Inner Nikko: Where Winter is the Best Time to Visit!
When you think of Nikko, the first things that come to mind are temples. And lots of them. Home to some of the most famous Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines in the country, Nikko has a reputation for being the epicentre of Buddhist and Shinto worship in Japan. Thus, you will often hear that it is not worth going to unless you really love spending time in temples. However, Nikko and in particular Oku-Nikko (its' surrounding area) has actually got much more to offer, besides the parts it is most famous for. Oku-Nikko, confusingly translated as 'Inner Nikko', is the outer mountainous region to the west that encompasses Chuzenji Lake, Nantai Mountain and a number of stunning waterfalls.
The cheapest way of getting to Nikko from Tokyo is to get a discount pass from Asukasa. Here, you have two options: the '2-day Nikko Pass' or the 'All Nikko Pass'. The former costs ¥2,670 and provides return travel between Asukasa and Tobu-Nikko Station, as well as unlimited travel on the train line as far as Shin-fujiwara and on the bus loop around Nikko itself. This, I believe, is perfect for those who do just wish to see the main sights of the town and is a very good deal. The latter, however, is what is needed if you wish to see Oku-Nikko. The 'All Nikko Pass', valid for four days, gives everything the '2 day pass' does, plus unlimited travel on the bus route that goes beyond Nikko. It costs ¥4, 520 and while this might not seem good value, it really is. A one-way trip out to Lake Chuzenji would cost upwards of ¥1000 and this is only one of the stops along what is essentially your very own hop-on hop-off tour bus once you get the pass. When you remember that this is also paying for your return fare to Tokyo, and unlimited travel on this bus route, it starts to make sense.
1. Toshogu Shrine
The main attraction within Nikko is Toshogu Shrine, the mausoleum of Japan's most famous ruler, Tokugawa Ieyasu. There's not a lot I can add to what has been written countless times: the shrine is very grand and houses a lot of buildings and monuments within it, most famously perhaps the carving of three monkeys who represent 'See no evil, Hear no evil, Speak no evil' and the 'Sleeping Cat' that represents peace in Japan. It is worth noting that the Toshogu Shrine is undergoing some massive re-construction at present, with work expected to carry on until 2019. This does hinder the atmosphere a touch, but at this time of year, the snow really gives it a unique feeling. At ¥1,300, it's a lot of money but probably worth it if you have even a passing interest in ancient Japanese history.
2. Shinkyo Bridge
Next on the guidebooks list of places to see is Shinkyo Bridge. I will admit that is a nice bridge and when you Google it, I'm sure you will see some lovely photographs of it. Just be warned that that's all it is: a small bridge next to a busy road. It costs ¥300 if you want the pleasure of walking on it, but I can't think of any reason why you would want to do so. The best views of the bridge, are unsurprisingly, not from the bridge itself. It's hard to miss it as it's sitiuated between the downtown area of Nikko where the station is, and the UNESCO World Heritage Site which contains the main shrines, so definitely still worth taking a look.
3. Kanmangafuchi Abyss
Follow the river from the bridge and pass through a quiet residential area and you will eventually find Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This is the first stop along what should be considered the alternative tour of Nikko. If you're confused by the name, it's really just a small gorge along the Daiya River surrounded by woodland. One side is the Nikko Botanical Garden and on the other lies 70 stone statues of the Bodhisattva Jizo, guardian of travellers and the weak. You will often see the same statue, with its' iconic little red hat, across graveyards in Japan, but rarely will you see them in such a beautiful location as this. The 'Abyss' is supposedly called so because of how hard it is to count every statue along the route. In the time I was in Nikko, there was a 'Candle Pageant' held at the gorge – hundreds of candles were laid out along the path and in the park next to it, lights were shone down onto the river and music was played from big speakers. I can't promise they will do the same again for your trip, but the Abyss is worth a visit regardless.
Also in the area, Michibiki Jizo, which has even more Jizo statues. The guidebooks tell you to go for the Bodhisattva statues that date as far back as 1550, but it's worth it for the great view of an ancient Japanese cemetery beside the river.
