Travel log: Nikko, May!

Posted on 10.01.2015


I’m playing catch-up with the travel logs, sorry about all of that. I promise we won’t be doing anything big until we go to Australia in March, and then will be recovering financially from that for like, the rest of 2015, most likely.

passing rice fields for days

passing rice fields for days

We went to Nikko in May of last year. I’m not exactly sure I remember WHY we chose Nikko, but it was one of a few places we’d had in mind when we decided to take a weekend trip out of Tokyo. Other places on the list were Hakone and Izu. As you might have seen, we ended up doing Hakone for my birthday.

While we’re here, we’re trying to visit as many places in Japan as we can. So while we are planning to hit Australia this year, the rest of the time, we’re taking small day or weekend trips to places we can get to easily. Most of our friends and coworkers have suggested Nikko and Hakone (and Izu), and it’s really clear to see why. These places are SO close to Tokyo and feel like you’re on a different planet, or at least, one of the other islands. Although Tokyo is this huge, modern city, these places have been kept mostly intact, architecturally speaking, and have been built up AROUND the shrines and temples.

IMG_6554We took a normal train up to Nikko on the 12th, did 2 nights, and came back on the train on the 14th, in the evening. Unlike Kyoto, Nikko is TINY, and just about everything is within walking distance. I say walking distance, but really, I mean ‘hiking distance’. We effectively spent the entire day of the 13th hiking, although most of it was on paths. And that day and hike is something I’d recommend to everyone who visits Nikko, because it was effing gorgeous.

We chose to stay at the ryokan Tokino-yu, which was literally located just across the street from the Shinkyo bridge. It was also located just in front of a bus stop that would take us up the mountain, across the street from an entrance to the shrine complex, and conveniently just down the street from a decent convenience store (because as I said earlier, everything closes when it gets dark), and the best little vegetarian-friendly restaurant we’ve seen in Japan so far, Hippari Dako.

IMG_6514On our first night in town, all we did was walk around to get our bearings and check things out. This included a QUICK walk across the street to the bridge and the entrance to the shrine and temple complex, a walk around our part of town (not much going on), and then finding Hippari Dako, falling in love, and swearing to eat there the following day as well.

As a note, we did walk UP to some of the shrines and temples in the complex, but they were all closed that day for some reason. This didn’t mean we couldn’t get in, just that some were shut down and you couldn’t do the ‘full tour’. Still, if you ever get a chance, walking around closed or empty shrines is really nice. We had the place completely to ourselves.

We also tried on the awesome, ryokan-provided robes (yukata) and checked out the public onsen in the basement, of course.

One of the reasons we swear we’ll go back to stay there again, aside from the fact that it’s across the street from a vegetarian place, is the fact that this ryokan, although speaking just the minimum of English, told us our tattoos were fine and we could use the onsen. Thanks, Tokino-yu! We definitely made use of that while we were there.

Of course, all of this drinking, onsen-ing and falling asleep early meant that we were also up early the next day, so we made the most of it and caught a bus up the mountain to Yudaki falls, which is the waterfall that’s the farthest up and also the only one that seemed to have a snack stand in front of it. If you’re hungry, get something there, otherwise you’ll have to hike for a good 2 or 3 hours before you reach the next rest stop by accident…

IMG_6571We started our hike down (having just made the decision to do that when coming upon a sign that warned us bears could be around), and meandered through the woods, following the signs for south and the next waterfall, which was Ryuzu. That one was a bit of a baby compared to the height of Kegon, but still nice. What was really gorgeous, though, was our walk through Shejogahara plateau, which might have easily been my favourite part of the trip, except that something awesome happened later. Still, this place is offing gorgeous and I highly recommend a walk through it. It’ll take an hour, but will be worth it.

It was actually completely shocking to us how few people we saw on the trail. Apparently, a lot of people *just* come for the major temples and shrines, and never bother to make it up the mountain, or hike it down. We passed maybe 7 people on the entire walk, when you exclude the long line of schoolchildren we passed (then lost), and the construction workers who were working on a new path through the plateau. It was really nice to be alone, but also a bit shocking, after living in Tokyo.

Ryuzu falls

Ryuzu falls

We made it to Ryuzu and finally Kegon. Ryuzu might have been more interesting, even though Kegon is apparently the one everyone goes to see. Ryuzu just went on and downhill for what seemed like forever, and you could climb on some parts of the falls and rocks. Kegon falls had to be viewed from a platform across from them, and you had to pay to take an elevator down to the bottom. We got there just as the sun was setting, so the photos didn’t really turn out, as the sun was setting behind the falls!

