When you think of autumn, depending on where you grew up, this season may not strike you as being one of the best to travel in. The weather can be cold, the trees may look bare or drab, and there may not be a lot of other tourists around. None of these statements, barring the cold in some parts of the country, describe autumnal Japan.
Outside of the cherry blossom period, autumn actually happens to be one of the most popular times to visit Japan. When we finally arrived in Tokyo, I caught glimpses of autumn colours here and there throughout the city, but it wasn’t until we visited Nikko that I realised why this time of year attracts so many people.
I have visited other travel destinations during the autumn months and, while many of them also looked beautiful, I’ve never seen reds, oranges and yellows as intense as the hues we witnessed while exploring Japan. And Nikko, as you’ll soon see, was the perfect introduction to how stunning Japan looks in autumn.
Nikko is well established on the tourist trail as an easy day trip from Tokyo. The city has a long history and became a top tourist spot back in the days of Japan’s Edo period (1603-1868). This popularity continues today and many of the city’s temple buildings are, as a collective, now officially known as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. If you’re also planning on making the trip out to Nikko, in this post I’ll be sharing my favourite spots for viewing the city’s prettiest autumn colours.
– Getting around Nikko –
There are many day tours to Nikko on offer but, if you’re travelling there independently like we did, take note that the main train stations (Nikko JR and Tobu-Nikko) are a bit of a walk from the main temple area and other sightseeing attractions. You can catch a bus (called the Tobu or 2C bus) outside Tobu-Nikko Station, and then get off at any of the bus stops numbered 81-85 for quick access to the temples. In addition, there are various day passes you can buy for Nikko (that cover transport and access to some of the attractions), but it’s best to enquire at the tourist offices in the stations to figure out which one best suits your plans for the day.
If you’re keen to explore solely on foot, then the walk is only about 20 minutes, passing shops, bakeries and restaurants along the way. We chose this option and I loved getting my first impressions of Nikko as we strolled along.
– Shinkyo Bridge –
Whether you decided to walk or catch the bus, Shinkyo Bridge, also called Sacred Bridge, will more than likely be the first iconic historical structure you’ll spot.
And it’s a lovely starting point to what you can see in Nikko. This bright-red bridge, perched above the blue waters of the Daiya River, blends in perfectly with the autumn foliage all around it. I felt like I was looking at a scene that had been created for a postcard – not a single visual detail seemed out of place.
There has been a bridge located here for centuries but the current Shinkyo Bridge dates back to 1636. The bridge is sacred and it is considered to be an official part of Futarasan jinja (more on this temple complex later). In fact, up until 1973, the bridge wasn’t allowed to be used by the public at all; its use was reserved for members of Japan’s imperial court.
Nowadays you can cross the bridge for a fee (300 Yen*) but we preferred to admire the bridge from afar. I dragged poor Chris around so that we could view Shinkyo Bridge from every angle, and I couldn’t fault any of these views. This is an ideal start to any Nikko day trip – as well as an impressive first glimpse of the autumn colours that await visitors in the forested hills just beyond the bridge.
– The temples –
Nikko’s temples are what most visitors come to see. What you might not know before you get to Nikko is just how many temple buildings there are! We spent the majority of our day strolling among temple structures and this is where you’ll see the very best of Nikko’s autumn shades. The main temple area can be found just beyond Shinkyo Bridge and you’d better be prepared to do a lot of walking.
Nikko’s temple buildings have received a lot of accolades: 103 of them are grouped under the UNESCO World Heritage Site title, while nine of these are additionally recognised as National Treasures of Japan. You may not get to see every single one of these structures but they all belong within two Shinto shrine complexes that are called Toshogu and Futarasan, as well as to a Buddhist temple complex called Rinno-ji.
At the time of our visit (and of writing), Rinno-ji will be closed for renovation until 2020. You can still visit to see the temple’s renowned Buddha figures and to find out more about the renovation works, but everything is encased within a temporary exterior covering. I hope to return one day when all of the work has been completed.
Even with this factored in, we had plenty to discover in Nikko’s main temple area. Like many other people that day, our first stop was Toshogu Shrine. It costs 1,300 Yen* to see the entire complex and, depending on how much you’d like to see, you’ll need to set aside an hour or more for a visit. My first impression of Toshogu was that this temple complex is colourful. Filled with red, gold and just about every other colour buildings, it was difficult to know where to start our explorations. Passing through the massive Torii gate, we gave up trying to choose for ourselves, instead opting to join the flow of the crowds.
Toshogu was built in 1617 in dedication to Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate. His remains are buried at the top of the hill within this complex, and it’s worth climbing the many stairs to view this serene, isolated spot. But we first took in the sights of the main courtyard. Here you can see the Sacred Stables, where you’ll find a royal white horse, as well as a carving of the Three Wise Monkeys (who hear, speak and see no evil). The red Five-Storey Pagoda towers to the side; its original burned down, so this particular pagoda dates to 1818.
Further along, the Yomeimon is one of the most elaborately decorated gates I have ever seen. Much of it is also currently under scaffolding but I can only imagine how dramatic this gate looks without its protective cover. It’s near this gate that you’ll be able to see the cutest carving: Nemuri-neko, otherwise known as the sleeping cat. In Honjido Hall, we joined a queue so that we could hear a dragon. Inside, a monk clapped two pieces of wood together in a specific place, which reverberated back as a ‘roar’ of the mythical creature. Ok, spoiler: so it doesn’t sound like any dragon I’ve heard of but it’s still worth a visit to hear the unusual acoustics within this structure.
