Nikko (120 kilometers, two hours north of Tokyo) is perhaps the most interesting day-trip and weekend destination from Tokyo. Founded in the 8th century by the Buddhist priest Shodo, it is home of Nikko National Park and 103 historic buildings, including nine national treasures and 94 important cultural properties and architectural wonders such as Toshogu Shrine, Futarasan Shrine and Rinnoji Temple, each of which is set in a beautiful location and has been designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.. Recreational opportunities at Nikko National Park include hiking, camping, mountain climbing, boating, fishing, skiing and skating.

Nikko is home to about 20,000 people. Because of its closeness to Tokyo it often draws huge crowds on the weekends. In the 8th century Nikko was a sacred site where a famous training center was set up. In 1617, Tokugawa Ieyasu was buried in Nikko. In 1634, his grandson, Tokugawa Iemitus, built the shrine that laid the foundation for the town we see today. The Nikko area is famous for its autumn colors.

A cedar-lined avenue that stretches for 37 kilometers in Nikko is regarded as the longest tree-lined street in the world. It was created over 20 years beginning in 1625 as an approach to Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine by Matsudaira Masatsuna, an aide ro Tokugawa Ieyasu. There are 12,500 cedar trees on the road, down from 16,500 in 1971. Here is some discussion of making parts of the road a promenade and closing the whole thing down to vehicular traffic.

Tourist Office: There is an excellent tourist office at Kyodo Center (☎ 0288-53-3795). The one at Tobu-Nikko Station is not as good. Visitors are advised to buy the "two shrines, one temple" ticket for ¥900, which cost less than half of the separate admission costs for Nikko's two famous shrines (Toshogu Shrine and Taiyun-byo Shrine) and one temple (Rinnoji Temple).

Websites: Nikko Tourism Association ; Wikitravel Wikitravel ; Nikko City site ; Nikko Shrines and Temples Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan ; Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO UNESCO World Heritage site: UNESCO website Hotel Websites: Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There: Nikko is about two hours by train from central Tokyo. Lonely Planet Lonely Planet

Nikko Botanical Gardens and Museum (10 walk from the Toshogu Shrine) covers a total area of 13,100 square meters and contains over 3,000 varieties of alpine flora. The Nikko Museum, housed in a three-story-high copper-roofed former Imperial Villa, displays natural and cultural objects found in Nikko National Park.

Nikko Kanaya Hotel over the years has welcomed Charlie Chaplin, Eleanor Roosevelt, Charles Lindbergh, Helen Keller, Haile Selassie, Indira Gandhi, Jack Nicklaus and members of the British and Danish royal family.

Other Sights in Nikko include Shinkyo Bridge, established where the founding monk of Nikko was brought on the back of two serpents; Futara-san-jinja Shrine, dedicated to local mountain kami; Nikko Natural Science Museum, where visitors can see wonderful scenery on a large-screen multi-media show.Nikko Edo Village is a 124-acre reproduction of Edo era village with kimono-clad women, sword-bearing samurai, shops, ninjas and 22 attractions including a ninja fun house, ninja maze and a "temple of hell." Tobu World Square is another theme park. It contains miniature versions of famous sights from around the world.

Imiachi (central Nikko) was a stop on the Nikko Road. A three kilometer section of the road west of Kami-Imachi Station on the Tobu Railway is lined with huge cedar trees, some of them more than 400 years old.

Temples and Shrines in Nikko

Toshogu Shrine (30 minute walks from Tobu-Nikko Station) is dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu (1524-1616), founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Constructed by the Shogun's grandson in 1636 and named a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999, the shrine has more of Chinese feel than a austere Japanese one because it filled adornments, including 5,173 carvings of flowers, dancing girls, Chinese sages and mythical beasts.

Toshugo is famous for is carvings and architecture, which combines Shinto and Buddhist elements. Eight buildings in the shrine, including the Yomeimon Gate, have been designated as national treasures and 34 other buildings have been designated as important cultural properties .The huge stone gate that marks the entrance to the shrine is reached by Cedar Avenue, a 22-mile-long scenic road lined with 300-year-old cedar trees.

The 110-foot-high five-story pagoda to the left of Toshogu Shrine is lacquered in red and gold and has a door painted with bold black paint. Built in 1650 and reconstructed in 1818, it has no foundation but instead has a suspended pole that swings like a pendulum in the event earthquake to maintain the building's equilibrium and keep it from toppling over. The main pillar is 60 centimeters in diameter. It extends to the forth floor to make the pagoda quake resistant.

