Nikko, located in northwestern Tochigi Prefecture, is an idyllic, picturesque town teeming with historical sites, breathtaking wilderness, and delectable delicacies. The town flourished as a gateway to the Tosho-gu Shrine, cultivating a unique culture as sightseers flocked to witness these magnificent structures.
While a well-known destination for international travelers to Japan, off the beaten path, lies a wealth of hidden gems, and the full breadth of Nikko remains largely unknown.
In this article, we’ll introduce 20 Nikko recommendations, including sightseeing, experiences, food, and shopping, separated by the four seasons. Read on to discover how to make the most of this one-of-a-kind destination!
Main photo: PIXTA
Things to Do in Nikko All Year
Sightseeing: Explore the Wonders of Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine
Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine is one of Japan’s most prestigious spiritual structures and is a UNESCO World Heritage Site registered as part of the “Shrines and Temples of Nikko.” The shrine is famous for its connection to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and instigator of the Edo period.
Many of the current Tosho-gu Shrine buildings were erected in 1636 under the third shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu, grandson of Ieyasu. Within the complex are eight designated National Treasures and 34 Important Cultural Properties, offering lots to explore. There are also dozens of other historic shrines and temples nearby, including Futarasan Shrine and Rinno-ji Temple, all encompassed by deep wilderness irresistible to the adventurous spirit!
Experience: Jump Back in Time at Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura
If you’ve ever fantasized about being an Edo-period samurai, Nikko is where dreams become a reality!
Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura is a historical theme park centered around an Edo period (1603-1867) townscape rendered with extraordinary detail. Inside are exciting shows and experiences, including the Oiran Courtesan Procession, Grand Ninja Theater, and even samurai training classes. Combine this with mazes, prisons, temples, and scrumptious retro dining, and you’ve got a day’s worth of fun!
Food: Yuba Tofu
One of the most beloved dishes of Nikko is “yuba,” a type of tofu made from soy milk boiled into a thin skin. While yuba is found across several regions of Japan, Nikko’s rendition is unique for having the skin wrapped up for a more voluminous helping. There are specialty restaurants serving fresh, delicious yuba all throughout Nikko, so definitely give it a try!
Things to Do in Nikko in Spring
Sightseeing: Wander the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park
Nikko remains cool and refreshing in spring, making it the perfect season to explore both indoor and outdoor attractions. A brief walk from Tosho-gu, the Nikko Tamozawa Imperial Villa Memorial Park has the best of both, centered around a grand, rustic old manor amongst breathtaking greenery.
The villa was moved from Tokyo to Nikko in 1899, becoming a summer retreat for the Imperial Family. After decades of neglect following WWII, it was restored and opened to the public in 2000, immediately becoming one of Nikko’s most iconic attractions. The interior contains over 100 rooms blending Edo and Meiji architecture with stylish Western trimmings, all encompassed by a spacious garden.
Experience: Hike the Senjogahara Field
The invigorating springtime weather is also perfect for hiking, and there are plenty of stunning trails to uncover in Nikko! One of the most scenic is the Senjogahara Field, a flat, raised bog stretching out around 400 hectares. A boardwalk guides visitors through its heart, able to be completed in just two hours.
Food: Strawberry Parfait
Tochigi Prefecture produces the most strawberries in Japan, and are widely considered to be the best in the nation. Tochigi strawberries have bright hues and bulky sizes, bursting with a nutritious sweetness balanced with a refreshing tartness.
Parfaits jam-packed with strawberries are the tastiest way to get your fill, and you can find these sweet creations at many cafes around the prefecture.
Things to Do in Nikko in Summer
Sightseeing: Kayak the Picturesque Lake Chuzenji
Even in summer, Nikko stays cool, making it a great time to get active! The centerpiece of the nature-rich “Oku Nikko” area is Lake Chuzenji, a picture-perfect body of water encircled by vast wilderness. Here you can unwind, cool down, and exercise with Lake Chuzenji kayaking experiences, allowing full appreciation of the beauty of the season.
