Uncover Nikko’s Hidden Charms: A Tokyo Weekend Getaway with Kids
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Embarking on a long weekend adventure to Nikko, located just 125 kilometers north of Tokyo, was an exhilarating experience. With over 40 temples and shrines set against a stunning natural backdrop, Nikko offered an enticing blend of culture and outdoor exploration. While some may opt for a day trip to Nikko, we chose to stay two nights to immerse ourselves fully. Our itinerary included a day for the mesmerizing shrines, another for the tranquil lake, and a third for outdoor adventures. We opted for a road trip to have the freedom to explore at our own pace.
Nikko is easily accessible by train as well. You can hop on the Nikko Line at Tobu-Asakusa Station, and the journey takes approximately 2 hours. It’s worth noting that most of these trains are limited express, so reserving a seat is advisable for a comfortable ride. If you can drive though you will save yourself some time and not be tied to bus schedules in the area.
Where to stay with a family of 5 in Nikko
For accommodations, we chose to stay at K’s House, an exceptional hostel that easily accommodates families. They offer a family room option where you book by the number of mattresses you need. We only needed four mattresses as the Little Little still likes to share with an adult. We opted for the family room which included a private bathroom. These rooms are traditionally Japanese with tatami mats on the floor. Sleeping this way is incredibly comfortable, and it provides us with plenty of space. K’s House also boasts a spacious kitchen equipped with everything you need to prepare meals. There are several grocery stores nearby, so we often picked up supplies for dinner and breakfast during our trip.
Additionally, K’s House features a private onsen. You’ll need to pay an onsen fee in cash upon check-in (as clearly stated on their website), but it grants you access to this tranquil oasis during your stay. Like most Japanese onsens, it’s separated by gender, and bathers are required to be nude. Our experiences in the men’s and women’s onsens were quite private, with minimal shared occupancy. The Onesen have an indoor and outdoor bath with views of the river below.
Day 1: Lake Chuzenji Area
On day one of our trip, we hit the road, driving directly from Tokyo to Lake Chuzenji. The journey up to the lake is quite the adventure, with a winding one-way road offering captivating vistas along the way. During your ascent, you’ll encounter a few must-visit stops. First up is the tramway. This aerial tram transports you to a breathtaking viewing platform, providing unparalleled vistas of Kegon Waterfall and the scenic expanse of Lake Chuzenji nestled below. It easily ranked among the most memorable moments of our entire trip.
As you progress further up the road, you’ll arrive at the charming town situated by Lake Chuzenji. Here, we opted to park in one of the town’s paid parking lots and try out one of the cozy eateries that line the main street.
After refueling, we headed towards the entrance of Kegon Waterfall. This natural wonder, towering at 100 meters, offers an awe-inspiring sight. To reach the base of the waterfall, you can take a lift built within the rock. There’s a fee for the elevator ride, but it’s well worth it. Once you descend, a short tunnel leads you to a multi-level viewing platform, providing the most spectacular vantage point to admire the cascading beauty of the waterfall.
After enjoying the grandeur of Kegon Falls, take a leisurely drive around the picturesque Lake Chuzenji to reach Yudaki Falls. Here, you’ll be treated to water cascading down a sloped rock, creating a breathtaking drop of over 70 meters. An observation platform near the parking area offers an excellent view of this natural wonder.
For a more immersive experience, we chose to follow the boardwalk trail along the Yu River to reach Kodaki Falls, with its scenic beauty. This trail eventually loops back to the Yudaki Falls parking area, making it an ideal walk for families with kids. While walking, keep in mind that there have been bear sightings in the area, so stay vigilant. Afterward, you can opt to ascend the stairs parallel to the falls, or like us, take a short drive to the upper parking area, where you’ll be rewarded with a delightful view of Yunoko Lake. It’s a truly serene experience.
Our journey led us to a delightful turning point where we retraced our route, pausing for a brief visit to Ryuzu Falls, a pair of waterfalls easily accessible via a short hiking trail. Along the same scenic road, we made another stop at Nikko Futarasan Jinja Chugushi Shrine. This tranquil shrine treats visitors to captivating vistas of the lake and serves as the starting point for the “Hike of the Sacred Mountain, Mt. Nantai.” For those keen on embarking on this sacred hike, remember to register and set out early in the morning for an unforgettable experience.
Our journey around the lake led us to Zen Resort Nikko, where we couldn’t resist the temptation of a delightful coffee and some cake. While you can choose to stay here, we opted for a quick snack, all the while basking in the breathtaking views of the lake. For those looking for more snack (or even lunch) options with equally amazing vistas, Nikko Beans nearby is another fantastic choice.
With a full belly, it’s time for more exploration. Park your car in the spacious public lot across from the lake. On the opposite side of the road, you’ll discover the Chuzen-ji Temple, renowned for its grand statue of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of Mercy.
