Nikko, just 2 hours away from Tokyo, is yet another temple collection that has been declared Unesco World Heritage in Japan. So, why paying a visit?

I must admit I hadn’t planned to go to Nikko, I had already visited Kamakura and Tokyo, and had planned Kyoto, Miyajima and so on… But my friend Dani-san convinced me it would be worth the visit and that it would only take an evening, so I decided to go there.

Why Nikko: the must-see(s)

The Unesco World Heritage site connects 3 different temples at Nikko. But all together they are over a hundred different buildings. Two of them are Shinto (Toshogu and Futurasan) and the other one is Buddhist (Rinnoji)

Nikko Toshogu Shrine roof decoration

I started at Toshogu Shinto Shrine. Up a mountain and in the middle of a forest there’s a feel of magic. No wonder, it’s the home to so many dragons.

In general, the decoration is quite impressive up there. Full of nature: dragons and birds, cats, turtles,..It is not common to find such a rich decor at shinto shrines, but at the Nikko complex there is a great combination of buddhist and that makes it unique. Must sees: the yomeimon door, the sleeping cat, the three monkeys, the sozonozo elephants, the 5 story-pagoda…

One of the most interesting ones is the crying dragon at the Honjido building. It is famous because of the acoustics that sound “like a dragon” when the monks play some sticks under the dragon’s mouth. The painting is quite impressive. The sound, not much. The only thing is that the explanations are in japanese, so you have to “interpret” the story behind it.

Sleeping cat toshogu shinto shrine Nikko

Another interesting spot is the Tokugawa mausoleum. It is funny how everything connects at many levels, I didn’t have much idea about the Edo era or how Ieyasu Tokugawa transformed Japan, but I visited his castle at Matsumoto, the one at Kyoto… and there I was, in front of his tomb.

Rinnoji temple is now being restored, but you can still go there to visit the Sanbutsudo, with the three buddhist representations of the gods in nikko: Amida, the hundred-arms Kannon (Senju-Kannon) and the Kannon with a horse head (Bato-Kannon)

And lastly, there’s Futurasan, probably the less spectacular building on the complex. But it has some interesting gardens (pay.)

How to get to Nikko

If you hold a JRPass you’ll get there pretty fast from Tokyo. Just take a shinkansen from Shinjuku or Ikebukuro to Utsunomiya, and then the Nikko line to Nikko (all JR).

If you don’t have one, you can still take the JR or buy a ticket with private Tobu line from Asakusa, which you can buy together with the ticket to the temples (for one or more days.)

Moving around Nikko and the World Heritage Site: logistics

Once you get to Nikko you’ll need a bus to get to the temples. It is about 2km to get from the station to the UNWH area (JR or Tobu, they arrive to different stations, but next to each other) but it is only about 10 minutes to get there by bus.

red bridge nikko japan

You can get the bus right in front of the station (any of the stations and mostly any of the buses) but there is a one-day ticket you can buy at the Tobu station that allows to move around for around 500 yen. The ticket is called the Sekai-isan-meguri  (World Heritage Buss Pass). You only need to show it to the bus driver when you get in and then when you get out.

Take into account that an ordinary ticket to the Nikko temple area is around 300 yen. The buses work just as many other buses in Japan: they give you a ticket with a number when you get in and when you are getting down you just check the screen and pay the amount next to your number.

As for the tickets to the temples, there used to be a ticket that granted access to the three temples, but now you have to pay at each of them or get the combined ticket with the  train. Just Toshogu costs around 1300 yens per adult.

There is also a ticket for several days if you are staying around longer.

My point of view: Kamakura vs. Nikko, which should you visit?

From my point of view, there are two negative things about Nikko:

  • It is the most comercial complex of temples i’ve been to in Japan (and I’ve seen things like Omikuji vending machines…) Monks aren’t usually so proactive at selling things like here.
  • Being one of the most visited sites in Japan, it is not adapted to foreign tourism. the only explanations to many áreas are the ones that request you to take your shoes off and the shopping stalls.

However, those are not reasons enough to avoid Nikko and its dragons.

As for those who have asked me to chose beteen Kamakura and Nikko, i must admit I prefer Kamakura for the type of city it is. There’s the beach, the bohemian style, the distance to Tokyo. The negatives? it is not world heritage, the temples are far from each other, so you cannot visit them that fast and you’ll spend almost the same amount.

Dragons in the ceiling, Toshogu Shinto Shrine, NIkko Japan

Dragons in the ceiling, Toshogu Shinto Shrine, Nikko Japan

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The ultimate guide to Nikko World Heritage Site