The coming of spring heralds the arrival of cherry blossom season in Japan – a magical time of year when the countryside comes to life in a riot of pink and white flowers. The unspoilt region of Nikko, on the main island of Honshu, is a spectacular place to experience this phenomenon, which the Japanese call sakura. Here, Rough Guides uncovers the best sakura spots in Nikko.
It’s easy to travel by train in Nikko with Tobu Railways’ Nikko Pass, which gives you unlimited train and bus travel in the region as well as discounts to attractions and shops.
Experience the cherry blossom in Nikko
The place to begin your alpine adventures is the city of Nikko. Though it’s the entry point to the wilderness of the Nikko National Park, the city is very easy to reach, with the train from Asakusa in Tokyo taking less than two hours. Nikko’s ancient streets, peaceful parks and UNESCO-listed temples and shrines look even more beautiful covered in cherry blossoms. What’s more, the cherry blossom naturally reaches the city first – around the beginning of April – before appearing on the mountains over the following weeks.
At this time of year, many of the blooming trees are attractively lit up at night. A cherry blossom cheesecake from Meiji-no-Yakata, opposite Tobu Nikko station, is not to be missed. Nikko’s main Buddhist temple, Rinno-ji, is even home to a cherry tree so famous that it’s registered as a national monument. Kongo-zakura, as it’s known, is thought to be more than three hundred years old. Almost as famous, and just as stunning, is the weeping cherry tree at the Kokuzoson temple.
Nikko Kanaya Hotel © Tobu Railway
A good place to make your home in the city is the Nikko Kanaya Hotel, the oldest resort hotel in Japan. It opened in 1873 and has welcomed countless luminaries and adventurers through its doors. These include legendary Victorian explorer Isabella Bird, who lived a life of wild adventure and was the first woman elected as a fellow of the Royal Geographical Society.
Enjoying the sakura in Nikko National Park
As attractive as the city of Nikko is when garlanded with cherry blossoms, the sakura is even more spectacular in nearby Nikko National Park. This is one of the most famous beauty spots in Japan and for good reason. Tumbling waterfalls, tranquil lakes, scenic hiking trails and restorative hot springs – there’s a bit of everything here for lovers of the great outdoors.
Cruise on Lake Chuzenji © Tobu Railway
One of the headline attractions in Nikko National Park is Lake Chuzenji. With volcanic mountains rising on one side, and sheer cliffs dropping away on the other, it’s clear to see why this is one of the most famous views in Japan. The spring sees the lakeshore erupt with cherry blossom, azalea (Tsutsuji in Japanese) and seasonal flowers, and a scenic cruise on the lake is an unforgettable way to experience it. You’ll want to wrap up warm, though, as it’s still chilly here in the springtime.
The Akechidaira Ropeway is not for those with vertigo © Tobu Railway
The water of Lake Chuzenji feeds another of Nikko’s natural wonders: the Kegon Falls. These are a prime draw in their own right, and are often described as among the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan. To get the best views over the lake, and the falls cascading from a hole in the cliff beneath, ride the Akechidaira Ropeway. This cable car will take you to a viewpoint which affords sweeping views over the lake, falls and surrounding forest.
Senjogahara marshlands © Tobu Railway
Hiking to Akechidaira
If you’re feeling energetic, you can also hike up to the Akechidaira viewpoint, but it’s pretty tough going. More accessible hiking can be found in the Senjogahara marshlands to the north. A nature trail here winds along the path of the Yukawa River, beginning at Ryuzu Falls, a twin cascade said to resemble a dragon’s head. The path passes on wooden walkways through the picturesque marshes and ends at Yumoto Onsen, a traditional town set around natural hot springs. Bathing in an onsen is a quintessentially Japanese ritual, central to life here since time immemorial. It’s also the perfect way to unwind after a day’s hiking in the great outdoors. For a particularly scenic bath, head to Nikko Yumoto Onsenji, a Buddhist temple in the north of town with a history dating back to the 8th century. There’s a public bath here built around a hot spring, which means you can combine two great Japanese experiences in one: soaking in an onsen while breathing in the peaceful atmosphere of a Buddhist temple.
The British Embassy Villa at Lake Chuzenji © Tobu Railway
If hiking sounds too much like hard work, there are more serene ways to experience the park and the cherry blossoms. On the eastern shore of Lake Chuzenji sit some grand villas, built by foreign embassies as places for their diplomats to relax. The British Embassy Villa was built in 1896 and continued as a diplomatic residence until 2008. Today, it’s a museum with exhibits on British Victorian culture. In true English style, you can linger over afternoon tea and scones on the second floor while taking in long views over the lake. Combination tickets are available, which also give you entry to the Italian Embassy Villa, just next door. Built in 1928, the interiors have been kept in their original state, and the gardens are especially peaceful.
Nikko’s extreme beauty has made it a popular tourist spot for centuries, and visitor numbers show no signs of slowing down. The year of 2020 will also see the opening of the Ritz-Carlton, Nikko, a luxurious property which will blend in with its surroundings on the shores of Lake Chuzenji: check the website for its opening date. With gorgeous minimalist rooms overlooking either the lake or soaring Mount Nantai, an onsen bathhouse and superb Japanese restaurants, this is a place to experience the beautiful nature of Nikko in spring.
Top image: Nikko, Japan sakura - cherry blossom © violetblue/Shutterstock