A Day In Nikko, Japan – Taking a Tour Versus Independent Travel

Nikko Shinkyo bridge

The shrines and temples of Nikko, one of Japan’s 21 UNESCO listed sites, are an easy day trip from Tokyo. You can do a day in Nikko either as a tour from Tokyo, or you can go there independently. Either option has its pros and cons. Read my recommendations for a complete Nikko trip experience.

In this post, I discuss the following topics:

  • An overview of the Nikko UNESCO World Heritage Site
  • A day in Nikko with a tour
  • A day in NIkko traveling independently
  • Recommendations for a more complete Nikko visit experience

The Nikko UNESCO World Heritage Site

Nikko, which means “sunlight” in Japanese, was founded in the 8th century by a Buddhist priests. It’s current claim to fame however, comes from the shrine dedicated to the 16th century ruler, Tokugawa Ieyasu. Ieyasu unified Japan and established the Tokugawa Shogunate rule that lasted for almost 300 years, and became known as the Edo Period, (for the capital city Edo, today known as Tokyo).  His mausoleum is part of the very elaborate Toshogu Shrine, which is the centerpiece of the UNESCO sites in Nikko. Along with the Toshogu shrine, the UNESCO sites also include the Rinnoji Temple, and the Futarasan shrine. All told, there are 103 religious buildings that make up this World Heritage site, covering an area of over 1000 acres set within a quiet wooded mountain setting. There is a lot to try and see in one day, regardless of whether you are on a tour or travelling independently.

Toshogu Shrine

This shrine is clearly the peacock in the group. Built in the early 17th century, and unlike most shrines in Japan which are not overtly adorned, this shrine is colorful and decorated with many, many highly detailed carvings and an abundance of gold leaf. The centerpiece is the Yomeimon Gate which alone has over 500 carvings. Toshogu Shrine gets the most visitors and the most attention. (You can read my detailed post about the Toshogu Shrine here ).

Futarasan Shrine

Toshogu Shrine may be the lavish showstopper but Futarasan Shrine is the religious heart of the complex. This more typically sedate shrine, which was also established in the eighth century, preserves the ancient Japanese practice for worshiping mountains – in this case Mt. Nantai, Mount Nyoho and Mount Taro.

The first view of the Futarasan Shrine is actually the red lacquered Shinkyo bridge which is a popular photo spot. From this point, stairs and paths take you up the mountain side to all of the shrines and temples.

Nikko Shinkyo bridge highlighted b fall foliage
Nikko Shinkyo bridge highlighted by fall foliage

A road lined with stone lanterns leads from the Toshogu shrine to the torii gate that marks the entrance for the Futarasan shrine. Beside the torii is a cute small bronze Buddha statue that clearly has its belly rubbed often for good luck. And like other shrines there are a variety of ways to express your faith. Go through a life sized ring in a figure eight pattern for good luck or tie a colorful ribbon with a prayer to a Buddha.

Rinnoji Temple

Rinnoji temple was established in the 8th century by the same Buddhist monk that established Futarasn Shrine. The temple’s main building, Sambudsudo Hall, is undergoing renovations till spring 2019, though the inside is open for visits.

A day in Nikko with a tour

My first trip to Japan was in the summer of 2015. While I normally travel independently throughout Europe, I was not sure how easy independent travel would be in Japan, especially on a first visit, so I signed up for a number of tours that left from Tokyo. It turned out to be a very efficient and easy way to get a good introduction to the highlights of this culturally rich country.

Since I really enjoy history and architecture, I was particularly interested in visiting UNESCO World Heritage sites, so a tour for a day in Nikko was high on my list. I booked a tour from Tokyo to Nikko through City Discovery, but the tour was actually run by JTB Sunrise Tours. The bus tour left from Hamamatsuko Bus terminal which seems to be the central departure point for their Tokyo bus tours, and took three hours to reach the Toshogu shrine in Nikko. During the drive, the guide talked about extensively Japanese culture and provided some preliminary history on the NIkko sites.