Crossing the street once more, follow the lake path that leads you to the British Embassy Villa Memorial Park, and a bit further along, the Italian Embassy Memorial Park. The lakeside trail offers a leisurely and level stroll with captivating vistas. The Memorial Parks are ideal for peaceful exploration, and during our visit, they remained serene even when other places were bustling with tourists.
The building within the premise of the British Embassy Memorial Park dates back to 1896 when it served as the private villa of Ernest Satow, a British diplomat who made a significant impact on the Meiji Restoration. It has been meticulously restored to resemble the British Embassy villa that stood there for many years. On the second floor of the British House, you can treat yourself to scones and tea. Be sure to check their operating hours as they can vary by month and day. (We didn’t get a chance to enjoy the tea, but we certainly would have if we were without children!)
After this delightful exploration, it’s about an hour’s drive to K’s House Nikko. If you prefer not to make the drive, there are plenty of accommodation options in the lake area. It’s also a good idea to grab dinner along the way because once you arrive at K’s House, there aren’t any nearby dining options available. Instead, we suggest stopping by a grocery store and preparing a lovely dinner in the hotel’s kitchen. They provide food storage facilities, making it convenient to bring along whatever you need for your meal. We also arrived in time to enjoy the Onsen before bed.
Day 2: Kinugawa Onsen (Exploring Town)
The next morning, we started our day in town. There is a paid lot, well marked, near the river boats. We had made reservations for the Kinugawa Line Kudari River Cruise. Initially, we had reservations for the first tour and arrived just 5 minutes before departure, only to find out it had already left. (We learned a valuable lesson about timing in Japan!) Fortunately, they had another tour departing shortly, so we quickly re-booked for that one. My advice for anyone considering this cruise is to arrive at least 20 minutes before your scheduled tour to ensure you don’t miss it. When our rescheduled tour time came, we were already in the boat on the river.
This delightful cruise takes you down the Kinugawa River for 40 minutes in an old wooden boat, guided by two men with long oars.
When preparing for the Kinugawa Line Kudari River Cruise, it’s best not to bring much with you. They do have lockers at the Kudari River Cruise station, but keep in mind that you won’t be dropped back off here, instead, you end up a few blocks away. It’s easiest to leave everything you don’t need in the car. Upon arrival, you’ll be provided with a life jacket and head down a long set of stairs to the boats. You’ll need to remove your shoes and put them in a plastic bag when you board the boat, then sit comfortably on tatami mats on the boat’s floor. There’s ample space for everyone, and the boat is lined with plastic to protect against splashes. It’s quite an experience!
As the boat cruises along, you’ll be treated to breathtaking views of the gorge. While the tour is conducted entirely in Japanese, you’ll still get the gist of it. The other passengers on the boat ensured that we got the gist of all the important sights, such as rock formations and waterfalls. Eventually, you’ll disembark at a dock. To get off, you’ll need to scramble up the side of the boat onto the dock and then walk up a steep hill. Here, you’ll wait for about 15 minutes for the boat to pick you up. You’ll also find some small shops where you can purchase food, and you might spot the steam train (among others) passing by behind the buildings along the river. It’s an adventure well worth having!
The bus boat dropped us off at the rail station where we were in for a delightful surprise—the steam engine was in the process of turning around on the turntable. This fascinating spectacle occurs about three times a day, and we were fortunate to witness it. After enjoying this impressive sight, we quickly made our way to the public footbath. Fortunately, we had packed our small towels, allowing us to sit and relish a few moments of relaxation in the warm water. Remember to remove your shoes and place them in the designated shoe stands before settling in to savor this lovely and soothing tradition.
While in Kinugawa Onsen, a visit to the Takimi Bridge is highly recommended. This bridge spans approximately 60 meters over the gorge, offering a fantastic vantage point to watch the river and passing boats. Convenient parking is available right by the bridge. Another delightful stop is the Kinugawa Cake Castle, a local institution in the cake-making business since 1969. Be sure to grab one of their iconic cake-in-a-can treats or sample some of their other delectable offerings.
During our visit to Kinugawa, we regrettably missed out on some intriguing attractions in the area. Edo Wonderland, for instance, offers the opportunity to journey back in time to 17th-century Japan, providing a unique historical experience. Additionally, Tobu World Square showcases miniature replicas of 102 renowned landmarks from across the globe, offering a fascinating perspective on world culture.
If you’re in the mood for onsen hopping, Kinugawa offers numerous options. During our stay, we primarily used the onsen facilities at K’s House, which, as mentioned earlier, were pleasantly uncrowded.
Additionally, we were fortunate to stumble upon posters around town advertising a captivating light festival in the evening. The Staff at K’s House were happy to help us with the details of the festival. (They were even planning to attend!) This enchanting event featured music, beautiful garden displays, and even a brief but mesmerizing fireworks show, all completely free of charge. It added a delightful touch to our Kinugawa experience.
