The sleepy little mountain town of Nikko had been on our radar since last year, but the stories of brilliant October/November foliage had us holding out until the fall to experience it. The close proximity of the city (~125km from Tokyo) makes it a great choice for a day or weekend trip, particularly if you visit Japan during the fall.  I mean it’s kinda got a LOT going on… waterfalls, UNESCO World Heritage sites, history galore, forests, lakes, delicious food, and plenty of kid-friendly attractions. Nikko is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream.

[ D A Y • 1 ] Zushi →Nikko: Shinkyo Bridge, Rinno-ji Temple, Tosho-gu Shrine, Futarasan Shrine, Taiyuin Shrine, Kanmangafuchi Abyss

We piled everyone in the car and left the neighborhood bound for the mountains. The forecast looked perfect and we didn’t want to waste a second inside.  Sunny with the intermittent cloud cover and temperatures hovering in the high 50s/ low 60s, making for the perfect Japanese fall road trip. It doesn’t get much better than that!

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Since it was going to be a bit before we could check into our Airbnb, we decided to drive into town and start our adventure. As mentioned above, Nikko has a TON of things to do, thus organization is key here (*cue itinerary*). If you have 2-3days to explore this area we would highly recommend organizing your travel into the following categories: shrines/temples, waterfalls/hiking, and other attractions as this will save a good bit of time in the car transferring from one place to the next.

Post-parking (we’ve pinned the lot we parked in below…for Japan it was WAY less expensive than expected!) we walked towards Shinkyo Bridge (aka “Sacred Bridge” or the “Snake Bridge of Sedges”) where it felt as if we were stepping into a fairytale. Built in 1636, the bridge is actually part of the Futarasan Shrine, a Shinto shrine which we visited later in the day. Legend dictates that a priest named Shodo was trying to climb Mt. Nantai to pray, but could not forge the Daiya River. He prayed to the god, Jinja-Daiou, who appeared in front of him with two snakes that transformed into what we now know as the Shinkyo Bridge allowing the priest to cross. You have to pay to cross the bridge, which actually helps to keep the crowds at bay. In our opinion, the bridge itself adds to the beauty of the scene – which you obviously miss if you’re standing on it. Consequently, we opted to view from afar.

From the bridge it was a short walk to Rinno-ji Temple, dating back to the 8thcentury and noted as being the first Buddhist Temple in the region.  Unfortunately, this stop was not the most scenic due to scaffolding currently covering the Main Sanbutsudo Hall (which houses three images of Buddhist goddesses) for restoration. However, the shrine is a UNESCO World Heritage site, so we couldn’t miss it altogether (plus it was on the way to our next stop). The scaffolding is scheduled to be removed in March 2019, so if you plan a visit after that date you should be good!

From Rinno-ji we walked to Tosho-gu Shrine, the most noted shrine in Nikko and another UNESCO World Heritage site. Like Rinno-ji, Toshogu Shrine is slowly being renovated (in stages) and should be completed in March 2020 – just in time for Tokyo to host the Olympics! It was very crowded, but despite the people and scaffolding this shrine is beautiful and not to be skipped! Constructed in 1636 by Ienitsu Tokugawa, the third Shogun of the Tokugawa Shogunate and the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu, it is the place where, Tokugawa Ieyasu (his grandfather and the first Shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate was laid to rest). Despite several renovations to the stupa overlying his grave, his remains have been there, undisturbed, since 1616. Make sure to budget a decent about of time for this stop, as we grossly mis-underestimated how long it would take.

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After exploring we walked a short path lined with stone lanterns to Futarasan Shrine, which was founded in 782 by Shodo Shonin, the Buddhist monk that is best noted for introducing Buddhism to the mountain town of Nikko (he also founded Rinnoji Temple). Futarasan Shrine was constructed to pay tribute to the gods of Mount Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro. By this time, it was clear the kids were reaching their shrine/temple limit. When this happens we usually stop for food: a little break and some noodles will generally stop even the craziest tantrum in its tracks. Hungry kids = poor adventure buddies. There were some older Japanese men making buckwheat soba noodles outside the food stalls, and their precision fascinated Miles. 10min later we all had full bellies and everyone was rejuvenated – making our stroll to the neighboring shrine, Taiyuin, much more enjoyable.

