In the early 20th century, foreigners such as Albert Einstein, Helen Keller and Frank Lloyd Wright discovered first hand what the Japanese have known for centuries: That you should never say kekkou – a word that means “I am satisfied” – until one has seen Nikko.
Though still little-known outside of the country, within Japan this little town (population 84,000) has an outsized reputation. Located 140 kilometers (two hours by train) north of Tokyo, its beautiful scenery, numerous onsen, cool summers and, above all, its many mountainside temples, have led it to be designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Those temples are one of the oldest and most extensive temple complexes in Japan: 103 buildings in total, set in 51 hectares of beautifully managed woodland. Arrayed on the side of Mount Nikko, the buildings, which include both Buddhist temple and Shinto shrines, are known collectively as the World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko.
Although the oldest temple here, Rinno-ji, was built in 766, the building of temples and shrines continued in Nikko for more than a thousand years. The shrines of Futarasan-jinja and Tosho-gu feature 23 and 42 buildings, respectively, and the Rinno-ji temple itself features 37, many of them build during the important Edo or Tokugawa period, from 1603-1868, the period during which the many ruling shogun kept Japan separate from the rest of the world. These buildings are exquisite examples of the exacting, distinctive architecture and art of that time.
Because of Nikko’s crucial role in the shogunate of medieval Japan, the man who was the first of the period’s many shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu (1543-1616), is buried here, as is his grandson, the shogun Iemitsu. Tokugawa’s mausoleum is one of the most striking features of the temple complex.
Despite its first temples having been built in the eighth century, it is the Edo, or Tokugawa, period that resonates strongest in Nikko, to the degree that the city has developed a theme park known as the Edo Wonderland Nikko Edomura, or historical theme park, which features period architecture, furniture and art, and live shows that explore this crucial period of Japanese history.
But the Nikko temples and historic echoes of the shogunate are just the start: Nikko and its surrounding area – despite its small population, it is the third largest city, by land area, in Japan – enjoys stunning natural beauty. Sitting at around 1300 meters (4200 feet), Nikko has a moderate year-round climate that is the envy of the rest of humid Japan. In the summer, when lowland Tokyo swelters, Nikko remains moderate, with ample rainfall to water its lush woodlands, fill the two rivers that run through the city, and create some of the country’s most beautiful waterfalls. While its summers are mild, Nikko gets well below freezing during the winter, leading some to say that its climate is more typical of northerly Hokkaido than of central Honshu.
Nikko is also home to Japan’s highest lake, Lake Chuzenji. That lake, and the area’s many waterfalls, produce a good portion of the country’s hydroelectric power. Nikko is also known for its mineral deposits, particularly of copper and aluminum.
But Nikko’s main economic function now is as a tourist magnet, and in addition to the temples and fine weather, Nikko has a wealth of popular onsen. Much of Japan, being volcanic, is home to onsen, but Nikko’s picturesque setting, and proximity to Tokyo, means that the area’s onsen are particularly well-regarded.
Nikko National Park, situated around Lake Chuzenji, Mount Nantai and the wetlands of the Senjogahara Plateau, is full of hiking trails and picnic spots, with views of the Nikko area (bring an umbrella in the summer), and ski opportunities in the winter. During the autumn, a spectacular show of fall colors dazzles visitors, and there are log cabins for rent through much of the year at Woodsman’s Village, about a half hour outside of central Nikko. There is also a cable car that goes up to the Akechidaira View Point, for more views of this spectacular area.
But one of Nikko’s most distinctive and memorable features is the large number of monkeys who roam the city looking for food and being even more entertaining than Nara’s famous deer in that city’s Deer Park. But unlike the deer, these monkeys can be quite aggressive, even dangerous. They are, after all, wild animals, something for which Japan is not generally known, and they are reproducing at a rate that far outpaces the birth rates of humans in Japan. It is now against the law to feed them.
Other monkeys – these carved of wood – also feature in what is perhaps Nikko’s best known contribution to world culture, displayed in a horse stable of the Toshugu shrine: a representation of the Three Monkeys, carved in the 17th century as a visualization of the famous Confucian admonition to “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil.”
Good advice, to be sure, but not as good as this advice: Go see beautiful Nikko.