4. Akechidaira Ropeway
The buses that head to Oku-Nikko leave from the JR Station but also stop at Tobu-Nikko. The timetable isn't the most regular but there are around three buses per hour – get a timetable from the station and you can't go wrong. This helpfully lists some of the main attractions along the route as well as telling you what stop number to get off at.
After around 40 minutes of the bus winding its way along the famous Irohazaka roads through the mountains, you will come to the Akechidaira Ropeway. At ¥730, it's easy to see why some people skip the cable-car and head straight to the next stop, Chuzen-ji Lake. Doing so will save you a little bit of money, but means you actually miss out on the best view of the lake and surrounding area.
Chuzen-ji Lake is 1,277m high and in its 3 minute ride to the top, the ropeway takes you up to a viewing platform that is on a similar level with the lake, albeit across a huge valley. This offers some spectacular scenery of the lake, Kegon Falls and the sacred Nantai mountain. Not to mention the mountains of Nikko National Park to the South.
The ropeway doesn't take up too much time meaning you can get back down in time to catch the next bus, and while a little expensive, is definitely worth your time and money. As an added bonus, you might even see some Japanese macaques roaming around the cable-car station; they seem to be big fans of the vending machine. Just be warned that the bus does not stop at it on the way back, so you'll have to go at the beginning of your day, if at all.
5. Chuzenji Lake/ Kegon Falls
The next stop along the route is Chuzenji Lake itself, just a further 5 minutes from the ropeway. At 25km around, you won't be able to stroll around it but there is lots to see in the area. The lake is obviously at quite a high altitude but this all changes very quickly. Just a couple minutes walk through the rather pleasant village next to the lake, is Kegon Falls. There is a viewing area which allows for great views from the top but if you wish to see its' full power up close, you will have to pay ¥550 to take an elevator down to the bottom. Regardless of where you see Kogen Falls from, it's hard not to be impressed by its' awesome power, particularly in winter when the water at the bottom is frozen.
6. Ryuzu Falls
Ten minutes on from Chuzen-ji lake is Ryuzu Falls (Ryuzunotaki), a much smaller waterfall compared to Kegon but none less impressive. Translated as 'Dragon's Head Waterfall' because of its' supposed resemblance to two dragons, Ryuzu Falls is part of the Yukawa River, that leads into the lake. Situated next to a conveniently placed restaurant/ souvenir shop, the falls have their own wooden viewing platform which the water flows underneath on its' way downstream. The restaurant is also worth a visit; giving much needed respite from the cold, and with Sansai Soba noodles at ¥500 and a mug of amazake (alcohol-free sweet sake) for ¥300, it's a perfect spot to have lunch. Of course, the view's not bad either.
Shortly after the Ryuzu Falls, the bus will head 10 minutes off its route to a single stop at Kotoku-onsen, the Astoria Hotel. If its' frozen and isolated location didn't put you off by making you think of 'The Shining', the prices definitely will. However, there is a reason for stopping here if you are a fan of winter sports. The Senjogahara Plateau is the barren plain that lies below the mountains and is a popular spot for cross-country skiing, the Kotoku Cross Country Skiing Site being located here.
The farthest your bus pass will allow you to go is Yumoto-onsen, located at Lake Yunoko, a total of 40 minutes from Chuzen-ji. Much smaller than Chuzenji, the lake here has a very doable hike and also has its' own version of the Kegon Waterfall. The Yudaki Waterfall is within walking distance from Yumoto-onsen, or about 10 minutes walk through the forest from 'Yudaki-iriguchi' bus stop. Falling from almost 100m, the water is very narrow at the top but by the time it reaches your feet, it has become a cascade. Again, it is very different in size and style from both Kegon and Ryuzu, but another stop worthy of your time. In winter, the bus route gets gradually less and less busy the further away from Nikko you go. So much so, that by the time you reach Yudaki Waterfall, you may find you have the place to yourself.
With waterfalls and wastelands, mountains and macaques, Oku-Nikko has lots to offer. The summer may be the best time to hike in the area and the autumn may be its' most famed time for viewing, but winter in Oku-Nikko has a special feel to it – and the total lack of tourists makes that even better. Get away from Tokyo by visiting Nikko for a while. And get away from the busy shrines and temples of Nikko, by exploring Oku-Nikko. Go to 'Inner Nikko' and embrace the great outdoors.