When Tokyo residents grow weary of city life, they escape to rural Japan's lush nature. There's no better place for such a getaway than the ultra-scenic town of Nikko. And to truly experience nature at its best, visit Nikko during the fall.
(Main image: PIXTA)
Aside from boasting a gorgeous landscape and hosting a plethora of opportunities to get outdoors, Nikko's charm lies in its relatively hidden nature. Set in Tochigi Prefecture, just 120 km north of Tokyo, this little city was founded by the legendary 8th-century monk Shodo Shonin. From dramatic scenery to an ever-changing topography, Nikko has a lot to offer to those who venture off the beaten path.
Rise early to wander through legendary UNESCO World Heritage sites, chase secret waterfalls, eat strawberries by the lake, photograph the fiery red Autumn makeover, and soak in an onsen before turning in for the night at a plush Ryokan—that's our idea of a perfect day in Nikko!
Before you pack your bags, let's find the best way to reach Nikko, both from the neighboring cities and afar.
How to Reach Nikko from Tokyo
Travelers looking to enjoy the serene autumn landscapes of Nikko have multiple transit options. Two of the most popular routes are the Tobu Line from Asakusa and the Japan Railways (JR) system. Both provide efficient and comfortable rides, ensuring visitors reach Nikko with ease.
Tobu Railway: Consider the Nikko Travel Pass
Using the Tobu Line from Asakusa Station, board one of the limited express trains (like the SPACIA-X) to travel directly to Tobu-Nikko Station. The journey takes around 2 hours.
The cheapest way to make this trip is by purchasing a Nikko Travel Pass. Not only does it take you from Asakusa to Nikko and back, but—depending on the pass—it also includes unlimited rides on local trains and buses within Nikko. Plus, you get additional discounts on services, tickets, and experiences along the route. Choose from a two or four-day option to cover extensive ground.
JR Pass Holders
For travelers with JR passes visiting other regions, begin at Tokyo Station and take the JR Tohoku Shinkansen to Utsunomiya Station, then transfer to the JR Nikko Line and ride all the way to JR Nikko Station.
Though a day trip from Tokyo to Nikko is possible, given the two-hour train ride, we highly recommend dedicating at least an overnight to fully appreciate the region's exceptional sights.
- Use the Tobu Railway: The Tobu Railway provides convenient access to major attractions in Nikko, including Tobu Nikko Station and Tobu Kinugawa Onsen Station.
- Take a Bus: Use local buses to reach specific attractions, such as the World Heritage Bus for historic sites and attractions. While this option is very convenient, anticipate longer lines at bus stops in autumn and consider taking a toilet break before you might need it. Also, consider buying a Nikko Pass, which offers unlimited travel on Tobu Railway lines, indicated buses, and discounts on various attractions.
- Consider Guided Tours: Guided tours around Nikko can provide valuable insights and transportation to multiple sites in one day.
- Renting a car in Nikko can be a viable option depending on your preferences and circumstances, but there are some factors to consider. Having a car provides flexibility and convenience in reaching remote or less accessible areas, such as hiking trails and natural attractions. Renting a car can be more comfortable, especially for those traveling with family or carrying a lot of luggage. However, parking spaces in Nikko can be limited, and some attractions may charge for parking. Also, in autumn, Nikko can experience heavy traffic.
Things to do in Nikko in Autumn
In Nikko, most of the heritage sites are situated in the Historic Area near the entrance of Nikko National Park or inside it, in the breathtaking Okunikko region.
Here's a thoughtfully curated list of the top 12 things to do in Nikko during the fall.
1. Enjoy Firey Autumn Colors at Toshogu Shrine
Nikko is home to an awe-inspiring array of UNESCO World Heritage sites, Toshogu Shrine being the most renowned. A profound symbol of Japan's cultural heritage, the Toshogu Shrine is an impressive complex with about 12 structures. Set just northwest of the station area, it should be the first stop on your trip.
Elaborate stone torii gates serve as portals, drawing visitors into centuries of history. Intricate stone carvings and gold finishings adorn the shrines. Tokugawa Ieyasu—the revered samurai leader and 17th-century shogun—rests eternally within the complex.
Beyond the main tori lies the iconic five-storied pagoda, its striking red hue contrasting beautifully against the time-honored trees.
