My first time living and working in Japan in 2010-2011, I had originally planned to visit Nikko, Tochigi during Golden Week along with the Studio Ghibli Museum In Mitaka, but after the numerous disruptions caused by the Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami in March 2011, I had to scrap my original plans and ended up going to Kyoto and Takayama instead.
In early July, 2016 I was finally able to explore Nikko for two glorious nights.
The first part of the adventure was simply getting there... first I had to get up to Tokyo’s Kitasenju Station to catch the Nikko-Kinugawa Kegon train. Like the Hida Wide-View Express, there is something nostalgic about a smelly, noisy diesel train when you are used to electric trains every day… It brought back memories of my childhood trips to Canada on Amtrak/VIA.
The train ride north took us through lush green rice paddies and rolling hills; the farther north we ventured, the more pronounced the scenery. The train ride from Tokyo took about an hour and 40 minutes. Upon disembarking at Tobu Nikko Station, I was greeted by a riot of hydrangeas spilling out onto the sidewalk.
My plan for my first day in Nikko was to spend time exploring the main attraction, the ornate Toshogu Shrine and Mausoleum. I had seen a smaller scale version before in Takayama, but standing in front of it was a completely different experience. Numerous elementary school groups crowded around me on class trips. The shrine buildings dripped with ostentatious gold and ornate carvings. I also explored several temples nearby.
For those who are familiar with the “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” monkeys, those actually come from a carving over a stable door in Toshogu Shrine; it is actually only one of multiple magnificent carved panels adorning the shrine. At the time of my visit, the original had been removed for restoration, and a copy put in its place.
For lunch, I had scouted out Gyoshintei (you can read my HappyCow review here), A high-end restaurant serving shojin ryori, Buddhist temple cuisine that does not use animal products. At that time of the afternoon and due to the rain showers passing through, I was the only guest there at that time. I felt like I had stepped into a storybook as I enjoyed my beautifully plated bento overlooking a lush green garden and bonsai trees.
Afterwards, I headed back into town to check into my hotel for the night: The small, delightful family-run Akari no Yado Villa Revage. Owners Hiroaki and Keiko and their children and grandchildren all live on the property. The main attraction are the three private baths and the outstanding food using local produce, including Nikko Yuba.
Before dinner, I refreshed myself in one of the gorgeous private baths. Dinner was one of the highlights of my time in Japan, a parade of beautifully plated dishes featuring exquisitely prepared local vegetables, tofu, and seafood straight from local rivers paired with an exquisite red wine from local Coco Winery.