A Survival Guide to Nikko, Japan

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If you kept up with my trip to Japan in November/December 2012, you know how easy it is to maximize your time with day trips (see: Nagano). Nikko is a very popular day trip option from Tokyo, primarily because the city’s temples and shrines are registered UNESCO World Heritage sites.

So, take a walk with me, won’t you?

Where: Nikko (2 hours NW of Tokyo)
Slogan: Nikko is Nippon!
How to Get There: Take the shinkansen from Tokyo to Utsunomiya station, transfer to the JR Nikko line, get off at the last stop.
Days Needed to Explore: 2 maximum

Making origami cranes at Nikko Sumica Hostel

Making origami cranes at Nikko Sumica Hostel

Where to Stay:

Nikko Guesthouse Sumica (Japan, Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko, Aioicho, 5-12)

Located 1 minute walk away from JR Nikko Station (marked with an “A” on the map below), this tiny, traditional guesthouse makes for an ideal place to stay. From the hostel, it takes about 20 minutes to walk to all the major sites, or you can take the bus from the station across the street. The staff even have a car available to drive you to the onsen in the evening or any local events that may be happening. My first night in town, I went with two of the ladies who work at Sumica to a koto (Japanese harp) performance that included free tea and treats. It was one of the most beautiful things I’ve ever witnessed. The koto performances don’t occur very often so if you’re lucky to visit Nikko on an evening when they’re on, GO! It’s 1,500 JPY, but worth every cent.

Like I said, the hostel is small. They only have 4 rooms – 2 dorm rooms and 2 traditional tatami mat rooms. The have a cozy common area though, free wifi, free tea/coffee, kitchen facilities, laundry, hot shower, and origami. It won’t be hard enjoy your short stay there.

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Delicious eats from Little Yakitori Bar

Where to Eat:

On the opposite corner from Nikko Sumica (circled on the map below), there is a noodle shop. It’s not marked so it can be easy to miss. There are usually 2 cars parked in front of the entrance, and there is a navy blue banner hanging over the door. The food is mighty delicious, cheap, and they give you a hefty portion for your money.

There are the typical convenience stores like 7/11 and Sunkus nearby, if you want to cook your own food. Hidden in the back streets behind Nikko Sumica, there is a supermarket called Lion D’or where you can get fresh fruits and veggies and pretty much anything your heart desires. It doesn’t show up on Google Maps, but if you ask the staff at the hostel, they’ll be able to tell you where it is.

Inside a Japanese supermarket

Inside a Japanese supermarket

Lastly, if you walk the main road towards the Shinkyo bridge and all the UNESCO sites, there is a small place called “Little Yakitori Bar” on your left hand side. The building has red and white doors with English written on them, most notably “welcome all vegetarians.” This small restaurant is indeed the most popular place for tourists to eat, and when you go inside, you’ll see why. The walls are plastered in notes and business cards from people around the world who have come to visit, and the women who work there speak good English. I recommend the yakitori, rice, and soba set so you can sample a bit of everything.

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The “A” is Nikko Sumica hostel, and the circle is the noodle shop I mentioned

What to Do:

If you’re looking to do some shopping or get drunk, Nikko is not the place for you. With the exception of antiques and souvenir shops, there are few stores to blow your money on and definitely no bars. What this quaint city lacks in commercialism, they make up for in stunning, natural beauty. Nikko is where you go for some peace and quiet to clear your head.

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Japanese Koto Performance

Waterfalls, mountains, and onsens, OH MY! Aside from Nikko’s temples and shrines in the national park, there are a number of day hikes so bring your tennis shoes. The botanic gardens and imperial villa are also worth visiting. My favorite was the walk along the Kanman path which leads to the Kanmangafuchi Abyss (see first photo).  Talk about off the beaten path. This trail really winds through the back streets of Nikko so much that it can be a bit disorienting. For some exercise, rent a bike and ride along the path. If you pack a picnic, you can sit in the resting area near the Dainichi Bridge with a gorgeous view of the mountains.

Also, be aware that, by American standards, shops and restaurants in Nikko have funky hours so prepare accordingly. Most places usually open around 11am or later and close early. If you’re visiting Japan for the 2nd or 3rd time, definitely include a day trip to Nikko! It’s a wonderful and easy getaway from the hustle of Tokyo.

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