Maai shrine area of Toshogu in NIkko
Main shrine area of Toshogu in Nikko on a mid week visit in July

At the Toshogu shrine, we walked right in and our tour guide proceeded to tell us about the buildings and the history of the shrine. Since the tour was mid week, the site was not very busy. We had about 90 minutes here, half of which was guided and half of which was time on our own to explore.  While it sounds like a lot of time, the Toshugu shrine complex is very large with many intricately carved buildings.  I could have spent much more time studying and photographing the highly detailed and ornately carved structures. The tour did not include the ticket to Ieyasu’s mausoleum.

From Toshogu, we proceeded to a local restaurant for lunch, which I chose to skip so that I could walk around to explore and photograph in the area.

After lunch we drove for about 30 minutes to a brief overlook of Lake Chuzenji and Mt. Nantai in Nikko National Park. I took a few minutes during the stop to walk through Chuzenji Temple which was just across the street.

Chunzenji Temple
Chunzenji Temple

The final stop, Kegon Waterfall, was a short drive away.  There was an overlook of the falls from the parking area, as well as access to a hike which takes you down to a closer view of the falls.  But since we only had 30 minutes here, I took the elevator option that took me down through the mountain, to a short tunnel that led to the closer view of the falls.  Very efficient and much easier and not as sweaty.

Kegon Falls
Kegon Falls

The tour then drove us back to Tokyo, dropping us off in the Shinjuku area.

I enjoyed the tour, especially as a first introduction to the Nikko area. It was a very easy and comfortable trip, though when I left Toshogu, I wished I that I could have had more time to explore and enjoy this shrine.

Pros
  • Easy, efficient way to get an overview of the area and visit the sites
  • Tours visit Toshogu during the week when it is not as crowded
  • Bus parked in parking lot next to Toshogu shrine so did not have to walk far to get to it
  • Someone is taking care of the logistics for you so no opportunity to get lost
  • Have a guide that provides color commentary throughout the trip and at the site
  • Don’t have to wait in line to buy your tickets
  • Saw Lake Chzenji and Kegon falls along with Toshogu
Cons
  • As with any tour, you are on a fixed time table and there is little flexibility to explore on your own
  • May not have the time for an in depth or detailed experience
  • For photographers, may not have as much time as you like to get the best photos, or visit during the best lighting
  • Minimal opportunity to interact with locals
  • On the tour we only visited Toshogu, which is only one of the UNESCO sites in the area. There are also many other shrines on the mountain besides the UNESCO listed ones

A day in Nikko as an independent traveler

My most recent visit to Nikko was in Nov. 2017 on a trip with my husband. Since he had not been to Nikko before, I wanted to go back so that he could experience it also. Traveling to Nikko from Tokyo by train was easy.  There are a number of options, and depending on where you are staying in Tokyo will determine the easiest train route to take. If you are trying to use a JR pass, that will also affect which option you choose. For the most up to date train route information, see the Japan Rail website.

Since our hotel was across the street from Tokyo Station, we took the Tohoku Shinkansen (bullet train) to Utsunomiya and then changed to the JR Nikko line to NIkko. We purchased our tickets at the JR ticket office and just asked for tickets to Nikko.  The ticket agent spoke limited English, but enough to understand us and explain our tickets and the route. Tokyo station is very large and can be confusing, but it is well marked in English, so just look for the signs for the Shinknsen track number that you need and follow the signs to it.  Travel time was about 2.5 hours with about a 30 minute wait at Utsunomiya.  We left Tokyo around 8 AM and arrived in Nikko by 10:30 AM.

Nikko Train Station – If it does not look Japanese, it’s because it was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright

The Nikko train station had a very helpful information office that provided a map and information in English on how to get to the World Heritage sites. In front of the Nikko train station was the bus stop for the bus to the shrine area.  There are placards with a map of the area and a bus route map.  There is also a good directional sign pointing you in the right way.

We were visiting on a Sunday during peak fall foliage season, so the line for the bus was quite long. Since we did not see a bus approaching we chose to walk the 30 minutes down the main street to the Shinkyo bridge which marks the entrance to the World Heritage site. This also provided an opportunity for some window shopping at the shops that lined the road.