A lot of people tell a story that the falls at Kegon are haunted, and you can see the faces in the mist of all the people who have died there. I didn’t bother to look for any faces, but apparently they always show up in pictures.

IMG_6502After a long hike, we headed back to the Ryokan to relax in the onsens (generally gender-separated) and warm our sore feet, and then headed across to Hippari Dako for our second dinner. It’s a cute little restaurant and only has seating for maybe 10 people. The owners are super nice and sweet, and have a menu in English, which lists what is veg (most of it) and what isn’t.

I’m not a vegetarian, but my boyfriend is, so I make it a point to always find places where HE can eat, since I can effectively eat whatever I want. There were 3 or 4 restaurants listed in Nikko, but this one was closest and we loved it, so we kept eating there. We got different dishes this time, but it was all still excellent. I’m really so thankful for these guys!

Then it was back to the hotel to lay around in yukata and fall asleep early on our OMGSOCOMFORTABLE futons.

We had to catch an afternoon train back the following day, so we made the decision to stick around and do all of the shrines and temples. They were definitely going to be open this day, as there was no public holiday happening.

On our Nikko map, we saw that there were some shrines we DIDN’T see on the first day further up the path from the main ones that everyone visits. We didn’t want to miss them, so we decided to walk up to them FIRST, then turn around and head back to the more popular places.

IMG_6639While we’re sure we passed at least 4 spots on the way up, only 2 had names on the map. They were Kaizando and Takinoo.

I would highly, highly recommend visiting these two and walking up the stone path between them, as they were completely devoid of tourists and totally effing amazing.

We passed Kaizando on the way up and walked around it for a while, then continued on up to Takinoo. But Kaizando had maybe 3 actual shrine-like parts to it, and was mostly overgrown and seemed to be abandoned, aside from all of the offerings that had been left there.

Apparently, this temple is still used for memorial services and has a bodhisattva statue inside.


IMG_6636What was really interesting was the wall of statues outside, in which was kind of shocking. Apparently the statues had actually been carved ON the rock wall above them, but when the last big earthquake hit in 2011, they were taken down because they might be safer on the ground, rather than on the wall. No one wanted them to fall. So people come by now and leave offerings for each of them as well.

They are amazing to see in real life, and my photo really does them absolutely no justice. The rock wall is HUGE, and it’s hard to believe that once, someone climbed up and carved them. I wish I could have seen them while they were still a part of the wall, hanging in mid-air.

Next, we continued up to Takinoo. I’m convinced that THE REST of the tiny shrines we saw were all connected to Takinoo, as they all sat on the same rocky path just next to the road, and seem to lead to each other.

... and at the end, there's another waterfall

… and at the end, there’s another waterfall

I took this from TripAdvisor:
Takino’o Path in Nikko is a little-known, ancient stone-paved path that leads through an old cedar forest and past historic Buddhist monuments. Walking into the forest, especially during a foggy, rainy day, is like stepping into a mystical, holy place. The path, once followed by the founder of Nikko, Priest Shodo, leads to Takino’o Shrine, built by Priest Kobo. Buddhist priests who train themselves by enduring ascetic practices made a pilgrimage to Takino’o Shrine until the beginning of the Meiji Era. There are three major areas to visit along the five kilometer path: Shinkyo Bridge at the trailhead, Kaizan-do north of Toshogu Shrine, and Takino’o Shrine north along the Inari-gawa River.

And there you have it! An ancient path in the woods from the founder of Nikko.

After all of this excellent silence and beauty, we headed back down to the main complex which houses Rinno-ji, Toshogu, and Futasaran. These three are kind of the Nikko rock stars and not to be missed, but you’ll have to pay and fight crowds in order to see them.

IMG_6663That being said, even these three are amazing and if you can make the climbs to the tops of the complexes, then definitely do it. It is SO worth the experience to see all of these. You can even take off your shoes and tour part of Toshogu. That is an amazing thing in itself, that we’re even allowed in. No photos were allowed, of course, so we had to take one outside of the building.

After that, we were satisfied that we’d seen a good part of Nikko and could accurately describe it to friends, and it was time to go. But of course, before we caught the bus down to the station or grabbed our luggage from the hotel reception desk, we made one final stop: back to Hippari Dako for one last meal! It was THIS day that the owners wanted to talk to us, and we had to apologise and tell them we had to leave :-/

It’s ok, Hippari Dako, we know where you live:)

If you’re going to take a day or 2-day trip out of Tokyo on a visit, I highly recommend Nikko. It’s definitely on the top of our list, even though Kyoto might be a *more important* place to see. This is the winner for natural beauty and a major change of scenery from Tokyo!

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Posted in: Japan, life, travel