Nikko (日光, Nikkō) is a town at the entrance to Nikko National Park, most famous for Toshogu, Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Nikko had been a center of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s, and Nikko National Park continues to offer scenic, mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails.
Nikko and the Okunikko area around Lake Chuzenji, in particular, are well known for their beautiful autumn colors (koyo). In the average year the colors start descending from the higher elevations of Yumoto Onsen in early October, are best around Lake Chuzenji and the Irohazaka road in mid to late October and reach the town of Nikko in the first half of November.
Nikko is located along Japan’s Romantic Road.
Main attractions include:
Toshogu ShrineToshogu Shrine (東照宮, Tōshōgū) is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for over 250 years until 1868. Ieyasu is enshrined at Toshogu as the deity Tosho Daigongen, “Great Deity of the East Shining Light”. Initially a relatively simple mausoleum, Toshogu was enlarged into the spectacular complex seen today by Ieyasu’s grandson Iemitsu during the first half of the 1600s.
The lavishly decorated shrine complex consists of more than a dozen buildings set in a beautiful forest. Countless wood carvings and large amounts of gold leaf were used to decorate the buildings in a way not seen elsewhere in Japan, where simplicity has been traditionally stressed in shrine architecture. Visitors may note that Toshogu contains both Shinto and Buddhist elements. It was common for places of worhsip to contain elements of both religions until the Meiji Period when Shinto was deliberately separated from Buddhism. Across the country, Buddhist elements were removed from shrines and vice versa, but at Toshogu the two religions were so intermingled that the separation was not carried out completely.
Construction Notice: Several of the shrine’s many buildings are being renovated in stages from 2007 to 2019. In the last stage, lasting from 2013 to 2019, the centrally placed Yomeimon Gate and two less important structures are currently being renovated. The gate is covered by scaffolding, but the shrine with its wealth of buildings and carvings is still worth a visit.
Iemitsu Mausoleum (Taiyuinbyo)Taiyuinbyo (大猷院廟, Taiyūinbyō) is the mausoleum of the third Tokugawa shogun, Iemitsu, the grandson of Ieyasu. Iemitsu’s lavish mausoleum complex resembles nearby Toshogu Shrine in its layout and architecture, but it was intentionally built somewhat more modest than the Toshogu, due to Iemitsu’s deep respect for his grandfather. Taiyuin is the posthumous name of Iemitsu.
Like the Toshogu, the Taiyuinbyo features a mix of Buddhist and Shinto structures. It was common for places of worship to contain elements of both religions until the Meiji Period when Shinto was deliberately separated from Buddhism. Across the country, Buddhist elements were removed from shrines and vice versa, but at Taiyuinbyo the separation was not carried out completely. While Toshogu was officially made a shrine, the Taiyuinbyo became a subtemple of nearby Rinnoji Temple.
Kanmangafuchi AbyssKanmangafuchi Abyss (憾満ヶ淵) was formed by an eruption of nearby Mount Nantai. This gorge near central Nikko is only a few hundred meters long and can be enjoyed from a pleasant riverside walking trail.
Kanmangafuchi is also known for its row of about 70 stone statues of Jizo, a Bodhisattva who cares for the deceased. This particular group of Jizo statues is alternately called “Bake Jizo” (Ghost Jizo), “Narabi Jizo” (Jizo in a line) or “Hyaku Jizo” (100 Jizo). The statues look out over the river and across to the Nikko Botanical Garden, but the botanical garden cannot be entered from the abyss.
Kegon Waterfall (Kegon no taki)The almost 100 meter tall Kegon Waterfall (華厳の滝, Kegon no taki) is the most famous of Nikko’s many beautiful waterfalls. In fact, it is even ranked as one of Japan’s three most beautiful falls, along with Nachi Waterfall in Wakayama Prefecture and Fukuroda Waterfall in Ibaraki Prefecture.
Kegon Waterfall is the only exit for the waters of Lake Chuzenji. It can be seen from a free observation platform that is easily accessible on foot, as well as from a paid platform at the base of the falls. The paid platform is accessed via a 100 meter deep elevator and offers the more impressive views. The sight of Kegon Waterfall in combination with Lake Chuzenji can be enjoyed from Akechidaira Observatory, which is accessible by ropeway from Akechidaira Plateau.
Kegon Waterfall is also a popular autumn color spot. The trees around the waterfall are usually most colorful from mid to late October. In the winter, the waterfall is impressive as well, when it freezes almost completely solid.
Lake Chuzenji (Chūzenjiko)Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖, Chūzenjiko) is a scenic lake in the mountains above the town of Nikko. It is located at the foot of Mount Nantai, Nikko’s sacred volcano, whose eruption blocked the valley below, thereby creating Lake Chuzenji about 20,000 years ago.
Chuzenjiko’ shores are mostly undeveloped and forested except at the lake’s eastern end where the small hot spring town of Chuzenjiko Onsen was built. The town is also the site of Kegon Waterfall, the most famous of several waterfalls in Nikko National Park. Another popular waterfall, Ryuzu Waterfall, is located at the northern shores of Lake Chuzenji where Yukawa River discharges into the lake.
Information source: japan-guide.com