Day 2-3: Shrines & Temples of Nikko
Our trip wasn’t meticulously organized, partly because we were traveling with kids. We split the temple visits between two days, although in hindsight, it might have been more efficient to explore all of them in a single day. However, when the kids had their fill, they were ready to call it a day, so we adapted our plans accordingly.
The drive from K’s House to the shrine area takes about 30 minutes. Along the way, we passed by a sacred bridge called Shinkyo. In ancient times, only the Emperor of Japan and his envoy were permitted to cross it, but now it’s open to the public for a fee. We simply drove by it twice, and that was sufficient for us. However, there were many people stopping to take photos of this iconic bridge.
On both days of our trip, our first stop was Pizza Linne, although both times we missed out on getting pizza. Nevertheless, I want to mention it here because their pizza looked absolutely amazing, and the staff were incredibly friendly. My advice would be to go there early to secure some pizza, or you can always opt for takeout. On the days when we couldn’t get pizza, we headed to the Lawson convenience store in town, which offered plenty of good meal options and had a seating area. Another excellent choice is Nikko Coffee, a stylish cafe located in an old rice shop. Yuba Yuzen is also a great spot, conveniently close to the shrine site, and they serve yuba made from soy milk skin, which is a local specialty worth trying.
We parked our car in the Pizza Linne auxiliary parking area and walked to the shrines. To our surprise, there were many more shrines and temples than we had expected, and it got a bit confusing at times. Our first stop was at the Toshogu Shrine, and it was bustling with people. To enter the inner part of the shrine, you’ll need to get a ticket, so be sure to wait in line near the pagoda to obtain one. There are several remarkable things to see here. In front of one of the buildings, there’s a famous woodcarving based on a drawing by Tanyu Kano called “Imaginary Elephants.” It’s fascinating because the artist had never seen a real elephant but depicted them almost perfectly.
Next, there’s the “Sacred Stable,” renowned for the carving of the “Three Wise Monkeys,” which symbolizes the basic tenets of the Tendai Sect: See no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil. Before entering the inner section of the shrine, you stop at the bronze Torii gate to rinse your mouth and hands, then proceed up the stairs. The holy inner shrine is guarded by a gate with a sleeping cat carved on it. To reach the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu, you need to climb 207 steps. Additionally, there’s an area where you must remove your shoes to enter the temple itself.
Following the path lined with stone lanterns will lead you to Futarasan Shrine. The main shrine was built in 1619 and stands as the oldest such structure in Nikko. Notably, a 2.3-meter bronze lantern can be found behind the ticket counter and the entrance to the shrine garden. This lantern dates back to 1292 and bears deep incisions in its body from a samurai sword, adding to its historical intrigue.
In this same area, you’ll discover Taiyu-in (Iemitsu’s Shrine), featuring the Thunder Gate protected by the gods of wind and thunder. Within this vicinity is Rinno-ji Temple, a complex that includes a museum and garden. While we visited briefly, it’s important to note that Rinno-ji Temple is the largest temple complex in Nikko. Inside, you’ll find significant figures like the Kannon of a Thousand Hands, Amida Buddha, and Horsehead Kannon.
One of the most memorable experiences of our trip was also the last one – visiting the Kanmangafuchi Abyss. This forested volcanic canyon is a tranquil oasis filled with lush moss, a spirited river, and picturesque waterfalls, all adorned with jizo stone statues of Buddhist monks. The tree cover provides ample shade, and the cool breeze from the flowing river offers respite from the heat. It’s the perfect serene escape after exploring the temples.
As a bonus, right after crossing the bridge, there’s an accessible spot where you can walk down to the riverside. I noticed several people dipping their feet into the water, which must have been incredibly refreshing after a day of temple hopping. There is a sign advising you to watch for leaches, so check your body when you return. The Kanmangafuchi Abyss offers parking, and there’s a nearby cafe and park at the entrance, making it an ideal destination for families with children.
Day 3: Kirifuri Highland
For those seeking adventure amidst nature’s beauty, the Kirifuri Plateau Hike in Nikko is an absolute must. Ascending this picturesque trail offers an invigorating experience with breathtaking rewards. With a total of 1,445 steps to conquer, it’s an excellent opportunity for a family adventure. Surprisingly, even the kids had no trouble navigating this stairway to heaven. At the base of the hike, you’ll find the convenience of three spacious parking lots and a charming little shop, perfect for stocking up on essentials or grabbing some souvenirs before embarking on this memorable journey. The Kirifuri Plateau Hike promises not only a physical challenge but also stunning vistas that make every step worth it.
Nikko: A perfect weekend getaway from Tokyo.
In conclusion, Nikko is an excellent choice for a weekend getaway. To truly immerse yourself in the blend of culture and nature this area offers, I highly recommend spending at least one night here. Keep in mind that Nikko can get quite crowded during the fall when the leaves change their colors, and in the spring, when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom. So plan your visit accordingly to make the most of this delightful destination.
In case you were wondering, our audiobook for the trip was “Framed!” by James Ponti.
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