The National Park Nikko is a nature paradise just two hours from Tokyo. Be it the closeness to the capital, the burning reds of autumn foliage or the fresher and cooler summers, Nikko has caught the eye of foreign visitors early on. It is beautiful in every season and despite being often recommended as an easy day trip from Tokyo, it can’t be viewed in its entirety in just a day.
THE ADVENTURE STARTS!
Stepping off the train in Nikko was like stepping into a scene from a Ghibli movie, with greenery surrounding me. Summer in Nikko is not at all what I’m normally used to as a non-Japanese Tokyoite – it's actually very refreshing. But our destination was beyond Nikko, to Oku-Nikko. We boarded a hotel shuttle bus from Tobu Nikko station, and headed further up into the mountains, passing several historical sights on the way. After marvelling at the Shinkyou Bridge, for a good portion of the ride, there was nothing but road and trees along the path, and every moment seemed likely for an encounter with wildlife.
Reaching Oku-Nikko and the Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, I realized that the buildings in this area are almost tucked away into the mountainside, almost overshadowed by the beauty of Lake Chuzenji. The massive lake was formed over 20,000 years ago by the eruption of Mt. Nantai, which still stands over the lake watchfully. Thousands of years later, the area was discovered by a priest named Shodo, after summiting Mt. Nantai. Since then, the mountain and its surrounding areas have been considered sacred for worshippers and travellers alike. And at 1300 meter altitude summers are cool and fresh, so many foreign diplomats eventually made the decision to build their summer villas in the area.
NIKKO AND THE WORLD
Nikko is popular with domestic tourists, but it has always been especially attractive to international visitors. The city and the whole area have an extensive history with prominent western political figures that have greatly influenced a lot of the charm of the area. This can be observed through the culture and architecture, especially in Oku-Nikko.
One of the first witnesses to the historical bond between Nikko and the West that we saw was the Chuzenjiko Lake Boat House. Just a couple of steps from the Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, another gem of Western and Japanese culture intertwined, this Lake Boat House was built by the Americans after World War II and used as a vacation spot for high-ranking members of the Allied Forces. Now it’s one of the best photoesque views of Lake Chuzenji and Mt. Nantai.
From the boathouse we eventually made our way to the ferry that would take us across the lake and to the memorial embassy villas that stand witness to the importance of Oku-Nikko. The ferry provided even more breathtaking views of the inner lake, and passengers got a taste of the seasonal activities the area provided such as fishing.
We made our way to the first villa, which was built by British diplomat Ernest Satow, who was largely involved in the Meiji Restoration. The structure had recently been restored, and looked as if it had been built only yesterday. The villa is the storybook version of what someone may imagine a traditional British house. The walls were pristine white, and various books and photos covered the walls, much like I would imagine Sherlock Holmes's study. Visitors can read about the the house’s history as many plaques accompany the black and white photos of the Satow family. A British style cafe operates on the second floor of the building, which overlooks the Lake Chuzenji.
Nextdoor is the former Italian Embassy Villa, which has also been restored to its former charm. The architecture is a unique blend of Japanese and Italian motifs, such as the sliding doors that face the lake, to the use of bamboo in the villa’s ceiling designs. This villa offered a very warm inviting experience, and represented Japan’s history of blending east and west elements. One of the groundskeepers approached us to remark on Lake Chuzenji's similarity to lake Komo in Italy. Indeed, diplomacy might go further than people and countries and extend through nature.
A great escape from the concrete jungle would not be complete without a stay in a good hotel. The Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel is a western style hotel with a long tradition and excellent service. Their French cuisine makes the best use of locally sourced trout and adds a dash of Japanese style to their cooking. This hotel is surrounded by lush greenery, and it also uses a lot of wood in its interior design, so you feel in harmony with nature at all times. It's a perfect balance of urbanism in nature, of western style in Japan.
SUMMER IN NIKKO IS A SPLASH!
Water seems to be everywhere in Nikko – a treasure and a thing of beauty. The employees of Nikko Natural Science museum confirm that this area is rich in water and protected wildlife. Next to the museum is one of many waterfalls in Nikko, and probably the most spectacular – Kegon Falls. Before going there up close, people enjoy going on Akechidaira Platform by the Akechidaira Ropeway and see the waterfall plunge from lake Chuzenji in an almost 100-meter fall!
Actually, the fall was significantly taller a number of years ago. A typhoon had previously altered it and caused the cascade to start from a lower point in the mountain. Despite this incident, the fall is still extremely striking and impressive up close. For the up close view, there is a free observatory and a paid observatory that is reached with an elevator taking you down to admire the fall from below. When we visited, although it was rainy, I felt like we still picked a great day to see Kegon falls. The mist and greenery surrounding the falls added an otherworldly aura to the area.
On the second morning, we woke to clear skies, which completely transformed the area. Lake Chuzenji had a new hue, and continued to change colors throughout the day, from green to blue to silver and everything in between, while Mount Nantai peak was fully visible. It created the perfect weather for our nature walk around the mountain and in the forest.
Lake Chuzenji is a well known nature spot, but we rode on one of Nikko’s eco friendly buses to reach a smaller lake – Lake Sainoko. All other traffic is banned and there are wildlife enclosures along the road. The bus dropped us off on a scenic nature path that eventually leads to Lake Sainoko. The trail was vibrant and lush, and provided plentiful shade from the summer sun. The area is a haven to various mammals and birds in the area as our nature guide, Morita-san, pointed out. We caught a glimpse of a family of snow monkeys, but bears had been sighted in the area only a few days prior. Although this is a long walk, it is an easy one and travelers can enjoy various vegetation and trees along the way.
After another walk through the forest guided by Morita-san, we were treated to another amazing view of Mt. Nantai, and an almost tropical atmosphere! This is Senjugahama beach, an area that feels exclusive as there are not many people and it is only reachable by the eco-bus.
We rounded our trip out by visiting the cascading Ryuzu Waterfalls, also known as Dragon’s Head Waterfall, which is named for a large rock formation that is shaped like a dragon’s head. The loud roar of the falls, as well as the green surrounding the falls, adds to the appearance that the waterfall is a living breathing creature.
I recommend starting from the top of fall and making your way to the bottom. I especially enjoyed the small café located at the observation deck of the falls. It was the perfect way to cool down after a day in the sun. And it was one of many times during this trip that we marvelled at the constantly changing beauty of water.
As the smooth and comfortable Limited Express Revaty almost lulled me to sleep, I was already making plans in my mind to come to Nikko again. Nikko is certainly an easy day trip from Tokyo, but I can’t imagine trying to fit all of these sights into one day. There are so many places to see around Oku-Nikko and Nikko. Although autumn is likely Nikko’s busiest season, there is something breathtaking about Nikko in the summer that you can’t see in other seasons. Perhaps it's the chance to see wildlife, or that fact that its climate is the antithesis to Tokyo’s sweltering summers. Regardless of what season you visit, Nikko is a unique area that is attractive for various types of tourists. There was something about the area that seemed familiar with its various influences from the west, but still maintained traditional elements of Japanese culture. It is a must for any nature enthusiast, or Tokyoite searching for a piece of mind.