We spent five nights in Tokyo, and while there is a ton to see, a stay this long warrants a day trip out of the city. I picked Nikko because of the natural setting dotted with temples, shrines, towering trees, and waterfalls. Nikko is the perfect place for a peaceful break from Tokyo. Here’s everything you need to know about taking a day trip to Nikko from Tokyo.
A Brief History of Nikko, Japan
Nikko started off as a Buddhist hermitage in the 8th century serving as the training grounds for monks for several centuries. The Rinno-ji Temple and Chuzen-ji Temple were established in 766 and 784, respectively. It became famous when it was selected as the site for the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. The Tosho-gu Shrine was completed in 1617 in his honor and became a popular destination during the Edo period. The Shrines and Temples of Nikko is a UNESCO World Heritage site that includes the buildings and structures of Tosho-gu, Futarasan Shrine, and Rinno-ji.
Getting to Nikko from Tokyo
The easiest way to get to Nikko is by train. Even so, you have a few options.
JR Rail Option for Getting to Nikko
This is a great day trip if you have a JR Pass since the entire cost of transportation can be covered with your pass. You can purchase one here. First, take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno Station to Utsunomiya Station. Then take the JR Nikko Line to JR Nikko Station. The JR Nikko line is a local line with few departures, so check the schedule in advance to limit your wait at Utsunomiya.
Tobu Rail to Nikko
You can get from Asakusa directly to Tobu Nikko Station using Tobu Rail. This is the cheapest and simplest option if you do not have the JR Pass. There are two ways to get from Asakusa to Tobu Nikko Station. You can take the Kegon, which goes directly to Tobu Nikko, or the slightly slower Kinu train which requires a stop at Shimo-imaichi Station. From there, it’s ten more minutes on the Tobu Nikko Line.
JR and Tobu Rail Combo
If you want to depart from Shinjuku, you can take JR rail to Tobu Nikko Station. JR partnered with Tobu for this direct route so due to the line sharing, the JR Pass only covers part of the fare (unless you have the JR East regional pass). The additional cost is 1,560 yen. This train only runs four times per day so your options are more limited.
Temple Hopping in Nikko
We spent the morning checking out some of the temples and shrines in Nikko National Park. At any given time, at least one of the temples or shrines will be under renovation so don’t be disappointed if one of the buildings is closed. About a 20-minute walk from the station is the first stop, Shinkyo Bridge, which serves as an entrance to Nikko’s temples and shrines.
We first walked by the Rinno-ji Temple which was being restored. This is the most important temple in Nikko as it helped introduce Buddhism to the area in the 8th century.
Next, we visited the Tosho-gu Shrine, the most famous shrine in Nikko. This shrine complex houses the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan until 1868. This shrine has over a dozen buildings throughout the forest. Tosho-gu will likely be crowded. It becomes more serene and peaceful as you get deeper into the complex, farther into the woods, and up the several flights of stairs to Ieyasu’s mausoleum.
Our next stop was the Futarasan Shrine which dates back to the late 8th century. This shrine is dedicated to Nikko’s sacred mountains. Most of the complex is free, but there is a small paid area that we didn’t enter.
Next, we stopped at Taiyuinbyo, the mausoleum of Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu. We found Taiyuinbyo to be less busy so we enjoyed taking our time and checking out the various buildings.
From the temple and shrine area, we walked to Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a gorge near the center of Nikko. The gorge formed about 7,000 years ago as a result of lava from an eruption from Mount Nantai flowing into the river. Along the path are about 70 stone statues of Jizō, the Bodhisattva that cares for travelers and is the guardian of children.
Exploring Nature in Oku-nikko
While the temples and shrines make up one part of Nikko National Park, the park is massive, taking up over 400 square miles. We focused the second part of our day on the natural elements of the park near Oku-nikko. This refers to the mountainous region of Nikko west of the city center. We visited in November so we missed the fall foliage which peaks in October but I could tell it would have been gorgeous.
To get to many of the stops in Oku-nikko, you can take the Tobu bus (yes, the same Tobu that runs the trains). As you can see, they have quite a monopoly on Nikko! We took the bus towards Yumoto Onsen to see Ryuzu Waterfall, Kegon Falls, and Lake Chuzenji. Depending on where you’re going, you may consider getting a 2-day unlimited pass at the Tobu Nikko Station.
We decided to go to Ryuzu Waterfall first since it was the farthest. We took the Tobu bus heading toward Yumoto Onsen and got off at the Ryuzu no Taki stop. The ride took about an hour.
Ryuzu translates to dragon head due to the shape of the falls. The trees were bare when we visited but I can imagine how beautiful it would be in early October when the leaves start to turn. You can view the waterfall from an observation deck behind a small restaurant/gift shop. You can also walk further upstream for another view of the river.
We took the bus back from Ryuzu Waterfall to the Chuzenjiko Onsen bus terminal, which we had passed on our way to Ryuzu. Kegon Falls is a five-minute walk from the bus stop. At almost 100 meters tall, Kegon Falls is one of Nikko’s main attractions. This waterfall is fed from the waters of nearby Lake Chuzenji. You can view the falls from a free observation deck, or you can pay to take an elevator 100 meters down for a different view. Fall foliage peaks at Kegon Falls around mid to late October.
If you walk from the Chuzenjiko Onsen bus stop in the opposite direction of Kegon Falls, you’ll see Lake Chuzenji. The lake was created when Mount Nantai erupted 20,000 years ago. You can spend your time walking around the small town of Chuzenjiko Onsen, taking a boat ride, or by hiking around the lake. Since we already packed a lot into our day trip, we quickly admired Lake Chuzenji from its shores before taking the bus back to central Nikko.
I was initially overwhelmed by visiting Nikko for only a day. Would we have enough time to see the temples and shrines AND venture into Oku-nikko? While we had enough time to see both, Nikko is so beautiful that I could easily have spent a few days taking it all in. If you are looking to explore Japan’s natural beauty, add a trip to Nikko for a well-rounded itinerary.