After a month in Tokyo, Nikko was everything we were hoping for!
We knew we were in for a treat on the train ride over once we started seeing forests and mountains all around us, and the town did not disappoint. Located just a couple of hours north of Tokyo, Nikko was the breath of fresh air we were looking for.
During our visit, we hiked through shrines and temples, cruised on a beautiful lake at the base of a volcano, sampled some local dishes featuring tofu skin, and basically had the perfect weekend break.
Looking back on our trip to Japan, the destinations we most enjoyed were the ones where we were surrounded by nature, and Nikko was right up there.
So today I’m going to share some travel tips, foods to try, unique accommodations and things to do in Nikko on your visit.
Getting to Nikko & Travel Tips
If you’re looking to make the most of your trip to Nikko, the Nikko Pass is worth considering.
This is a 4-day pass that includes transportation to and from Nikko, access to local buses once you arrive in Nikko, free admission to select tours and attractions, plus discounts at a few tourist sites, restaurants, and souvenir shops.
It’s worth noting that the free transportation included in this pass is with Tobu Railways on the express and local trains from Asakusa Station to Nikko. These are slower trains that involve connections along the way.
If you want to travel on the limited express trains which are direct and much faster, you can use your pass to upgrade your ticket, which is what we did.
We got the Nikko All Area Pass, which is valid for 4 days, however, if you’re short on time, there’s also the Nikko World Heritage Area Pass which is valid for 2 days and covers a smaller area.
Things to do in Nikko
Now that you know how to get there, let’s move on to the fun stuff: sightseeing, restaurants and fun things to do in Nikko!
Our itinerary included a mix of culture, food and nature. Here’s a list of 10 things we did in Nikko that we’d recommend to visitors:
1) Walk across the Shinkyo Bridge
Our first stop in Nikko was the Shinkyo Bridge, a red-lacquered bridge that crosses the Daiya River.
The story goes that when the high priest Shodo first arrived here with his disciples in the year 767, he was met with a heavy current that made crossing impossible.
Shodo prayed and then two snakes appeared, intertwined themselves, and created this bridge to allow safe passage to the mountains of Nikko.
2) Visit the Toshogu Shrine
Just across the Shinkyo Bridge, we followed the steps up through the forest to the UNESCO World Heritage Site Shrines and Temples of Nikko.
The Shrines and Temples of Nikko form a single complex composed of 103 religious buildings! These are located within two Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple.
Clearly, it would be impossible to cover them all in one visit, so we decided to focus on the most visited of these: the Toshogu Shrine.
This particular shrine was built for Ieyasu, or Tōshō Daigongen, who was the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate also called the Edo Period (1603-1868). This was the third and last of the shogunal governments in Japanese history.
There’s a lot to see and the path will naturally lead you up the mountain and through the forest, so plan to spend a couple of hours here.
3) Eat Street Food in Nikko
There are a few traditional street food snacks that are popular in Nikko, so we stopped to sample those.
The area around the train station has several shops where you can both pick up box sets to take home or stop to sample these local treats.
Some of the things we tried include:
Yuba Manju: sweet and salty tofu skin dumpling stuffed with red beansSweet Potato Cake: steamed dumplings stuffed with yellow sweet potatoIce Cream with Japanese Lemon: soft-serve vanilla ice cream with a lemon glaze
4) Ride the Akechidaira Ropeway
One of the most unexpected things to do in Nikko was riding the Akechidaira Ropeway.
We didn’t know about this place and just happened to see it on the map when we were already riding the bus on our way to the lake.
We decided to get off on a whim and that turned out to be a great decision!
The Akechidaira Ropeway is a short ride – it’s only 3-minutes to the observation platform, but the views are well worth it.
Once we reached the top, we were treated to panoramic vistas of Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Waterfall, and lush green mountains all around.
If you want to properly earn these views, there’s a 2-hour hiking trail that starts at the lake and brings you to this very same spot. Your pick!
5) Visit the Kegon Waterfall
After riding the ropeway, we got back on the bus and continued to Kegon Waterfall, which is one of the top attractions in Nikko.
Kegon Waterfall stands almost 100 meters tall and the water that feeds it comes directly from Lake Chuzenji.
These falls were formed when the Daiya River was rerouted by lava flows and they are truly majestic.
In fact, they are considered to be one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan.
There are two viewing decks: a free one and a paid one at the base of the waterfall, which is accessed by an elevator that brings you down 100 meters. We did both.
Admission: Free or ¥550 for the elevator
6) Sample local dishes made with Yuba
As you can imagine, we were feeling pretty hungry after all that sightseeing, so we decided to find a restaurant serving up the local specialty: yuba!
Yuba is a food product made from soybeans. During the boiling of soy milk, a skin forms on the surface, which is then scooped out and dried into sheets known as tofu skin.
Yuba is eaten all over Nikko and makes appearances in both sweet and savoury dishes, so we wanted to try it.
We found a restaurant called 観光食堂 that we really enjoyed (it didn’t have an English name, but this will get you to the right place if you paste it on GoogleMaps).
