Nikko - An easy Tokyo Day Trip
The seats in the train are all taken by the time we depart Tokyo Station... I suppose this makes sense. It's hardly like our destination today is a secret.
The complete opposite in fact. We are on our way to Nikko, and this easy day trip from Tokyo is a well-trodden pilgrimage for many a tourist to the Japanese capital.
Soon enough we have left the skyscrapers of Akihabara behind, and we're passing through the seemingly endless Tokyo suburbs, the concrete apartment blocks huddled tightly together for miles around in this the world's largest metropolitan area.
Around 40 minutes later we change trains at Utsunomiya for the JR Nikko line. And as the train line changes, so too do the surroundings - the train climbing bit by bit, station by station higher as we ascend into the mountains of the Nikko National Park - mountain villages, sudden vistas down into passing valleys, and gentle waterfalls for scenery.
Some 2 hours after leaving Tokyo we reach our final destination - the end of the line and the mountain town of Nikko.
We leave the station and follow the flow of our fellow visitors, making our way further up the hill towards the famous Shinto shrine we have all come to see.
There are buses that travel the route, but it's hardly worth it. The walk is an easy one, a gentle incline following the town's main road past traditional restaurants and modern cafes, ice cream parlours and local artisans at work, and we peer curiously at the display windows as we amble by.
As we reach the top end of the town, the view opens up and we come across the first of Nikko's tourist sights - the red Shinkyo bridge spanning the Daiya river.
We take a quick picture, and enjoy the gurgling of the bubbling brook below us. There is a small charge to cross the bridge itself however, which we forgo as we decide to head further up the hill directly to the temple complex.
Nikko shrines and temples
Nikko has been a centre of both Shinto and Buddhist worship for many centuries, and many important shrines and temples are located here.
First up as we enter the UNESCO World Heritage Site is the imposing Rinnoji temple - and its Sanbutsudo main building with its gorgeous interior, including the striking 3 golden Buddhas statues. Once we've also had a quick wander past the secondary Daigomado hall, situated just behind the Sanbutsudo, we make our way further into the sanctuary.
The path leading up to the Nikko Toshogu shrine is a beautiful one, a forest of magnificent pine trees hundreds of years old towering majestically above us on either side.
At the main entrance we pay the entry fee, and spend a bit of time ogling the lovely 5-story pagoda, before passing through the Omotemon main gate with its 2 guardians standing watch to either side.
Inside the Nikko Toshogu shrine complex there are many lovely buildings to investigate. Among the first of these are the Sacred Storehouses, covered in colourful and intricate wood carvings.
And here we discover a surprise. Completely unexpectedly, we find ourselves face to face with the original 3 Wise Monkeys - they of 'Hear No Evil, See No Evil, Speak No Evil' fame, and the heroes of many a proverbial childhood tale of morality. It's fair to say we were far from the only ones taking the opportunity for a selfie with the monkeys, mimicking one of their gestures.
Further into the complex is the Yomeimon gate, a stunningly ornately decorated structure, said to be one of the country's most beautiful gates, and designated a Japanese national treasure.
The main building of the shrine is a shoe-free photo-free space, and while it is perhaps less elaborate than some of the other buildings on the site, it is nevertheless a hushed, awesome, if tourist-filled place.
And through the Sakashitamon Gate found to the right of the main building is the start to the long flight of stairs that lead to the top of the complex, and the burial place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate and ruler of Japan during the early 17th century. It is a tranquil spot in the complex that is visited by fewer tourists, and we enjoyed the chance to take in the peaceful forest scenery surrounded by the weight of centuries of Japanese history.
Having finished our visit to this wonderful piece of Japanese heritage, we descend back through the forest to the main road. But this is by no means the end to our trip to Nikko.
Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls
At the local bus stop we hop on one of the buses headed further up into the mountains, for a visit to Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji. The bus winds its way ever higher, navigating some torturous hairpin bends in the road - nervy drops to the side and awesome views in the distance. And some 40 minutes later, we arrive at our stop - the Chuzenji Onsen bus terminal.
It might be spring already down in Tokyo, but up here in the mountains in early-April winter is still clinging on stubbornly. Even in the middle of the day the temperatures are barely above freezing, and there are still mounds of snow from a recent snowfall visible next to the streets and streams.
Wrapping ourselves up tightly in our scarves and winter coats, we head back down the road a little way to the viewing platform for the Kegon waterfall, just a few minutes on foot.
Views of the almost 100m high falls from the viewing platform are free, and are perfectly decent. For those who would like to experience the rush of the water from a bit closer up, there is also a lift down to the base of the waterfall for a small fee.
From there we make our way to Lake Chuzenji, the highest lake in Japan and the source of the Kegon Falls. Lake Chuzenji was once upon a time a popular choice for ambassadors and visiting foreign dignitaries, and many of the beautiful villas which they constructed around the lake can be visited.
The region remains popular today as both a lakeside summer destination as well as for its many onsen. Since we are here well out of season though, there are few other visitors, and the lake is calm and empty - the rows of summertime swan-shaped paddle boats sitting unused on the beach looking slightly forlorn.
But it is peaceful. The lake is shimmering in the late-afternoon sunlight as birds fly overhead and the wind whistles around us. The lake itself laps at our feet as we wander for a bit along the shore - surrounded by the natural beauty of the mountain scenery and the imposing mount Nantai in the background.
Too soon, it is time to make our way back to the bus terminal, for our return journey back down the mountain to the wonders of Tokyo. This day trip to Nikko has delivered on all fronts, with its impressive temples and mountain scenery, and is a destination well worth considering for anyone with a day to spare during their visit to Tokyo.