When we were planning our trip to Japan we found it difficult to get information, so I am writing this post so that perhaps it may help anyone considering a trip to Nikko, but it also describes some of our personal experiences on the visit.
Where is it and how do I get there?
Nikko is a town North of Tokyo about two hours by train. It’s higher altitude than Tokyo so a bit cooler, which is wonderful in August. There are two train stations in Nikko: Tobu-NIkko and JR Nikko. The two stations are easy walking distance apart, so it doesn’t make much difference which station you select unless you are using a JR Rail pass, in which case you will want to use JR Nikko so you can use your rail pass.
Exploring on foot
Nikko is very pedestrian friendly. If you enjoy walking there are two nice 5 km loops you can follow to explore the city. One takes you along the river to see beautiful rapids, a row of buddha statues, and of course shrines and temples . The other takes you past the main temples of Nikko. The 5 km loop that goes along the river also makes a good jogging route if you are so inclined. As an added bonus, stopping to pray at the buddhas or a shrine makes a great excuse for a break during your run.
There are not many ATMs in Nikko. So I recommend you take advantage of the 7-11 ATM in Tobu-Nikko station. As all foreigners learn very quickly, the 7-11 is your best friend when you need cash, and you need cash in Japan, especially in a smaller town like Nikko. We were staying at the other end of Nikko from the train station and had to make a special trip into town to get cash because all the 7-11 machines are past the train station (none in the Shinku bridge Tosho-gae temple area).
Why visit Nikko?
There were three reasons we selected Nikko as a destination: The town of Nikko, Edo Wonderland and Nikko National Park. Though many people visit it to visit the hot springs in the mountains. In winter these are the hot springs where the snow monkeys have been known to take a hot bath but we did not see any when we visited in August.
The town of Nikko
The Toshogu shrine is one of the most lavishly decorated in Japan, I’ll be honest though, we never made it there, stunning temples are everywhere in Japan, so we didn’t make visiting each one a priority.
I don’t know what it is about moving water that I find so peaceful and relaxing. I can’t get enough of the sound of rapids flowing past the rocks. As a result, I loved walking along the river in Nikko and having the beautiful Shinkyo bridge spanning the river seems only fitting. This was one of those sights that is so simple, and yet I find myself drawn to it and taking pictures of it over and over.
The walk along the river towards the Kanmangafuchi abyss was equally peaceful, the rows of buddha statues with their red bibs along the pathway. It’s easy to understand why someone chose this location to pray.
What is it?
Edo Wonderland is a touristy historical village. It’s aimed at Japanese tourists (limited English signage) but still fun for tourists like us who don’t speak the language. You can easily spend a half day or possibly a full day here.
How do you get there?
You have a few choices. If you are in Nikko there is a free shuttle bus that travels from JR Nikko station to and from Edo Wonderland about once an hour, but it doesn’t leave until after 9 AM so if you want to be there when it opens, you should take the train. You can take the train to Kinugawa-Onsen from Tobu-Nikko. This is not a JR train line, so you will have to pay for tickets if you have a JR Rail pass. Once you arrive at Kinugawa-Onsen you can either take a taxi (about 2,000 yen) or a shuttle bus (410 yen per person when we visited). The shuttle bus stop is to your right when you exit the station and leaves every 30-60 minutes depending on the time of day. We took the train and a taxi. There were taxis waiting outside the train station and outside the park and the difference in price between the shuttle bus for four people and a taxi was worth the convenience.
What do you do at the park?
The main highlight of Edo Wonderland is the shows, so make sure you check out the show itinerary when you arrive and plan your day around it. There are 4 shows that are recommended for those of us who do not speak japanese: Ninja theatre (20 mins), Magistrate’s office (20 min comedy), water show (20 mins) and ninja show (10 mins). Even these shows do contain dialogue in Japanese, but watching a ninja fight or neat tricks with water is entertaining even if you don’t understand the jokes . You should line up between 10-30 minutes before the show is scheduled to start to ensure a seat. Be forewarned, many of the shoes will have you remove your shoes and sit on the floor ( a challenge for my 6+ foot teenager and husband). If the weather is good there are some additional outside shows, parades and busker acts. The grand ninja theatre was our favorite, the choreography and timing with the sound effects was impressive!
The staff are very friendly and do their best to be helpful. There are moments reminiscent of Disney such as posing for a photo when you enter the park which you is printed and available for purchase later in the day. We were also amused when the ‘police’ came by with a wanted poster and decided I was clearly the villain they were seeking and arrested our family. Luckily they did figure out I was innocent and let us go, but it made a great photo op. We spotted the actual villain later in the day sneaking around the village bribing children with stickers so they would not give away her location to the officials.
