Japan: Back to nature in Nikko

Just two hours from Tokyo, this national park is home to maple-flanked mountains, glassy lakes and steaming Onsens

By Tobu Group
Published 8 Apr 2019, 23:59 BST
Nikko, Japan
Nikko, Japan
Photograph by Getty Images

In spring, nature’s colours begin to show in Nikko National Park. Flocks of mallards, coots and tufted ducks descend, rootling among the green shoots of cotton grass fields and among rhododendrons, azaleas and blossoming cherry trees. Summer brings water-based fun — standup paddle boarding (SUP) and canoeing on Nikko’s three lakes. Don’t miss Kegon Falls, and kakigōri shaved ice, made from Nikko’s spring water. Autumn is a symphony of colour: fields of burnt-orange, mountains wrapped in scarlet maples and rosy-leafed Mongolian oaks. And then there’s the silver season, when you can snow-shoe between sugi pines, stroll across frozen lakes and partake in shibuki-gouri — admiring Narnia-like icicles. Visitors will also be met with the region’s spiritual side, glimpsed in ancient Shinto shrines, Tori gates and ornate Buddhist temples.


Shinto shrines abound in Nikko. From elaborate structures to more modest affairs, there are myriad temples in this national park. Here are a few to check out on your visit:

Built in 1653 on the orders of the third Tokugawa shogun in honour of his beloved grandfather, this cluster of kaleidoscopically colourful structures, set within a forest of cypress and cedar, is arguably Nikko’s most beautiful temple complex. Despite this, however, it receives far less footfall than its neighbours. Pass through the vermilion Niomon Gate and stroll between tiny grottos and intimate prayer halls amid dozens of grand copper lanterns. The main prayer hall is all shimmering gold-lacquered pillars, wooden carvings and precious artworks. Look out for the display case holding a diminutive suit of authentic samurai armour.

Winged pagodas, tiered temples, golden shrines, fearsome gods, wooden gates intricately decorated with flowers, birds and bucolic scenes — Toshogu is a one-stop shop for all your Japanese temple fantasies. Bring a wide-angle lens to capture the flamboyant Yomeimon Gate, a designated national treasure covered with over 500 carvings.

Takinoo Shrine
Follow in the footsteps of ancient sages with a gorgeous morning walk through a sun-dappled forest to the modest Takinoo Shrine. A towering stone tori (entrance gate) marks the approach; throw a stone through the small hole at its centre and it’s said all your wishes will come true.

Tachiki Kannon
Dating back to the eighth century, this simple, red-lacquered temple contains a humbling 1,200-year-old carved wooden Kannon (the Goddess of Mercy) and a ceiling painted with a magnificent black-and-white dragon. Head to the upstairs balcony for sweeping views of Chuzenji Lake and Mount Nantai.


Try some soba noodles: Family-run Takumi restaurant is said to serve the best soba (buckwheat noodles) in town. Pass through its navy blue curtains and settle in for a bowl of duck soup with green onion, yuzu pepper and soba.

Take a dip in an onsen: After a hard day’s adventuring, visit the 41C onsen at the Nikko Astoria Hotel. Surrounded by sugi pine trees, it’s fed from sulphur springs that bubble up from nearby Yunoco Lake.

Sip some sake: The tiny Katayama Sake Brewery is over 140 years old, its rice wine made by six generations of the Katayama family. Tours of its old wooden brewery are free — and fascinating — but need to be booked in advance.

Get a good night’s sleep: Located on the shore of Chuzenji Lake, the Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel is a warm, woody haven, with a roaring fire in the lobby, a light-filled restaurant, an in-house onsen and cosy rooms.

An onsen, a Japanese hot spring
Photograph by Getty Images

Q&A with Mr Sekiguchi

Mr Sekiguchi inherited his temple and monkhood from his father and has lived in Nikko for the past 14 years

What is Zen?
Zen is a form of Buddhism, and within Zen there are several sects. Although the goals are mainly the same, I practise Tendai Zen.

What makes Nikko a great Zen retreat?
I love the harmony of its long and rich history, religions and nature. If I had to pick one, I’m most inspired by its nature.

What place does Zen have in the modern world?
We live in an era of abundance but our minds aren’t satisfied. Zen allows us to reflect on ourselves. We need to train our minds through Zen, as we train our bodies at the gym.

What can we all do every day to bring some Zen into our lives?
It’s important to spend time alone; sitting and doing nothing even for two or three minutes will be beneficial.

Don’t miss…
Meditating with a Zen monk. A sub-temple of Rinnoji Temple, Jyogyo offers visitors the chance to learn the finer points of Zen with a monk. A one-hour sessions cost 1,000 JPY (£7) and needs to be booked in advance.


Daisuke Fukuda owns paddleboard company Sup! Sup!, taking people out on Nikko’s pristine Lake Chuzenji; a job he wouldn’t change for the world

In many ways, Daisuke has the perfect job. On a busy day, the standup paddleboard instructor gets paid to share his passion with visitors to Nikko National Park. And on the quiet days, when no one walks through his doors, he doesn’t mind too much; being alone in this remote corner of Japan is his idea of heaven.

“I love the feeling of being so close to nature,” he says. “You can really hear it — the water, the birds, the wind. I love Lake Chuzenji. It’s surrounded by mountains and sits at an elevation of 4,160ft, so the scenery is different here than anywhere else in the country.”

Something of an understatement; Nikko is home to some of Japan’s most jaw-dropping views, which reach their photogenic peak during autumn, when the park transforms into a stunning patchwork of red and gold. But it’s not to Daisuke’s liking. “There are too many crowds,” he groans. Winter is his favourite time of year, boots crunching along Chuzenji’s shore covered with January snows. “It’s really quiet, and you can also view ‘shibuki-gouri’ [translation: ‘ice splash’],” Daisuke explains, going on to describe how the freezing winds turn Nikko into a vast outdoor sculpture gallery, complete with frozen waterfalls and icicle-covered rocks and trees.

Daisuke learned many water sports in New Zealand. When he arrived back in Japan, he had an epiphany. “When I returned to Nikko, I realised this would be the perfect place for it; tour boats and fishing boats are banned on one half of the lake so you can SUP over to the western side, which is only accessible on foot otherwise, and be completely alone.”

But Daisuke’s life in Nikko doesn’t entirely revolve around SUP activities. “There’s a really nice walk around the lake, which takes about eight hours and is very peaceful. You can also go canoeing, hill-walking, trail running or try fly-fishing.” Daisuke’s voice trails off, apparently lost in reverie; his thoughts no doubt straying back to the Narnia-like park he calls home. And who can blame him?

Lake Chuzenji, Nikko
Photograph by Getty Images


How to get there: Tobu Railways operate a direct train from Asakusa, Tokyo, to Nikko. A cheap and efficient public bus system shuttles visitors from the town centre to Chuzenji Lake and up into the mountains.

When to go: There really isn’t a bad time to visit and each season has its own charms, but the autumn leaf-peeping months are the most popular time of year.

For more information, visit tobujapantrip.com/en/brand


Published in the April 2019 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)

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