Nikko, in particular Nikko National Park, is a well-known destination for those keen to escape the busy Tokyo streets. Adorned in autumn leaves, home to world-famous temples and just the right weather for hot springs, fall is the perfect time to visit.
While there’s a lot to see in Nikko, a weekend can easily be split across three of the most beautiful areas: Kinugawa Onsen, Chuzenji and Nikko itself. Combining beautiful natural scenery, local cuisines and a vast array of temples, our weekend plan has everything you need.
Be sure to check out the travel tips at the end; there are bus and train passes available for the area that make travel between the areas affordable and easy.
Day one: Kinugawa Onsen’s natural beauty
If you catch one of the early trains from Asakusa, Tokyo, you can be in Nikko in time for breakfast or a boat ride. The two-hour journey is best if you can manage a route without transferring at Shimo-Imaichi, but it’s a simple hop over if you do need to switch (read more about transportation options below). Depending on where you’re staying, we suggest leaving your overnight bags at your accommodation or in the lockers available at the station—it will make things much easier when it comes to boat rides and hiking.
Kinugawa river boats
Rather than settling for a view of the river from a bridge or leisurely stroll, Kinugawa offers a traditional take on exploring the river. A small fleet of local wooden boats ferry visitors along the river on a 40-minute journey, with guides navigating mild rapids and pointing out the unusual formations along the way.
As you approach the base, only a five-minute walk from Kinugawa-Onsen Station, you’ll see boats being carefully lowered to the water’s edge. Once you’ve donned a life jacket and stepped aboard, the boats will follow the flow of the river, with stories and explanations on the unusual landscape imparted by the guide, oar in hand.
Leaving the town behind, you’ll soon be in untouched stretches of nature where you can admire the seasonal changes that decorate the riverside. While autumn is one of the most popular seasons, spring brings cherry and azalea blooms and summer offers the chance to hear a kingfisher’s call or spot ayu (sweetfish) dashing along beneath the surface. Plastic sheets to protect you from the water and regular calls ring out to lift it as rapids approach and water splashes against the sides for a brief but exciting moment.
After reaching the final destination, visitors can spend a few minutes perusing the stalls and snacking on grilled river fish or miso-covered mochi before the shuttle bus arrives to take you back to Kinugawa Onsen.
Access: The boat center is a five-minute walk from Kinugawa-Onsen Station
Availability: From mid-April to late-November, 9 am–3:45 pm
Price: ¥2,900 (adults) ¥1,900 (children, 4+ years old) ¥600 (children, 1–3 years old)
Kinu Tateiwa Ohtsuribashi and Ashi-yu Cafe
A short stroll from the station, the Kinu Tateiwa Otsuribashi bridge is one of the local hot spots for autumn leaves. Stretching out 140 meters across the Kinu River, the suspension bridge is for pedestrians only, and has a central platform perfect for taking in the views. As the wooden boats float along the placid blue waters beneath your feet, the gentle sway of the bridge is an extra reminder of your height. As you stroll, suspended above the water, the views along the river as the leaves turn colors are worth the gravity-defying prospect.
Nearby, the terrace of the Espo Ashi-yu cafe offers the temptation of a relaxing foot bath as you sip on warming tea. Using natural hot spring water to heat the foot baths located beneath the tables, the cafe allows you to relax weary feet as you take in the views of the bridge and the autumnal scenes that surround it.
Access: The bridge and hotel are a 10-minute walk from Kinugawa-Onsen Station
Address: Hotel Sunshine Kinugawa, Kinugawaonsen Ohara, Nikko, Tochigi 321-2522
Cafe hours: 10 am–7 pm
Cafe website: https://www.sunshine-kinugawa.co.jp/english/index.html
Lunch at Painto E
Perfect for lunch or breakfast thanks to its early opening hours, Painto E is a cafe with homemade bread and incredible sandwiches. One of the most popular picks, the local Himitsu Pork sandwich is a force to be reckoned with, long banishing any idea of a sandwich being a mere snack. Ending with one of its signature rusks and a specially chosen coffee blend, a meal here is the perfect break from adventuring and will leave you ready to head out for an afternoon of light hiking.
A ten-minute train ride away, the shaded hiking trails of Ryuo Gorge are perfect for an afternoon walk, without being too arduous. While there are longer trails to choose from, a simple 3 km loop will take you to a local shrine, the Tategoto Waterfall and Musasabi Bridge. The trail has wooden boards and steps for some sections, and doesn’t require special footwear, just extra care if the ground is wet.
Ryuokyo, meaning ‘valley of the dragon king’, was so named for its winding shape, trailing between white, rocky edges, changing from turquoise to blue to rushing rapids along the way. Dedicated to the dragon himself, the small Goryuo Shrine is perched above the water, easily spotted from the Nijimi Bashi, the rainbow-watching bridge.
