For travellers on the hunt for the tamer & more spiritual side of Japan, there’s hardly a better destination than Nikko.
Located two hours from Tokyo, Nikko is as famous an escape as any within the Land of the Rising Sun.
Although the town isn’t a household name like Kyoto or even Nara, there are plenty of awesome things to do in Nikko. There’s more than enough to keep you busy on a quick day trip from Tokyo or with a couple days to spare. Just go. Throw it into your Japan travel plans and enjoy frolicking among its temples, shrines & glorious mountain scenery.
Not sure where to begin? Here’s a quick guide to the best places to visit in Nikko, Japan…
What to see & do in Nikko
Whether you intend it or not, Shinkyo Bridge will be one of the first attractions you’ll stumble upon in Nikko. This famous bridge acts as the main entrance to Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage area. Passing over is a must while digging into the town’s finest charms.
Visitors from all around Japan cherish this famous vermillion-coloured bridge. Shinkyo Bridge spans the Daiya-gawa River, set to a stunning mountain backdrop. Taken together, it forms one of Japan’s most famous natural scenes!
At one time, only noblemen were allowed cross Shinkyo Bridge. Today, the rules are a bit more lax. Visitors can pay a small fee to cross in the footsteps of samurai and rulers.
Truthfully, the best views of Shinkyo Bridge are not from it, but outside it. Instead of paying to walk across, save your money. Back off to the main pedestrian street. From here, you’ll get a postcard-worthy shot of the red bridge colliding with the greenery & mountain scenery of Nikko National Park.
Among the best waterfalls in Japan, Kegon Waterfall is an absolute must-see while visiting Nikko. The main stream of Kegon Waterfall drops from a staggering height over 97 metres. Smaller offshoots also drift along the side. They’re most visible and at their finest during the summer wet season. It’s not normally one of the best times to go to Japan, but, hey, it could be worth it in this case!
Although there’s a free observation platform accessible at the top, you’ll get a far better view elsewhere. Instead, plunge down the 100-metre elevator (¥550) to the base of the falls. This is where the most classic views of Kegon Falls will unfold.
No one’s ever accused Japan of being short on epic natural scenery. And Lake Chuzenji (Chuzeni-ko) is definitive proof.
The sacred Mount Nankai looms upon its shores. And it should be no surprise that the mighty volcano gave birth to Lake Chuzenji. It erupted some 20,000 years ago, blocking the flow of a river to flood the basin.
Because of the area’s sacredness, the shoreline of Lake Chuzenji isn’t highly developed. If you’re looking for a quiet place to stay in Nikko, Lake Chuzenji is a great choice. The atmosphere around the lake is super relaxing. It’s the perfect place for gearing up to explore the surrounding area.
Got some extra time and spare energy? Check out the lake from every angle by trotting along the 25-kilometre round-the-lake walking circuit. (It’s not the easiest trek; come prepared!)
Otherwise, hop on a sightseeing boat cruise. They depart regularly from the Chuzenji-ko Onsen docks not far from Kegon Falls.
Aside from natural scenery, there’s something else Nikko isn’t short on: temples. And if you want to check out one of the best, look no further than Rinno-ji Temple.
With a history dating back to the 8th century, Rinno-ji was the first temple in the Nikko area. It’s still the most important temple in Nikko for Buddhist worshippers.
Be sure to enter the Sambutsu-do Hall. Inside the hall, you’ll find the main attractions of Rinno-ji Temple. Dazzle at the temple’s three gold-covered wooden statues. They represent the local mountain deities of Amida Buddha, Senju-Kannon, and Bato-Kannon.
Also carve out time to check out the temple complex’s meticulously kept traditional Japanese garden, Shoyo-en. The garden is at its absolute best in fall under a blanket of colourful autumn leaves.
As impressive as all Nikko’s attractions are, none is more impactful than Toshogu Shrine. This shrine fills in as the mausoleum of the first shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Toshogu Shrine dates back to the mid-17th century. It’s famed for its ornate woodwork and moss-covered stone pillars.
A handful of jaw-dropping traditional Japanese buildings dot the shrine complex. The most impressive are Sanjinko (Three Sacred Storehouse) and Shinkyūsha (The Sacred Stable). The Toshogu Shrine complex is also home to Gojūnotō, the tallest Buddhist pagoda in Japan.
Whatever you do, don’t miss out on Hidari Jingoro’s famous wooden carvings at Toshogu. They include nemurineko (sleeping cat) and the cheeky monkey trio of iwazaru, kikazaru & minazaru. These three wise monkeys are famous for preaching “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil.”
Rounding out the triage of spiritual things to do in Nikko is Futarasan-jinja Shrine. This complex dates back to 1619, solidifying it as the oldest in the area.
Thanks to its uniquely Japanese flavour, Futarasan-jinja is the most famous religious site in Nikko. It shows great reverence for local Shinto mountain deities.
Although hardly as mind-blowing as the other main temples & shrines in Nikko, Futarsan Shrine is still quite striking. It blends seamlessly with the surrounding greenery. The relaxing ambiance here is unlike any other shrine complex in the area.