The Torii Gate of the Two Deva Kings marks the true entrance to the shrine. Nearby are the Three Sacred Storehouses with gilded and colored carvings of animals, including elephants made an artist who had never had seen real elephants. On the eaves of the Sacred Stable are the famous "Hear no Evil, Speak no Evil and See no Evil" monkeys.

Tokugawa Ieyasu
After passing through The Karado-torii gate, Japan’s first bronze shrine gate, you pass a Buddhist belfry and drum tower and Honji-do Hall, which features a huge ceiling painting of a dragon. Next comes the two-story-high Yomeimon Gate, boasting 500 detailed wood carvings of dragons, mythical beasts, sages and flowers. It is sometimes called the Twilight Gate out of the belief any person who gazes on the gate will become so mesmerized and forget about time they run the risk of being overtaken by twilight. Carvings on the 12 pillars that support Yomeimon Gate have been inverted in the belief that this will ward off evil spirits.

Passing through Yomeimon Gate you enter the main shrine area. Here, shaded by tall cedars is the famous "Nikko Sleeping Cat" and the modest tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa. A separate entrance fee is required to view the cat and tomb. On visiting the shrine in 1689, the famous Japanese poet Basho wrote: “O holy, hallowed shrine!/ How Green all the fresh young leaves/ In the bright sunshine!” Website: Shrines and Temples at Nikko

Rinnoji Temple (near Toshogu Shrine) is ensconced in a forest of giant Japanese cedars. Founded in 1200, it belongs to the Tendai sect of Buddhism and was named a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

In main hall (the Sambutsudo) are gigantic gold-lacquered images of Kannon (the thousand-armed Goddess of Mercy) on the right, Amida (Buddha) in the center, and the Bato Kannon (horse-headed Kannon) on the left. On the northwest side of Sambutsudo is the Hall of Sorinto, a bronze-pillared structure housing ten thousand volumes of holy sutras. In the Treasury Hall is a collection of treasures associated with the temple. Website: Shrines and Temples at Nikko

Taiyun-byo Shrine (near Toshogu Shrine) houses the remains of Iemitus Tokugawa. Shaded in cedar trees, it is smaller than Toshogu Shrine and in the opinion of many more aesthetically pleasing. Many of the buildings are scaled down versions of buildings found at Toshogu Shrine.

Nikko National Park

Nikko National Park (containing Nikko) is sometimes called Japan's "gem of scenic beauty." Located in the mountains between Kanto and Niigita, it covers 1,402 square miles and is known for its rivers, lakes, wooded highlands with maple and cedar trees and mountain paths. There lots of hiking possibilities in the area, Visitors often see deer and monkeys and sometimes catch glimpses of black bears. Website: Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan

Mt. Nantai
Mt. Nantai is the second highest and most sacred mountain in Nikko National Park. Reaching a height of 2,486 meters high, it is the most stunning peak in the Nikko Range, a collection fo relatively young volcanoes between 2000 and 2,500 meters high. A picturesque path leads to the 400-meter-wide semi-circular crater on top of Mt. Nantai which last erupted 20,000 years ago and created much of the landscape around it. The spirit of the mountain is enshrined in Futarasan Shrine, located next to Toshugu mausoleum.

Lake Chuzenji (at the foot of Mt. Nantai) is a deeply indented 8-x-16-mile body of water formed when a lava flow from the Mt. Nantai blocked the Daiya river 20,000 years ago. The lake is 161 meters deep and has deep, indigo blue color. A number of cruises are offered. Rowboats are rented for ¥1,000 an hour. Boat tours are also offered on Kinugawa River, known for its autumn foliage and interesting rock formations.

Hatcheodejuma, a peninsula that juts out into Lake Chuzenji, has some of the most spectacular autumn colors in Japan. Iroha-zaka is is winding road that connects Nikko and Lake Chunzenji. A 500 meter elevation change on the road is achieved using a series of switchbacks and hairpin turns. There are 48 curves. The drive is awesome but congested during the autumn leave-viewing season.

Kegon Falls is one of the most spectacular falls in Japan. Plummeting over the edge of a plateau, it is 97-meter-high and is formed by water from Lake Chuzenji. Alongside the main falls are twelve minor falls, called the Junitaki. An elevator takes visitors to a lookout point for views of these falls at the bottom of a gorge, where they can feel the full force of the falls.