Experience: Canyoning at Nikko National Park
Canyoning is an exhilarating activity ideally suited for summer! It involves traversing canyons by hiking, climbing, sliding, abseiling, swimming, and more. While challenging, it is safe and suitable for beginners, and will leave you with a rewarding sense of adventure and achievement.
With an experienced, licensed guide helping you along the way, you’ll dive deep into the pristine wilderness of Nikko National Park. Being far off conventional trails, this side of Nikko remains largely undocumented by travel guides, taking you back in time to a primeval version of Japan.
Kakigori is a simple dessert made from flavored shaved ice, and is a staple of summer in Japan. Delicious yet cheap, it cools down the body while exciting the taste buds during the sweltering, humid summer months.
Nikko has a surprisingly deep connection to this humble treat, hosting three of Japan’s five remaining traditional “icehouses,” which once numbered a hundred during the early Showa period. If you’re feeling overheated, track down one of these nostalgic icehouses and freshen up with this tasty pick-me-up.
Things to Do in Nikko in Autumn
Sightseeing: Jaw-Dropping Foliage at Kirifuri Falls
Nikko is one of Japan’s fall foliage hotspots, and the parks, forests, plains, and streetscapes burst into a fiery parade of colors come autumn. Stunning foliage can be appreciated all throughout Nikko, including iconic sights like Shinkyo Bridge, making it a photographer’s paradise.
However, an autumn lover’s first stop should be Kirifuri Falls, one of Nikko’s three famous waterfalls. This staggering 75-meter drop turns the falling water into a fine, refreshing mist, making it a popular getaway during the lingering heat of early autumn. While each season has its own allure, seeing it ablaze with red, yellow, and orange hues is the pinnacle of beauty!
Similarly, Kegon Falls are a must-see sight in Nikko. Upon first sight, it becomes instantly apparent why Kegon Falls is ranked as one of Japan’s three most beautiful waterfalls. At just under 100 meters tall, it stands powerfully apart from the otherwise serene surroundings. The view is particularly beautiful in late spring to early summer when it is engulfed by lush green overgrowth.
These falls in Japan serve as an outlet for nearby Lake Chuzenji, both of which can be seen from Kegon’s free observation deck. To truly appreciate its impressive scale, tickets can be purchased to ride an elevator to the base of the falls. Those looking for more of a bird’s eye view can ride the nearby Akechidaira Ropeway to take in the entirety of the landscape.
Experience: Unwind in Onsen Hot Springs
Nikko is also a popular “onsen” hot spring town, boasting dozens of traditional inns offering both accommodation and day-trip plans. As the temperature will start to get nippy by November, autumn is a great time to enjoy the local hot spring culture. Many are nestled amongst radiant nature, allowing plenty of time to soak in seasonal beauty.
Some of the most popular hot springs in Nikko are at Nikko Yumoto Onsen, which sits on the northern shore of Lake Yunoko. Nikko Yumoto Onsen has a long history of healing weary locals and travelers, stretching all the way back to the founding of Nikkozan Rinnoji Temple in 788. The lustrous, milky-white water feels soft on the skin, and is renowned for its potent beautifying properties.
Food: Tochigi Wagyu
Wagyu beef is one of the most coveted delicacies in Japan, and, while most famous in Kobe, wagyu of remarkable quality can be enjoyed all throughout the country. Nikko has proudly developed its own share with “Tochigi Wagyu,” sourced from carefully bred and raised Japanese Black cattle of the highest ranking. It is praised for its fine, delicate marbling, and exudes gentle but potent flavors. It is served as various dishes, including steak, Hamburg steak, yakiniku, and more, at restaurants throughout Nikko, so be sure to save some room in your budget!