Farther along, you’ll come across the Tategoto Waterfall. Only 5 m tall but named after their harp-like threads, running from Mt. Keichozan to the Kinugawa River.
A final stop, the Musasabi Bridge is perfectly placed to admire the striking volcanic rock formations, worn smooth by the river’s flow and guiding it towards the lake.
Access: 10 minutes from Kinugawa-Onsen Station on the Aizu Mount Express, alighting at Ryuokyo Station. The journey costs ¥330 one way.
Day two: Chuzenji and Nikko’s temples
Chuzenji Lake is one of the most popular spots in Nikko. The area is a 50-minute bus ride from Nikko or 1.5 hours from Kinugawa Onsen. It sits at a higher altitude with cooler weather, meaning the leaves change in mid to late October, a week or two earlier than the leaves in central Nikko which peak at the start of November.
One of the most famous sights in Nikko, the Kegon Waterfall is the only outlet for Chuzenji Lake’s waters and is almost 100 m tall. Officially designated as one of Japan’s top three waterfalls, it can be viewed for free from a ground-level platform, or from a lower deck (for a fee; ¥570 for adults and ¥340 for children). If you have time, the Akechidaira Observatory (reached via a ropeway) offers views of the waterfall and the lake that feeds it.
Access: Kegon Waterfall is served by the Chuzenjiko Onsen bus terminal, which is about a 50-minute ride from JR Nikko Station and Tobu Nikko Station.
The fuel behind the falls, Chuzenji Lake is a serene and placid lake resting at the foot of Mt. Nantai. The sacred volcano erupted long ago, blocking the valley and forming lake Chuzenji, but has since been long-dormant.While most of the lake’s shores are still undeveloped, the East area has a small town with ryokan, shops and restaurants as well as the boating pier. Tours are available as well as private swan boats for those wishing to go it alone, but the availability is weather dependent.
Access: The lake is close to the Chuzenjiko Onsen bus terminal, which is a 50-minute ride from JR Nikko Station and Tobu Nikko Station.
British Embassy Villa Memorial Park
Thanks to the cooler temperatures in summer, the lake’s shores were chosen for the summer villas of a number of Tokyo’s embassies. A short walk along the lake’s edge will bring you to the British Embassy Villa Memorial Park, a peaceful spot with great lake views. A striking building, the villa was originally the summer house of Diplomat Ernest Satow, author of Nikko’s first English-language guide and dedicated promoter of the area. The villa was donated to the embassy and used as a summer residence until 2008 before it was given to Tochigi Prefecture and opened to the public in 2016.
Today, you can explore the displays about the villa, its original owner and the many guests he hosted. On the second floor, a tearoom offers tea and scones.
Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park
Just next door, the Italian Embassy Villa is easy to spot due to its striking paneled design. Using Japanese cedar bark, the unusual design was the creation of influential Czech architect Antonin Raymond and has been carefully maintained since it was built in 1928. Having traveled the country with Frank Lloyd Wright, he settled in Japan and created numerous buildings in Yokohama, Karuizawa and beyond, favoring natural materials and practical but beautiful design.
Looking out to the private pier below, the glass-paneled veranda provides impressive views across the lake and towards Mt. Nantai. While there is no tearoom, the villa offers a glimpse into the summers of the diplomats and their families, with photos and records from the time on display. There’s also Cafe Como which serves Italian coffee.
Lunch at Aburagen
After hopping off the bus from Chuzenji, you’ll no doubt be in need of something delicious, and Aburagen is ideal. Serving traditional lunch sets featuring the Nikko speciality of yuba (tofu skin) as well as local, seasonal ingredients, it’s a filling, but not overwhelming, selection of small dishes. The sets start at ¥1,250 and go up to ¥2,200 for the special, but all come with some of the soft yuba so you’ll definitely get to try some.
Exploring Nikko’s temples and shrines
Aside from the lake, Nikko is most famous for its stunning collection of temples and shrines, located in the heart of the town. Combined to form the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples of Nikko, Rinno-ji, Tosho-gu and Futarasan Shrine are also designated national treasures of Japan.
Considered the most important temple in Nikko, Tendai-sect Rinno-ji was founded in 766 by the Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin, who first brought Buddhism to the area. Representing the three mountain deities of Nikko, three gold Buddhas are seated within the main hall, called the Sanbutsudo. Amida, Seju-Kannon and Bato-kannon are a commanding sight—wooden but carefully covered in gold lacquer and observing those who visit.
Alongside the recently renovated main hall, the temple grounds are home to a small Japanese garden called Shoyo-en and a treasure hall containing Buddhist and Tokugawa artifacts.
