Nikko National Park - Enjoy the Lush Nature of Oku-Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture Through Exciting Activities!
Nikko is a city located in Tochigi, a prefecture situated to the north of Tokyo and easily accessible from the capital. It is home to Nikko National Park, famous for its lush, breathtaking nature that consistently evolves with the seasons, offering stunning scenery throughout the year. We had the opportunity to participate in a tour focused around Lake Chuzenji inside the park, learning about the history, culture, and nature of this relatively unknown side of not only Nikko, but Japan as well. There is something for everyone here, and it is the perfect place to escape, relax, and rejuvenate! Read on to learn more about our recommended tour and what this beautiful mountainous area has to offer!
Dec 23 2021
See a video compilation of everything we got to experience during our time in Nikko, then continue reading this article for more detailed info on each of the spots and activities shown in the video!
Nature Within Nikko National Park - Stunning, Untouched Seasonal Scenery
Perhaps the most common imagery people have of Nikko is the fiery colors of its autumn foliage, especially the vivid mountainsides. During the autumn, the trees in Nikko National Park turn various shades of yellow, orange, and red, dyeing the landscape in vibrant, captivating colors.
Some of the best places to see the stunning autumn scenery within the national park are around Lake Chuzenji, surrounded by mountains seemingly carpeted in autumn foliageーSenjogahara Plateau, a marshland that is home to lush vegetation set against the backdrop of the mountain range; and Odashirogahara Plateau, another marshland with a wide variety of flora and fauna, including marsh grasses that turn crimson in the fall.
Flora and Fauna
Within Nikko National Park, azaleas are particularly prominent, with different varieties blooming across the area in vibrant shades from May to June. It is also a great place to see cherry blossoms (especially a type called “oyamazakura” which are found at high altitudes), found in many areas such as Senjugahama and Lake Chuzenji around April and May. The adorable Japanese thistle can be seen at Odashirogahara from July to August, and the same location is also the perfect spot to enjoy the rich colors of the “kusa momiji” (colored grass) from late September.
This lush nature is where many different types of animals call home. If you are lucky, you may be able to spot some of the wildlife, but be sure to keep your distance so as not to disturb them. Deer can be found all around Oku-Nikko, as can Japanese macaques. Asiatic black bears also roam around the wooded areas and may be encountered while hiking, so if you are planning a hike in the area, it is recommended to carry around a bell to ward off bears.
Sitting at the base of Mt. Nantai, the massive Lake Chuzenji is the heart of Oku-Nikko and what our trip was centered around. It is impossible to tire of its beauty, as there are many ways to view the lake, not to mention the scenery that changes with the seasons. The built-up areas are mostly concentrated on the eastern side of the lake, leaving the rest of its surroundings relatively untouched. Its beautiful, clean water brings in fishers year-round, and its relatively cool surroundings make it a popular summer destination.
One of the bodies of water we visited was Kegon Falls, one of Japan’s Three Great Waterfalls. We were able to view the waterfall in all its glory from the nearby observation deck, which allows visitors to see the entirety of the waterfall from top to bottom. When we were there, the trees on the mountainside behind it were just beginning to change color, painting a stunning picture that included both autumn foliage and green verdure. The waterfall roared down a height of 97 meters, kicking up clouds of spray that floated up like puffs of steam. Even from a distance, we could still feel the cool mist hitting our faces.
For those who want an even more dynamic viewing experience, there is an elevator that goes to another observation deck right by the base of the falls (fee required). Kegon Falls is also known for its fantastic winter scenery, when the trickling water that runs beside the main waterfall freezes atop the rocks.
Nikko Natural Science Museum
During our time in Oku-Nikko, we had the opportunity to pop by the Nikko Natural Science Museum, which has detailed displays about the topography, natural history, and flora and fauna of the area. There are fantastic displays throughout the museum, and we couldn’t help but marvel at the taxidermied local animals and gigantic replicas of insects. If you do visit, try to not miss the showing of “Nikko – Eternal Four Seasons” at the Shikisai Hall on the first floor. This video offers stunning footage of the nature within Nikko National Park and allows you to appreciate the beauty of the local area.
Although the exhibits are all in Japanese, there were foreign language materials available in English, Chinese, and Korean at the entrance counter, as well as free audio guides in the same languages that follow along the exhibits at the museum. Bilingual earphones are available for the movie screenings (in the same languages as above plus Thai). If you are interested in utilizing one of the audio guides, feel free to ask one of the staff at the counter!