Despite being less elaborate than Toshogu Shrine, Taiyuin, the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, ended up being our favorite stop of the day. Fewer people, quieter, and overall calmer, and absolutely beautiful with the amazing fall foliage. Before we lost all our daylight we made our way back to the car and loaded up to drive to Kanmangafuchi Abyss.

There is a short walking trail here (maybe a few hundred meters and mostly flat). The abyss which was formed when Mt. Nantai erupted makes for a nice and very peaceful end to the day. You’ll see ~70 stone Jizo statues along the path. These Bodhisattva care for the dead. We enjoyed ice cream @ Kanman Teahouse, (mostly) a reward for Miles, which was located next to the parking lot. Picked up dinner @Family Mart (I’m telling you our love of Japanese convenience stores runs deep) and then it was showers and bed. Big day tomorrow as we head into the mountains to take in some epic waterfalls.

Local Parking Lot:

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Shinkyo Bridge (“Sacred Bridge” or the “Snake Bridge of Sedges”):

  • Hours:
    • 0800 – 1700 (April – September)
    • 0800 – 1600 (October – mid-November)
    • 0900 – 1600 (mid November – March)
  • Admission: 300yen to cross the bridge (we opted not to cross)

Rinno-ji:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1700 (1600 close November – March); Admission closes 30min before closing time
  • Admission: 400yen for Sanbutsudo only, 300yen for Shoyoen Garden and the Treasure House

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Tosho-gu Shrine:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1700 (1600 close from November – March); Admission ends 30min before closing; no closing dates
  • Admission: 1300yen for shrine; 1000 for museum, 2100yen for combined ticket
  • Goshuin: 400yen (be prepared to leave your book here for a bit if you visit during the “high season” – it was 30min from drop off to pick up)

Tosho-gu Shrine Tips:

Although this shrine is well-marked and contains many English explanations make sure not to miss the following:

  • The largest stone Tori gate in Japan
  • Goju-no-To (a five story Buddhist pagoda) which was built in 1636
  • The storehouses (this where the famous “hear no evil, speak no evil, see no evil” monkeys are depicted
  • Yomeimon Gate (gate to the main shrine)
  • Honjido Hall with “Nakiryu” (location of the crying dragon painted on the ceiling)
  • Sakashitamon Gate (to the right of the main shrine building where the famous “sleeping cat” is carved)
  • The Sakashitamon Gate also marks the beginning of a long flight of stone stairs that leads to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum. If you visit during the fall and on a weekend be prepared to wait a bit (we waited ~20min to ascend the stairs to the top – did I mention the crowds were heavy here?). There is a place to get a goshuin here as well, however they only sell them on paper and will not do them in your book (400yen).

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Futarasan Shrine:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1700 (until 1600 from November – March)
  • Admission: Mostly free (there is a small paid area 200/yen, but we stayed in the free area)

Taiyuin Shrine:

  • Hours: 0800 – 1700
  • Admission: 550yen

Kanmangafuchi Abyss:

  • Hours: Sunrise – Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free @ the entrance to the walking trail along the abyss (Google Pin for parking lot: https://goo.gl/maps/oTz5AJQWcAE2)

Kanmangafuchi Abyss Tip: If your kids need an energy release there are a couple swings in the small grassy area located in front of the parking lot.

Kanman Teahouse:

  • Hours: 1130 – 1630, closed on Wednesdays
  • Admission: Ice cream costs 300yen/each (flavors like matcha green tea, black sesame are available here!)

[ D A Y • 2 ] Irohazaka Winding Road, Akechidara Ropeway, Kegon Waterfall, Chuzenji Temple, Lake Chuzenji: British & Italian Embassies, Mt. Hangetsuyama, Ryuzu Falls, Yudaki Falls, Tobu World Square

Having marveled at the shrines the prior day, we awoke at 0600 eager to head into the mountains and experience some of the natural beauty surrounding Nikko. While we felt our timing was spot on with the fall foliage down in town, we were a little disappointed to see that as we climbed to higher elevations many of the trees had already lost their leaves. That didn’t mean the drive wasn’t beautiful though as we headed up the Irohazaka winding road, which includes 48 switchbacks up the mountain.

