By now every tourist heading to Japan has probably heard of the 103 UNESCO World Heritage Listed shrines and temples of Nikko. So you can imagine there are a lot of things to do in Nikko…
Scattered throughout a beautiful mountain forest established as a lavish monument to the great Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616) in the Edo era, most Western tourist’s make the mistake of planning only a Nikko day trip from Tokyo – when instead they should follow the lead of the Japanese and stay and explore the Nikko area for a few days…
Don’t follow in this tourist’s footsteps. Let me show you a better way.
With traditional hotels (ryokan), delicious conventional multi-course ‘Kaiseki’ dinners, hundreds of hot springs (onsen), the best strawberries in Japan, and an outlandish theme park, there are so many ‘other’ things to do in Nikko.
So why not slow down and complete your experience in ancient Nikko by embracing the space-time warp that has allowed old world Japan and the best of traditional Japanese culture to survive so close to Tokyo. To help, I’ve compiled and reviewed my favorite ways to step back in time in Nikko, which will give you more than enough for a three-day visit to Nikko.
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If you have more time on your hands or can’t bring yourself to return to chaotic Tokyo, you could also head to nearby Nasu, the Imperial Resort Town – or I’ll leave you with even more ideas of things to do in Nikko (there are plenty!)
In keeping with making a trip to Nikko from Tokyo being about stepping back in time and experiencing authentic Japanese culture, you can’t miss a visit to Edo Wonderland, a Japanese cultural theme park saving a slice of the Edo Period for you to find.
Sounds bizarre right (as if everything in Japan doesn’t already), but I was tempted by tales of a geisha show, ninja performances, Shuriken throwing star training – and yes, dressing up Edo style!
A full day experience Edo Wonderland is a reasonably accurate re-creation of an Edo-era town complete with watchtower, firehouse, a downtown, prison, ninja village, ornate bridges, and more covering an area of about 500 thousand square meters. Utterly unique and brilliant, Edo Wonderland is filled with unique experiences, exhibits, dining, and performances all timed to allow you to get the maximum amount out of your day here.
Or, if you prefer, you can simply wander the town and watch the social hierarchy at play. Don’t get what that means? Neither did we until we dressed up Edo style as a Lord and Samurai and had, I kid you not, workers throwing themselves at our feet, deep longbows and greetings hollered from across the way.
Basically, this is the real deal, and whichever character you choose for the day is how you will be treated. Police officers, a farmer, a villager, geisha — the world is your oyster. While it’s an extra cost on top of the entrance ticket, we found most visitors opted for it. And why wouldn’t you as it clearly makes the whole trip to Edo Wonderland even more amazing!
The only thing that really brought me back to the 21st century was the odd Japanese girls wanting a kawaii selfie with the handsome foreigner (what, let me have that, OK!).
Beyond getting dressed up in traditional Japanese clothing and exploring the full-scale Edo-era town, there are also plenty of must-see performances. There are actually too many to see all in one day, but the guide on arrival helpfully circles the best – and those which Japanese is not needed.
The highlights for us where the Grand Ninja Theatre with its impressive displays of ninja skills and tricks with convincing realism, the Mizugei-za / Water Magic Performance (I don’t want to give it away, but you will be in stitches laughing by the end) and the Oiran Courtesan Performance which displays authentic Oiran traditions right out of Memoirs Of A Geisha, and you can get beautiful photos with the girls after.
If you happen to miss this last show, don’t worry: there is a surreal Oiran courtesans parade through the main streets of Edo Wonderland daily, complete with full entourage making for a great show and colorful photo.
I honestly could go on forever listing everything there is to do here, but I’ll just stick to a few of the highlights to leave some magic of discovery.
You won’t want to miss exploring the Jigoku Temple filled with scary tricks and mirrors thanks to the demons and ghosts who reside here, and once you have conquered this, there is always the Ninja Maze and Ninja House to prove your skills and prove you could be a ninja master. It turns out, much of Japan’s current culinary traditions originated in the Edo Period — who said theme parks couldn’t be educational too!
