If you like looking at grand shrines and temples Nikko is a place for you. It can easily be accessed on day trip from Tokyo, taking just over 2 hours (depending where you’re based of course). It’s not the cheapest trip as part of the way you have to get the Shinkansen (bullet train). One way it costs 5580 yen, however the cheapest way we found was to buy a JR Kanto area pass (more info here http://www.jreast.co.jp/e/kantoareapass/ ) and of course many of the other Japan Rail passes will cover the trip too.
The pass is a great way to see places just outside Tokyo such as Mount Fuji, Izu peninsula, Kusatsu etc.
Nikko is a World Heritage Site made up of a number of buildings in an area about half an hour walk from the main station. The town itself wasn’t really open when we were there, but there was the usual couple of tourist souvenir shops and a Sunkus (konbini).
Like something out of a movie, once you pass the main street the whole area is enclosed by nature. The trees are huge!
The first thing you are likely to see is the spiritual Shinkyo-bashi (Shinkyo bridge) that crosses over the Daiya-gawa (Daiya river).
There is a charge to walk on the bridge (100 yen at this time) which seems a bit silly when the best view is actually just across from it, and you can see the valley from pretty much any angle. Needless to say we didn’t bother paying to walk over it.
In fact, this raises an important point about Nikko in general. While the area is definitely worth a visit (the architecture, artwork and scale of the buildings are enormous), everything seemed to be about money.
Usually in Japan things have very reasonable rates of admission and while souvenirs are available they’re not forced upon you. In particular, shrines and temples are usually free. In Nikko, there are three areas (possibly more?) which you must pay to see individually, and while walking around some of the key features you often feel like you’re being pushed towards one of the many sales desks. I understand these popular areas need to pay for their upkeep and maintenance, but Nikko was the only area we’ve visited so far on the trip that it actually became an annoyance. Also, before you go, check where work is being carried out in the grounds (this goes for any Japanese tourist site) because it’s really annoying paying 1,300 yen (about £8) to get in somewhere, only to find half of it is covered in scaffolding and dust covers.
We chose to visit the Toshugu Shrine as this was the largest and looked the most interesting from the guidebooks.
Near the entrance was a five story pagoda (which you can go into the bottom floor, for a fee of course…) and above the ticket gate it points out the key features as being The Three Wise Monkeys, The Sleeping Cat, and ‘The Crying Dragon’, which are carvings and a huge ceiling painting respectively.
There are lots of other impressive things to see, and while the Sleeping Cat itself isn’t particularly impressive, it does sit above the gateway to a huge flight of stairs that take you to a breathtaking view.
You can hire an audio guide for the walk around. To be fair this is something I would expect to pay for, but as we had our Dorling Kindersly guide with us we didn’t bother. If you’d like to find out more of the particulars of Nikko, Japan Guide already have an excellent page about it here.
Pictures speak a thousand words, so from here we’ll leave you with the gallery.