There are plenty of highlights to spot, like The Three Sacred Storehouses, The Three Wise Monkeys, Yomeimon, and the Sleeping Cat. History buffs and curious travelers can enhance their experience by picking up audio guides available at the information center for in-depth exploration. What's more, for a limited period, you can experience the area lit up in the evening, enhancing the magic of the autumn leaves even further.
2. Visit Nikko Futarasan-jinja Shrine
Exiting Toshogu Shrine, follow the mysterious path lined with lanterns, leading you to Futarasan Shrine. Predating Toshogu Shrine, Futarasan-jinja holds its own special significance. Established by the legendary Shodo Shonin, it is dedicated to three mountain deities.
The temple complex is a maze of gorgeous sacred sites, connected by trails weaving through the mountains. It's easy to lose track of time while basking in the aura of this stunning complex, perched atop the mountain.
3. Wander Around Rinnoji Temple & Taiyu-in Temple Hall
Framed by towering mountains, Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple is another important Buddhist temple in Nikko. Within its grounds lie ancient statues, wooden halls, and precious historical artifacts, all complemented by Shoyoen Garden, a quintessential Japanese garden. This haven of peace owes its existence to Shodo Shonin, who laid the foundation of Nikko's spiritual legacy.
In late autumn, the maple trees of Shoyoen Garden burst into vibrant scarlet hues, offering a splendid backdrop for photography or quiet contemplation.
Before you bid farewell, make sure to pay a visit to the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu's grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, at Taiyu-in Temple Hall.
4. Admire the Shinkyo Bridge and Firey Autumn Foliage
The Shinkyo Bridge, officially part of Nikko Futarasan-Jinja Shrine, rises proudly over the Daiya River. Its vivid vermilion arch, embraced by autumnal foliage, carries profound historical and spiritual meaning. According to local folklore, Shodo Shonin sought the assistance of mountain deities to cross the Daiya River. In response, two serpents manifested and transformed into a bridge, allowing him to pass. You can either cross the bridge or simply stand back and appreciate its beauty from a distance.
5. Take a Scenic Stroll Along the Kanmangafuchi Abyss
Thousands of years ago, Mount Nantai's eruption formed the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, a small ravine along the Daiya River. Today, along the trail, approximately 70 jizo stone statues don red hats and scarves. Revered as guardians of children, women, and travelers, strolling alongside these statues invites a moment of peaceful reflection.
Amidst the fairytale-like wisteria blooms, couples often wander hand in hand beside the gushing river. A mere 22-minute walk from the heritage sites, Kanmangafuchi Abyss merits at least an hour of your time. Plus, it’s a welcome escape from the crowds.
6. Experience Fall at Nikko National Park
After exploring the heritage sites, your Nikko getaway will naturally lead you to the array of experiences waiting at Nikko National Park.
Come Autumn, the park's towering mountains are covered in an endless blanket of red, orange, and yellow hues. Speckled inside the national park are lakes, onsens, and waterfalls, ideal for unwinding. On the other hand, canyons, scenic hikes, and treks are magnets for outdoorsy visitors.
Central to Nikko National Park, the Okunikko area is made up of Mt. Nantai, the expansive Senjogahara marshlands, Lake Chuzenji, and the glorious Kegon Falls.
7. Enjoy Breathtaking Views From Akechidaira Ropeway Observation Deck
Akechidaira is one of the bus stops along the way from Nikko City over to the Lake Chuzenji area. After a 3-minute ride on the ropeway (1,000 yen), you'll be at an observation deck that overlooks Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji, offering a sweeping vista of trees adorned in the dizzyingly beautiful shades of autumn.
8. Take in the Autumn Scenery at Lake Chuzenji
Resting at the foot of Mount Nantai, Lake Chuzenji is an unmissable sight in Nikko. The highest natural lake in Japan, it presents jaw-dropping vistas of the surrounding natural beauty. It's a favored spot for strolls, SUP, and general unwinding. There's also a scenic boat cruise available that operates until the end of November. And don't miss the picturesque Chuzenji Temple, gracing the lake's shores.
9. Chase Waterfalls Surrounded by Fall Colors
Nikko is blessed with beautiful milky waterfalls. If you’re short on time, don't miss Kegon Falls and Ryuzu Falls, conveniently located within a 10-minute drive from each other. For a bit more adventure, consider visiting Ryuokyo Gorge and Kirifuri Falls, which are a bit further away but worth the time getting to.
・1. Kegon Falls:
Amidst Okunikko's lively Autumn scenery, Kegon Falls steals the spotlight. Plummeting 97 meters, this cascade surrounded by fall foliage creates a sight straight from a daydream.
