Nikko National Park (日光国立公園) is Japan’s most beautiful park. It is located 150 kilometres north of Tokyo and houses one of the country’s most important temple sites. It is even on the UNESCO World Heritage List and the locals are delighted to visit this magnificent park. For hiking, to visit the temples, but especially to enjoy the beautiful surroundings. Enough reasons for you to visit Nikko National Park and the historical temples of the Unesco World Heritage list.
What would you like to know about Nikko National Park in Japan?
- History – 5 historical facts – Did you know…?
- Sightseeing – What to do in Nikko?
- Accommodation – Where to stay
- Transport – How to get there
History – 5 historical facts – Did you know…?
The Monk Shodo Shonin crossed the Daiya River
The monk Shodo Shonin (735-817) crossed the Daiya River with help of two snakes in 766 AD. On the same spot you now find the much-photographed red Shinkyo Bridge.766
The Monk Shodo Shonin crossed the Daiya River
That same monk founded a number of temples, of which Rinnoji Temple was the first. It is the oldest shrine in the park.766
The ruler of the Edo-shogunate, Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616) had his mausoleum built here and the accompanying temple is decorated with 500 kilos of gold leaf.1634
Nikko National Park was granted National Park status by the Japanese government in 1934.1934
The temples of Nikko are of such great historical value that they have been on UNESCO’s World Heritage List since 1999.1999
Sightseeing – 7 things to do in Nikko National Park
The best time to travel to Nikko National Park is between April and November. In October and November, the park is covered in beautiful colours due to the autumn leaves. However, are you planning to go to Nikko in summer? It can be quite busy then. Not only tourists, but also the local population likes to come here. It is recommended to visit the temples early in the morning or at the end of the afternoon, when the buses with tourists have left.
There are many beautiful walks to be taken in Nikko. The most famous one is the hike to Mount Nantai, the highest mountain in this area. It is located by Lake Chuzenji. This hike will take around 4 or 5 hours. Would you prefer to have a more relaxing time and see some special sights? Then read on and discover 7 historical places with an impressive story…
1. Discover the place where Shodo Shonin crossed the Daiya River…
This is the first historical site you will see in Nikko National Park. It is Japan’s most famous and photographed bridge, the Shinkyo Bridge (神橋). The monk Shodo Shonin decided to cross the river and prayed to God for a happy outcome. He helped Shonin by sending two snakes that formed a bridge. The monk crossed the river in 766 and founded a few temples on the other side. The current bridge has been in place since 1904, after a storm destroyed the former bridge. As far as we know, the bridge has existed since 1673, but it could also be older.
You can walk on it for a small fee. But the best thing to do is to take a picture of the Shinkyo bridge and the beautiful colourful area.
2. Go to Nikko’s main temple, the Rinnoji Temple
After Shodo Shonin crossed the river, he founded the Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺) in 766. It was first called the Shihonryu Temple, but with its foundation he introduced Buddhism to the region. Around 800 Rinnoji Temple became part of the Tendai, a Japanese movement within Buddhism. In the following centuries, the complex expanded considerably and many important monks visited this place. Expect a visit to this temple to take about 1 or 2 hours.
3. Toshogu Shrine: Visit the mausoleum and the golden Temple
The Toshogu Shrine (東照宮) is a tribute to the first shogun (leader) of the Tokugawa shogunate: Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616). He founded the Edo Shogunate in 1603, which lasted until 1868. He was closely involved in the design, but wanted it all to be more sober than it is now. Containing more than 500 kg of gold leaf, this temple is Nikko’s most visited attraction. And therefore also the most expensive. The complex is full of symbolism and behind the Golden Temple you can visit his mausoleum.
Would you like to know more about the Toshogu Shrine? Read the article Toshogu Shrine | A historical explanation of this Golden Temple
4. The Futarasan shrine in honour of Mount Nantai
In 782, the monk Shonin founded a second temple in Nikko, the Futarasan shrine (二荒山神社). This shrine is dedicated to the gods of Mount Nantai, Nyoho and Taro. These mountains are located in Nikko. A part of the complex can be visited for free and contains a number of gardens and a number of small temple buildings. For the main building, a small fee has to be paid.
