Winter in Japan is particularly atmospheric, and travelling by train is a great way to take in the beautiful, snowy surrounds. Snow blankets the pine forests, traditional ryokan inns beckon you in, and the region’s onsen (hot springs) bubble invitingly. It’s hard to imagine a more scenic way to explore the mountainous Nikko region, on the main island of Honshu, than by letting the landscapes unfurl before your eyes as you ride the country’s famous railways.
Exploring Japan in winter – or any other time of the year – by train is easy thanks to Tobu Railways’ Nikko Pass and Yuttari Aizu Pass, which offer train and bus travel within the Nikko and Kinugawa areas and discounts at shops and attractions. Here’s a suggested itinerary, showcasing some of the area’s highlights.
Torii gate at the entrance of Nikko Tosho-gu © Songphon Maharojanan/Shutterstock
Begin your journey in Nikko, a historic mountain city and gateway to the wilds of Nikko National Park. Despite the unspoilt surroundings, travelling by train to Nikko from Tokyo is easy: it’s less than two hours by train from Asakusa in the east of the capital.
There’s an old saying in Japan: “never say kekko (‘I am satisfied’) until you’ve seen Nikko.” And when you set eyes on Nikko’s exquisitely carved ancient wooden shrines, or the serene forests and spectacular waterfalls of the national park, you’ll understand why. Nikko’s 103 temples and shrines make up a UNESCO World Heritage Site, many of them dating back centuries. The vermilion Sacred Bridge, which crosses the Daiya River to the 8th-century Shinto shrine Futarasan-jinja, has graced many Japanese postcards. It’s particularly pretty with a dusting of snow.
Another Shinto shrine, Nikko Tosho-gu, is among the most attractive in Japan, richly adorned with wooden carvings of animals. One of them shows three monkeys: one covering its eyes, another covering its mouth, and another with its hands over its ears – the popular origin of the phrase “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil.”
Nikko’s beauty is not only manmade, and the landscapes of Nikko National Park rank among the most arresting in Japan. In a country famous for its stunning waterfalls, Kegon Falls is one of the best known – a stunning cascade which tumbles for 97 metres (318ft) from the navel of a cliff at the edge of Lake Chuzenji. The contrast between the serene surface of the lake and the awesome power of the falls means this place has fully earned its place on the official list of the “Eight Views” of Japan.
A frozen waterfall in Unryukeikoku © Tobu Railway
Also worth visiting is the wonderfully named Unryukeikoku (“Cloud Dragon Valley”). Here, smaller waterfalls freeze solid during the depths of winter in Japan, giving the appearance of candle wax dripping down the cliffsides. Other highlights of the park include the volcanic slopes of Mount Nantai and the atmospheric Nikko Cedar Tree Path – the longest avenue of trees in the world. Nikko National Park is easy to reach using the Nikko Pass. Just take the train to Tobu Nikko station, then jump on a bus to Chuzenji Onsen, near the Kegon Falls.
Tramping around temples and hiking in the hills can be hungry work, and there’s one local delicacy that all visitors to Nikko should try: Yuba – the skin that forms on the surface of boiled soy milk. With a mild nutty taste and chewy texture, it’s surprisingly delicious and extremely versatile. Elsewhere, such as in Kyoto, you might see single-layered yuba, but Nikko is famous for the double-layered variety. It’s used to make noodles, served with sushi, deep-fried, or even pressed together to make a tasty meat substitute. When eaten fresh, it’s also very healthy – so, as is often the case with Japanese food, you shouldn’t feel too bad about going back for that second helping.
Yunishigawa Onsen, pretty in white © Tobu Railway
There’s nowhere more welcoming on a frosty winter’s evening than a traditional Japanese onsen, or hot springs resort. Japan’s volcanic geology has wrought havoc and destruction on its landscape and inhabitants for centuries, but it has also blessed the country with thousands of onsen, and visiting one is a quintessential part of any Japanese adventure. About a 45-minute train ride north of Nikko, Yunishigawa Onsen is easy to reach yet encapsulates the wildness and remote beauty of the area. In fact, during the 12th century, it was chosen as a hideaway by exiled Taira samurai, who introduced several laws to avoid being detected. To this day, it’s forbidden to keep chickens here, as their crowing may have alerted the Taira’s enemies to their presence.
Illuminated snow domes during the Yunishigawa Kamakura festival © Tobu Railway
Thankfully, these days there’s no need to sneak around in Yunishigawa Onsen. Visitors are free to enjoy the stunning alpine scenery and warm up in the restorative thermal waters. The Japanese winter sees a lot of snowfall in this area, and the locals put it to creative use during the Yunishigawa Kamakura festival in February, when hundreds of snow igloos pop up around town and in the surrounding forest, prettily lit from within by lanterns.
Larger versions of these snow huts were a rudimentary form of accommodation for mountainfolk, but you’ll be grateful for the opportunity to stay instead in a cosy ryokan – a traditional inn, with tatami floors, sliding canvas doors, and kimonos and slippers for guests to wear. Bathing in the ryokan is a similarly traditional affair. Baths are strictly divided along gender lines, many do not allow tattoos because of their historical yakuza connotations, and there are certain points of etiquette to follow – including washing the body before you get into the communal bath.
Ouchijuku with a liberal dusting of snow © Tobu Railway
From Yunishigawa Onsen, continue your journey north into the Aizu region by boarding another train to Ouchijuku. This was a post town on the road between Aizu-Wakamatsu and Nikko back in the Edo period when the law dictated that people had to make the journey on foot. Today, Ouchijuku remains a welcoming stop-off for weary travellers. Its short, squat, thatch-roofed houses look much as they would have done in centuries past, and a layer of snow is the icing on the cake for a picture-postcard image of traditional Japan. A handful of the houses still operate as minshuku (family-run bed and breakfasts) which make atmospheric places to lay your head.
The food here, too, is hearty stuff – just the thing after a day in the cold mountain air. Roadside restaurants serve generous bowls of soba noodles in rich broth, often with a leek which handily doubles as a spoon. Also on the menu is delicious char, fished from nearby lakes and rivers and roasted on skewers.
Great views over Ouchijuku’s thatched houses can be enjoyed from the hilltop Ouchijuku Viewpoint to the north of town, while there’s more lovely traditional architecture (but smaller crowds) at the Takakura Shrine. Here, moss-lined steps wind through centuries-old wooden torii gates. Ouchijuku is a place to relax and soak up the atmosphere of old Japan – the perfect way to end your winter adventure in Nikko and Aizu.
Top image: Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko © Shutterstock