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We stopped at the Akechidaira Plateau near the top of the road to hop on the Akechidaira Ropeway for the three minute ride to the highest observation platform. The view of Lake Chuzejiko and Kegon waterfall from the top is breathtaking! Although you can hike the same distance, it takes about two hours and since we were trying to pack a lot in we decided the ropeway was the better option this time. After spending a few minutes taking in the amazing view, we headed back down and hopped in the car to head for a closer look at Kegon Waterfall and Lake Chuzeji.  There are three well known waterfalls in this region, but Kegon is the most famous. At 100 meters high, it is the only egress for the waters of Chuzenji Lake, and it was pretty impressive in person! You don’t have to pay to see it, as there is a free platform around the side of the parking area for you to enjoy the view. However, to get a closer look there is also a paid platform in which you take a sixty second elevator ride down to the bottom of the 100m falls which provides you with an up-close look at the falls.

After departing from the waterfall we explored some of the outdoor shops and vendors on the way back to the car, and couldn’t help but pick up a Nikko themed three monkey confectionary to share…The kids loved it!

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Lake Chuzejiko is a beautiful alpine lake which was formed about 20,000 years ago when Mount Nantai, a (still active) sacred volcano, erupted and blocked the underlying valley. Besides being absolutely beautiful, its high elevation keeps the area cool year round, which made it a great spot for foreign embassies to build summer villas there to escape the heat and humidity of Tokyo. We visited Chuzenji Temple, a spot known for providing good fortune in romance, matchmaking, and happy marriage…we will take all the help we can get! There is plenty of free parking around the temple, but it’s also walkable from the nearest train station (about 20 min) if you are on foot.

After exploring the the temple, we did a short hike through the woods by the bank of the lake to see the summer villas of both the British and Italian embassies (most of the path is gravel or has been paved so its possible to do it with a stroller if you choose to). It’s also a great opportunity to let your kids run free and get some energy out. If you want to get out on the lake, there is an option for a cruise which takes about 55min and leaves from the parking lot right across from Chuzenji Temple. We wanted to make sure we had time to see Ryuzu and Yudaki falls before dark, so decided to skip the cruise this time around.

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After departing Lake Chenzenji, we headed to check out the other well known waterfalls surrounding Nikko, Ryuzu falls and Yudaki Falls. On the way, we headed up to the top of Mount Hangetsuyama for yet one more amazing view of Lake Chuzenji (seriously, it doesn’t get old). After letting the kids run around for awhile at the large grassy area at the top of the lookout, we hopped back into the car for the short drive to Ryuzu Waterfall. Unlike most waterfalls we are used to, this was more like water running down a very steep decline. You can park (for free) at either the top or the bottom of the falls, and there is a very nice walking path adjacent that gives you a really nice view of the falls as well as multiple seating areas where you can sit down and take it all in. The waterfall is formed by the Yukawa river as it flows down the steep slope down into Lake Chenzenji.  We parked at the bottom, and it took about 10 min to walk up to the top.

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Not content to leave without seeing the last waterfall, we hopped  back into the car for the 14 min drive to Yudaki falls.  Overall, this was our favorite, so I’m glad we didn’t decide to skip it. It’s a bit of a misnomer, as Yudaki literally means “origin of hot water” yet the water isn’t actually warm. The falls flow out of Yunoko Lake (“hot water lake”…also not hot), but the whole surrounding area has lots of hot springs/onsens, hence the name.  We parked at a lot near the bottom (see price and google pin below), enjoyed the view from the base of the falls before hiking up the steep path to the top as well. It’s a bit more effort, but the view of Lake Yunoko Lake from the top is well worth it! Of note, we got a kick out of the signs describing the “feminine beauty” of the falls…at first we weren’t sure exactly what that meant but started giggling like schoolchildren once we saw the view from the bottom. Take a look at the picture below and you may see what we mean 🙂 !

