Apart from the UNESCO World Heritage temples and shrines, Nikko is also well known for its natural scenery. The bus ride from Nikko to Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) took about 40 minutes. The journey passed through the town of Nikko along the river. After about half an hour, the bus began to climb up the Irohazaka Winding Roads (いろは坂) west of Nikko. As the bus zigzagged up the 48 turns of Irohazaka Winding Roads (いろは坂), we decided to get off one stop before Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) at Akechidaira Ropeway Station to visit the Akechidaira Lookout. Akechidaira (明智平) can be reached by a two-hour uphill hike from Lake Chuzenji, or a 3-minute gondola ride. Akechidaira offers an spectacular overview of three iconic scenic features of Nikko: Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖), Mount Nantai (男体山), and Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝). We stayed at the lookout for about 15 minutes to appreciate the peaceful scenery, then took the ropeway back down and continued the last bit of our bus journey to Lake Chuzenji. From the bus station, we followed the road signs to the nearby lookout of Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝). Almost 100m in height, Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝) is the most spectacular waterfall in Nikko, and one of the most famous falls in the entire Japan.
We hopped off the bus at the ropeway station below Akechidaira (明智平) Plateau. Unfortunately the weather was not as beautiful as earlier in the morning.
The Akechidaira Ropeway was first operated in 1933.
The lookout is about 86m above the ropeway station.
The ropeway ride took about three minutes.
During the Autumn, Akechidaira (明智平) is a highly popular spot to see the fall colours.
The lookout offers an almost 360 degrees view of the surrounding scenery.
Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) lies right in front of us at the lookout.
In front of Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) and at the foot of Mount Nantai (男体山), we could see the beautiful Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝).
Unfortunately the top of Mount Nantai (男体山) was hidden behind the clouds.
We stayed at the lookout for about 15 minutes. There wasn’t too many people and we had a brief and peaceful time to admire the scenery.
Then we took the ropeway back down to the station, and hopped on the next bus for Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖).
The most important sight near the bus station of Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖) is undoubtedly Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝).
With a drop of almost 100m, Kegon Waterfall (華厳滝) is an impressive waterfall. It serves as the only exit for Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖).
Every visitor who comes to Nikko would be impressed by the century-old cedar forests surrounding the shrines and temples. What looks like a natural forest is in fact partially orchestrated by people 400 years ago, creating what we now called the Cedar Avenue of Nikko (日光杉並木), a 35.41km tree-lined path with 13,000 Japanese Red Cedar. The Cryptomeria tree (Sugi), also known as Japanese Red Cedar, is the national tree of Japan. We didn’t walk the Cedar Avenue of Nikko, the world’s longest tree lined avenue in Nikko, but instead, had our own close encounter with the magnificent cedar trees in a along the Takino’o Path. We came across the Takino’o Path from online research. For about an hour, the trail led us through its tranquil cedar forest and peaceful Shinto shrines. We began our journey from the Futarasan Shrine, passed by the Takino Shrine (瀧尾神社) and ended at the Sacred Bridge of Nikko, the Shinkyo (神橋).
The trail head of Takino Path was right beside the forecourt of Futarasan Shrine.
The trail passed by the the Taiyuin and Futarasan Shrine.
A few minutes later, we arrived at a small shrine by the path. It reminded us of Kumano Kodo, where we enjoyed a few days of hiking on the Kii Mountains of Kansai.
For a very long day hike, some visitors would climb the Mount Nyoho (女峰山, 2,465m).
The cedar forest soon got denser.
Along the trail, we could closely the centuries old Japanese Cedar.
Along the way, many old cedar trees were very photogenic.
After the crowded and relatively noisy experience at the Toshogu Shrine, only five minutes into the trail brought us to a completely opposite world of tranquility and lush green.
After about half an hour of leisure walking, we were soon approaching the Takino’o Shrine (瀧尾神社) in the forest.
After walking up the hill of Takino’o Shrine (瀧尾神社), we passed by a number of atmospheric small shrines.
Kaji Sadayoshi, a supporter of Tokugawa Iemitsu, built the Undameshi No Tori (運試しの鳥居). Like many visitors, we tested our luck by throwing a pebble through the hole between the two horizontal members of the tori gate.
Certain parts of the trail were covered with historical paving stones.