Nikko Yumoto Onsen
Nikko Yumoto Onsen refers to a group of hot springs and hotels on the northern shore of Lake Yunoko. It has been patronized since the 8th century, and its milky white, sulfur-rich waters are believed to be beneficial for health and beauty. It is also surrounded by lush nature, allowing for a restful and quiet getaway from the big city. After spending time exploring Nikko’s great outdoors, resting your weary body in the steamy waters of Nikko Yumoto Onsen feels euphoric!
How to Spend Your Time at Nikko National Park - For the Adventurous to the Laid Back
If you are looking to escape the hustle and bustle of the city, there are plenty of ways to enjoy the idyllic natural atmosphere that Nikko National Park has to offer. Whether you are sporty and adventurous or laid back and prefer the indoors, there is something for everyone!
Out and About - For Those Who Want to Be Active
Go Fishing at Lake Chuzenji - The Japanese Holy Ground of Fly-Fishing
Lake Chuzenji has long been beloved for being one of the few places in Japan where fly-fishing is possible. It is possible to just rent a boat if you are experienced, but the best way to increase your chances of catching fish while also getting to spend time with a local is to hire a fishing guide to take you out. The boats are rather small, able to fit around three people plus the fisherman guide.
Fishing with a guide is only possible in the warmer months between April and October and when we were there, we tried our hand at fishing wakasagi (Japanese pond smelt)! Our guide gave thorough instructions on how to cast the rod as well as how to tell if we had a catch. Luckily for squeamish folks, fly-fishing requires no bait as the fish mistake the small hooks on the line as bait and the fisherman guide will take care of removing the fish once they are caught. All you have to do is relax upon the boat, taking in the sights and feeling for the fish on the line.
Thanks to the instructions from our guide, we were able to bring in quite a good catch! The rod is equipped with seven hooks in total, so you can imagine our excitement when we reeled up a personal best of six at once! The entire experience was quite cathartic: there we were, floating atop the sparkling blue water of the serene lake, with other colorful fishing boats all around the shoreline, rustic buildings sitting close to the lake, and the mountain backdrop covered with dense forest. This fishing experience is perfect for beginners, as it is quite easy to get the fish to bite and reel them up. Just note that it can get quite chilly atop the lake, so be sure to dress warmly! We were provided with life vests and rubber gloves to keep our hands warm. It can also get quite sunny on clear days, so don’t forget to bring a hat or sunglasses as well.
We were even able to eat our fresh catch right after, and it was truly a delicious meal to remember!
Bike to Senjugahama - Early-Morning Rides to Catch Ephemeral Views
As Nikko National Park is supposed to have unparalleled views of the sunrise and sunset, it was decided that one view we had to try and see was the sun starting to peek up over the mountains. We gathered in the wee hours of the morning, before the sunrise, to take a guided e-bike tour to the Senjugahama shore on the western side of Lake Chuzenji. The roads were smooth and while there were hills, the e-bikes made it easy to make our way up and down the slopes. Be sure to also keep an eye on your surroundings – we were able to see several packs of deer prancing through the trees, staring at us as we passed!
The early morning view at Senjugahama was absolutely magical – the temperature of the water was warmer than the air, creating a mesmerizing mist that gently floated right above the surface of the lake. As we relaxed around the lake shoreline, the sun rose to become a fantastic golden color, brightening the scene and adding to the phenomenal effect. We took in this view with the cups of coffee we were surprised with, which came from Nikko Coffee, a local roastery. It warmed our bodies and gave us the extra energy we needed to bike back to the starting point.
We were incredibly grateful for our guides who gave us signals to help us bike safely to and from the lake. They also prepared helmets and thick gloves for us, which was much appreciated given the freezing temperatures of the early autumn morning. If you plan to visit, thick socks and proper winter shoes are a must. The wind can be quite nippy and low temperatures can strike at any moment!
Hike Through Odashirogahara - Appreciate the Nikko Nature and Conservation Efforts
Odashirogahara Plateau is located northwest of Lake Chuzenji and can be reached by taking a low-emission bus from the Akanuma Nature Information Center to various stops along the outskirts of the marshland. We hopped on the bus at the Akanuma Nature Information Center and took a short ride to Odashirogahara, where we disembarked and met our guide from the Nikko Natural Science Museum who would lead us through the marshland. In order to reach the walking path made of wooden planks, the guide had to open a gate for us, which he explained was installed to keep deer out of the marshland as they were eating and destroying too much of the vegetation.
