The Complete Travel Guide to Nikko, Japan

Nikko National Park is a breathtaking and convenient getaway from the sprawling urban jungle of Tokyo. Less than two hours away from Japan’s capital, you’ll hardly believe you’re even in the same country. Instead of silver skyscrapers, you’ll find yourself flanked by towering trees and lush mountains. Nikko is a tranquil escape from the city life, boasting waterfalls, mountains, forests, and much more. If you’re looking for a retreat into nature, Nikko is an excellent and convenient option.

Here’s everything you need to know before visiting this charming small town and its plethora of natural beauty.

Table of Contents

How To Get To Nikko

First things first, get the Nikko Pass. This will include round-trip transportation from Tokyo’s Asakusa Station on the Tobu-Nikko Line. I didn’t know the Nikko Pass existed so I paid about 3000 yen for the train from Tokyo to Nikko. The pass is worth it simply for how much money you’ll save on the roundtrip train ride from Tokyo.
There are a few different parts of Nikko National Park, but the main hub would be close to Tobu-Nikko Station. I stayed at Lake Chuzenji which was easy enough to get around with public transportation.

There are a few stations in Tokyo where you can start your journey. The orange line heading towards Tobu-Nikko starts at Asakusa Station, making it easy to connect from almost anywhere in Tokyo. From there, one can purchase an express ticket or use their Nikko Pass to to get on the local train for free. If I remember correctly, I did have to make one transfer, but in total, it only took about 30 minutes longer to reach Nikko and saved me about $10 for forgoing the express train.

The stop for Nikko is the final stop, and from the station, one can either walk or take the bus to their accommodation. The bus stops right in front of the train station and heads all the way to Yumoto. If you have the JR Pass and want to stick to the included JR lines, here’s how to get to Nikko with the JR Pass.

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How To Get Around Nikko

Public transportation is the best way to get around, and is all included in your Nikko Pass. Seriously, if you don’t get the pass, you’ll be paying 1000 yen per bus ride if you plan on visiting the top natural attractions of Nikko.

There are a few different lines in Nikko, with the main one servicing Nikko town, Lake Chuzenji, and Yumoto. The buses are pretty easy to figure out, and the lines and timetables all show up on Google Maps.

Where To Stay in Nikko

I’d recommend one of two options for staying in Nikko. There is Nikko Town and Lake Chuzenji. Nikko Town puts you close to the UNESCO World Heritage shrines and temples of Nikko. Staying here is convenient as you are close to public transportation within Nikko and the main train station to get to and from Nikko. You’ll have the comforts of a town, with easy access to restaurants and convenience stores.

Staying at Lake Chuzenji will put you closer to Nikko’s natural attractions. It is almost an extra hour’s bus ride coming from Nikko’s train station, but you’ll be in the heart of this beautiful region of Japan. I stayed at Lake Chuzenji since hiking was my main priority. Some downsides to consider are the lack of restaurants, convenience stores, and really anything else aside from hotels in this area. There was one supermarket that I went to everyday to avoid eating the over-priced food at my accommodation.

I stayed at Yoturelo Nikko and the property itself was incredible. Location-wise, it can be trickier to get around. There was a bus stop just a minute’s walk away, but keep in mind the buses don’t run very frequently. You’re not in Tokyo anymore where one has to wait 10 minutes maximum before the next bus or train arrive. In Nikko, it’s closer to 40 minutes between buses, and they stop running quite early. They also start running pretty early, so the early bird does get the worm when it comes to Nikko. Start your days early and you’ll be able to maximize your time in this beautiful area of Japan.

The Best Things To Do in Nikko

Nikko is great for adventurers and culture enthusiasts alike. The brunt of things to do in Nikko revolve around their world-renowned temples and the abundance of natural beauty. Nikko National Park is home to dozens of hiking trails catering to all levels of hikers. From summiting peaks to flat walks through forests and marshlands, Nikko is a hiker’s paradise. Here are some of the best things to do in Nikko.

Kegon Falls

These waterfalls are Nikko’s most famous attraction. There is a free viewpoint of them, but if you want to see them in all their beauty, you unfortunately have to pay for the elevator that takes you down to the observatory. It costs about $4, but the view really is beautiful. It only takes 10 minutes or so to see, so if you’re making the trip over here, be sure to have more plans in the Lake Chuzenji area.

Akechidaira Ropeway

For one of the most iconic views of Nikko, head to Akechidaira Ropeway. Here, you’ll see the view of Lake Chuzenji surrounded by its forests and mountains, and Kegon Falls cascading down in the foreground. It truly puts into perspective just how surreal of a place Nikko is.

Ryuzu Falls

These twin waterfalls are located just off the road en route from Tobu-Nikko to Yumoto Onsen. Again, it only takes a few minutes to see, but there is a restaurant with a nice view overlooking the falls. One can also follow the stairs along the river to get some more views of waterfalls and rivers. More importantly, Ryuzu can be the starting or ending point of my favorite hike I did in Nikko. I’d recommend it as an ending point, so that you can take advantage of one of the only fairly-prced restaurants in the Nikko area.

Senjogahara Marshlands

Anyway, that hike starting in Ryuzu Falls will take you through the Senjogahara Marshlands all the way up to Yumoto Onsen, passing by several points of interest along the way. I didn’t expect too much from this hike, but it turned out to be incredible. The landscapes were nothing I had seen in Japan before. The crystal clear rivers ran bright green with the brightly-colored algae below. Tall grass and strange trees dotted the marshland, with views of Mount Nantai and more in the distance. The further along you get, the deeper into the forests you go. Forests in Japan always give me a mystical, surreal feeling, so I truly enjoyed this hike and the variety of landscapes along the way. It’s pretty easy and mostly flat, so I’d recommend this for any level of hiker.

