Swap the tourist trail for the open road
By: Irwin Wong | Oct 22, 2009 | 6 Comments |
Photos by Irwin Wong

Photo by Irwin Wong

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.

Travel Tips
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.

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  1. tokyoloco | October 22, 2009 at 3:25 pm

    If you go by motorcycle, remember to bring warm layers with you…the temperatures will drop very quickly and drastically in Nikko with the high altitudes.

  2. tornadoes28 | October 24, 2009 at 7:16 am

    Even better is to stay for a couple of days at a nice little ryokan or pension when it’s not crowded. Or, if you are really lucky like me, you have relatives who live in Nikko. :-)

  3. monkeymixer | October 31, 2009 at 6:15 pm

    Also consider the fantastic hiking tracks between Lake Chuzenji and Lake Yumoto

  4. defiantlyme | November 1, 2009 at 8:11 pm

    I can’t remember the name of the hotel but it is near Lake Chuzenji…I opened my window and I had this amazing view of the lake. Nikko is a great place to visit even during off-season.

  5. frank | November 25, 2009 at 12:04 am

    Two of my friends went camping near Yumoto-onsen. It was freezing cold at night, but the view is amazing when they woke up in the morning!

  6. groovymoviegirl | November 26, 2009 at 11:45 pm

    The car ride is definitely a must do if possible. There is so much beautiful scenery not to try while you’re there.

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