The hiking path through Odashirogahara is fairly flat and very easy to walk, only taking about 1.5 hours to finish a full circuit. It passes a grassy prairie with Mt. Nantai towering in the background as well as both natural and man-made forests. A popular landmark of this area is the “Lady of Odashirogahara,” a lone white birch tree that is believed to be about 70 years old. You can also see traces of animal life all along the walking path, with the wooden signposts that have been gnawed at by bears being the most impressive. According to our guide, bears rip the bark off trees to drink the sap and they likely mistook the signposts for such trees, working at them until they realized that the signposts didn’t hold any sap!
We were each given an audio receiver with an earpiece to help us hear our guide throughout the tour. Although tours are conducted in Japanese, if the Nikko Natural Science Museum is informed beforehand, it is possible for them to provide interpreters.
Leisurely Sightseeing - For Those Who Want to Chill
Visit the Tachiki Kannon at Chuzenji Temple and Copy Buddhist Sutras
Chuzenji Temple sits along the shore of Lake Chuzenji, its vibrant vermilion color complementing the natural colors of its surroundings. It was founded in 784 by the priest Shodo, who would become the first head priest of the temple. It is now the 18th stop along the Bando 33 Kannon Pilgrimage route which runs through the Kanto area.
The temple enshrines the Tachiki Kannon, a 6-meter-tall wooden statue representing the Thousand-Armed Goddess of Mercy, which is believed to have been carved by the priest Shodo himself. As the oldest Buddhist statue in Nikko, the Tachiki Kannon has 42 arms to grant many wishes. Ribbons of five different colors are tied to the statue’s wrists, so when visitors pray as they touch the ribbons, it is as if they are touching the statue itself (To prevent the spread of COVID-19, there are five lights with the same colors that visitors can instead hold their hands under *available until December 2021).
Further inside the Godaido Hall is a large room with a magnificent dragon painting on the ceiling. Called the “Zuiryu,” it was painted by the renowned Japanese painter Katayama Nanpu. The expressive figure will keep you captivated as you walk through the hall. While there, we were lucky enough to be guided through a prayer by a temple attendant who rang a singing bowl for us which echoed through the room. Afterwards, we headed outside Godaido Hall and were greeted with stunning views of Lake Chuzenji. We absolutely could not resist pausing to grab some photos of the fantastic scenery!
・Clear Your Mind by Copying Buddhist Sutras
To finish our visit to Chuzenji Temple, we partook in a “shakyo” (sutra copying) activity. We were presented with sutras written and Japanese “kanji” characters, as well as an image of a Buddha that we could trace as well. Buddhist sutras are in total quite long, so in order to make this activity easy and enjoyable for participants, the sutras provided were only short segments of the entire sutras.
We carefully traced the characters, and when we were finished, we filled out our names, the date, and a wish. For those who are unsure about the wish they would like to make, there is a paper provided with sample wishes (though bear in mind that they are all in Japanese). We then brought our sutras up to the front, placed them in front of the three Buddha statues at the front of the room, and made our wishes. We were then handed beautiful gold and white seals with graceful Japanese calligraphy on them to take home with us as a memento.
Copying sutras is a traditional Buddhist mindfulness practice, meant to connect mind and body. It was surprisingly meditative, and we all lost track of time as we carefully traced each stroke of the sutras. Unable to take our eyes off the paper as we wrote, our eyes and minds felt refreshed as we looked up again to bring our papers forward.
As the temple has been receiving more international visitors in recent years, while the sutras are in Japanese, there are English instructions provided and the temple also accepts wishes written in English and other languages.
British Embassy Villa Memorial Park - Enjoy Teatime and Learn About Historical Nikko-Loving Foreign Residents
Oku-Nikko has long been beloved by foreign residents, with many important historical figures vacationing or opting to build holiday homes here. These residences are all located along the eastern shore of the lake and are beautiful examples of the fusion of Japanese and Western architecture.
This particular villa (pictured above) was originally built for the English diplomat Ernest Satow. It served as the villa for the British Embassy until 2008, after which it was donated to Tochigi Prefecture in 2010. However, its many years of use left it in disrepair, so it was dismantled and restored before being opened to the public in 2016. Today, it features charming, colonial-style architecture with a high ceiling, Western-style doors, and fireplaces. Apparently, the original house also had many Japanese-style elements courtesy of local carpenters, such as tatami floor mats and Japanese washi paper on the walls.
Thanks to its optimal location in front of Lake Chuzenji and the many windows lining its walls, the villa appears very light and airy. There are beautifully upholstered chairs set up around the villa where visitors can rest and take in the views, as well as fascinating exhibits in English and Japanese documenting the life of Ernest Satow and the history of the villa.
