There is a saying in Japan that goes something along the lines of Never say you are satisfied until you’ve seen Nikko. Indeed! Nikko in the Kanto Region boasts some of the most magnificent religious structures I’ve ever seen. So, even though it is an easy day trip from Tokyo, why rush?
Visiting only the popular sites is never an option for us, so we spent two nights in town and three more days in the somewhat forgotten Kinugawa Onsen area. The whole experience was incredible and the best way to end our 5 week trip to Japan. But let’s start from the beginning. So, be sure to include Nikko and Kinugawa Onsen on your next trip to Japan.
When we arrived in Nikko we couldn’t believe our eyes. The temples are absolutely beautiful! Not only that, but lush green nature surrounds them. The town is at the entrance of the Nikko National Park, one of the grandest natural areas in Japan.
One of us is an architect, and the other one an environmental lawyer. Nikko gave us sublime architecture in the middle of splendid nature! We spent hours walking slowly along the paths, inhaling clean air, listening to the water flow, and admiring Japanese culture. Trust us, you will never forget Nikko!
How to Get to Nikko From Tokyo
Since Japan’s railroad network is extremely developed, you can reach the same destination using different companies and routes. To go from Tokyo to Nikko you can take the Japanese Railways Line from Tokyo’s Main Station or the Tobu Nikko Line from the Asakusa Station. We went to Nikko on the former and came back to Tokyo on the later line. Please take note that the only Tobu Nikko Line goes all the way to Kinugawa Onsen.
In Japan there are several convenient JR Passes, such as the excellent 2 week pass, perfect if you travel fast. We don’t travel fast so we didn’t buy it. Additionally, the pass includes only the Japanese Railways trains that don’t reach every destination. Therefore, to get to Nikko from Tokyo and back we took two different companies from two different stations. Both train lines were on time, fast and offered great views.
Where to Stay
Most tourists visit Nikko for the day, rush through the temples, and leave. What a mistake! We strongly recommend spending at least one night. Once the tourists leave, Nikko becomes quiet, mysterious, and prettier. The best places to stay in Nikko are close to the temples.
We stayed at the charming Nikko Park Lodge Mountain Side in the middle of the forest, so we could walk everywhere through beautiful green paths. It’s a traditional home with comfy rooms and everything you need. Another great option also in the middle of the forest is the Fairfield by Marriot.
Shrines and Temples of Nikko
Since 1999, the Tôshôgû and the Futarasan-jinja Shinto shrines, and the Rinnô-ji Buddhist temple are UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The place comprises over 100 buildings and a beautiful 17th Century forest. The buildings are located on different slopes on the Sacred Nikko Mountains creating different visual effects.
For centuries the whole complex and its natural setting have been considered sacred. The temple and shrines still serve their religious purpose, though it is difficult to submerge into this unique atmosphere surrounded by masses of tourists. That’s why it’s essential to spend at least one night in Nikko. You will have an experience much bigger than a place.
Other Places to Visit
After visiting the historical sites we went for a walk along the Daiya River. The water is hot, so we could see vapor coming out of the river! In the evening we crossed the famous Shinkyo Bridge. Since most tourists come here only during the day, we had the place to ourselves.
You can walk to the Jakko Waterfall and the Urami Falls. It’s an easy walk through nature. The most adventurous can keep on walking up to the Unryu Keikoku Falls. The views from there over Mt. Nyoho will take your breath away. Don’t rush and enjoy every minute of your journey!
When searching for a great onsen around Nikko we stumbled upon a town called Kinugawa Onsen. The town has a pretty center located just in front of the train station, with several shops and restaurants. The Kinugawa River runs through it. There are monkeys, warm locals, and epic views all around!
Kinugawa looks straight out of a movie. Steep mountains tower above the town. The town itself is small and very quiet. Loved it! There are restaurants and convenience stores. We would buy supermarket sushi and eat it on a bench with unforgettable views of the river and mountains.
How to Get to Kinugawa Onsen
The best way to get from Tokyo to Kinugawa Onsen is by train. Take the Tobu Line from the Asakusa Station. The journey is an attraction in itself so grab a window seat. This train stops in Nikko. Therefore, you can take it in Nikko and get to Kinugawa Onsen in less than 30 minutes.
Local trains go from Nikko to Kinugawa too at least once an hour. In any case, there are trains between both places approximately every 20 minutes. If you are in great shape, you can walk from Nikko to Kinugawa in approximately 3 hours. If you have luggage, take the train.
Where to Stay
In Kinugawa you have to stay in an onsen ryokan next to the river. We stayed at the Hotel Sunshine Kinugawa. The rooms are huge and are fitted with tatami. The hotel has an indoor and outdoor onsen. The service is impeccable, and the views unforgettable!
If you have the money to splurge, do so at the KINUGAWA KEISUI. It’s the newest hotel in town. The rooms are massive and come with designer furniture, premium beds, and a balcony with your own private hot tub! The hotel’s onsen and sauna are fantastic.
Things to Do
Among all the things to do in Kinugawa, walking from onsen to onsen is mandatory. Don’t take your phone, just walk about and you will see mineral springs everywhere. There are several! Our favorite is the Kinugawa Koen Iwaburo, half an hour walking north of the train station.
There is foot bath close to the train station. We loved crossing the Kinutateiwaotsuri Bridge and walking to the Tateiwa Viewpoint and the Furukama Falls. The town’s ancient cemetery is pretty cool. We strongly recommend walking at night too. It super safe and you can see thousands of stars!
Kinugawa Koen is the next town north of Kinugawa Onsen. You can walk from one to the other in half an hour or take a 7 minute train. In fact, since both are so close, you will think it’s the same town.
However, Kinugawa Koen has a fascinating look. As I mentioned in the text about Chubu Region, Japan has a problem with its aging population. So basically there is a shortage of workforce, and Kinugawa Koen feels abandoned. We are not complaining, we loved it!
Why Staying in a Ryokan Hotel is a Must
We all have different tastes and interests. While some people would do anything to climb Mount Fuji, staying at an authentic onsen town in Japan was one of the highlights of our trip. In all honesty, the area is outrageously beautiful and feels isolated.
Spending a couple of nights at an authentic ryokan hotel is experiencing Japanese culture. Though the hotels are old, they are in great shape and offer extra big rooms with jaw dropping views. You get to drink tea, relax, and feel japan. Don’t make a mistake and book at least one night here.
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