For most, the city of Nikko is done as a day trip from Tokyo to see the three most famous shrines and temples in the region. The 90 minute train ride, and relatively affordable ticket prices, has made it a great destination for those on limited time. Having read a lot about the city and its tourist offerings, I decided to stay for 3 nights in hopes of exploring the region in greater depth. I could go on about that, and will in a future post, but really the best reason to stay in Nikko, at least one night, is to avoid the crowds at the temples.
With an hour and a half train ride separating 90%+ of the daily visitors from the temple, those who are in the city have near private access to the sites in the early morning hours, something I took advantage of while in Nikko. Opening at 8am, the 1000 Yen combination ticket gives you access to five sites within the park including the Rinnoji Temple and Toshogu Shrine, home of the see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil monkeys. An additional 520 Yen allows you to visit the tomb of Ieyasu, for which the Toshogu Shrine (and the rest of Nikko) was built in 1634.
Bright and early, I made the 20 minute walk from town to the shrines and was the very first, and only, person present to buy the combination ticket. The mood was enhanced by the fact that the entire town of Nikko, shrines included, was covered with a dense fog that limited visibility significantly. Not good for hiking, but great for pictures and ambiance. Missing the entrance to the Rinnoji Shrine, I hit Toshogu first surrounded by less than 10 other visitors allowing for almost private viewings of the monkey carvings and one on one time with some of the most beautiful shrines in Japan.
The shrines are ornate, ostentatious, incredibly expensive. Use the words that you like, they are endowed with more gold leaf than anything I have ever seen. Still, beyond the next corner is another amazing site to be seen. While Toshogu is the most lavish of all, the Futarasan Shrine comes in a close second and uses the areas hilly scenery to its advantage to be a peaceful and beautiful area.
While most visitors come to see the biggest shrines, there is another smaller shrine set way off in the hills, about a 30 minute hike away, called Takino. Adjacent to a waterfall, the hike to the shrine was absolutely desolate. If it weren’t for the fact that there is a parking lot nearby, I would have been completely alone as I was the entire hike. With everything in site covered in moss, it is hard to believe the shrine gets any visitors at all, and the five total visitors while I was there is a testament to that
After three hours of exploring the sites, with the last hour hiking to Takino Shrine and many smaller ones along the way, I made my way back to the main shrine of Rinnoji for my last viewing before calling it a day at the early hour of 11am. Upon making it back to the park entrance, I was greeted with the site I managed to avoid all day. The crowds had arrived. I walked away smiling as the crowds grew. The fog had lifted, and the shrines were ready for their audience.