・Teatime - Indulge on Scrumptious Scones and Refreshing Tea
Teatime is offered at the Former British Embassy Villa, featuring scones made with locally-produced flour and milk. The scones were incredibly light and fluffy! They were served with delectable clotted cream, jam made with locally-grown fruits, and refreshing black tea. Patrons can choose between English breakfast, earl grey, or Darjeeling tea. Milk and sugar may be provided upon request. Iced tea is also available in strawberry or mango flavors.
If you are looking to take some of this English teatime experience back with you, there is a gift shop by the tea salon that sells the scones, as well as jars of jam and tea bags.
Italian Embassy Villa Memorial Park - A Villa That Quietly Melts into the Scenery
Although belonging to the Italian Embassy, the exterior of the villa has a rustic Japanese feel to it. It consists of two buildings, with the main residence offering a glimpse into what life at the villa looked like in the past, while the secondary residence (only a short walk away) hosts exhibits about the local history.
Inside, the villa feels intimate thanks to the furniture and interior decorations that look as though they had been prepared for the masters of the house that morning. On top of a veranda that opens out onto Lake Chuzenji, there is a resting room that faces opposite of the lake and into the forest, allowing for a different type of calming scenery that the colors and atmosphere of the house just seem to melt into. It is the perfect place to sit and relax while taking in the impressive scenery of Lake Chuzenji and the surrounding area.
Lake Chuzenji Boat House - Enjoy the Beautiful Sight of the Setting Sun
Slightly hovering over the edge of Lake Chuzenji, this boat house is a remarkable wooden building with railings and panels creating mesmerizing patterns that lead your eye down the length of it. It houses a boat that used to belong to the Belgium Embassy Villa (also located along Lake Chuzenji), as well as stuffed local fish specimens. However, one of the boat house’s main draws is its unparalleled views of the lake, especially at sunset.
The boat house is within walking distance of the Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, where we stayed during our time in Nikko National Park. During our stay, we were lucky enough to catch a wonderful evening jazz performance by the local jazz band Free Swing. There were gas heaters set up around the room, and there was also a door that led to the terrace for those who wanted to get some fresh air by the lake. It was a cozy night to be inside, listening to some lovely jazz music—the perfect way to rest and rejuvenate after an eventful day of exploring around Oku-Nikko!
Test Your Wood Carving Skills With Nikko-Bori
“Nikko-bori” is a type of traditional local wood carving, literally translating to “Nikko carving” or “Nikko engraving.” The craft has a history that dates back approximately 400 years. It is believed that the carpenters who worked on Nikko Toshogu Shrine made wooden carvings as souvenirs for visitors, thus beginning the Nikko-bori craft. Even today, examples of Nikko-bori can be seen on many surfaces, from traditional crafts such as wooden chests and containers, to even the intricate carvings decorating the grounds of Nikko Toshogu Shrine! You can also find lots of Nikko-bori painted with lacquer, its glossy luster accentuating the carvings.
We were lucky enough to partake in a workshop and try our hand at carving our own Nikko-bori designs. Spoiler alert: it’s much more difficult than you may think! We headed over to mekke Nikko Kyodo Center, a hub for local history and culture, where we were warmly greeted by the staff who were enthusiastic to teach us about this traditional Nikko craft.
First, we had to choose which item we wanted to carve and take home with us. The options were a picture frame, a hand mirror, or a hanging nameplate, and each one was available in amber brown or turquoise blue. We were then shown several design templates that we could choose to carve onto our items. The designs included animals, plants, flowers, and more. Afterwards, the staff showed us how to properly use the carving tools and let us practice on some wooden slabs until we felt like we had the hang of it.
Then, it was time to carve our items! We were provided with pictographs that had both Japanese and English text that we could reference when we were feeling stuck. Although it took a lot of concentration, the Nikko-bori was actually quite meditative, as we emptied our minds to focus on following the lines on the designs as accurately as we could.
What to Eat at Nikko National Park
One of Nikko’s local specialties is “yuba” or tofu skin, which is a light and refreshing food made from soymilk. To make it, soymilk is simmered and the film that forms on the surface is collected. Although the preparation may sound somewhat odd, yuba is quite delicious and refreshing with a light soy flavor. Believed to have been brought over from China during the Kamakura period (1185 – 1333), yuba was beloved by religious and spiritual practitioners in Japan as it perfectly matched their vegetarian diets. It later became more popular amongst the masses during the Meiji period (1868 – 1912), and is loved as a high-end ingredient to this day.
We were able to sample some delectable yuba at several eateries around Nikko. Here was one of our favorites!