All of these structures are beautiful within themselves but I can’t help but feel like their appearance was only amplified by the autumn shades of the tall trees surrounding the complex. If you only have time to visit one shrine in Nikko (especially in autumn), make sure that it’s Toshogu.
We, however, also had some time to see Futurasan jinja (entry fee: 200 Yen*). A short walk away via some picture-perfect cedar-lined pathways, the colours of this shrine may look a little muted compared with those in Toshogu, but I felt like we had finally lost some of the crowds here. Futarasan is also considered to be one of the oldest temples in Nikko, as its founder, a priest called Shodo, is said to have established it all the way back in the 8th Century.
The temple buildings are smaller but I loved the atmosphere here, where people were leaving paper dedications, ringing bells or silently praying. Futarasan jinja is said to have been built in worship of the mountains, which were seen as powerful guardian spirits, and, if you’re feeling adventurous, you can find many more temple buildings located in the mountains beyond Nikko.
By that time of the day, we had worked up an appetite. Fortunately, there are a few restaurants and eateries located in the forest, so we picked one so that we could try the food specialty of Nikko: yuba. Yuba is the skin that forms when you make tofu; it may not sound tasty, but it is! You’ll typically be served yuba with soba or udon noodles.
– Tamozawa Imperial Villa –
We could have easily spent the whole day exploring Nikko’s temples, but there was another place that had been cemented into our itinerary. And, if you’re specifically hunting for autumn colours, this is a spot you’ll have to visit too.
Leaving Nikko’s forest behind, the Tamozawa Imperial Villa is located near Nikko Botanical Garden and can be reached on foot. It costs 510 Yen* to visit, but I can assure you that it’s worth it. The Tamozawa villa was first built in 1899 and contains a staggering 106 rooms, all built on a single level. It was only opened to the public in 2000 and, as is the custom with most Japanese interiors, you’ll have to remove your shoes while exploring this villa.
Tamozawa is considered to be one of the largest wooden houses in Japan. While you’re exploring the grounds, keep in mind that the current property is only a third of its original size. I love exploring historical homes and Tamozawa is so incredible. In my socks, I wandered through rooms with floors covered with silk-lined tatami mats and walls decorated with exquisite paintings. The villa features a blend of Edo and Meiji architectural styles, and, with access to the series of courtyard gardens as well as the expansive grounds surrounding the house, Tamozawa eventually became the Imperial family’s summertime retreat.
We had to fight serious temptation to rush out into Tamozawa’s colourful gardens, which we kept glimpsing through the villa’s windows and doors. But we were determined to experience the interiors first. While you won’t find a lot of English information scattered throughout the villa, there are some displays and items that gave us a good idea of what it was like to live in this house in the early 1900s.
There are 13 courtyard gardens within the villa, which were included as a way to improve the flow of cool air throughout the different rooms. Each one of these gardens is gorgeous but the real gem of this villa has to be the landscaped garden that surrounds it.
Stepping outside again, we followed a path that wound its way throughout the different areas of the garden. From low-lying blooms to tall maple trees, this garden was one of the highlights of our Nikko visit. The added benefit was that we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves, a welcome notion after the busy temples earlier that day.
Tamozawa’s garden can be described as a showcase of a Japanese autumn, with leaves scattered on the ground and vividly coloured tree canopies above. When we rounded a bend and saw a photogenic pond, which in turn framed the villa just beyond, I think we both realised how right we were about our decision to include this estate on our Nikko sightseeing list.
– How to get to Nikko –
As mentioned earlier, there are day tours to Nikko that will include your transfer to the city. If you’re travelling independently, you’ll more than likely be travelling to Nikko by train.
There are a few options here.
Chris and I had the JR Pass, which meant that we could travel to Nikko without paying any extra fees. If you’re also travelling with this rail pass, you’ll need to catch the shinkansen from either Ueno or Tokyo stations to Utsunomiya. From there, you get on the JR Nikko line. The whole trip should take under two hours (one way). As I advise with any JR journey: make sure you book your tickets as soon as possible. Trains, especially shinkansen, can get sold out so it’s best to book ahead.
Alternatively, you can make use of the limited-express service (run as a joint operation between JR and Tobu) between Tokyo Shinjuku and Tobu-Nikko station; JR Pass holders will have to pay extra for this, and the journey time is also around two hours one way. Tobu also offers journeys between Tobu-Asakusa station and Tobu-Nikko station; again, this takes around two hours.
If you’re travelling with luggage, there are lockers you’ll be able to hire at both the JR and Tobu-Nikko stations.
Nikko was the very first day trip we took in Japan, and I don’t think I could have started off with anything better. The amount of places to visit, the good food and the natural beauty – whether it’s autumn or not – make Nikko a must-see for anyone visiting Japan for the first time. Yes, it’s a long day trip, with about four hours of travelling time in total, but I can guarantee that the memories of Nikko’s sacred tree-covered mountain of temples will linger for a lifetime.
Have I left out any of your favourite spots in Nikko? Or which travel destinations also look amazing in autumn? Let me know in the comments below.
* All costs were correct at the time of writing.
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