This means, as you would expect, the dining at Edo Wonderland has a range of delicious options and an array of Edo delicacies including soba noodles, Japanese set menus, or delightful street food. For children, there is the option of the Ninja Experience, the Samurai Swordsmen Experience, or the Okappiki Police Experience.
And even if you don’t like children, watching them dressed up as little ninjas are just adorable!
Hopefully, this makes some sense to you, and I have conveyed how truly remarkable and unique Edo Wonderland is because I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Even if you are not into history, the shows and food are well worth it, as is the chance to dress up and wander around the old town with everybody throwing themselves at you. Be sure to arrive at opening time on the dot for an amazing opening ceremony by the townspeople, and you will want to stay a whole day to make the most of this magical and surreal time-warp.
A stay in a traditional Japanese Inn (Ryokan) is an absolute must in Japan, and the Kinugawa Park Hotels is the perfect place to really experience Japanese hospitality.
Upon arrival, you are greeted with a relaxed lobby overlooking the Kinugawa river and surrounding mountains where beautifully dressed women in traditional kimonos show you to your chosen room – all of which are gorgeous with a style and budget to suit most travelers.
I recommend any of the traditional room categories with tatami flooring, sliding doors, welcome tea, comfortable yukata (a light cotton kimono), and the highlight: a private onsen with river views to enjoy on your own balcony!! Does it even get much better than this?
Yes, actually, it turns out it does. As well as having large rooms with fabulous amenities including yukata, toothbrush, toiletries, tea & coffee, and a welcome snack the Kinugawa Park Hotels has a variety of onsen / hot springs on-site. Just in case you want to experience public bathing Japanese style.
With two separate bathing areas (one for men and one for women), there are a variety of baths, including a wooden barrel bathtub made of Japanese cypress, open-air baths to experience the crisp air, vast open baths and even a beautiful one that looks like a boat. While in Western Europe only the Finns still practice a truly public bathing habit, in Japan baths using water from onsen (hot springs), especially in resort towns, remail particularly popular.
As is typical for onsen in Japan, the onsen at the Kinugawa Park Hotels is a clothing free-zone. This can be very liberating when you get used to it. Many, but not all, municipalities in Japan forbid nude mixed gender public baths, and Nikko is one of them. So be aware that means most couples will not be able to bath together here
.For obvious reasons — I did not take any photos; however, on their website, they have some in case you are not yet convinced. Be sure to wash thoroughly before and after the onsen; it’s all part of the ritual, and if you are unsure: don’t worry!
Just follow someone else’s lead or the signs in English by the front door!
Also included in the Kinugawa Park Hotels room rate is a traditional Japanese dinner and breakfast bringing together the best Tochigi ingredients from the mountains, villages & seas: called “Shiki no zen” Kaiseki cuisine.
This multi-course dining extravaganza is genuinely humbling, served in a Japanese Style Tatami dining room with an unbelievable presentation. We were told that the intention was to satisfy the mind, body, and soul, and I think they did just that. Probably the best meal we ate in Japan, the Kaiseki cuisine will be a highlight of your stay and an experience to be savored!
Overall the Kinugawa Park Hotels provided me with everything I was looking for: beautiful interiors, stunning views, public and private onsen bathing experiences, and Kaiseki cuisine that I will never forget.
Although English was not spoken by everyone, the staff who did were always around and paid particular attention to us – making our stay extra-memorable. I can’t recommend enough that you choose Kinugawa Park Hotels to enhance your experience in Nikko.
You might think all-you-can-eat strawberry picking in the mountains is not very Japanese, but you couldn’t be further from the truth.
While this is one thing to do in Nikko that is almost exclusively done by the Japanese, us foreigners have been missing out! Thanks to advances in greenhouse technology, the Nikko Strawberry Park can produce high-quality, delicious strawberries for visitors to pick from December till the end of May, accompanied by a dash of condensed milk if you like or all-natural.
Tochigi Prefecture is insanely famous for the quality of its strawberries (so much so that there is a Tochigi Strawberry Kit-Kat flavor). And here at Nikko Strawberry Park, you can enjoy 30 minutes of serene strawberry selecting as you wander through endless greenhouses searching for the best and brightest strawberries to pick and savor.