For good views of the lake and falls check out the observation platform at Akechidaira (which can be reached by cable car and a 20 minute bus ride from Umagaeshi).

oze moor
Oze Plateau (part of Nikko National Park, 70 kilometers north of Tokyo) is the largest high moor area in Honshu. Covering 12 square kilometers, it is surrounded by high peaks up to 2,000 meters high and is home to Ozenuma lake, Ozehara moor and unique highland, wetland plant life and layers of peat up to five meters deep. The area is popular with hikers in the summer and is especially beautiful in the winter, when snow depths sometimes exceed four meters. One the area’s biggest problems is damage caused by the numerous deer that roam the plateau. Oze National Park (near Nikko Gunma and Fukushima Prefectures) is the home of Ozegahara wetlands. The wetlands are 1,400 meters high and are crossed by a boardwalk that allows visitors to explore around. Websites: Oze National Park Government National Park Site National Parks of Japan Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO

Other Places Near Nikko

Other Places Near Nikko include Yumoto Onsen, a pleasant hot spring with a number of hiking possibilities; Kinygawa Onsen, a touristy place filled with vacationing Japanese; and Kawaji Onsen; a somewhat quieter hot spring resort with many outdoor bath. There is an interesting hike in Ryuoko Gorge between Kinugawa and Kawaji onsens.

cedars on the road to Nikko

Mashiko (70 miles south of Tokyo, 25 miles east of Nikko, one hour by bus from Utsunomiya Station) is the home of the distinctive Mashiko-yaki folk pottery, which is admired for its simplicity and fresh beauty. The late Shoji Hamada (1897-1978) introduced Mashiko ware throughout Japan, and today there are some 150 kilns produced pottery that emulates his style. Some of the kilns offer pottery lessons, where people can use the wheel to make a tea cup or tray.

Mashiko and Kasama (another pottery town 12 miles from Mashiko) have a combined population of 55,000 people, and have prospered because they are near thick beds of pottery-making clay and pine forests that supply lumber to feed the pottery kilns. The wooded hills around the towns are freckled with traditional black- and blue-tile roof houses.

"The pottery," writes Denise Couture in the New York Times, "is characterized by a rustic simplicity: hearty forms, uncomplicated designs and glazes whose colors echo the rural landscape---rich reddish brown, derived from local stone, greens and creams made from rice husk ash and brownish-black resembling freshly turned earth."

Mashiko has about 300 kilns, while Kasama has 170, but Kasama pottery offers a wider range of shapes, colors and materials. Most if the stuff is very expensive. Single tea cups that sell for $50 are not unusual and fine pieces made by well-known potters can go for as much as $40,000. Many of the big kilns welcome guests who want to watch the potters at work.

There is a good display of works by Hamada and local and foreign ceramics as the Mashiko Reference Collection Museum. It is a 10 minute bus ride from Mashiko Station. The Mashiko Pottery Club, a seven minute walk from the museum, offers classes and allows visitors to use the pottery wheels and tools and materials for a fee. Mashiko’s other museum, Ceramic Art Messe Mashio, contains a Japanese “climbing kiln” and works by Hamada and local and Japanese artists.

Jonai-zaka Streets is lined with dozens of pottery shops. Mashiko hosts a pottery fair in early November and early May, when tents selling ceramic are set up all over town. Mashiko is also famous its delicious greenhouse strawberries. Website: Frommers

North of Tokyo

Motegi race course
Twin Ring Motegi Motor Sports Complex (in Tochigi, 60 miles north of Tokyo) is the world's only combination theme park and race track capable of hosting European-style Formula One road events and American-style oval track Stock Car and Indy car racing event. The facility was built by the Honda Motor company at a cost of $350 million. Website: Mobilityland

Mito (north of Tokyo and east of Mashiko) is the home of Kairakuen Gardens and the Mito Art Center. The latter is an ultra-modern performing arts center designed by award-winning Japanese architect Arato Isozaki. It features a gravity-defying water-pummeled 20-ton rock and 330-foot twisting titanium-sheathed tower.

Kairakuen Gardens (in Mito) has been ranked as one of Japan's three most beautiful gardens along with and Korakuen in Okayama and Kenrokuen in Kanazawa. Formerly owned by Nariaka Tokugawa, the ninth Lord of Mito, a feudal lord with a passion for plum blossoms, Kairakuen boasts 3,000 chiseled plum trees in an opulent traditional setting. The peak plum blossom season is in March. Websites: Japan Guide ; Photos

Nora (20 miles north of Tokyo) is regarded as the soy sauce capital of Japan. The main Kikkoman factory is here. It covers 92,000 square meters and produces 200 million liters of soy sauce a year (20 percent of the soy sauce used in Japan ). Reservations are necessary for an 80-minute tour that includes watching a 15-minute video and a guided tour of the plant. Admission is free. Visitors are given a free small bottle of soy sauce. Call ☎ 0471-23-5136 for information. Several old wooden houses, storehouses and gardens have been preserved. The Kamihanawa Rekishikan museum explains the history soy sauce production and has displays on the subject.

