Nikko is a temple town and UNESCO world heritage site in the mountains a few hours north of Tokyo and makes a cool retreat from the city. The temples and shrines with their vermillion gates and moss-covered stone lanterns are scattered on the wooded hillside. The main attraction is Toshogu Shrine, a stunning complex with more than a dozen lavishly decorated red and gold buildings amongst huge, ancient cedar trees. The crowds can be overwhelming, so afterwards head to one of the quieter shrines. You could visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, but it’s worth spending a night or two to explore one of the most beautiful places in Japan including hiking trails, lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs. The area is famous for its vibrant autumn colours.
In Nikko don’t miss:
- Visiting Toshogu Shrine early to avoid the crowds
- Playing games at atmospheric Futarasan-jinja
- Exploring Taiyuinbyo
- Hiking up the mountain to the peaceful Takino shrine
- Photographing the bright red Shinkyo bridge
- Munching on dango (grilled rice balls on a stick) from a street stall
- Eating sushi at Komekichi Kozushi
Koya-san (Mount Koya) is one of the most interesting places in Japan to experience the traditional side of the country. This secluded and sacred temple town is located in the forest-covered mountains of Kansai and is one of the best places to get a taste of life as a monk by staying in a shukubo or temple lodging. After wandering around the otherworldly Okunoin forest cemetery, we checked into our simple tatami room at the temple, soaked in the communal onsen bath, and enjoyed a delicious shojin ryori vegetarian Buddhist meal. In the morning we were up early for the chanting and meditation ceremony with the monks. A temple stay at Koya-san is a fascinating experience and well worth the detour from Osaka or Kyoto.
Tsumago is a picture-perfect traditional mountain village in the Kiso Valley. It is one of the best-preserved post towns in Japan and you feel like you’ve stepped back in time on the traffic-less streets of beautifully restored wooden inns. During the Edo period 300 years ago, Tsumago was a stop on the Nakasendo Way between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). You can hike part of this trail to the village of Magome in about two hours. Unfortunately, a typhoon prevented us doing this, but it’s supposed to be a scenic and easy walk.
Nara was Japan’s first permanent capital and is full of historic treasures including many UNESCO world heritage sites. It’s one of the top Japan attractions and makes a rewarding day trip from Kyoto to visit the temples and wild deer in Nara Park. The Daibutsu-den (Hall of the Great Buddha) at Todaiji is the main sight—it’s the largest wooden building in the world and nothing prepares you for the immense sight. Inside is the 15-metre tall gold and bronze statue of Buddha that dates back to 751.