i have been to Japan three times.
the first was when i was 15. i went on a high school student exchange program to Morioka, Japan and spent a week staying with a host family there.
the second was after i graduated from university. i did a solo trip to Tokyo, Kyoto and Osaka, while staying with my first couchsurfing hosts. it was the beginning of spring in 2014 then, and i was lucky to be able to see sakura in full bloom, just before the peak tourist season.
the third was last November. i spent just 5 days in Tokyo, with a short getaway to Nikko.
Nikko was definitely the highlight of my trip. i would highly recommend people to go there, especially in autumn when the colours are just spectacular.
my journey to Nikko began early in the morning in Asakusa station. i bought one of the Tobu Free Passes – the Nikko All Area Pass (4520 yen). it covers the train fares to Nikko and back as well as buses in Nikko, valid for 4 days. there is a cheaper Nikko City Area Pass (2670 yen) valid for 2 days, if you’re only interested in visiting the temples and sights at the central Nikko area. do note that the passes do not cover the entrance fees into the temples, and you will have to purchase them separately.
the train journey took approximately 2 hours. i had a quick bento breakfast on the train.
when i got to Tobu-Nikko station, i took a bus to Shinkyo Bridge, where the backpackers’ hostel i booked was located.
Nikkorisou Backpackers is a quaint hostel located just by the river, so you can actually hear the calming sound of the river flowing while sleeping on your bunk bed there. it is also just a stone’s throw away from the famous Shinkyo Bridge.
when i got there, the very friendly owner, Hiro, helped me store my bag into a locker as it was not the time to check-in yet.
my itinerary for the day was to hike through the Senjougahara Marshland. the hike is 8km long and takes about 3-4 hours to complete.
i took a bus to Ryuzu Falls. it took about an hour to get there. but the bus journey was an adventure in itself. it took us up a mountain through really winding roads. the landscape was stunning. golden and red autumn leaves everywhere.
by the time i got to Ryuzu Falls, i was really hungry. luckily there was a small restaurant and souvenir’s shop there. i got myself some tempura soba and joined a group of elderly people, eating right in front of the falls. Ryuzu Falls can be translated into Dragon’s Head and is apparently named so because the twin falls make ’em look like a dragon’s head. i honestly cannot picture it though.
tummy happily full, i embarked on my hike – up the falls, across a road, and into the woods.
as for directions, i relied heavily on this wonderfully written blog which had very meticulous details. whoever wrote that post is an angel.
i walked through woods for quite a bit and was alone most of the time. there were signs which bore the words “Beware of Bears” and i must admit, i was a little scared at some point. what if i suddenly came across a bear? what do i do then? i’ve never seen a bear in the wild before. heck, if you go jungle trekking or hiking in Malaysia, you would be more afraid of snakes and the creepy crawly stuff. i have encountered snakes, huge monitor lizards, scorpions and pesky leeches but never bears.
at one point, i heard some rustling beside me and a snort. i immediately quickened my pace – almost ran – away from the sound. in retrospect, it might have been a deer rather than a bear. but you never know, ho ho.
fear of running into bears aside, it was a beautiful walk. very calming and soothing most of the time. nice cool air. the sound of the river water trickling as it coursed through pebbles. tall trees.
i thought that the woodlands were already beautiful.
but when i got to Senjougahara Marshland, it was a whole new level of beautiful. i felt like i was on Nat Geo or something.
the walk through the marshland was very comfortable. flat all the way, on wooden boardwalks that seemed to stretch endlessly. there were quite a number of students on school tours.
every time i had to cut through the group of students who had to stop every now and then for their tour guides to do some explaining about the ecosystem or an educational bit of information of some sort, they would politely get out of the way for me to go across. and they would all utter “sumimasen“. people here are just very polite and courteous toward others.
the walk through the marshland took about 45 minutes. after leaving the marshland, the boardwalk seemed to extend for quite a bit more.
then, i found myself walking next to a river and encountered yet another waterfall, the Odaki Falls. another walk through the woods later, i came across Yudaki Falls, the tallest among the three falls.
i climbed up the falls and arrived at beautiful Yunoko Lake. the most popular and probably the prettiest lake in Nikko would probably be Lake Chuzenji. but Yunoko Lake is so serene and so beautiful, that i had no regrets about not having enough time to visit Lake Chuzenji.