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We departed Lake Yunoko just as the sun began to set and headed back to our Airbnb to decompress and eat dinner. Normally, we would have called it a day, but the night before we noticed some crazy lights from across the fence from where our room was. A quick search revealed that we happened to book justb a few minutes walk from Tobu World Square! It’s an amusment park/museum with incredible models of 102 world-famous buildings at 1/25 scale, including 47 World Heritage sites. Dom thought it sounded super cheesy when we first looked it up, but once we realized it was only a 4 min walk away and that they had already started their winter illumination (with discounted tickets!), we decided to give it a go.

I am SO glad we didn’t skip it as it turned out to be one of the highlights of the trip. For a family like ours determined to go EVERYWHERE and see EVERYTHING, it was absolutley incredible. It was a complete bonus that everything was lit up, and that there was nearly noone else there! We spent 90 minutes running around like crazy people, giddy when we found somewhere we had already been and brimming with excitement to see all of the amazing places we know we will one day go. This place is super easy to brush off, but please give it a try – it was incredible.

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Irohaza Winding Road:

  • Hours: It’s a road…so yes, travel as you like!
  • Admission: Free (yup, no tolls!)

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Akechidaira Ropeway:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1600 (longer hours during the autumn color season)
  • Admission: 730yen/adult (12yo and up); 370yen/child (6yo – 11yo); 5yo and under are free
  • Parking: Free

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Kegon Waterfall:

  • Hours: (lower observation deck): 0800 – 1700 (March – November); 0900 – 1630 (December – February)
  • Admission: 550yen/adult; 330yen/child; children 5yo and under are free
  • Parking: We parked in a local lot for Kegon Waterfall Parking Lot

Chuzenji Temple:

  • Hours:
    • 0800 – 1700 (April – October)
    • 0800 – 1600 (March and November)
    • 0830 – 1530 (December – February)
  • Admission: 500yen/adult; Admission ends 30 minutes before closing
  • Parking: Free

Lake Chuzenji Tip: The cruise terminal is located directly across the street from Chuzenji Temple. The 55-minute cruise (roundtrip) costs 1,250yen/adult and 630yen/school aged children.

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British Embassy:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1700, Monday – Sunday (closed on some holidays)
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free @Chuzenji Temple

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Italian Embassy:

  • Hours: April 1 – November 30: Tuesday – Saturday 0900 – 1600, July – August: 0900 – 1700, Closed December 1 – March 31
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free @Chuzenji Temple

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Mt. Hangetsuyama:

  • Hours: Sunset to Sunrise (busses only operate from July – mid-November)
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free large lot at observatory

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Ryuzu Falls:

  • Hours: April 1 – November 30: Tuesday – Saturday 0900 – 1600, July – August: 0900 – 1700, Closed December 1 – March 31
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: Free

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Yudaki Falls:

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Lake Yunoko:

  • Hours: Sunrise to Sunset
  • Admission: Free
  • Parking: See Yudaki Falls Parking Info above

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Tobu World Square:

  • Hours: 0900 – 1930, open 365 days/year
  • Admission:
    • On day of Visit: 2800yen/Adult, 1400yen/Child
    • In advance: 2500yen/Adult, 1200yen/Child
    • Illumination: 1500yen/Adult, 1000yen/Child
  • Parking: Free (we walked from our Airbnb)

[ D A Y •  ] Nikko: Edo Wonderland → Zushi

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For our last day in Nikko we decided to venture out to Edo Wonderland, an amusement park dedicated to the Edo period of Japan (Edo was the original name for Toyko before it became the capitol of Japan in 1869). To be honest, we thought it was crazy when we first heard about it, but like most things, we are really glad we gave it a shot as the kids had a blast and we learned a lot as well! If you’ve ever been to Colonial Williamsburg in Virginia, think of Edo Wonderland like the Japanese version of that! There are shows (Miles flipped out at the Ninja show), arts/crafts, little museums, fun activities all surrounded by the beautiful scenery and mountains of Nikko.

Edo Wonderland: 

  • Hours: 0900 – 1700, closed Wednesdays
  • Admission:
    • Day Pass: 4,700yen/13yo and up, 2,400yen/6 – 12yo, 5yo and under are free, 3,290yen/senior (65yo and up)
    • Admission after 1400: 4,100yen/13yo and up, 2,100yen/6 – 12yo, 5yo and under are free, 2,870/senior (65yo and up)
  • Parking: 800yen

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