Nikko is located in Tochigi Prefecture, about 140 km north of Tokyo. Nikko has just 90,000 residents, but Nikko National Park draws millions of visitors per year. The main attractions are the Shrines and Temples of Nikko, including Futarasan Jinja, Rinnō-ji,and Nikkō Tōshō-gū, are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Other draws include the glorious nature of the area including the mountains, rivers, waterfalls, onsen, lakes and even some wild animals.
Nikko is served by two train lines that terminate in the town not far from the temples: Tobu Railway and JR East. There are plenty of lodging options in Nikko, from 4-star Western style hotels to local Japanese ryoken, where you will sleep on a tatami mat on the floor. Most restaurants close early, so dinner may be tough to find if you spend the night here.
The weather in Nikko is significantly cooler than Tokyo, which is great in the summer, but could be bad in the winter!
During our visit to the temples, we found a small trail that began between Futarasan-jinja and Taiyu-in Mausoleum. We hike up the trail in a northerly direction, much of which was spent hiking up stairs. We reached a small temple after 15 or 20 minutes, and we decided to take a small path to the west, rather than continue on the main path down towards a stream. This narrow path eventually led to a dirt driving path in the woods, where we might have seen one of Nikko's famous monkeys. Here we decided to take the path back down the hill as darkness was quickly approaching. Near the bottom of the trail we got a see an ancient, but seldom visited temple tucked in behind Taiyu-in Mausoleum.
Our entire hike was about 5 kilometers and lasted perhaps an hour to an hour and a half.
Here is a map of our hike: http://goo.gl/maps/sS3uB
And here are some additional photos from our hike: http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/tt/c5337/
Lake Chuzenji was created about 20,000 years ago when Mount Nantai last erupted. The lava locked the river, and created both Kegon Falls and the the lake. The large lake reaches a depth of 508 feet, and its surface is 4,124 feet above sea level.
The lake is said to have been discovered in 782 by a priest who scaled sacred Mount Nantai. A few years later, in 790, Futarasan Shrine was constructed to honor the gods of this mountain.
Yumoto, or Oku-Nikko (Inner Nikko), is the name of the part of Nikko area around Lake Chuzenji. This small scenic town is known as a summer resort area, due to its cooler temperatures and high elevation.
Germany has a "Romantic Road," that is so named because it loosely follows an ancient Roman route connecting a number of historic cities such as Würzburg, Augsburg, Rothenburg ob der Tauber, Dinkelsbühl, Nördlingen, and Neuschwanstein Castle and the Alps.
Japan, too, has a route called the Romantic Road, but I don't think ancient Romans ever traveled this far from home. Both roads are approximately 350 kilometers, and they both connect some historic towns and travel through mountains. Interestingly enough, Japan's Romantic Road even has some signs in German that read "Romatische-Strasse."
Japan's Romantic Road is famous for the UNESCO World Heritage site at Nikko, as well as scenic mountains, lakes, and falls.
Mount Nantai near Nikko is a dormant volcano that stands 2,486 meters above sea level. The mountain has long been a source of mysticism and superstition for the Japanese, as the mountain was seen as providing life-giving water to the farms and villages in every direction. Some early Shinto shrines were associated with Mount Nantai, and the mountain is supposed to house the spirit that is worshiped in Futarasan Shrine in Nikko. Futarasan was an ancient name for Nantai-san.
Nantai-san is famous for its spiritual animism and its hiking trails. The east side of mountain, as viewed from an overlook on Rt 120, is experiencing the geographical phenomenon called slump (settling and sliding of the earth), and has been shored up with expensive erosion prevention and water channeling projects.
Futarasan jinja (二荒山神社) is a famous Shinto shrine in Nikko. It was founded in 767 by a priest named Shōtō and is named after Mount Nantai, which is also called Futarasan (二荒山). Ancient Japanese felt that the mountains were home to the gods, therefore they were worshiped like gods.
The best part of this shrine is a spring called Futara Spiritual Spring. Why is this spring so wonderful? First, it is believed to cure eye diseases. Even better, the water is said to make very tasty sake. At the tea house next door, you can try green tea made from this spiritual spring.
Visiting the small shrines and Spiritual Spring behind the main temple will cost 300 Yen per adult. It also costs 200 Yen to tour the main building, called the Honsha, but you can also take off your shoes and duck your head in for a few photos for free.
Rinno-ji Temple is Buddhist temple complex with 15 buildings. This was established as a Buddhist site in 766. Sanbutsudoh Hall is the most famous building, and it houses three gold Buddha Statues. Surrounding the temple is a large Japanese garden.
As of 2013, the Sanbutsudoh Hall is undergoing a major renovation effort, expected to last until about 2021. Therefore, the temple is open, but shrouded in a giant temporary structure made of scaffolding.
Taiyuin Mausoleum was begun in 1652 and completed in fourteen months. This is the final resting place for the shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, the grandson of shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, for whom Toshu-gu was constructed. It is said that Iemitsu wanted to be buried in Nikko so he could continue to serve his grandfather even in death. Of note, Iemitsu is known for closing Japan's borders, which lasted for about 200 years until the Meiji Restoration.
