8 Must-Do’s in Nikko, Japan That Will Make You Want To Add It To Your Bucket List Immediately
Last week, I had the amazing opportunity to travel to Japan for the second time ever and see a different side of it. The first time, like my first time to most countries, I saw a ton of Japan, but I stuck to the main areas of Tokyo, Osaka, Kyoto and Nara. While each of these areas of Japan is incredible, this time I decided to go off the beaten tourist track a bit, choosing to take the train to a mountain town called Nikko, a gorgeous lakeside area with tons of natural beauty and cultural immersion that make it such a unique experience in Japan. Although its a world heritage site just 2 hours from Tokyo, and is well known among Japanese locals as a must-do in the Tokyo area, many tourists have yet to discover its wealth of natural beauty, and those who make the trip to Nikko will often only stay for the day, missing out on one of Japan’s treasures.
Going from Tokyo to Nikko for just the day is like going from San Francisco to Big Sur just to be able to say you did it, without taking the time to really explore around the area and experience all the beauty there is. So, since you all are jetsetters and I know you wouldn’t dare go somewhere without taking full advantage of everything it has to offer, I wanted to round up 8 things to do in Nikko that make it so special and prove why it needs to go on your travel bucket list immediately! If you want to experience the best Nikko has to offer, I’d get there quick – international tourists are finding out about Nikko fast – a super-luxe Ritz-Carlton is even being built in Nikko and opening in 2020! (which I can’t wait for!!)
By the way – One of my favorite tour operators to do any and all of the below is Beauty of Japan – a wonderful group of tour guides that make traveling around Japan easy.. and relaxing! They were such a help in organizing my adventures around this beautiful area, and are so knowledgable about Japanese culture and history. Not to mention they make getting around Japan and seeing everything you want to see easy with their knowledge of the area and the language! I highly recommend using them for your trip!
1. The Kegon Waterfall
Kegon Falls are spectacular 318-foot falls that flow and drop from Lake Chuzenji to the Daiya River. This was one of my very favorite places in Nikko, as the views are breathtakingly beauitful. The waterfalls are drop-dead-gorgeous any time of year, as they are surrounded by lush green in spring and summer (pictured above), stunning colorful leaves in autumn, and frozen white snow in winter. There’s an elevator that even takes you to the bottom of the falls for a spectacular view.
2. Ryuzu Waterfall
The beautiful Ryuzu Waterfall is one of the things you can see while hiking around Lake Chuzenji (see #4). It’s a beautiful cascading waterfall that is beautiful any time of year, but definitely best in the Fall with all of these fall colors!
3. The Shinkyo Bridge
Also known as ‘God’s Bridge’, the Shinkyo Bridge is easily one of my favorite places to go in Nikko. The town of Nikko was founded by a sacred mountain monk trying to find enlightenment at the mountain. He was determined to climb the mountain on his spiritual journey, but was stopped by the river. It’s then said that 2 snakes appeared and transformed into the bridge, so that he could complete his journey. Today, the Shinkyo Bridge is one of the most beautiful sights in the city.
4. Hike (or bike!) around Lake Chuzenji
One of my favorite things we did in Nikko was hike the Senjogahara hiking trail – which passes through both the Chuzenji Lake and the Nikko National Park. This is a great hiking trail for a half-day hike. It takes about 2.5-3 hours and is fairly flat and easy. We even saw many groups of Japanese seniors walking this route! They are definitely in shape and you can tell how much of a part of the culture it is for locals to hike. In Japanese culture, they worship nature, and throughout this path you get the sense that hiking in Japan is just as much of a spiritual experience as it is an exercise. Breathe in the crisp, fresh mountain air and soak up the zen.
Another fun thing to do is to bike around the lake. You can rent bikes directly through Oku-Nikko Cycle Share, or your Beauty of Japan tour guide can organize it for you. The optional-electric-assist bikes make getting around easy, and you can take them all over the area for spectacular views. One of my favorite stops is the old British Embassy, where you can now tour and stop in and get tea with a view of the lake!
5. Relax in a natural mineral onsen
Atthe Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, I had the amazing opportunity to experience a traditional Japanese onsen – a Japanese hot spring. Since Japan is a volcanic country, there are thousands of natural hot springs and onsens scattered throughout all of its major islands, and Nikko is one of the best spots to experience one.
Hot springs have historically been used in Japan for thousands of years to cure illnesses and promote wellness. In fact, centuries ago people would travel from all over Japan and stay in Nikko for months, using the hot mineral onsens every day as their medicine to cure whatever ailed them.
Note that clothes/swimwear are not allowed in traditional Japanese onsens (and it’s an amazing cultural experience to experience one au-natural!) but I was made an exception for this photo. Oh and don’t worry – the onsens are are separated by gender.
6. See the Fall colors
While cherry blossom season is beautiful and well-known throughout Japan (and runs from April through May), no area of Japan quite lights up in color like autumn in Nikko. The leaves all over the mountain turn all shades of red, yellow, and orange, creating a gorgeous landscape everywhere you look.
7. Pick strawberries
If waterfalls, hikes, temples, and hot springs aren’t enough to convince you – there’s an even sweeter reason to visit Nikko. Starting from early December and lasting through until the end of May, Nikko’s famous strawberries are in full bloom, and the strawberry farms in the prefecture are open to the public for picking, offering the perfect activity for the whole family!
Make a reservation at Nikko Strawberry Park, where you get 30 minutes for all-you-can-pick-and-eat strawberries, and condensed milk at no additional charge.
8. Rinnoji Temple and the Tosho-gu Shrine
I decided to finish this list with these two wonderful sites, because, although they are beautiful, they are definitely the most popular and most known reasons to visit Nikko. While you should definitely visit these gorgeous world heritage sites on your trip to Nikko, many people will day trip from Tokyo, just to see the Rinnoji Temple, and Tosh0-gu Shrine, and will turn around and head back. But, hopefully after reading this list, you won’t 🙂 as you now have 7 reasons to explore more of this wonderful area of Japan!
By the way, if you’re looking for ideas of what else to do on your trip to Japan, check out my blog post on the Ultimate 10-day Travel Guide to Japan