In between shows there are different attractions you can explore. We enjoyed the ninja maze with it’s trick doors, and the ninja house. We were a little disappointed with the dungeon and mansion displays. We also toured the sword museum. But each of these exhbitits only took us between 5-10 minutes to explore. Plan your day around the shows, and visit the attractions when you have time to pass between shows.
We spent the money to try all the activities: spinning darts, ninja star (shruiken), and archery. There is an extra fee for these. You purchase tickets to try the activities in the booth, and then give the tickets to the person working the booth. You can use the activities to collect a few souvenirs. My husband and I won fake daggers and my eldest son won rubber nunchuku at the ninja star throwing booth. I won a fan at the pinwheel darts. we won postcards everywhere else. My youngest son stunned the staff and the audience by getting 5 out of 5 pinwheel darts and won a metal sword! I think this is the equivalent of winning a giant teddy bear at the fair. He was absolutely thrilled! This has caused interesting complications for the rest of our trip since it does not fit in our suitcase and has to be carried in its box every where we go. Even when we use the luggage lockers at train stations, the sword is too big to fit! But when Carter got 4 darts in the target and they told him if he gets 5 out of 5 he wins a sword and he got that 5th dart in the target you could not wipe the grin off his face! So it is all worth it!
You can also rent Edo-era costumes to wear for the day. There were several kids around in ninja costumes, and you could pose with some of the characters from the shows after the performances. We had an opportunity to dress as Samurai elsewhere (Samurai museum in Tokyo and Kembu Samurai Theatre in Kyoto) so did not feel the need to splurge on the costumes here.
What do they have to eat?
There are lots of places to grab food at Edo Wonderland. For the less adventurous you can find some basic skewers (Yakitori), we found skewers of duck, chicken, pork, potatoes, and fried dough. On our visit, the English guide book was inaccurate. The food station marked for yakitori chicken and meat and rice bowls only sold potato and dumpling skewers. (NOTE: You can buy just about any food on a stick in Japan , the potato on a stick was basically hash browns on a stick, quite tasty but not what we expected). We had walked past a stall selling chicken skewers earlier and eventually found what we were looking for, but not at the restaurant indicated in our guide book. There are lots of places to sit down with your food. There are also three sit down restaurants in the park even though the guide book says there is only one.
Nikko National Park
Whether you are a serious hiker, or someone who just enjoys admiring waterfalls and a light stroll through the woods, Nikko National Park is a must!
Nikko is known for it’s many waterfalls (although we had no idea this was the case until we arrived and our AirBnB host told us and provided us with an awesome map of the hiking trails!).
You can take a tourist bus from JR Nikko station (or various other stops in Nikko) to Chinguya-Onsen. You probably want to purchase the 2 day bus pass at JR Nikko Station, it’s cheaper than a return trip to the park and back, and it also gives you the ability to take the bus up and down the main strip in Nikko as well. It’s about a one hour ride from the station to the park but well worth it! I recommend boarding the bus at the start of it’s journey at JR Nikko station so you get a seat. When our bus stopped at Tobu-Nikko (the 2nd stop), not all the passengers waiting could board, and some had to wait for the next bus. Though there are some neat fold down middle seats on some buses if you find yourself standing in the aisle.
Hikes and waterfalls
When you get off the bus you can stroll 5 minutes to see a Kegon waterfall. if you want to splurge you can take an elevator to the base of the falls. Pictures never do justice to a waterfall, you have to see it and hear it to appreciate it.
There were a number of restaurants and souvenir shops in the area around Kegon falls. Then we walked up the road and took the pleasure boat across the lake. You can rent a paddleboat and explore the lake at your own pace if you wish.
We got off at the far end of the lake and hiked along an easy trail all the way up to Ryuzu waterfall.
Then we hiked along one of the trails for 2 km through some beautiful forest. The trails were a pleasant stroll, nothing strenuous.
There are much more serious hikes if you want them. There are a number of peaks you can climb up and down in a day taking anywhere from 2 to 8 hours. Keep in mind some of the peak climbs may be closed outside the summer months due to snow.
If you purchased a bus pass, you can catch the bus back to Nikko from a number of diferent stops further up the mountain, so you can hike one way and take the bus back. If you plan to do this make sure you purchase a bus pass that covers the extra distance. There are three different 2 day passes you can purchase each provides travel further up the mountain.
Would I recommend Nikko?
If you like getting a little closer to nature, either as a serious hiker or simply because you enjoy an easy stroll through the woods I think you will enjoy Nikko and I recommend it! Be prepared to spend a fair bit of time either walking to get from one place to another, or waiting for the bus (it doesn’t run that often). Of course as a Canadian, I would be remiss if I didn’t recommend that if you visit during hockey season go cheer on the Nikko Ice Bucks! We met one of the players, Kevin Mitchell, when we were having dinner one night. It turns out he used to play on the same team as my husband’s cousin. It’s a small world after all! Japan is known for it’s baseball, but they have hockey too!