Nagatoromachi (50 miles northwest of Tokyo, two hours by train from Tokyo, in Saitama Prefecture) is a pleasant place on the Arakawa River. The main attractions are three-kilometer rides in 20-passenger boats on the Arakawa river and rides on a steam locomotive that operates between March and November.

Zenshoji Temple (in Gumna prefecture northwest of Tokyo) features a six-foot-tall statue of the Goddess of Mercy with a putter and ball in one hand and 13 golf clubs radiating out from her head. Golfers flock to temple to pray for long, straight drives and sure putts

Kawagoe (40 kilometers north of Tokyo, 45 minutes by train from central Tokyo) is a charming city of 300,000 that gives visitors a taste of what old Tokyo was like. It features a charming old town filled with century-old kuraw warehouses that are now used to house shops, homes and workshops. While most kura are white the kura found here are black. The area is so true to its roots, historical dramas are sometimes shot here. So many historical buildings remain because it was not bombed in World War II as a result of efforts decades earlier to keep the train lines out thus preventing it from having any military targets. In the third weekend of October it hosts a colorful festival with three-ton rolling floats.

Kusatsu Onsen

Kusatsu Onsen (3 hours by train and bus from Tokyo) is one of Japan’s premier hot spring resorts and is famous for its abundant supply of piping hot sulfurous water. The town’s central plaza is dominated by the Yubatake, a bizarre-looking aggregate of pools, fountains, waterfalls, chutes and wooden ducts filled with hot, steaming water. More than 37,000 liters of water gushes out the spring ever minute (54 million gallons a day), an amount that far exceeds any other hot spring in Japan. The whole area reeks of sulfurous water but that doesn’t seem to bother the 3 million visitors that flock to the onsen every year.

The water varies in temperature between 55̊ and 95̊C and has a pH of 1.5, almost equal to gastric acid. The waters contain enough natural chemicals to dissolve a ¥1 coin in a week and produce encrustation of sulfuric geyesite that are collected and sold as souvenirs. For Japanese this also means that water kills bacteria and virus and thus has potent healing powers. There are plans to use electricity-generating turbines to harness steam from the hot springs to generate power for 1,800 households.

The water flows into dozens of hotels and 18 free public baths. Twelve different kinds of baths are offered: 1) water-striking bath; 2) steam bath; 3) drinking bath; 4) eye-washing bath; 5) shallow bath; 6) deep bath; 7) lukewarm bath; 8) hot bath; 9) cold-and-hot bath; 10) timed bath. The latter is used as a treatment for heart problems, sexually transmitted diseases and other ailments. Bathers must stand for three minutes in very hot 48̊C water and pour water over their head 30 times under the direction of a stern instructor. Before the bath, bathers ritually stir the white, cloudy water while praying and singing special songs. The treatment has reportedly helped paralyzed people walk again.

For people that want to stay overnight there are cheap inns, Western-style hotels and Japanese-style hotels with long histories. The rates range from $40 to $400 a night. In addition to the baths, there are lots of shops and restaurants. Folklore shows are held four times a day at the Netsuno-yu entertainment hall. Kusatsu Nettaiken is a domed garden, with tropical plants and animals, heated by waters from the spring.

Websites:Kusatsu Onsen site Map: Japan National Tourism Organization JNTO Hotel Websites:Kusatsu Onsen site Ryokan and Minshuku Japanese Guest Houses Japanese Guest Houses Budget Accommodation: Japan Youth Hostels (click hostels for good map and description of hostels) Japan Youth Hostels Check Lonely Planet books Getting There : Kusatsu Onsen is accessible by bus and train from Tokyo. Kusatsu Onsen site

Image Sources: 1) 2) 8) Visualizing Culture, MIT Education 3) 5) Nikko City 6) 7) Japan National Parks 9) Honda 10) 11) Kusatsu onsen site

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Daily Yomiuri, Times of London, Japan National Tourist Organization (JNTO), National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

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© 2009 Jeffrey Hays

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