The restaurant was run by an older husband and wife duo, who worked their magic in the kitchen and presented us with some of the tastiest noodle bowls we enjoyed during all of our travels in Japan.
I ordered the ramen with yuba and Sam got the udon with yuba. The tofu skin was fluffy and absorbed all the flavours of the miso. It was delicious!
7) Go on a boat tour of Lake Chuzenji
After lunch, we walked down the shores of Lake Chuzenji. This lake is located at the foot of Mount Nantai, a sacred volcano that up until 1872 it was off-limits to cows, horses, and even women!
The boat tour was one of the activities that were included in our Nikko Pass, so we decided to do it. It was a very enjoyable trip aboard a double-decker boat, and we got some beautiful views of the surrounding hills and forest.
Since the boat makes a couple of stops along the way, we decided to get off at Shobugahama, where we were able to hop on a bus again and continue onwards to Yumoto Onsen.
Cost: Free or ¥1250 without the Nikko pass
8) Try the foot bath in Yumoto Onsen
Our next destination was Yumoto Onsen, a small hot springs town located in part of Nikko National Park.
Yumoto means ‘origin of hot water’ and it sits next to Lake Yunoko which means ‘hot water lake’. Names are quite literal around these parts!
Since the hot springs are the main draw to this town, we decided to check out the foot bath, which is free. We asked for directions at the information office and then made our way on foot.
Well, whoa-ho-hoooo, get ready for your toes to cook!
It was piping hot in there. I could only dip my feet in the water for a few seconds at a time and even that had me sweating.
Is it any surprise that I decided I needed ice cream to cool down after that?
9) Ice Cream at Sanbonmatsu
We hopped on the bus again, this time ready to start making our way back to Nikko, but made a quick pit stop at Sanbonmatsu.
This is essentially a parking lot, but it has restaurants, souvenir shops, access to the marshland hiking trails, and most importantly, ice cream!
The ice creams at this stop were made with fresh milk from Swiss cows that live at a nearby farm (this farm is a place we drove past but didn’t have enough time to visit). Even though it was soft-serve ice cream, it had a creamier quality and it was exactly what I needed.
10) Walk along Senjogahara Moor
Now for the final activity on this Nikko travel itinerary!
Simply being out in nature was one of our favourite things to do in Nikko, and we especially enjoyed Senjogahara Moor.
The Senjogahara Marshland covers the area between Lake Chuzenji and Yumoto Onsen and it offers some great hiking opportunities within Nikko National Park.
We only covered a small portion of it, but the Senjogahara Plateau Nature Trail which follows the Yukawa River can be completed in two-and-a-half to three hours.
Where to stay in Nikko
When it comes to choosing accommodations in Nikko, most visitors generally stay in a ryokan. This is a traditional type of accommodation in Japan that feature rooms with tatami floors, communal baths, and public areas where you can wear yukatas.
A ryokan generally provides breakfast and dinner, with a focus on traditional Japanese cuisine showcasing seasonal ingredients and regional specialities.
They are also typically located in scenic areas close to nature, so it’s easy to see why Nikko has plenty of these.
Most of Nikko’s ryokans are a few kilometres outside of the town and require some form of transportation (either a rental car or a hotel pick-up), however, there is a small selection of centrally-located ryokans which I’ve listed below.
Just be sure to look these up on a map, to make sure you’re happy with their location:
Nikko Senhime Monogatari – property overlooking the Daiya River and onsen with great views (see reviews)Okunoin Hotel Tokugawa – secluded property on the banks of the Tamozawa River with lush scenery and an open-air spa room (see reviews)Nikko Hoshino Yado – centrally located ryokan close to the Shinkyo Bridge and the shrines and temples of Nikko (see reviews)
Since we were in Nikko for a few nights, we personally opted for something a bit more budget-friendly and booked a hotel instead of a ryokan. We stayed at Nikko Station Hotel II, which to be honest, suited us perfectly! You can read their reviews here.
For starters, the hotel was located just across the Tobu-Nikko Train Station, which is also where the bus terminal is located. This meant that we just had to walk down the street, and we could hop on a bus right away and go sightseeing.
Like in most of Japan, the rooms were compact, but they were bright, offered mountain-facing views, and served up a free breakfast.
Final thoughts on trip to Nikko
Four days in Nikko was the perfect weekend escape from Tokyo, but I definitely felt like we barely scratched the surface.
If I lived in Tokyo, I could easily see myself coming up to Nikko for follow-up visits to enjoy the landscapes during the different seasons. We travelled in summer, but autumn in Nikko is meant to be beautiful!
While we made the most of our 4 days in town, here are some ideas of other things to do in Nikko if you have more time:
Explore the other temples and shrinesEnjoy a scenic walk along Lake YunokoVisit Yutaki FallsHike the Senjogahara Moor TrailGo up to the Kirifuri Highlands and Kisugedaira PlateauTour the Ozasa FarmEnjoy the different onsen available throughout the valley
If you need any more sightseeing ideas for Nikko, just pick up one of the brochures from the train station or walk into the tourist information centre – they are super helpful in there and speak English fluently.
Have you travelled to Nikko?
What were some of your favourite things to do in the area?