Or you can just stuff your face with as many as you can like I did. Accompanied by romantic J-Pop and the buzzing bees which keep this place all organic, Nikko Strawberry Park actually produces four types of strawberries – the Skyberry, Beni hope, Tochiotome and the most famous, Yayoihime.
If you can tell the difference, you deserve a medal. You would probably also get offered a job here straight away. Either way visiting Nikko Strawberry Park is a relaxing way to spend the afternoon and appreciate these juicy gifts of nature just as the Japanese do.
Reservations for Nikko Strawberry Farm are recommended in advance. Sessions last 30 minutes (though we found they were not very strict on this and were full anyway!) and include unlimited strawberries and condensed milk!
I know I said we were not going to talk about the shrines, but I think we kind of need to. The sanctuaries at Nikko are truly spectacular and deserving of their status as among the most beautiful in all of Japan (up there with the Kyoto Fox Shrine, in my opinion).
By focussing on other things to do in Nikko – I’m not saying skip the shrines, just consider not doing yourself and the Nikko wider area a disservice by only going on a Nikko day trip from Tokyo (besides those JR tickets aren’t cheap so might as well stay awhile…).
Architectural and decorative masterpieces closely associated with the history of the Tokugawa Shoguns, the Nikko Shrines are an integral part of Japanese culture and deserve a whole day to fully explore (check the Japan Lonely Planet for details of each shrine).
Ideally, a trip to Nikko would consist of 2 – 3 nights with one full day spent at wandering the Nikko Shrines, one full day witnessing traditional Edo life firsthand at the Edo Wonderland theme park and another day simply spent enjoying the onsen ritual at Kinugawa park hotel with a small outing to taste the best strawberries in the world.
Sure, it is possible to day trip from Tokyo, but you really, really should give it more time!
With this plan of attack for visiting Nikko and the Kinugawa Onsen area, you truly get a taste for traditional Japanese food & culture, religion, and daily life – and understand how much of today’s Japan, as modern as it seems, stems from deep-rooted rituals and ideas introduced in the Edo Period.
I, for one, left Nikko with a much great appreciation for Japan and its utter uniqueness, and I am sure if you opt for more than a Nikko day trip that you will too!
You have two main options here: take the JR train from Tokyo (make sure you have a JR Pass in advance to save yourself money) or for more fun, consider hiring a car from Tokyo, and driving to Nasu. This might seem daunting but is actually very straight forward, the roads are very organized and safe – plus you will have a car to explore more around Nikko + Kinugawa and really get a feel for the area instead of relying on shuttles.
From Tokyo to Nikko by car is around 2.5 – 4 hours depending on traffic and weather you use the free roads or the expressway (you will need an ETC card for this – it’s rather complicated and easy to use free roads by selecting ‘no toll roads’ routing on Google Maps.
Lastly, do remember to book your hotel in Nikko wherever you choose to stay at least one month in advance or 3+ for busy seasons. Nikko is insanely popular with Japanese tourists (and for a good reason!). They book out all excellent properties rather far in advance, especially during the cherry blossom season and the peak heat months of summer to escape Tokyo.
Of course, there will likely always be some hotels available in Nikko and Kinugawa. Still, the best ones – including our favorite the Kinugawa Park Hotels tend to sell out in advance!
Now you're all set and prepared to explore our big wide world, why not sort out everything else out all in one go? If necessary for your travel plans make sure you have brought proper travel insurance, protected your privacy by getting a secure VPN, compared all the top hotel booking sites to find just what you're after, reserved an unbeatable rental car price and - of course - booked the best flight deals!
Many budget travelers (including me) indulge in worldwide airport lounge access, so we can experience luxury while still slumming it in economy. Naturally, we would never leave home without a more general travel guide since we couldn’t possibly cover everything here!
Just add an adventurous attitude and plenty of smiles - they go a long way - and that about covers it all! Now go out, find your own path and don't forget to share your best inspiration stories with me on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram...I'd love to hear from you!