There’s almost a prescribed routine for doing Nikko. Visitors catch a train from Tokyo and spend some time wandering around the UNESCO-listed Toshogu shrine before having their photos taken next to the ubiquitous carved monkeys. If they have time, they then catch a bus up Irohazaka, where they stand shoulder to shoulder with other tourists on observation platforms to view waterfalls that are too far away to have any impact at all. The routine finished, they head back to Tokyo convinced they have seen enough.
Fortunately, there’s another, better way of enjoying the area: rent a car. With your own transportation, you’re free to explore the mountain passes beyond the gaudy tourist stores and observation platforms. The surrounding countryside is unassumingly gorgeous, and carries its history artlessly. The roads crisscross rivers of cold, deep jade waters, and are dotted with parochial onsen, ryokan and roadside eateries for weary drivers to recharge at. If you time your trip properly, too, the hills will be ablaze with the oranges, reds and yellows of momiji maple leaves, undisturbed by tour buses or large crowds.
Nikko is accessible by the Tobu line from Asakusa, changing at Shimo-Imaichi (approx two hours, ¥2,620), or by the JR Tohoku line from Ueno, changing to the JR Nikko line at Utsunomiya (approx three hours, ¥2,520). There is a Nippon Rentacar shop right outside Tobu Nikko station (0288-54-082), and a Toyota Rentacar outside Shimo-Imaichi station (0288-22-6200). From Nikko, drive up Irohazaka until you reach the Romantic Kaido (route 120) and turn left at the T-junction. Follow the road past Chuzenji Lake and keep driving until you reach Senjogahara. There are two options here: you can follow route 120 until you reach Yunoko, a lake surrounded by onsen (round trip approx 2 hours). For those with more time, take a right turn opposite Senjogahara (watch for the sign for Kotoku Bokujo) and follow the long and winding road until you reach Kawamata Onsen (round trip approx 6 hours). The autumn leaves are normally at their best from Nov 1-10.