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Day trips from Tokyo: How to spend a day at the World Heritage Site of Nikkō

Day trips from Tokyo: How to spend a day at the World Heritage Site of Nikkō

Many travellers who are spending a nice chunk of their time in Tokyo (東京) tend to look for places beyond the metropolis for day trips. The shrines and temples of Nikkō (日光), a UNESCO World Heritage Site, is often recommended as one of such locations.

 

This is how I spent a day at the shrines and temples of Nikkō in Tochigi Prefecture (栃木県 Tochigi-ken).

 

Welcome to the town of Nikkō! (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

After alighting from the JR Nikkō Station (日光駅), I took a short 3-minute walk to the Tōbu-Nikkō Station (東武日光駅) and purchased the World Heritage Sightseeing Loop Bus Pass (世界遺産めぐり手形 Sekai Isan Meguri Tegata) for ¥600 at the visitor centre. I had a light breakfast and did some souvenir shopping, before boarding the World Heritage Sightseeing Loop Bus (Bus Bay 2B at the Tōbu-Nikkō Bus Terminal located in front of the Tōbu-Nikkō Station).

 

The World Heritage Sightseeing Loop Bus Pass. The shape of the ticket mimics a Tegata (手形), a proof of permission for travellers passing between regions during the Edo Period). (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

Shinkyō 

Shinkyō, the sacred bridge of the Futarasan Shrine. (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

I made a brief stop at Shinkyō (神橋), which literally translates to “sacred bridge”. As though a symbol of crossing into another realm, the bridge lies at the entrance of the shrines and temples of Nikkō and the southernmost end of the UNESCO World Heritage Site area. This beautiful 28m long wooden bridge spans across the Daiya River (大谷川 Daiya-gawa) and is an extreme popular photo spot, especially during autumn when the shades of flame light up the mountains in the backdrop.

 

Shinkyō, illuminated during an autumn evening. (Image credit: Sue Lynn)

 

Shinkyō (神橋)
Address: Kamihatsuishimachi, Nikkō, Tochigi 321-1401
Nearest station: JR Nikkō Station (日光駅) or Tōbu-Nikkō Station (東武日光駅)
Access: 8-minute bus ride from Tōbu-Nikkō Station
Opening hours (To access the bridge): 08:30–16:00 (April–October), 09:30–15:00 (November–March)
Admission fee (To access the bridge): ¥300
TEL: +81 288-54-0535

Note: Shinkyō is part of Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社 Futarasan-jinja).

 

Futarasan Shrine

A selfie with the torii gate of the Futarasan Shrine. (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

After another short bus ride, I alighted at Taiyūin Futarasan-jinja-mae bus stop. Behind the bus stop is the path to Taiyūin (大猷院), where the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川 家光), the third shōgun of the Tokugawa Shogunate, rests. However, you will also spot the torii gate to the Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社 Futarasan-jinja) to the right of the path.

 

Dedicated to the sacred mountains of Nikkō, Futarasan Shrine was first established on Mount Nantai (男体山 Nantai-san) by the monk Shōdō Shōnin (勝道 上人) in the year 782. However, during that period, Mount Nantai was known as Mount Futara (二荒山 Futara-san), whose Japanese name can also be read as Nikō. This is how the area of Nikkō got its name.

 

One of the larger sacred cedar trees of the Futarasan Shrine. (Image credit: 千夜 / photoAC)

 

I did my usual, stopping by for a prayer at the worship hall and at the pair of cedar trees located to the right of the shrine entrance. Amongst the many sacred trees in the area, this pair of cedar trees are joined at the base and are said to bring marital happiness. (There are also a pair of parent-child cedar trees that grant familial happiness and an auspicious bamboo bush of matchmaking.)

 

Futarasan-jinja (二荒山神社)
Address: 2307 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi 321-1431
Nearest station: JR Nikkō Station (日光駅) or Tōbu-Nikkō Station (東武日光駅)
Access: From Tōbu-Nikkō Station, take a 15-minute bus ride and alight at Bus Stop 85 (大猷院・二荒山神社前 Taiyūin Futarasan-jinja-mae).
Opening hours: 08:00–17:00 (April–October), 09:00–16:00 (November–March) (Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time)
Admission fee: ¥300 (Main Shrine area), ¥800 (Treasure Museum)
TEL: +81 288-54-0535

 

Tōshōgū

The Gojū-no-tou (五重塔, lit. ‘five-storey pagoda’). (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

Exiting the shrine through the torii gate on the right, you can go down a short path that leads directly to the entrance of Tōshōgū (東照宮), our next place of interest.

 

The Tōshōgū Shrine is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川 家康), the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled for more than 250 years until the Meiji Restoration in 1868. The shrine was first built in 1617, but the magnificent structures that you can see here now were reconstructed and enlarged by his grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, during his time. (You may remember him from Taiyūin, which we passed by earlier.)

