Nikko, Japan

Part magic, part chaos: Our overnight trip to Nikko was a good study in the duality of tourism.

We took the rapid train from Tokyo’s Asakusa station to Nikko. Thankfully, we arrived 20 minutes before departure. This put us at the front of the line, and ensured we had a seat for the 2.5-hour ride. There were at least 50 people in our car alone that stood for the entire train trip. Sign #1 that Nikko would be swarmed.

We took a cab half-way to our hotel, jumping out early when we got stuck in a 100-yen-a-minute traffic jam on the main road. Our hotel — The Turtle Inn — was tucked away on the river, far from the crowds. The adorable innkeeper recommended we visit the Kanmangafuchi Abyss first, just a 10-minute walk from the inn.

The magic began. We headed towards the colorful mountains, on quiet, wet streets. Crossing a bridge, we followed the rocky, rushing, loud river up the to small gorge/waterfall that was the Abyss. Lining the way were 70 moss-covered statues of Jizo, a Bodhisatva who looks after the dead. (Across the river is a big cemetery, which we’d later stumble upon). We practically had the place to ourselves.

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More meandering around the river, cemetery, and side streets of Nikko (magical!) led to the main attractions and ALL THE PEOPLE (chaos!).

Nikko is famous for its temples and shrines, particularly for the massive mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Right up there with Napoleon’s Tomb in Paris, this place was over-the-top and over-run with tourists. It could have been magical on a week day in January, but with the changing leaves at their peak on a weekend day with perfect weather was… eeeeee…. not good.

Hoards were dishing over thousands of yen to enter the hillside of mass chaos. The more the merrier (!!!) is the MO here, with no crowd control measures in place. One particular moment of hell was trying to get to the tomb itself. First, you must pass under a carving of a sleeping cat, which has become a symbol for Nikko and an obsession of tourists. For the first time in Japan, we had people shoving us to try to get a blurry, cell-phone photo of this foot-long cat.

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Your reward for getting through the 15-minute bottleneck? Two hundred steep steps up to the tomb. Again, hiking through the ancient cedar forest on a quiet day would be ridiculously special. Taking just a few steps each minute on a crowded stairway was not so wonderful.

Also potentially magical: Walking through the temple gardens at night, trees lit from below. It was challenging the get in the moment though, when shuffling around the garden shoulder-to-shoulder with other tourists.

A quick soak in our inn’s onsen (hot springs bath) and a tofu dinner at a sleepy restaurant, and all magic was restored. We woke up early and wheeled our bags a mile to the train station, through mist, light rain, and very quiet streets. Yes, Nikko is a special place. 

We recommend an overnight trip to Nikko wholeheartedly. Just plan to go on a weekday, during the off season. For more of our Nikko pictures, see our Flickr set.

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