Shiori is a restaurant that specializes in Nikko delicacies. For lunch, we indulged in the “En” set, which focused on yuba. The yuba was served in a variety of ways, including as a delicate appetizer with vegetables, as silky yuba sheets served with fresh wasabi to bring out the flavor of the soybeans, and as a simmered and fried roll that was served in a light and refreshing broth. Our stomachs delighted at the variety of flavors and textures that could be achieved with yuba, and we left with nothing but compliments to the chef for the amazing food.
Wakasagi is a type of smelt, and the same fish that we caught by the bucketful during our fishing experience on lake Chuzenji. Wakasagi are easily prepared at home, but also make for a delicious meal at a restaurant. These small fish are rich in calcium and have a very light flavor, so they are especially popular when eaten fried.
The wakasagi we fished from Lake Chuzenji did not go to waste – they were the focus of our meal! After fishing our hearts out, we headed to the restaurant Mihashiya right next to the shore and eagerly awaited our meals which were made with our fresh catch. We were presented with beautiful little mounds of fresh fish tempura, served alongside delicious pickled vegetables, miso soup, and yuba served in both roll and sheet form. Although fried, the wakasagi tempura was amazingly light and crispy, and the surrounding side dishes offered a welcome variety of flavors that complemented the tempura beautifully. It was truly a treat to have the fresh fish we just caught cooked up immediately after in such a luxurious way!
Where to Eat Teishoku (Set Meals) Around Lake Chuzenji
・Chuzenji Kanko Center
The Chuzenji Kanko Center is a three-floor facility near Lake Chuzenji that contains a souvenir shop as well as a couple of eateries. While we were there, we dug into the “Shogun Nabe Teishoku.” The set meal was incredibly well balanced with a hot pot consisting of udon noodles, vegetables, and a slice of duck, all simmered in a light broth. Accompanying it were many other scrumptious dishes including grilled fish, pickled vegetables, and yuba, which was served as both a simmered roll and as milky sheets. It was so good, we finished every morsel!
Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel - Our Recommended Hotel in Nikko National Park
Kanaya Hotel is a lodge-like accommodation facility with two locations, one in Nikko City and one in the Chuzenji area on the eastern side of the lake. The Chuzenji location is warm and welcoming, with a charming retro interior, beautifully upholstered furniture, and even a massive fireplace that they use to keep the building and guests warm during the colder months.
The rooms at the hotel are Western-style and are equipped with beds, private bathrooms, air conditioning units, televisions, and more to make your stay as comfortable as possible. Adding onto the comfort, there are also onsen baths (both indoor and outdoor) for those who would like to soak in the rejuvenating hot spring waters of Oku-Nikko. The outdoor bath is especially comforting, as you can breathe in the fresh air and listen to the sounds of nature while warming your body.
The Mizunara dining room at the hotel specializes in Western cuisine, and for dinner offers delectable French course cuisine, including hor d'oeuvres, soup, a fish dish, a meat dish, salad, and dessert. The menu changes each night, allowing guests to try a variety of flavors, and is made with carefully selected seasonal ingredients.
The dining room also offers Western-style breakfast, allowing you to select your preferred juice, breakfast protein, and style of eggs. Japanese-style breakfast is available upon request for an extra 605 yen, but the hotel staff must be informed by 8:00 pm the night before in order to prepare the proper ingredients.
The hotel now accommodates those looking to partake in a “workation,” a new type of work style where you take a break from your usual place of work, but not the work itself, allowing you to rejuvenate yourself in a new atmosphere. Within the hotel, there’s a workspace for such visitors that can be rented out to individuals or groups. For individuals, it costs 500 yen an hour per person, and it is not necessary to reserve a time slot. Just let a front desk staff member know that you would like to use the room. For groups, reservations are necessary. The workspace is equipped with tables and chairs, a projector, white board, printer, air conditioning, and Wi-Fi - everything you need for your away office!
The hotel also has a lounge which can be used freely from 3:00 pm to 10:00 pm while staying at the hotel. There’s drink canisters, tea bags, an espresso and coffee machine, as well as paper cups, so it is incredibly easy to settle in and get work done while resting on one of the chairs or sofas. The windows look out upon the trees, so you can calm your mind while enjoying the view when your eyes need a rest.
Refresh Your Mind, Body, and Soul With Everything Nikko National Park Has to Offer
Nikko National Park is an idyllic place to enjoy all the wonderful aspects of Japan, from the rich history and culture to abundant, widely undisturbed nature that can be found all around the park. It is no wonder that this area has been beloved by locals and tourists alike for many generations! This article touched upon some of the best things to see and do here, but the true charm of the area can best be understood when you are able to visit and experience it all for yourself. Be sure to add Nikko National Park and the Lake Chuzenji area to your next Japan trip itinerary, and come explore this quiet, hidden corner of Japan.
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.