We were in Japan for two weeks over October and November last year and whilst we wanted to explore as much as we could, we also didn’t want to spend lots of time travelling. We decided on Tokyo and Kyoto with a couple of day trips from Tokyo and Nikko was on our list.
Getting to Nikko from Tokyo
We had bought a seven day Japan Rail Pass and travel to Nikko on the JR Nikko Line is included in the pass so off we went to explore it. If you’re getting the JR Nikko Line, you need to get to Tokyo station then take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsunomiya Station where you then transfer on to the JR Nikko Line. It sounds like a bit of a mission but was actually relatively easy. There is lots of helpful travel information on Japan-Guide’s website.
Around two hours later and we were in the mountainous, small town of Nikko in the Tochigi Prefecture. The train station is about a kilometre or so from where the Shinkyo Bridge is and the entrance to the temples. There are buses that run from the station to the sites however we chose to walk so we could take in the shops and cafes along the way. Plus it was good to stretch our legs after the train journey.
Along the way we stopped to try some dango from a small shop. Dango is a type of Japanese street food and are rice flour dumplings on a skewer that are boiled and then grilled with either a sweet or savoury sauce. The one we tried had a soy sauce glaze and I can’t lie, I didn’t really enjoy it but it was fun to try. That’s what travel is all about, right?
When we reached the end of the long road from the station, we were greeted with the stunning Shinkyo Bridge, which is a sacred bridge at the entrance to the shrines. It’s a red-lacquered wooden bridge where it’s claimed Buddhist priest Shodo Shonin crossed over the river Daiya on the backs of two huge serpents. The current bridge dates back to 1636, however it’s thought that a bridge of some kind existed before this. The bridge was off limits to the public until the early 70s and now visitors can pay a small fee to cross the bridge, which we did.
There are a number of temples and shrines to see in Nikko, the oldest of which is the Rinno-ji Temple. This is said to be the first temple in Nikko, founded by Shodo Shonin in 766.
The Tosho-gu shrine is definitely worth a visit, particularly for its five-story Pagoda, which was donated in 1650 but rebuilt in 1818 after a fire. Each story represents an element – earth, water, fire, wind and heaven.
Depending on how much time you have, other places to visit are the Futara-san shrine and the Taiyuin-byo shrine. If you’ve had your fill of shrines and temples, check out the Tosho-gu Museum of Art, the Nikko Botanical Gardens or the Ganman-ga-fuchi pools.
Walking around shrines and temples is hungry work so a Taiyaki from a vendor down a little street close to a shrine was in order. The gentleman making them kindly let me take a photo of him preparing this sweet snack.
How adorable is his van?
Taiyaki are fish-shaped sweet pastries, usually filled with a sort of custard or chocolate. This one had chocolate and it was yummy.
In terms of sitting down to eat lunch, there aren’t that many options in Nikko. We found ourselves in a small restaurant near the Shinkyo Bridge. The waitress didn’t speak any English at all but luckily the menus had English translations. We both ordered the duck ramen, which was alright although we both thought it was lacking a bit in flavour.
I tried my luck and Googled ‘white wine’ to show our waitress but they didn’t have any so a Japanese beer it was. I never drink beer but this wasn’t too bad. This had to be one of our cheapest meals whilst we were in Japan.
Although we were only in Nikko for the day we thoroughly enjoyed it. If you want to escape the city and see ‘old’ Japan as well as many UNESCO World Heritage sites then Nikko is the place to visit.