Nikko – the beautiful capital of the Tochigi prefecture, a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its many temples, is located only 50km away from Katashina! So I packed my camera & notebook and headed east.
We followed route 120, also known as Japan’s romantic road. This road is 320km long, starting in Ueda City (Nagano) and ending in Nikko city (Tochigi). It received this name because the beautiful landscapes along the way reminded people of the similar views on the famous romantic road in Germany. These roads have been so called ‘sister roads’ since November 1988.
Kamata has Katashina’s only stoplight, until you reach Nikko there are no stoplights hindering the traffic. Hence this route is especially popular for motorcyclists. However, they often seem to forget to stop and enjoy the beautiful village of Katshina too and not just cruise through.
As you pass Katashina’s lakes – O-jirinuma, Marunuma and Sugenuma – keep your eyes on the street, not just to drive safely through the sloped road but also to spot some monkeys. We saw one sitting on the side of the street and taking a rest.
Inside of the Konsei Tunnel you will cross the border – leaving Gunma and entering Tochigi prefecture. Right as you exit the tunnel in Tochigi there is a good view point, overlooking Yunoko Lake and Mt. Nantai. Sadly, during our visit there were roadworks.
As you step back into the car and drive down the mountain, towards the Yumoto Onsen Area, you can already smell the sulphur in the air. Yumoto has been famous for its sulphur-rich Onsen since the Edo times but it is also a good starting point for several treks. We had a look at the nearby Yunoko lake, the visitor centre and went for a free dip in the local foot-bath (open: 9am – 20pm).
If you want to travel by public transportation you can take the free Marunuma Kougen Bus to Yumoto. From there you can then step onto a public bus that takes you to Nikko. Nevertheless, it is quite nice to have a car because then you can make many stops along the way, discovering several sights!
We passed the beautiful marshland of the Nikko National Park called Senjogahara Plateau – also very nice for trekking. Yet, our next stop was the ‘Boathouse’ at lake Chuzenji. This is a boathouse which is used as free rest area that has a magnificent view over the lake. Take an obento with you and ‘voila’ you have the perfect place for your lunch!
We then headed closer to Nikko, past Oku-Nikko, and down the mountain on a VERY curvy road. Pay attention to the forest here, as you can spot many deer. This road is also worth a visit during autumn to marvel at the typical Japanese autumn colouration of the leaves. On top of that, if you are a keen mountain cyclist this might be a nice route for you as well!
Shortly after, we arrived at Nikko’s temple complex. If you are traveling by public transport and arrive at Tobu-nikko Station you can take the Tobu bus (for Chuzenji Onsen or Yumoto Onsen) to the Shinkyo Bridge bus stop. From there it is just a 10min walk to the temple complex.
The most famous shrine of Nikko is the Toshugu Shrine (orange dot on map). You have to buy a single ticket to enter each temple or shrine – there is no combo ticket anymore. The entrance to the Toshogu shrine costs 1,300 yen, open: 8:00am – 5:00pm.
This shrine was built after the death of the shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu. It contains several natural treasures, the shogun’s grave and a humongous amount of detail. Whoever came up with the phrase ‘less is more’ definitely did not visit the Toshogu shrine. Even the horse stable is embellished with fine woodcarvings. This is where the world-renowned image of the 3 wise monkeys & its saying ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ originates from. The 8 different carvings on the stable actually represent a full life story or a man’s life cycle.
You will find another very famous image in the 300 carvings of plants and animals that decorate the corridors leading to the Sakashita-mon gate, namely the sleeping cat.
Located right next to Toshogu is the Futara-san shrine, which was founded around 782 (green dot on map!). This shrine was erected in respect of the deities of Nikko’s 3 mountains: Nantai-san, Nyoho-san & Taro-san. ‘Futara-san’ is actually a nickname of Nantai-san, the most important mountain.
This shrine appears a bit more simple and natural. As a result, the spirit has a very calming and relaxing effect, possibly also because there are far less tourists than in Toshogu. Most of the shrine is free, except the area to the left of the main hall has a small fee of 200 yen. There is a garden, a 700 year old sacred cedar tree, more halls, mikoshis (miniature portable shrines – have a read about the Mikoshi summer festival) and springs. Drink some of the water here as it is supposed to make you younger!
The sacred red shinkyo bridge famous for Nikko also belongs to the Futara-san shrine. It is a World Heritage site and is considered as one of the 3 most beautiful bridges of Japan. This gateway for Nikko is the pink dot on the map.
In search for a late lunch we walked on the Kamhiatsu-ishimachi street (behind the shinkyo bridge). We stopped at a small Restaurant called ‘Hippari Dako’ with English and Spanish writing on its doors. The inside is fully covered in business cards, photos and little messages that the many visitors pinned to the walls and ceiling – especially lots of Spanish messages! Eat some yaki-udon, yaki-soba, or yakitori with fried rice for about 500-850 yen, while reading all the little papers around you. The 3 ladies of the restaurant are also happy to bring you a pin if you have something to add to their collection.
We stepped into the car again and started heading back home to Katashina. However, on the way we made a brief stop at the Italian Embassy Villa on the eastern shore of Lake Chuzenji – red dot on map. It is approximately a 30-minute walk from the Tachiki-kannon Iriguchi bus stop. This villa was built in 1928 and is now open to the public to visit. As you walk towards the Italian Embassy Villa you will also pass the British, French and Belgian Villas too. In the hot Japanese summers the ambassadors and their family escaped the busy city of Tokyo to the refreshing breeze in Nikko. While cooling my feet in the water of Chuzenji Lake and enjoying the wonderful panorama, I completely understood why they chose this exact location to build their Embassy Villa.
If you want to enter the villa (free of charge), the opening times are as follows:
9:00am – 4:00pm and in July – August: 9:00am – 5:00pm
Along the way from Nikko to Katashina there are many waterfalls to visit. Unfortunately we were too late to enter the Kegon waterfall. However, the Ryuzu falls are free to enter all day long. On the map it is the big blue dot, if you come by bus get out at the Ryuzu-no-taki bus stop. The name ‘Ryuzu’ can be translated to dragon’s head. It carries this name because its shape and the way the water falls resemble a dragon’s head.
As you can see on the map there is a lot more to discover in this area. We did not have enough time to see everything because we took our time to enjoy each sight that we visited. Overall, I definitely recommend a day trip to Nikko especially for its shrines.
But don’t forget to also stop in Katashina FUNtashina!