I visited Nikko, Japan during Obon last August. I had high expectations for this temple town due to its UNESCO World Heritage Site status. “If Nikko was worth the WHS status than it must be better than Koya,” was my thought preceding the trip. I was sadly mistaken. While Nikko is a great side trip from Tokyo, it is nothing compared to either Koya or Kyoto. Even though it didn’t meet my expectations, it still was a nice side trip from Tokyo.
The main attraction in Nikko is the temple/shrine complex nestled at the foot of a sacred mountain range. Within this complex is the Rinnoji Temple, Taiyuinbyo Shrine and the Toshogu Shrine. The Rinnoji Temple is currently under construction so viewing its exterior is unavailable (it has been covered by scaffolding). The interior is still open to the public. The remaining two shrines are well worth seeing, but be prepared for a long walk!
The Taiyuinbyo Shrine is a mausoleum for a shogun. Not much information was in English so I did not learn about the building. There were some intricately designed wood carvings, one which was familiar to me. Below is a photo of 3 monkeys depicting the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” saying. I don’t know its link to the particular shogun who was memorialized here, but it was a very popular attraction in Nikko.
The Toshogu Shrine is the most lavish of the shrines and buildings in the complex, and rightfully so. The Toshogu Shrine is a mausoleum to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate which ruled Japan for 250 years. The shrine is covered in gold leafing and wood carvings, which is what makes it so unique. Most shrines in Japan are modestly decorated with red Torrii gates being the only splash of color. The Toshogu Shrine is the antithesis of what a ‘standard’ shrine in Japan looks like.
Again, I saw many wood carvings, one of the most famous being the sleeping cat.
At the entrance to the World Heritage Sites is a sacred bridge entitled Shinkyo Bridge. The Shinkyo Bridge is said to be one of the 3 best bridges in Japan (Japan has “3 best …” of a lot of things: views, mountains, temples, beaches, bridges, etc.). It marks the entrance to the shrines and its name means “sacred bridge.” For a fee you can cross the bridge, but I found that viewing it from the street was adequate.
The last stop on my tour of Nikko was Kanmangafuchi Abyss which offers beautiful views and a row of Jizo statues (who is one of my favorite deities). This was probably my favorite part of Nikko. I am drawn to naturally beautiful places that are infused with spirituality. Jizo is “the guardian of children and patron deity of deceased children” as well as the protector of travelers and lost souls. Jizo lines the path along the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, which is a river/stream that runs through a gorge in Nikko. The abyss was formed by the eruption of a nearby volcano. The river pools in areas and looked great enough to swim in (I wished I had my swimsuit!). There were several small waterfalls feeding into the river. The Jizos watched over the waters and bear many different names. They are called: “Bake Jizo” (Ghost Jizo), “Narabi Jizo” (Jizo in a line) or “Hyaku Jizo” (100 Jizo). The other side of the river runs along the Nikko Botanical Garden making the Kanmangafuchi Abyss a beautiful and private place to visit.
I spent that evening in the Nikkorisou Hostel, one of my favorite hostels I’ve stayed in to date. Many people turn their noses up at the word hostel, but I find that I can have some of the most authentic and unique experiences while staying at hostels. Nikkorisou was one of those experiences. A traditional style Japanese home-turned hostel, Nikkorisou offered traditional entry rooms, narrow stairways, onsen-style baths with deep tubs and wood floorings. I was able to book a private room for around 3000 yen, about 10,000 yen less than the neighboring hotels. The owners of the hostel live there and are avid artists transforming their amazing home into an artists’ retreat. Some of the rooms are a work-in-progress, but overall Nikkorisou was an awesome place to stay! (And I could walk to all the sites!)
Cute little signs and drawings were all over the house!
That night as I lay in my bed reading, I kept hearing this singing with long drawn out syllables and steady beating of a drum. Not much stays open late in Nikko so I wasn’t sure what it could be. It went on for quite some time and after talking with a fellow hostelmate I learned there was a festival taking place. It was Obon, so I was hoping to see the Obon-dori dance. I definitely found dancing at the festival, but I am not so sure it was the official Obon dance – instead it was celebrating the anniversary of one of the local hotels. It was a very small festival but it had dancing and singing which were unique to Japan so it was not disappointing. In fact, witnessing this festival was one of the highlights of Nikko for me. I travel in hopes of experiencing things that are unique to the culture I am visiting, which is exactly what happened at this small event. As I stood watching the women dance, I desperately wanted to join them – eventually I threw caution to the wind and stumbled my way through the dance!
While Nikko didn’t ultimately meet my expectations, it definitely was a good place to visit. If you ever visit Japan and don’t have time to visit Koya or Kyoto, definitely check out Nikko. The surroundings are beautiful and it’s only a couple of hours by train from Tokyo!