Nikko | Autumn Day Trip from Tokyo

Nikko is a very popular destination amongst tourists, especially during peak autumn foliage time. It is known for it's beautiful nature, lush with mountains and breathtaking waterfalls. There are also many UNESCO world heritage sites, such as Nikko Toshogu,  where Tokugawa Ieyasu is enshrined. It's a direct train (Tobu Nikko Line) from Tobu Asakusa Station, making it very accessible to tourists. 

Being completely honest, I don't think a day trip does Nikko justice. I would probably recommend 3 days, or at least an overnight trip with a stay in Kinugawa Onsen. But for this time, I only had a day trip's worth of availability in my schedule. Here are the highlights of what you can do in a day in Nikko. 

A few key facts about traveling to Nikko:

  • Best time for autumn foliage: early November
  • Getting to Nikko: Car (2hr drive with no traffic), limited express train from Asakusa (1h55m)
  • Entrance fees for temples, shrines, gardens, museums: typically range from ¥300 - ¥1,000
  • Getting around Nikko: see this detailed guide on japan-guide.com for getting around Nikko via public transport
Locations included in this Day trip:

🍁 "Initial D" Irohazaka Slope
🍁 Ryuzu Falls
🍁 Kegon Falls
🍁 Nikko Toshogu 
🍁 Rinnoji Temple & Shoyoen Garden
🍁 Shinkyo Bridge 

Up the Slopes, deep into Nikko

The day started with a 7:30am limited express train departing from Tobu Asakusa station. It took us 1h45m to get to Shimo-imaichi station, which is just before Nikko. From there, we hopped on a tour bus to go to Ryuzu Falls. The drive was 45mins up winding roads called "Irohazaka",where one of the Initial D tracks is based on. It's so steep that there are 2 sets of winding roads and both one way, one for going up and the other going down. Nikko is already about 600m above sea level, which is why the cool climate allows the leaves to change color earlier than the rest of Kanto region. Ryuzu falls is even higher up at 1,350m.

The entrance to Ryuzu Falls is a little plaza like area with a bunch of little shops that sell food and souvenirs. The it's a short hike up a bunch of stairs and slopes to see the actual waterfall. 

100m tall Kegon Waterfall

On the east side of Lake Chuzenji is the most famous waterfall in Nikko - Kegon falls. It's so tall that you need to take an elevator down to the viewing deck. The steepness doesn't allow hiking/walking on foot. The majestic waterfall is surrounded by autumn foliage, and if you ever visit in winter, it becomes frozen solid.

Back up at ground level, there are lots of shops for food and souvenirs. I chose Goheimochi which is a flat rice cake on a stick from Chubu region (Nagano, Gifu, Aichi prefectures).  

Nikko Toshogu, Rinnoji Temple, and Shinkyo

The tour bus took us back down the winding roads of Irohazaka and stopped close to where all the major temples and shrines were. We had 3hrs of free time to grab some lunch and walk around. There is so much to see, even just at Nikko Toshogu, I'd allocate a full day in this area.

Nikko Toshogu

Starting with Nikko Toshogu, the first thing you'll notice are the endless Yatai (food stalls) lined on the right side of the long road up to the shrine. Just up the gentle slope on the side is also a beautiful row of autumn leaves bursting in colors of yellow, orange, and red. Immediately after entering the entrance gate, you'll see the iconic 5 story pagoda on your left hand side. On the right is one of the shrine offices where you can buy amulets (omamori), wooden wish plaques (ema) and so on. Continuing up another set of stairs is the paid area which is  ¥1,000 per person. 

 

 

Inside the paid area, you'll see many buildings. They all have elaborate and colorful wooden carvings of various animals such as monkeys, dragons, and cats. Through the stone torii gate, up one more set of stairs is the famous "Yomeimon Gate" in shimmering white and gold color. Through the gate, you finally get to the area with the main shrine building, consisting of the prayer hall, main hall, Sakashitamon Gate (left hand side, with the famous carving of a sleeping cat), and Tokugawa Ieyasu's mausoleum. 



Rinnoji Temple & Shoyoen Garden

Back down to where the Yatai are, we grabbed some quick lunch. I got some Yakisoba (fried noodles) which was ¥500. I'm not sure what the reason is, but there were no drinks sold at all anywhere, not even soft drinks or water, so make sure you grab some before you get to this area. 

We continued further downhill for just a little bit, eventually finding Rinnoji Temple on the left hand side. The foliage inside was already bright red and orange. Just right by the temple office is the small entrance into Shoyoen. It's easy to miss it, but it's definitely a must-visit. It's a small Japanese garden, but there's a tea house, bridge, and the foliage colors are absolutely incredible. 

 

 

Shinkyo Bridge

Our last stop is at Shinkyo Bridge, built in 1636, which is another iconic scenery of Nikko. It's further down towards Nikko station, near the entrance to the shrine and temple area. Technically it is a part of "Futarasan Shrine" so you need to pay ¥300 at the shrine office to get onto the bridge. However if you just want to admire the bridge from afar, you can do that for free on the side. 

The walk from Shinkyo Bridge back down to Tobu Nikko station is about 20-30mins. Along the way are lots of souvenir shops, cafes, and restaurants. There's also busses you can take if your feet area already tired from walking. 

 

Other spots for autumn foliage in early November

If you've already been to Nikko, or you are looking for something different, here are a few other spots that have autumn foliage around the same time:


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