If you make one trip from Tokyo, it should be to the pilgrim town of NIKKŌ (日光) where the World Heritage-listed Tōshō-gū shrine complex sits amid mountains crisscrossed by outstanding hiking trails within the Nikkō National Park. Tōshō-gū attracts masses of Japanese tourists year-round, who tramp dutifully around the shrine and the surrounding holy buildings. After you’ve done the same, it’s worth investigating the far less crowded Nikkō Tōshō-gū Museum of Art, and the Nikkō Tamozawa Imperial-villa Memorial Park, then crossing the Daiya-gawa to explore the dramatically named Ganman-ga-fuchi abyss, which is in fact a tranquil riverside walk. The most beautiful parts of the national park are around Chūzenji-ko lake, some 17km from Nikkō.

With a very early start it’s possible to see both Tōshō-gū and Chūzenji-ko in a long day-trip from Tokyo, but to get the most out of the journey it’s best to stay overnight; cramming both places into one day during the peak summer and autumn seasons is impossible.

First impressions of Nikkō as you come out of either train station aren’t great – the uphill approach to the shrine is lined with tatty shops and houses. However, the walk along the town’s main street takes no more than fifteen minutes.

At the top of the main street is one of the town’s most famous landmarks, the red-lacquered Shin-kyō bridge (神橋). Legend has it that when the Buddhist priest Shōdō Shōnin visited Nikkō in the eighth century he was helped across the Daiya-gawa at this very spot by the timely appearance of two snakes, who formed a bridge and then vanished. The original arched wooden structure first went up in 1636, but has been reconstructed many times since. Unless you must have a close-up shot of the bridge, there’s little need to pay the entrance fee, as the structure is clearly visible from the road.

Take the left-hand path uphill across from the bridge and you’ll emerge in front of the main compound of Rinnō-ji (輪王寺), a Tendai Buddhist temple founded in 766 by Shōdō Shōnin; his statue stands on a rock at the entrance. The large, red-painted hall, Sanbutsu-dō, houses three giant gilded statues: the thousand-handed Kannon, the Amida Buddha and the fearsome horse-headed Kannon. It’s worth paying to view these awe-inspiring figures from directly beneath their lotus-flower perches (entry is included in the combination ticket, which you can buy at the booth outside). Rinnō-ji’s Treasure House (Hōmotsuden; 宝物殿), opposite the Sanbutsu-dō, has some interesting items on display, but its nicest feature is the attached Shōyō-en, an elegant garden with a path around a small pond.

Brief history

Although Nikkō has been a holy place in both the Buddhist and Shinto religions for over a thousand years, its fortunes only took off with the death of Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1616. In his will, the shogun requested that a shrine be built here in his honour. However, the complex, completed in 1617, was deemed not nearly impressive enough by Ieyasu’s grandson, Tokugawa Iemitsu, who ordered work to begin on the elaborate decorative mausoleum seen today.

Iemitsu’s dazzling vision had an underlying purpose. The shogun wanted to stop rival lords amassing money of their own, so he ordered the daimyō to supply the materials for the shrine, and to pay the thousands of craftsmen. The mausoleum, Tōshō-gū, was completed in 1634 and the jury has been out on its over-the-top design ever since. Whatever you make of it, Tōshō-gū – along with the slightly more restrained Taiyūin-byō mausoleum of Iemitsu – is entirely successful at conveying the immense power and wealth of the Tokugawa dynasty.

Despite its popularity as a tourist destination today, barely a century ago Nikkō, in the wake of the Meiji Restoration, was running to seed. It was foreign diplomats and businesspeople who began to favour it as a highland retreat from the heat of the Tokyo summer in the 1870s.