Nikko is a city in Tochigi Prefecture that is famous for the Toshogu Shrine and its natural beauty.
One of Japan’s most important (and beautiful!) shrines, hot springs, forest hikes, and local food tempt Tokyoites to hop on a train for 2 hours to visit the World Heritage Site of Nikko—The Three Wise Monkeys (see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil) at Toshogu Shrine—since the 17th century. If you want to see the original of the three monkeys covering their eyes, ears and mouth, Nikko is on your Japan to-do list. Toshogu Shrine is elaborately decorated with the three macaques and other pieces of art and located in a beautiful forest setting.
Other highlights of the area include hiking trails to one of Japan’s most famous bridges and waterfalls, yuba (thin tofu skin), Kinugawa Onsen, opportunities for canyoning and mountain biking, and the Edo Wonderland theme park. The area makes for a perfect one- or two-day getaway from Tokyo.
Getting to Nikko
The easiest way to get to Nikko is to take a Tobu limited express train from Kita-Senju or Asakusa to Tobu-Nikko Station. It will take you 1 hour and 30 minutes (or 1 hour 45 minutes for the latter) for a cost of around ¥0. Japan Rail Pass holders can also hop on a Tohoku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Ueno Station to Utsunomiya, and from there transfer to the Nikko Line. The journey takes about 100 minutes, but it’s a poor choice for travelers without the pass as it works out rather expensive.
The fastest way to Kinugawa Onsen is the same limited express train leaving from Kita-Senju or Asakusa. The trip will cost you around ¥0 one way and take about 2 hours. Once you get to Kinugawa Onsen Station, submerge yourself (or at least your feet) in the hot spring experience and head straight for the ashi-yu (foot spa) right in front of the station. It’s free and super relaxing!
There are highway buses available for the routes above too. However, they take longer and are barely cheaper, making trains by far the most popular choice. If you’re carting around large luggage, then it might be a good option. Check out Willer and Kosoku bus services to compare prices.
See our full guide on how to get from Tokyo to Nikko (and back).
Getting around Nikko
The best way to get around Nikko is by bus, rental car, or a combination of mountain biking and walking if the season allows (i.e., if there is no snow on the ground).
Nikko has a good network of bus routes. A bus will take you from Tobu-Nikko Station to the temple and shrine area (about 2 km). There is an additional World Heritage Meguri loop line that will drop you off right in front of the individual places of worship. From here, buses take you to Okunikko, home to spots of natural beauty including Kegon Waterfall and Lake Chuzenji. The journey takes around 50 minutes one way.
For those that want to explore the wider Nikko area and stay in one of the hot spring town outside Nikko Town, a rental car can be a good idea if you want to be independent from bus schedules. Especially during the peak season–when the cherries bloom and the leaves change color–the buses can get extremely crowded, but so do the roads—best to visit on a weekday in those times.
Finally, if you are just coming up for the day from Tokyo and mainly want to see the World Heritage area, you can easily explore it on foot or add a mountain bike tour to take you through the surrounding forests after exploring the shrines and temples. The 2 km walk from Tobu-Nikko Station to the World Heritage area takes around 30 minutes. Once there, all the sights are within a 5- to 10-minute walk of each other.
What to see and do in Nikko
Nikko’s main attraction is the UNESCO World Heritage Site “Shrines and Temples of Nikko” that is made up by a total of 103 structures belonging to Shinto shrines and a Buddhist temple. The first highlight is the picturesque Shinkyo Bridge, just left to the main road when crossing the river on the way from Nikko Station to the World Heritage Site. Most famous and elaborate of all is the Toshogu Shrine that is decorated with the famous carving of the three monkeys and the sleeping cat. Make sure to walk the narabi jizo (small Buddhist deities adorned with little red knitted caps) statues path at the entrance to Kanmangafuchi Abyss.
After your exploration, try some yuba (thin tofu skin) in Nikko Town. It is served in broth, with soba, or even as a sweet.
Nikko is surrounded by fantastic hot springs for those that want to spend the night and make the most of their trip. The next day, you could explore the surrounding Okunikko area around Lake Chuzenji with a hike to Kegon Waterfall and Senjogahara Marsh. The waterfall even has a elevator that takes you down to a lower viewing area.
And why don’t you stop by Edo Wonderland on your way back to Tokyo? The theme park takes you back into the Edo period of Japan and actors that interact with you throughout the park make for a unique experience. You can even rent an Edo-era costume to join the fun in the most authentic way.