I found out about Japan’s Silver Week holiday about 6 weeks earlier, and figured we should probably head out of town to somewhere nice and relaxing. We didn’t have much money so we looked up ‘cheap weekend trips close to Tokyo’ and eventually settled on Nikko which is 2 hours northwest of Tokyo. We didn’t know much about it, except that it’s famous for hiking and ancient temples.
We booked a foreigner hostel/bed and breakfast (Space River House) next to a river in the mountains. It looked very relaxing and it promised free pancakes for breakfast! We planned to leave on Monday morning and come back home Wednesday evening. Only 3 days but enough to unwind a little.
There was a bit of drama getting the train tickets because of the heavy flooding in the Ibaraki/Tochigi area. Luckily the train was operational again just 2 days before we were leaving. I bought the All Nikko Pass on the Tobu railway line. This included return train tickets and a 4-day bus pass allowing you access to the mountains, waterfalls and shrines. We actually only used it for 2.5 days but it was still a better deal than the 2-day Nikko Pass which only lets you travel around the shrine area.
We hopped on the train early afternoon on Monday, and I started planning our trip with some brochures. When we arrived we had about 4 hours in Nikko town before we were getting picked up by the hostel owner. We stored our luggage in the station lockers and wandered around the small town. We found the famous Shinkyo Bridge (from all the Nikko tourism sites) and had dinner and drinks at a cozy little restaurant. The hostel owner picked us up and we drove through winding mountain roads to our accommodation. The owner (Scout) helped us plan for the next day which was really useful. I had planned a very easygoing trip just around Lake Chuzenji, but luckily he told us about the 2.5 hour easy hike up from Lake Chuzenji to Lake Yunoko and Yumoto Onsen.
The next day we hopped on a bus to Kegon Falls (one of three best waterfalls in Japan). I loooved the cool, fresh air and the beautiful alpine architecture in the little town by the waterfall and lake. We took photos of the waterfall from the lookout but didn’t end up taking the elevator to the base – being a busy holiday week the queue was over an hour long both ways!
We walked along the lake and I persuaded Rob to take a swan boat ride – so much fun! We ate some overpriced food at a western-style cafe (note to self – stick to Japanese food in tourist spots) then took a bus up to Ryuzu Falls. The falls were beautiful and very soothing. We eventually found the start of the Senjogahara hiking trail and wandered blissfully along the path near the river. There were plenty of other tourists (mostly Japanese) but the whole trail was still very peaceful and quiet. We spent the first hour feeling like we were in an enchanted fairy land – the knee-high plants and lush green glow gave the woods a very magical effect. All we could hear was the trickling of the river, the rustling of small animals and the jingling of small bells when we passed other hikers.
The green woods gave way to a beautiful plain and marsh area which reminded me so much of Africa! The golden grasses were surrounded by jagged mountains, and many people stopped to eat in the picnic areas. The wooden track wound it’s way through the marshes and we were reminded to ring big bells every few hundred meters, to scare away any hungry bears! The marshes turned into a more golden forest area which eventually led us up to the amazing Yudaki falls. The rest area stores definitely came in handy as we were quite thirsty and peckish from the walk so far. We had 3 fried manju each (traditional dessert with a filling) and met a lovely Japanese family who we managed to have a short conversation with (in Japanese and English).
The hike up from the waterfall led us to the serene Lake Yunoko. We walked around the lake to the Yumoto Onsen area (which smelled a lot like Rotorua!) We wanted to try the onsen, but we’re still not comfortable with the nakedness of it all, so we just opted for the ‘free foot spa’. We were the only ones willing to take off our shoes to soak our feet in the bubbling water!
Later we took the bus back down to Lake Chuzenji to see if the onsen would allow us to wear swimsuits (nope). We ended up having an early dinner of Yuba ramen – yuba is the skin skimmed off the top of tofu, and is a Nikko specialty. We grabbed some not-so-traditional custard and chocolate crepes and hopped on the bus for the long and winding trip back to Nikko town.
The next day we spent 4 hours around the Unesco World Heritage shrine area, close to the town. It was very busy and crowded but there was still enough space to enjoy ourselves (and take lots of photos!) We saw the three major shrines from the outside: Toshogu where the famous Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried, Futarasan and Rinnoji. The whole area was really beautiful with the very tall cedar trees and mossy ground. We spent an hour in the new Toshogu museum where we learnt a lot about Tokugawa Ieyasu; the Shogun who brought Japan it’s 260 years of peace during the Edo Period. There were exhibits of his armour, ceremonial swords, paintings and his favourite possessions. It was so useful learning more about him and his beliefs. There was a 20 minute animated movie about his life, which gave a lot more context.
Overall, definitely one of the most memorable trips I’ve been on. The mountain air was so fresh and crisp and gave everything an almost other-worldly atmosphere. I highly recommend it for anyone visiting Japan or looking to escape Tokyo for a few days!