i walked along the banks of Yunoko Lake to get to Yumoto Onsen, where i then took a bus back to Nikkorisou Backpackers. if i had more time to spare, i could have spent sometime soaking in the onsen.
however, it was already rather late when i got back. a lot of the restaurants close by were already closed. i ended up walking quite a bit and stumbled upon a Chinese restaurant which also served Nikko’s famous yuba soba. the owner of the restaurant, a native in Nikko, was extremely friendly. i was the only patron in the restaurant at that time. he had shelves filled with manga and books about Nikko, so i grabbed a Slam Dunk comic (which i loved reading since i was a kid) and started reading it – more like looking at the drawings because i could not read Japanese.
he got really interested and we started talking about Slam Dunk. i then showed him the photos i took of Senjougahara. he then took out a few photography books which highlighted the beauty of Nikko and its hiking trails. he also gave me recommendations on which temples to visit the next day. i was very grateful for his help.
upon arriving at the hostel, i took a nice shower at their Japanese style bathroom. then i hanged out with some of the other backpackers in the common room. everybody was really nice and friendly. there was a British woman who used to teach English in Japan for a number of years, so she could speak some Japanese, as well as a local girl from Okinawa who used to be a miko (temple priestess). it was her first time venturing away from her hometown so she was really excited. we chatted till late at night about many different things.
my room was a mixed dorm. i slept on the top bunk and had my own light. luckily, nobody snored and everybody went to bed at about the same time. it was a really good night’s sleep.
the next morning, i checked out as early as i could and left my backpack in the locker again. i could only visit a few temples because i had to catch an early train to Tokyo in order to meet my couchsurfing host.
and the early bird always catches the worm – i got to enjoy quite a bit of beautiful morning autumn scenery all by myself.
i chose the most famous temple in Nikko, Toshogu Shrine as my first stop. it is also a UNESCO heritage site.
luckily i got there pretty early, so there weren’t as many tourists. however, there were many many school kids there. Toshogu Shrine is the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for more than 250 years until 1868. given its historical significance, it is no wonder that it was popular for school trips.
some parts of the shrine were under construction, which was a bit of a shame.
my next stop however, was a pleasant surprise. i wanted to get to Takinoo Shrine along Takinoo Path because the Chinese restaurant owner told me that it was his favourite shrine in Nikko, and that he highly recommended it. it is a very old shrine, built in 820, and used to be where a lot of locals went to pray back in the days.
i can see why he liked it so much. the stone-paved path with cedar trees on either side was a very peaceful walk. aside from a few locals taking photos of the beautiful autumn leaves along the way, i was mostly on my own.
i wasn’t very well-prepared for this walk and had no idea how long it was supposed to take. it felt like i had walked for quite a bit, and i still could not see the shrine. i got a bit nervous. luckily i came across an old Japanese man happily taking photos with his camera. i asked him in really broken Japanese if i was on the right track. he told me i was and asked me if i was hiking up there on my own. i said yes. he asked me if i was scared. i said, “a little bit”.
so he decided to hike up the path with me. which was a pleasant surprise. i wasn’t sure how to refuse his offer. and to be honest, i was secretly a bit relieved to have found a companion. so we had a pleasant chat in broken English, broken Japanese and sign language along the way.
when we got to the shrine, he taught me how to pray like everyone else.
the walk down the stone path was much quicker than the walk up. i guess the time was much reduced thanks to the good company and lack of anxiety.
we bade each other farewell and i thanked him profusely for his kindness. i then grabbed my backpack, headed to the train station, and took the train back to Tokyo, feeling immensely satisfied with my short overnight trip in Nikko.
there are quite a few sights that i wish i could have squeezed into my trip including the Kanmangafuchi Abyss, where you can admire the curious Bake Jizo (ghost statues), all lined up along the path overlooking the river. apparently, every time you count them, the numbers don’t add up, hence the name “ghost statues” for they seem to move or disappear.
in conclusion, Nikko is a place i would definitely love to come back to again in the near future. i might want to do another hike, visit the remaining temples and count the Bake Jizo statues next time. i would definitely go back to Nikkorisou Backpackers if i do have the opportunity for a 2nd visit.