 

(Image credit: Sue Lynn)

 

As I had visited Tōshōgū before, I did not enter the paid area this time. However, if you are here for the first time, you can consider buying tickets to visit Tokugawa Ieyasu's mausoleum, the beautifully decorated worship and main halls, and the Treasure Museum (宝物館 Hōmotsukan) in the paid area. Pay special attention to the carvings of the buildings and gates, and you may spot several famous sculptures, including the “Sleeping Cat” (眠り猫 Nemuri-neko) and the “Three Wise Monkeys”—the embodiment of the saying “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”.

 

The main torii gate of Tōshōgū leads to a slight downhill gravel path. (There was a sign along the path that indicated that the height of this location is actually more than 634m above sea level, which is taller than the Tokyo Skytree!) Towards the end of this path, you will find our next place of interest, Rinnōji (輪王寺), to your left.

 

Tōshōgū (東照宮)
Address: 2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi 321-1431
Nearest station: JR Nikkō Station (日光駅) or Tōbu-Nikkō Station (東武日光駅)
Access: From Tōbu-Nikkō Station, take a 10-minute bus ride and alight at Bus Stop 83.
Opening hours: 09:00–17:00 (April–October), 09:00–16:00 (November–March) (Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time)
Admission fee: ¥1,300 (Main Shrine area), ¥1,000 (Treasure Museum)
TEL: +81 288-54-0560

 

Rinnōji

Japanese students taking a group photo in front of Sanbutsudō (三仏堂, ‘Hall of the Three Buddhas’). (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

Rinnōji Temple was also founded by Shōdō Shōnin in the year 766. Over the centuries, the temple had grown from a simple hut to one of the largest and most important religious institutions in Japan.

 

At the main hall Sanbutsudō (三仏堂 “Hall of the Three Buddhas”), you can offer your prayers to Senjū-Kannon (千十観音 Thousand-armed Guanyin), Amida-Nyōrai (Amitābha), and Batō-Kannon (Horse-headed Kannon). 

 

The compound also contains a few facilities of interest, such as the Rinnōji Treasure House facing the Sanbutsudō, and the Shōyōen Garden (逍遥園) located behind the Rinnōji Treasure House. Constructed in the early 19th century during the Edo Period (1603–1868), this Japanese garden is a popular photo spot especially when the autumn colours around the central pond are in season, but makes for a tranquil spot for a short break during other times of the year.

 

2023-10 - A Day in Nikko (1).png (433 KB)

The statue of Shōdō Shōnin (the monk who established both Futarasan Shrine and Rinnōji Temple) stands at the main entrance to Rinnōji Temple. (Image credit: Jason Koh)

 

Head towards the parking area and make a right down the slope to the road, where you will spot the statue of the monk Shōdō Shōnin. You can catch the World Heritage Sightseeing Bus back to the bus terminal from here. However, I chose to walk down the sloped path beside the souvenir shop Yorozu-ya (萬家) back to Shinkyō and took the bus from there back to the JR Nikkō Station.

 

Rinnōji (輪王寺)
Address: 2301 Sannai, Nikko, Tochigi 321-1431
Nearest station: JR Nikkō Station (日光駅) or Tōbu-Nikkō Station (東武日光駅)
Access: From Tōbu-Nikkō Station, take a 8-minute bus ride and alight at Bus Stop 82 (勝道上人像前 Shōdō Shōnin-zō-mae).
Opening hours: 08:00–17:00 (April–October), 08:00–16:00 (November–March) (Last entry is 30 minutes before closing time)
Admission fee: ¥400 (Main Shrine area), ¥300 (Treasure Museum),  ¥550 (Taiyūin)
TEL: +81 288-54-0531

 

Getting to Nikkō from Tokyo

Nikkō is easily accessible from Tokyo and there are three main ways to go about it:

  1. To get there using JR lines from Tokyo Station, take the Tohoku Shinkansen and alight at Utsunomiya Station before transferring to the JR Nikkō Line for Nikkō Station (about 2 hours, ~¥5,480).
  2. From Shinjuku Station or Ikebukuro Station, you can opt to board the Limited Express Nikko / Kinugawa or Limited Express SPACIA Nikko / Kinugawa, which will bring you directly to Tobu-Nikkō Station in just about 2 hours (~¥3,960).

    Both journeys on options (1) and (2) (including the reserved seat on the Shinkansen) are entirely covered by the JR TOKYO Wide PASS, JR EAST PASS (Tohoku area), JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), and JR East-South Hokkaido Rail Pass.

  3. From Asakusa Station, board the Tobu Skytree Line Limited Express SPACIA which will bring you directly to Tobu-Nikkō Station in 1 hour 50 minutes (~¥3,060).

 

Nikkō’s good accessibility from Tokyo, beautifully decorated and well-preserved shrines and temples, and well-laid out bus routes and walking paths between the places make it easy even for kids or seniors to enjoy the trail. I would definitely recommend it if you are looking for an attraction with a good mix of nature and culture near Tokyo.

 

Writer’s Profile 

2023-10 - A Day in Nikko (4).png (530 KB)

Having worked and lived in Japan, Jason now researches for the best ways to explore all corners of Japan. He shares his discoveries and adventures (and travel hacks too!) on his YouTube channel, ‘Japan Explained’.

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