Nikko's beautiful setting and sacred mountains have been the backdrop of Shinto and Buddhist worship since at least the eighth century. Its most famous shrines and temples, the most magnificent in Japan, are a UNESCO World Heritage site.
Nikko's Tobu-Nikko Station is easily accessible from Tokyo's Asakusa and Shinjuku stations in about two hours.
Travelers can reach Nikko from Gunma Prefecture, with buses running from Oze between mid-spring and mid-autumn.
The Shrines and Temples of Nikko consist of 103 structures spread over three complexes. They are all within easy walking distance of each other, making for an unforgettable day absorbing some of Japan's most dazzling religious architecture.
One of the most impressive and rightfully most visited is the Toshogu Shrine complex. The shrine is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate which ruled Japan from 1603 to 1867. Lavish, colorful, and intricately carved, Toshogu Shrine stands in stark contrast to many of Japan's more stoic religious structures.
Take plenty of time to absorb the detail of its five-storied pagoda, colorful storehouses, and the dazzling and flamboyantly carved Yomeimon Gate. Walk up to the Inner Shrine grave for a beautiful view over the shrine complex. Do not miss the Toshogu Museum on the approach to the shrine, complete with anime of the life of Tokugawa Ieyasu.
Eighth-century Futarasan Shrine is dedicated to the worship of Nikko's three sacred mountains. You can wander the impressive main grounds for free, and check out the inner garden with its ancient trees for a small fee. Futarasan Shrine has a branch at nearby Lake Chuzenji, and hardy hikers can visit a third branch on the summit of Mt. Nantai in the warmer seasons.
Rinno-ji Temple, also founded in the eighth century, houses three regal Buddha images said to represent Nikko's three sacred mountains. They're a perfect example of the era when elements of Buddhism and Shintoism were strongly intertwined. Its garden is a popular spot for viewing colorful leaves in autumn.
Taiyuinbyo Temple, while not part of the World Heritage complex, is another Nikko must-see. Brilliantly decorated, it features a mix of Shinto and Buddhist elements. It's the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu's grandson, the Shogun Tokugawa Iemitsu. In 1636 he transformed the smaller original Toshogu Shrine into the brilliant World Heritage masterpiece awaiting visitors today.
Shinkyo Bridge is a part of the World Heritage Futarasan Shrine. Legend says that when the first priest attempted to ascend sacred Mt. Nantai, the Daiya river stood in his path. He prayed for a safe crossing, and the river god spawned giant snakes that formed the bridge. For much of its existence, only Futarasan Shrine parishioners and the imperial court could make the crossing. Now, it's commonly regarded as the gateway to the major Nikko shrines and temples.
Nikko is home to an ancient tradition of mountain worship. The three sacred peaks of Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho, and Mt. Taro, known collectively as Nikko Sanzan, dominate the area, and you can get in touch with the area's mystical side by trekking these mountains.
Towering over Lake Chuzenji, 2,486-meter Mt. Nantai is Nikko's highest, most sacred, and most frequently climbed peak. The precipitous trail to the top starts from Futarasan Shrine at the foot of the mountain. It serves as a branch of the World Heritage shrine of the same name. Climbers going to the summit are asked to pay a small fee. When you arrive at the top, soak up the view over Lake Chuzenji, and congratulate yourself on reaching the Okusha, Futarasan Shrine's most outlying structure.
Contact the Nikko Tourist Information Center for further details and to learn about hiking the other peaks. Whichever trek you choose, bring your boots, provisions, and a sense of adventure; hikes to the summits and back involve a full day on the trail and are for those with at least moderate physical fitness. You'll find easier hiking around Lake Chuzenji.
Don't miss the Tamozawa Imperial villa, part of which dates back to 1632.
Lake Chuzenji and its homey eponymous onsen area are easily accessible by bus from the city. The must-see Kegon-no-Taki Falls is widely considered one of Japan's most spectacular cascades.
In late March and early April, a 16-kilometer corridor of cherry trees blooms between Utsunomiya and Nikko on the old Nikko Kaido Route. A bus ride between the cities will let you take it in on the go; rent a car to stop off for photos as you please.
While in town, don't miss trying yuba, a Nikko specialty. Yuba is a soy product that has featured in Buddhist cuisine for centuries. Locals put it in almost everything, including ramen, sushi, rice cookies, and Nikko's famed yuba manju sweets.