Things to Do in Nikko in Winter
Sightseeing: Become Enchanted by a Snow Festival
Sitting at a sizable altitude in inland Japan, Nikko receives its fair share of snowfall. The historic structures of Nikko shine brilliantly beneath the shimmering snow, making it well worth braving the freezing temperatures.
Brightening up the spirits of locals, snow festivals are commonplace throughout winter in Japan. Around late January, the Okunikko Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival is held, featuring jaw-dropping ice sculptures and an enhancing light-up called the “yukiakari.” If the cold weather is getting you down, spending an evening at this festival will doubtlessly cheer you up!
Experience: Snow Cycling on Mount Nasu
If you’ve already had your fill of skiing, snowboarding, snowshoeing, and more, then the offbeat activity of “snow cycling” should be your next winter challenge! Riding on specially-made, heavy-duty “fat bikes” with supersized wheels, you’ll race effortlessly through the thick snow of Nikko’s scenic Mount Nasu, enjoying stunning panoramas of the Kanto Plain and more from an altitude of 1,400 meters! Nikko is the sole location for snow cycling in Kanto, so don’t miss out!
Food: Nikko Soba
With significant temperature drops between day and night, the climate of Nikko is ideal for buckwheat farming. Combine this with an abundance of pristine, natural water, and you’ve got everything you need for scrumptious, top-quality soba!
Naturally, Nikko boasts a wealth of soba dishes to indulge in, many incorporating the above-mentioned “yuba” tofu skin, adding a soft, pudding-like texture. No matter your travel fatigue, a helping of Nikko soba will perk you right up, ready for another day’s sightseeing!
Shopping in Nikko
Shopping for local products is at the heart of the joy of traveling! Fortunately, despite its modest size, there’s plenty of shopping to do in Nikko, so make sure to pack extra bags!
・Nikko-bori (Nikko Woodcarving)
Originating in the early Edo period, Nikko-bori is the primary traditional handicraft of the region. The art form was born from carpenters brought to Nikko to build Tosho-gu Shrine, who would carve these trinkets in their free time. Nikko-bori pieces are noted for their elegant curves and exquisite lacquer coating.
・Nikko Pudding Tei Main Store
Lately, Nikko has become famed for its puddings owing to the work of Nikko Pudding Tei, just a 5-minute walk from Tobu-Nikko Station. Retro-cute glass jars promise a tantalizing assortment of flavors, including caramel, strawberry, coffee, matcha, chocolate, and more. There are also alluring seasonal versions, such as chestnut in autumn, cherry blossom in spring, and banana in summer. Puddings are made with fresh milk from Nikko’s Ozasa Farm, along with Tochigi strawberries and Nikko Goyouran Eggs.
The majority of hot spring towns in Japan specialize in “manju” sweet steamed buns. Nikko is no exception, with the lesser-known “sakamanju” being particularly sought-after by visitors to the shrines and temples. Sakamanju use the same “koji” fermentation mold also used in sake brewing, making the flour-based pastry skin soft and tender while imbuing it with sake-like aromas.
While not as famous as other varieties, sakamanju are actually the oldest manju in Japan, and have been a staple in Nikko for hundreds of years. It’s even said that the Taisho Emperor, who reigned over Japan during the Taisho era between 1912 to 1926, covertly sought out sakamanju while visiting Nikko, so don’t miss out on these treats fit for an emperor!
“Geta” are a form of traditional wooden sandal-like shoe now commonly seen at festivals and during hot spring sojourns. “Nikko geta” feature a similar sturdy base of wood with the addition of a stylish straw insole woven from bamboo skin. The unique design originates from “zori” straw sandals, which were required to be worn when entering the sacred grounds of the temples and shrines of Nikko. However, as many paths in Nikko were rough and graveled, and covered by deep snow in winter, these elegant yet delicate shoes needed some toughening up. The woven bamboo also makes them cool in summer and warm in winter, and has fantastic water absorbency, making Nikko geta fit comfortably all year round!
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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