At the foot of the mountain, as well as on Mount Nantai, there is also a smaller version of the Futarasan Shrine
5. Kegon Falls: The most beautiful waterfall in Japan, but with a dark side…
Kegon Falls (華厳の滝) belongs to one of the three most beautiful falls in Japan. The water, originating from Lake Chuzenji, cascades down about 100 metres into a gorge. The view from the platform is breathtaking. But this place also has a dark side.Did you know that Kegon Falls was a popular place to commit suicide around 1900? More than 200 people committed suicide here. And it all started with the suicide of Misao Fujimura (1886-1903) at a time when Japan was rediscovering itself.
Curious about the background to this story? Read the article Kegon Falls | Why 200 people committed suicide in Nikko
6. Taiyuin, the mausoleum of Iemitsu Tokugawa
Within walking distance of Toshogu Shrine you will find Taiyuin (大猷院), the mausoleum of Iemitsu Tokugawa (1604-1651). He was the third leader of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and grandson of its founder Ieyasu Tokugawa. He too has been given a resting place in Nikko National Park, although Iemitsu himself indicated that he preferred a more sober mausoleum and temple out of respect for his grandfather. But then again, could it be more lavish than the Toshogu Shrine? Nevertheless, Taiyuin is also very beautiful and full of symbols. Like the Toshogu Shrine, this temple is also a mix of Buddhist elements and Shinto, the original religion of Japan where nature gods are worshipped.
7. Walk through the Kanmangafuchi Abyss
The Kanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) is a gorge formed by the eruption of Mount Nantai over 7000 years ago. Seen from the Nikko temple complex, it is located on the other side of the Daiya River, in a quiet area. It is a short walk that takes about one hour. Unless… you start counting the mysterious Jizo statues. According to this legend, you can’t count them because one always disappears. And why are those statues with red scarves standing there?
Curious about the background of these mysterious statues with red caps and scarves? Read the article Kanmangafuchi Abyss | The story of the mysterious Jizo statues.
Accommodation – Where to stay in Nikko National Park?
Those who have decided to stay at least one night in Nikko National Park will no doubt be wondering where the best accommodation can be found. The most common places are near the two train stations, near the temples or, for example, near Lake Chuzenji. For the latter, you have to travel 40 minutes by bus. Below are a number of historical options.
Hostel: Nikko Sumica Guesthouse (budget) is a small hostel that is run by a nice couple. In the evening they sometimes play a game, think about sumo wrestling! Only not with real people, but with two figures on a game board. By tapping the table, vibrations make the figures move. And whoever is on top wins.
Hotel: The most famous hotel in Nikko is the Kanaya Hotel. During the Second World War, the emperor and his family stayed here. From 1945 to 1952, it was the residence of American officers. But also some famous stars stayed here, like Albert Einstein (scientist), Charlie Chaplin (film star) and Frank Lloyd Wright (architect/writer). Prices for a room in this 4-star hotel start at €200 per night.
Onsen: Are you more of a relaxation type and would like to visit a typical onsen (hot springs)? Then go to Okunikko Yumoto Onsen. The first time an onsen here was mentioned in documents was in 788. The small town of Yumoto has a number of hotels, and for the rest you can visit a temple or the Yudaki Falls. The town is situated beyond Chuzenji, so it is best to buy a 2-day bus ticket from the Nikko bus station.
Transport – How to get to Nikko National Park?
The easiest way to reach Nikko National Park from Tokyo is by high-speed train, the Shinkansen. In between you change trains in Utsunomiya. The JR Tobu line will take you from Utsonomiya to JR Tobu Station in Nikko.The total journey from Tokyo takes about 2 hours. With the JR pass, you can use all government lines known as JR for 1, 2 or 3 weeks. There is also a private line that goes to Nikko, but this is generally more expensive.
You can find out more about the Tokyo – Nikko route from the Hyperdia website.
Once in Nikko, it is about a 30-minute walk to the famous Unesco temples. But it is also possible to take the bus. For more information take a look at the website of Tobu Bus.
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