Jinja-Daiou to allow him and his followers to safely cross the river. The god appeared to them and fired two brightly coloured snakes from his arm, which then came together and formed a bridge over the river to the site where the shrine stands to this day.
Futasaran is one of the three historic sites across the town which comprises the UNESCO World Heritage Site: Shrines and Temples of Nikko.
Photo : Alfonso Capilla on Flickr
The second of these three sacred sites is perhaps the most famous. It is the Nikko-Tosho-Gu. This Shrine was built much later than Futasaran, in 1617 and is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu the former Shogun, and political and military leader of Japan at the time. Ieyasu was the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate, a family dynasty that ruled Japan for centuries. The Shrine was built by the Tokugawa retainer Todo Takatora, under the guidance of Ieyasu’s successor, his son Tokugawa Hidetada.
Photo : alcuin lai on Flickr
Among the various artefacts held in the shrine are two swords designated as national treasures of Japan.
The trilogy of World Heritage Sites in Nikko is completed by the Rinno-Ji Temple.
Photo : Robert Young on Flickr
Like Futarasan, this temple also dates from the 8th century and its foundation is credited to the same Shinto priest Shodou. Most famous among its building is the Sanbutsudo (Hall of Three Buddhas). The Golden statues housed in here are as beautiful as they are priceless.
The temple complex also houses the Taiyu-in Reibyo. This is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, the son of Hidetada and third in the long line of Tokugawa Shoguns.
As you can see, Nikko’s natural beauty and historical significance make it a place that will both fascinate and enthrall those fortunate enough to visit. But what about lazy souls like me?
What if, rather than hiking through the national park, or walking around the dozens of shrines and temples, you would prefer to just take it easy?
Once again, Nikko has you covered.
In addition to its cultural and natural significance, Nikko also houses some of Japan’s best onsens. There are onsen resorts dotted in and around the area, catering for your every whim. Whether you want to go to a resort and enjoy various types of communal onsen, or snuggle up next to your better half in one of the many private onsens in the region, there’s something for everyone.
Photo : Chris Lewis on Flickr
If you want to impress that special someone in your life, then I particularly recommend the private, open air onsens. These are a little more expensive than the other, more conventional communal onsens, but trust me, the little extra expense really is worth it.
In the daytime, you can look out together over the beautiful landscape as a gentle mist envelops the mountains, and soothing bird song gives way to the occasional cheeky chirp of a nearby monkey. Then at night, watch your loved one’s eyes sparkle as together you soak in the onsen and marvel at the thousands of stars visible in Nikko’s crystal clear night sky.
Nikko, a truly unforgettable experience.