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Nikko – A Refreshing Weekend in a Historical Japanese City

Nikko – A Refreshing Weekend in a Historical Japanese City

A working holiday should not only be about work but also about discovering the country. There is so much to see and experience in Japan that you should not miss out on while you are here! We wanted to get out of Tokyo city life for a long weekend and it wasn’t difficult to decide on Nikko. Only a 2-hour train ride away from Tokyo, this town in the hills makes for a perfect weekend getaway if you want to sniff some culture and be surrounded by nature.

We booked the Turtle Inn Nikko Annex Hotel which is not too far from the train station with its own onsen (Japanese style hot spring), and after dropping off our luggage in the lobby and getting some good advice from the receptionist for our stay we headed out for our first lunch in Nikko. Of course we wanted to try yuba, a by-product of tofu production that is ubiquitous in Nikko, being a center of Buddhist activity since its foundation. We found this cute little udon noodle restaurant called Kanman Teahouse that served yuba as a side dish, perfect for our lunch. The yuba was very smooth and flavorful, and we loved the cold udon and tea with Japanese sweets that we got afterward. A good start of our weekend

Our First Day: History and Beauty

Then it was time to immerse ourselves in Japanese history. After passing through a foresty road with old jizo statues we headed to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park. Here you can walk around the huge Japanese style villa that used to be the vacation home of the imperial family. It’s not just the house that breathes a quiet atmosphere, the garden also makes for a peaceful little stroll in a typical Japanese garden. If you come at the right time you can also see a very old Sakura tree bloom. This was the green oasis we were hoping to find when we left Tokyo! 

As a visit to Nikko is not complete without visiting its main shrine, the Toshogu, it was next on our list. As expected there were many tourists, foreign as well as Japanese, but we could also easily tell why this shrine complex is so popular. Its wood carvings are exquisite, there are so many beautiful little details that the buildings are like pieces of art. At several locations within the complex priests carried out Shinto rituals in order to bring fortune to the people, and stones on the ground were arranged to look like turtles to bring good luck. What most people don`t know is that it is worth it to walk the extra 1.5 kilometer up the hill on the east side of the temple. Here you can find the rarely visited Takio shrine in the middle of the woods, surrounded by small water streams. We enjoyed being away from the crowds and savored the silence. By the time we left the Takio shrine it was getting dark, meaning it was time to look for a place to eat because restaurants and even bars close early in Nikko (and other places outside the big cities in Japan for that matter). We decided on Bar de Nikko because of its good reviews on TripAdvisor, and we did not regret it. The food was delicious and nicely presented, and there was a large assortment of drinks available. It was open until 21.00, which is quite unique in this small town.

In the evening we soaked in the hotel onsen with a nice view of the fast streaming river outside through a large window and went to bed early.

The Second Day: Hiking and Nature

One of the purposes of the trip was to get out there and take a long walk in a beautiful, natural area. We wanted to breathe some nice, fresh air in the spring sun! We took the bus to the Chuzenji lake, an area that used to be a popular place to vacation for foreigners as well as well-to-do Japanese people. As we were there late March it was still off-season and very quiet. We first stopped by the Kegon falls, we didn’t pay the few hundred yen to go downstairs and see the waterfalls up close, but I would recommend doing it anyway because I later heard from others who have gone down there that it was worth the money. We then walked almost all the way along the northern shore of the lake, which was great as we barely saw anyone else as soon as we left the little town. It was peaceful and quiet, and we walked around 4 kilometers before we got to the boathouse where we were surprised to find the restaurant open. Of course we were the only customers, but the noodles (yes, again as they are so good here in Nikko) were tasty and we were ready to go again.

As we went more inland the road went up, and after 2 kilometers or so we hit a trail up Mt. Takayama. Feeling adventurous we went in even though the sign warned us of bears and deers, the former scaring us a bit more than the latter. But the trail was snowy, and after taking a selfie of the ‘courageous us’ and the snow we decided to turn around and go find the Ryuzu Falls which we came here to find. We soon found fast streaming clear water and went down the trail to see a cute tea house overlooking the falls which are named after the dragon it resembles. They served delicious ice-cream with the flavor of, you guessed it, yuba. It might be a surprising flavor, but it was actually surprisingly good! 

We then took the bus back to the hotel and ended up having the most thrilling part of our trip, a ride down the Iroha slope. I’m sure the driver knows this road like the back of his hand, but sitting right behind him and seeing the bus steer dangerously close to the slope’s edge with a drop of a few hundred meters deep behind it about 20 times, made for a blood-curdling ride. I think Julia was very happy when we were back at 600 meters above sea level again instead of the over 1000 meters that we were above sea level before. After all this excitement we first went for a long soak in the hotel onsen again before we went out for dinner again. This time we went to a Chinese restaurant near the hotel that was almost completely full, a good sign. The food was indeed delicious, I would just stay away from the hot sake as I could tell why it was sold as hot sake instead of chilled or at room temperature. We then headed back to the hotel for some card games and our futons.

The Last Day: A Temple and an Old Hotel

After having a perfect brunch in the Kanaya Hotel Bakery (very much recommended) we first visited the museum right next door. Kanaya hotel was once the first hotel where Westerners could stay during the period in Japanese history when foreigners were still very rare in Japan and couldn’t always stay in a regular Japanese hotel. The people who work there conduct short tours, most of them don’t really speak English but it is still nice to hear a bit of simple explanation of what you see. Some parts of the hotel are original which is quite rare to see in Japan, especially in Tokyo as most buildings don’t last this long here. 

We then went to our last stop on this trip, the Taiyu-in temple. What we loved here was that it was so much quieter than at the Toshogu, and it was a lot easier to relax and enjoy our surroundings. There was another mass blessing ceremony, and there were 4 beautifully colored statues near the main hall. For those who like wood sculptures, there was also a lot to see, as almost every animal was represented somewhere in the decorations on the walls. Some parts of this temple reminded me a bit of Persian or oriental art with the many colors and wood carvings. Also, we were not sure if we were supposed to go here, but a bit east of this temple up a hill there seems to be an abandoned temple with a vshery big statue in a closed off hall. There was almost no one there and it looked like no one was taking care of it, so it was a bit spooky over there.

It was unfortunately already time to go home by the time we came back to the main road, but we didn’t leave before a last bowl of noodles, ramen this time, and a Harajuku style desert near the station. If you are on a working holiday (or regular holiday for that matter) in the Tokyo area, you should definitely not skip Nikko. As they say in this locale: don’t say ‘kekkou‘ (I’m good) until you have been to Nikko!

 

About the Author

Stefanie has lived in Japan for 5 years, and is working as a coordinator for World Unite! since 2017. Together with her colleague Julia she decided to get out of Tokyo city life for a long weekend. 

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