An elevated platform right next to the parking area allows visitors a prime view from the top for free. Another equally impressive viewpoint sits at the bottom of the falls, with an entrance fee of 570 yen. During late October, the leaves around Kegon Falls turn a deep hue, making it the best time for viewing fall foliage.
・2. Ryuzu Falls
Fed by Lake Chuzenji, Ryuzu Falls is a small yet striking cascade known as a "dragon's head" due to its distinctive shape. It's nestled among a canopy of trees with orange and red leaves in autumn, giving Ryuzu Waterfall a fiery transformation, reminiscent of a dragon. This, naturally, places it among Nikko's top spots for witnessing early fall foliage.
For a fulfilling lunch, settle in at the restaurant near the Ryuzu Falls offering Yuba Soba, then set off on a hike along the Senjogahara Trail.
・3. Ryuokyo Gorge
Ryuokyo Gorge invites explorers with its moss-covered boulders, meandering streams, and rugged terrain. See the unspoiled natural landscapes by following the looping trail around the gorge. For more avid hikers, there's an extended 3-hour trail that begins at Ryuokyo Gorge and finishes at Kawaji-Yumoto.
・4. Kirifuri Falls
Plunging 75 meters, Kirifuri Falls offers a refreshing mist, particularly magical in the early autumn months when the surrounding area brimming with maple trees comes ablaze in impossibly bright hues. Those fond of picnics can bring lunch and find a peaceful spot on the benches beneath the trees at the falls' entrance.
10. Soak in Nikko Yumoto Onsen
Autumn in Nikko is the perfect time to soak your tired bones into a smoking hot onsen. The air carries a bite, and the fall foliage makes soaking in an outdoor onsen a heavenly experience for all your senses.
Nikko has an abundance of mineral-rich thermal waters, known for their therapeutic properties. Set inside the Nikko National Park, on the northern shore of Lake Yuno is the Yumoto Hot Springs area. It draws locals and travelers to pause, unwind, and luxuriate in its popular hot springs. Short on time? Opt for a quick remedy at the free foot bath.
It's also the entrance to climb up Mt. Nikko-Shirane - the tallest mountain in the Kanto area.
11. Spend a Day at Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura
Nikko Edomura whisks you away to Japan's Edo period (1603-1867), meticulously recreating an authentic Edo-era town. Villagers don period attire, while the architecture, shops, museums, and interactive experiences offer a genuine glimpse into history.
From samurai demonstrations to artisan workshops like Blacksmith & Armor Repair Shop, the town invites an exploration of Japan's rich cultural past. Take home quirky gifts, navigate through a maze, or venture into the Haunted Temple and House of Illusion.
Stop by the wax museum, Kira-Kozukenosuke and Kodenmacho Jail House, before enjoying live performances featuring water magic, sword battles, and martial arts. For a small fee, visitors can rent and wear traditional garb, becoming a part of Edo's streetscape.
Situated around 30 minutes away by bus from Nikko Toshogu Shrine and northeast of the UNESCO heritage sites, enthusiasts of this Edo-period village will find that the destination more than justifies the effort. Set aside a minimum of 4-5 hours to see the best sights of Nikko Edomura.
12. Eat Local Favorites
Don't leave Nikko without tasting the local delicacies. Besides sublime strawberries, the area's many restaurants bring you the best of local produce straight to your plate. For lunch, you can’t go wrong with Gyoza no Umechan or Uoyou for Soba. Feeling adventurous? Order Yuba from a roadside stall and thank us later.
Yuba, the delicious by-product of Soy milk skin, has been a favorite of resident monks in the region for centuries. For those with a sweet tooth, don't miss out on a vanilla soft serve with a hint of lemon or the fried Yuba manju, a red bean paste dessert, served up at Sakaeya at Tobu Nikko Station.
Fall in Love With Nikko in Autumn
There's an ancient Japanese proverb that says "Never say kekko until you've seen Nikko", implying that only after witnessing Nikko's beauty can one truly appreciate its magnificence. We wholeheartedly agree!
With this guide, you're armed with all the info you need to experience Nikko’s autumn makeover. Be sure to take plenty of photographs, so that memories of Nikko stay vivid long after the final leaves of autumn have fallen.
*Prices and options mentioned are subject to change.
*Unless stated otherwise, all prices include tax.
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