Lavish, breathtaking and very busy. Nikko’s Tōshō-gū—one of Japan’s most famous shrines—is approached via the impressive Cedar Avenue. As the final resting place of the Tokugawa Shogunate’s founder, Tokugawa Ieyasu, the shrine was converted into its current grand design by his dedicated grandson in the early 17th century.
Surrounded by trees, the ornate decorations and intricate designs seem all the more beautiful—with five-story pagodas, the incredible Yomeimon Gate, storehouses and numerous halls spread across the complex. Tōshō-gū is particularly well known for combining both Shinto and Buddhist elements of design as it is home to both a temple and shrine. The details are so intricately interlaced, even during the efforts of the Meiji era’s religious separation, the two could never be fully parted. The main hall is dedicated to Ieyasu Tokugawa’s spirit as well as two other historical figures: Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Minamoto Yoritomo.
While the intricate details could easily be studied for hours, there are quieter corners to seek out as well. Further into the forest, the grave of Ieyasu lies quietly beneath the trees, a subtler affair than the elegant buildings below.
Nikko Futarasan Shrine
The third and final of the three famous religious sites, Futarasan was founded in 782, also by Shodo Shonin. The spirits of Nikko’s three sacred mountains; Nantai, Nyoho and Taro are enshrined here. With smaller shrines and other sites scattered across the forest, Futarasan is a simpler but quieter spot to visit. In the mountains, two more shrines stand: one on the northern shore of Mt. Chuzenji and one at the summit of Mt. Nantai.
A full kilometer away, the picturesque Shinkyo Bridge is also owned by Futarasan, as according to legend, during Shodo’s journey to Nantai’s summit, they struggled to cross the Daiya River and prayed to Jinja Daiou. In answer, he released snakes who formed a bridge, allowing Shodo to cross. A commemorative bridge was built not long after. Although originally reserved for the imperial court’s messengers, it has been open to the public since 1973.
An annex of Rinnoji Temple, this more demure mausoleum also combines Buddhist and Shinto elements in its design. Taiyuin was built to honor Ieyasu’s grandson, Iemitsu who was Japan’s third Tokugawa shogun. Due to his life-long deference to his grandfather, Iemitsu’s mausoleum was designed to be less ornate as a show of respect. However, while the initial Niomon Gate is a relatively modest creation, its successor, the Nitenmon Gate signifies a closer link to the lavish designs of Rinnoji’s style.
The Haiden (praying hall) is a particularly beautiful area to enter, with gold designs covering the walls and ceilings alike. The Honden (main hall) can only be viewed from the outside, however, and presents a more subtle tone for the final resting place. Surrounded by towering trees and many maples, the grounds are often quieter than the nearby temples, and make a peaceful end to a day of exploration.
Sakaeya’s unique snack: Age-yuba-manju
Before heading home, Nikko has one final treat to offer: an alternative and sweet-toothed take on the local specialty of yuba. Filled with red-bean paste and deep fried before being sprinkled with salt, age-yuba-manju is a delicious treat especially on a cold day. Sold by the long-running Sakaeya stall next to Tobu-Nikko Station, the treats are served hot and can be eaten as you make your way to the train. A final pick-me-up before you relax on the way back to Tokyo.
Getting around Nikko
Nikko has a great bus network serving all the popular areas as well as regular trains. There are two tickets available which combine a round-trip ticket from Tokyo with local transport in the Nikko area. The Nikko World Heritage Area Pass is a two-day pass which includes a return trip, unlimited train rides in the Nikko area and unlimited rides on certain buses. The four-day version is called the Nikko All Area Pass and offers a wider network of buses under its unlimited umbrella. Read more about Nikko’s transport options and passes.
Getting to Nikko
Nikko is easily reached by train from Tokyo, with direct limited express trains available from Asakusa Station on the Tobu Line. The Kegon and Kinu lines cost ¥2,700 each way and take two hours. The Kegon is direct and a little faster while the Kinu requires a change at Shimo-Imaichi. Note that the Nikko World Heritage Area Pass and the Nikko All Area Pass only include the Asakusa route and do not include the limited express trains, but you can pay the difference if you want to catch these instead.
Trains also run from Shinjuku and Ikebukuro a few times a day, costing just over ¥4,000 and taking two hours. Both of these routes require reserved seats, but local trains, while taking longer, are cheaper and don’t require reservations. The JR pass does not cover the routes from Asakusa at all, and only partially covers the Shinjuku/Ikebukuro routes, as the line is shared with Tobu. There are also buses that run from Tokyo station with prices starting at ¥2,500. We have a full breakdown on the different transport options from Tokyo to Nikko—so have a read and see which suits your plans best.
Further reading: Japan’s Most Beautiful and Unique National Parks