At the Shinkyo bridge, we starting our climb up the hill to the shrines, but I was distracted by a collection of vibrantly colored maples on the hillside just above the bridge, which provided for a great photo op.

Japanese maples at peak fall color frame the Shinkyo Sacred bridge in NIkko
Japanese maples at peak fall color frame the Shinkyo Sacred bridge in Nikko

As we continued our climbed up the hillside to the Toshogu shrine area, we also explored the Hongu shrine and the Shihonriyuji temple (on our right as we climbed up). These were a less elaborate and more down to earth version of the UNESCO sites further up the hill.

Once we reached the Toshsogu shrine, we got into the long line to get our tickets.  We chose to do our day in Nikko on a Sunday during peak fall foliage season which meant many visitors and a long ticket line. The line moved quickly though and we had our tickets after waiting about 15 minutes. We purchased a combination ticket which took us into the Toshogu shrine and also Ieyasu’s mausoleum. We were able to rent English audio guides at a table just past the entrance through the first gate. The audio guides came with a map and provided detailed descriptions on all of the main buildings in the complex.

Toshogu shrine was significantly more crowded when we visited on a Sunday during peak fall foliage season in mid Nov.

We were on our own time table, so we took our time exploring the site and take a lot of photos. We lingered for quite a while around the Kitoden or prayer hall to observe a Japanese wedding in progress. You can’t be shy if you are having your wedding at a popular site like the Toshogu shrine with hundreds of strangers looking on. This is just the type of experience that travelling independently allows you to slow down for and take in.

Japanese wedding in the Toshogu prayer hall

We also took our time climbing the 200+ stairs to see the mausoleum where Ieyasu Tokugawa is interred.  Compared to the ornate buildings we had just seen, the mausoleum appeared very plain and sedate.

Ieyasu Tokugawa mausoleum
Ieyasu Tokugawa mausoleum

From the Toshogu shrine we walked on to the Futarasan shrine and Jogy-do, another shrine building.  Nearby was also the Tayuin Mausoleum, which is  the third Tokugawa shogun’s tomb.  Unfortunately, in Nov. the Nikko heritage sights close at 4 PM and we just missed getting in to see this.

Visiting Nikko independently allowed us the time and flexibility to see the shrines at our own pace. We were able to see more than just the Toshogu shrine in the World Heritage area, but did not get to see other parts of the Nikko area.

Pros
  • Greater opportunity for interaction with the locals
  • Sense of satisfaction from figuring out how to get there on your own
  • Flexibility on what time you leave to get to Nikko and how much time you spend there – can keep your own schedule
  • Flexibility to explore and take photos when you see a great photo op
  • Have the time to experience special events when you come upon them, like the wedding
  • Visited more of the UNESCO sights than just the Toshogu shrine
Cons
  • Have to figure out how to get to Nikko on your own – have to pay attention at the train stations so you don’t take wrong trains or bus, though train system in Japan is efficient and easy to use
  • Have to walk up the hillside to get to the shrines – not parked right next door
  • May have to wait in line to buy tickets
  • Not as easy to see other sights in the Nikko area – need to take an area bus to get to them

Recommendations for visiting Nikko

  1. A day in Nikko, either as a tour or traveling independently from Tokyo, was doable, but I think that staying longer would provide a greater appreciation for the many sights in the area.  I suggest spending the night in Nikko so you can visit Toshogu as soon as it opens in the morning, before the crowds arrive. Getting an early start would also provide more time to visit all the World Heritage sights in detail.  Once Toshogu gets crowded, move on to the other shrines and temples which do not seem to be quite as popular or as busy.
  2. Visit Toshogu during the week if you can, and not on the weekends when it gets very busy, especially during fall foliage season in mid November.
  3. Stay two or three nights and two full days in Nikko.  Spend the second day visiting the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, the Nikko Botanical Gardens, Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Falls, Ryuzu Waterfall or other sights in the area that interest you.  Consider staying in and enjoying the hot spring town of Chuzenjiko Onsen on the shores of Lake Chuzenji, about a 30 minute bus ride from central NIkko.

Have you been to Nikko? Do you have thoughts or comments about this post? I would love to hear from you on my facebook  page.

Thanks for visiting.

Rose

 

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