Yudaki Falls

Towards the end of Senjogahara, you’ll run into Yudaki Falls. You don’t have to do Senjogahara to see Yudaki Falls, as it is a short climb down from either the highway or the parking lot. These waterfalls are massive, but somehow the shallow stream below is eerily calm. Fishermen often hang out at the base of the falls, and there are a few shops in the area. One of them serves fresh fish on a stick, which looked amazing but I didn’t have enough cash on me to try.

Toshogi Shrine

Although Nikko National Park is rightfully renowned for its nature, there is much more to it than that. There are UNESCO World Heritage Sites scattered throughout. There is a shrine and temple complex boasting some of the most beautiful monuments I’ve seen in Japan. Toshogi Shrine is the burial place of perhaps Japan’s most iconic leader, Tokugawa Ieyasu. To get up there, you’ll pass through intricate shrines and temples before winding up a staircase through the forest. It’s beautiful all around, but does get crowded, so I’d recommend getting there early.

Taiyuin Temple

This temple is part of the UNESCO site, but is hidden away in the forests, so few visitors actually end up here. It might not be as extravagant or conspicuous as the other temples on this list, but that was what I liked most about it. Don’t get me wrong, Taiyuin was still beautiful, but the lack of tourists made it a much more serene and peaceful setting.

Shinkyo Bridge

Legend has it that this bridge was formed by two snakes appearing to help Nikko’s first head priest cross the river. This bridge is a picture-perfect photo spot, but really nothing more. It’s on the way to the famous shrines of Nikko, though, so be sure to stop by this icon of Nikko.

Yumoto Lake and Onsens

Although further out from Nikko Town, Yumoto is still easily accessible by public transportation. It’s also the ending point of the trail through Senjogahara and the forests and waterfalls that follow. It takes nearly two hours by bus to reach here from Nikko Town, but one can take the bus here then hike back towards Lake Chuzenji before catching the bus back.

Yumoto is famous for its natural hot springs, and you’ll be able to smell them as soon as you get off the bus. Hiking around the lake sounded like a much better idea than it smelled. Many onsens in Japan still have a stigma against people with tattoos, so I never made it to one of the onsens in Nikko. However, the natural hot springs are one of the main draws to Nikko, so definitely consider visiting one while you’re in the area.

Lake Chuzenji

This is the highest lake in Japan, and the area of Nikko National Park that I stayed in. It’s a beautiful lake, and if you’re looking to stay somewhere more secluded, the Lake Chuzenji area might be for you. Be sure to hop on the ferry that goes around the lake. It’s included in your Nikko Pass, otherwise it’s about $10 for the round trip. Other activities around Lake Chuzenji would be the Futarasan Shrine and hiking Mount Nantai. It’s also the halfway point between Tobu-Nikko and Yumoto Onsen, so you’re well-connected by public transport and won’t have to travel too far to get where you need to go.

Summit Mount Nantai

Mount Nantai is the tallest mountain in Nikko National Park, standing at 2,486 meters above sea level. It’s often referred to as the Mount Fuji of Nikko National Park. The hike takes about 6 hours roundtrip, about 4 hours up and 2 hours down. The entrance is at the Futarasan Shrine on Lake Chuzenji. You’re requested to make a donation at the shrine to enter the trail, although I’m not sure if this is mandatory. I’d recommend getting up bright and early to start the hike. It was a short walk from my hostel at Yoturelo, allowing an early start without needing to rely on public transportation. Here’s a guide to summiting Mount Nantai.

Other Things To Know Before Going to Nikko

Don’t expect much in the way of nightlife or late night activities. In the area where I stayed, almost everything shut before evening save for a few restaurants that stayed open for dinner. I visited in mid-September, so it wasn’t peak season by any means, but I was still surprised by how much of a ghost town the Lake Chuzenji area felt like. Sometimes the fog would dip into the town and I’d get spooky vibes roaming through the mist on its empty streets.

Like come on, tell me that’s not a little spooky.

Despite being a smaller town, most places in Nikko accept credit cards. I don’t think I needed much cash, although ATMs were few and far between. I’d recommend bringing about 5,000 yen just in case. The only time you’d need cash would be for the bus rides, but if you have the Nikko Pass, you won’t have to worry about that. Like I mentioned a few times earlier, I can’t stress enough how important it is to get the Nikko Pass.

Besides that, there’s not much you need to know before visiting Nikko. Anything you didn’t read on here, one can find out by visiting the tourist information desk at Nikko Station. The guy there was extremely friendly and helpful, and basically wrote out my entire itinerary for me. It’s often hard to get a feel of how truly friendly Japanese people are when you’re in the big cities, but I definitely felt the hospitality and kindness in its small towns like Nikko. Be sure to talk to as many of the locals as you can, as you might find some new adventures that I haven’t mentioned.

All in all, Nikko is a wonderful destination and I think it deserves a slot on any visitor to Japan’s itinerary. Its close proximity to Tokyo makes it a convenient getaway, and immerses you in a side of Japan that many travelers don’t get to experience. Along with Kawaguchiko, Nikko was my favorite small town I visited during my travels in Japan. The views and vibes are simply immaculate.

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