Last Monday was another one of Japan’s random national holidays – Health Sports Day – so a couple friends and I headed to Nikko. Located in the mountains north of Tokyo in the Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is a small town famous for its beautiful nature and collection of shrines and temples, which have been recognized by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. It was supposed to be, as all the guidebooks describe it, a fun, easy day trip from Tokyo, only two hours by train. In reality, it took us over five hours to get there.
Those “two hours” did not factor in time from my house to Asakusa station, where the train departs from, or the giant accident that was blocking the tracks to Nikko. Once we had all made our way from our respective houses to the station, found each other, bought our tickets, got to the right track, and found seats (not as simple as it sounds), we learned about the accident. It was so bad that instead of just having us wait like normal, they kicked everyone off the train and completely re-routed us. Our new route had three different transfers and took nearly two full hours longer than we were expecting. Shō ga nai.
By the time we arrived in Nikko, it was nearly one pm. We grabbed some soba for lunch, and then headed in to the UNESCO World Heritage Site. The site encompasses two Shinto shrines and one Buddhist temple, as well as the cedar grove they are housed in. It’s a huge complex, with 103 different buildings and structures, set in a magnificent forest. As soon as I walked into the cedar grove, I knew I was somewhere special. It’s a sacred place; it’s easy to feel. Without any explanation, it made instant sense to me why the shrines and temples had been built here. The cedar trees are enormous – probably some of the biggest trees I’ve ever seen in my life – and truly inspire awe. Everything was covered in moss and just felt alive. It’s a stunningly beautiful forest, and just being there makes you feel the magical power of nature.
We toured around the site for a couple hours. The most famous of the buildings is the Nikkō Tōshō-gū Shrine. Established in 1617 as a memorial for Tokugawa Ieyasu, founding ruler of the Tokugawa Shogunate, it is one of the most ornately decorated shrines in Japan. Unfortunately, the central Yomeimon Gate was closed for renovations (probably in preparation for the 2020 Olympics), but we could still see the rest of the building, as well as the surrounding complex. We were also able to enter the shrine. It was cool and dark inside. The lavish and intricate decorations were very different from any other shrine I’ve seen in Japan. My favorite part of the whole complex was the five-story pagoda building.
After the shrines and temples, we stopped into the Shōyō-en Japanese Garden, which was lovely. It was perfectly manicured and idyllic. The leaves on some of the trees were beginning to change, giving me my first real feeling of autumn in Japan!
Next, we stopped by the Shinkyo Bridge, meaning, “sacred bridge,” which stands at the entrance of the temples and shrines. Set against the backdrop of the forest, with vividly blue river water running below, it was a very pretty sight. Apparently, it is one of the three “finest” bridges in Japan.
The area around Nikko has a lot more to offer, including a National Park with hiking trails, waterfalls, and a botanic garden. But, we couldn’t squeeze much more into our abbreviated day trip, so we spent our last hour before the train home wandering around Nikko. The town itself is quite small and sleepy. Most of the stores and restaurants were closed, but there was one stand open, selling hot fresh dango. Dango is one of my new favorite Japanese snacks. It’s sticky little balls made from rice flour and sugar, served on a stick. The black sesame flavor is my favorite.
I also tried one of Nikko’s specialties – yuba, or tofu skins. Almost every restaurant we saw was advertising its yuba. Nikko used to be inhabited by vegetarian monks, who ate a lot of tofu, which is why it’s so popular. I ate an age yuba manju – red bean paste wrapped in yuba, than deep-fried and salted. It was warm, sweet, salty, and delicious!
Despite the hassle of the trains in the morning, Nikko was definitely worth the trip. It’s a magical place, and I would love to come back explore it some more!