Taiyuin Mausoleum was built to the southwest of the Tosho-gu Shrine. The temple sits in a narrow valley filled with tall trees, so it has a dark, quiet atmosphere. Near the shrine's entrance you will find a trail that takes you up into the mountains.
Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine is the most important of all of the Tosho-gu Shrines in Japan. Built in 1617, during the Edo Period, the temple and its structures are a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Additionally, five structures and two swords at Tosho-gu are designated as National Treasures of Japan, and three other buildings are listed as Important Cultural Properties.
According to the Nikko Tourist Association, the temple cost 40 trillion Yen ($400 million) in today's currency, adjusted for inflation. This site also claims 4.5 million people participation in the construction effort, and the temple took just one and half years to complete.
The five story pagoda stands 36 meters tall. It waas constructed in 1650, but it burned in 1815 and was rebuilt in 1818.
Kegon Falls, or Kegon no Taki in Japanese, is an impressive waterfall, with a drop of 318 feet. The falls are located on the Daiya River, where river forms at Lake Chūzenji. Wkipedia claims Kegon falls is the third highest falls in Japan, but the World Waterfall Database places Kegon falls only about 37th in Japan.
The falls are located about 30 minutes from Nikko, near the town of Chugushi. Parking is available near the top of the falls, in a national park lot for about 300 Yen, or you can park across the street at some of the local businesses for 100 Yen (and you get a coupon for 10% off at some businesses!). There is a man-made overlook that offers good views of the falls from quite a distance. There is also an elevator that takes visitors closer to the base of the falls for around 500 Yen per person. Unfortunately, there seem to be no hiking trails around the falls.
I was surprised to discover that Kegon Falls is almost twice as high as Niagara Falls in the US & Canada, though the volume of water and sheer size of Niagara makes it more impressive. While the top of Kegon Falls is 7 meters across, Niagara Falls is over a kilometer wide!
The Ghost Jizos of Kanmangafuchi is one of my favorite places in Nikko. During my last visit to the town, this was both my first stop upon arriving and my last stop before departing.
Here, along a peaceful path next to the roaring Daiya River, you will find 70 or 80 stone statues of the Buddist divinity named Jizo, a savior of children, particularly those who die before their parents. The Jizos are all wearing red knit caps, and many hold coins in their hands. These Jizos form a gentle arching line along the river, and are known by many as Narabi-jizo (Jizos in a Line). Originally, there were 100 statues, which earned the name Hyaku Jizō (Hundred Jizos), but some of the statues were swept away in a flood in 1902. Others call these Bake Jizo (Ghost Jizos) because it is said if you count the Jizos from both ends, you will end up with different numbers as if they are moved by ghosts.
Kanmangafuchi Abyss is a very popular trail among Japanese visitors, but it seems to be somewhat off the beaten path for foreigners, as the temples are more in favor. The abyss was formed when Mt Natai erupted and filled the riverbed with lava. The lava has eroded over the centuries, forming a narrow, steep sided, rocky channel.
The abyss is not really an abyss, more of a narrow gorge with a fast flowing river. Last I checked, an abyss was a deep or seemingly bottomless chasm. I can very easily see the bottom in this gorge. Along the Kanmangafuchi Abyss you will also find a long row of old Buddha statues, many of which have handfuls of money.
The Daiya River runs through the Abyss. Upstream you will find a huge suspension bridge, the Dainichi Bridge, which is certainly too large for the few tourists that cross the river here on foot. Also nearby is a monument to the workers on the large hydro project in this valley.
Ryuzu, in Japanese means "dragon head," and the falls are so named, because some overly creative Japanese person thought these rapids somehow looked like a dragon. The falls are located on Yugawa River, just before entering Lake Chuzenji.
The falls, most of which are rapids, stretch about 300 meters up a well used paved path with steps. The path was once the road, which has since been diverted. At the base of the falls there is a restaurant and gift shop which have an observation deck, allowing great views of the lower, and most impressive end of the falls. You will find parking above and below the falls.
The Tamozawa Imperial Villa is one of Nikko's major non-religious attractions. This historic structure was built in 1899 for Emperor Taisho, while he was still a prince during the Meiji period, as a quiet place to rest. As Emperor, Taisho spent most of his summers here in cool mountain air. Later, under Hirohito's reign, Crown Prince Akihito also used this palace, notably as an evacuation point during WWII. This 106-room compound is one of the largest wooden buildings in all of Japan.
The building was restored in the late 1990s and opened to the public in 2000.
We didn't pay the 500 Yen per person to enter the villa, but we walked a bit on the grounds and took some photos of the great structure.
Nikko's Samurai House was constructed as a samurai residence in the Kan’ei era (1624-1644). In 1873, the historic house became the Kanaya Cottage Inn, a hotel for travelers, which was a favorite of many foreigners. In 1893, the hotel moved to a larger facility in Nikko
The large house has about 10 tatami rooms, which would have been guest rooms when the house was a hotel. Outside you will find a small pond and a weathered wooden gate with the words Samurai House barely visible.
I believe the house is open for tours.