The Kodane Stone (子種石) behind an old tori gate near the Takino’o Shrine is believed to have the power of child birth.
On our way back out of the forest towards Shinkyo (神橋), we passed by Kannon Do Shrine, the Shrine of Safe and Easy Delivery of Child or Kyosha-do (香車堂).
After a little over half an hour, we returned to the main entrance of the World Heritage Shrine and Temple Park.
Across the street from the UNESCO World Heritage plaque, we finally reached the Shinkyo (神橋), the Sacred Bridge of Nikko.
We didn’t pay the admission fee to walk onto the Shinkyo (神橋). We walked over to the nearby bus stop for a ride to Lake Chuzenji (中禅寺湖). Beside the bus stop there was an interesting telephone booth made of a recycled gondola.
Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康), was the third shogun of the Tokugawa dynasty. Somewhat modest than Ieyasu’s final resting place, Iemitsu built his mausoleum less than ten minutes of walk away from Toshogu Shrine (東照宮). Unlike the tightly packed Toshogu Shrine, visiting Iemitsu’s Taiyuinbyo Shrine in Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺大猷院) was much more relaxing. There were only a handful of visitors during our visit. Despite the renovation scaffolding here and there in preparation for the anticipated visitor influx during Tokyo Olympics 2020, we had quite a tranquil and delightful moment as we wandered in Taiyuinbyo Shrine, a sub temple of Rinnoji Temple. We thought of visiting the other UNESCO world heritage temples and shrines in Nikko, such as Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺) and Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社), but changed our mind when we saw renovation scaffolding here and there. Toshogu and Taiyuinbyo were the only two temples and shrines that we ended up visiting.
A pebble path with stone lanterns led us from the forecourt of Toshogu Shrine (東照宮) to the entrance gateway of Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社).
The Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社) is an important Shinto shrine in Nikko inscribed in the World Heritage along with Toshogu Shrine (東照宮) and Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺).
Other than the main hall and a number of shrines in the complex, the iconic Sacred Bridge (神橋 shinkyō) of Nikko also belongs to the Futarasan Shrine.
We didn’t go into Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社), but passed by the Haiden (拝殿), the Hall of Prayers, a few small shrine pavilions and a stone lion at its forecourt.
From Futarasan Shrine, we found our way to Taiyuinbyo Shrine, a sub-temple belonged to the Buddhist Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺). The Taiyuinbyo Shrine is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光), the grandson of Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康).
Similar to other major temples and shrines in Nikko, Taiyuinbyo Shrine also had its share of renovation scaffolding when we were there.
A long flight of stair led us to the main platform of Taiyuinbyo Shrine.
Approaching the core area of Taiyuinbyo Shrine was like entering into a spiritual venue in the embrace of tall cedar forest. The Yasha-mon (夜叉門) was the first splendid architecture we saw without scaffolding at Taiyuinbyo.
There are four Yaksha (夜叉) statues at the Yasha-mon (夜叉門): white, red, blue and green. Yaksha is nature spirits and guardians of natural treasures.
Not as extravagant as the Toshogu Shrine, Taiyuinbyo Shrine does have its fair share of rich carvings and architectural features.
Like Toshogu Shrine, gold and vivid colours are often used in the shrine design.
One big advantage of visiting Taiyuinbyo Shrine was its minimal number of visitors. Unlike the super crowded Toshogu Shrine, we pretty much had Taiyuinbyo all by ourselves during most of our visit.
Without the new golden and colourful paints, the screens at Taiyuinbyo Shrine looked even more natural than the ones at Toshogu Shrine.
The colour gold can be found on a number of shrine facades.
The final resting place of Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光) looks quite modest compared to his grandfather’s mausoleum.
The complex was quite empty and the sky seemed about to rain. We followed the visitor path and walked around the shrine one last time.
The bronze lanterns in front of Yasha-mon (夜叉門) appeared like chess on the board.
We had the shrine pretty much all by ourselves.
At last, we returned to Niomon (仁王門), where two fierce Niō (仁王) guard the entire shrine complex.
140km north of Tokyo, Nikko (日光) is one of the most popular excursion destination out of the Japanese capital. Dotted with onsen villages, ancient cedar forests, scenic waterfalls, turquoise lakes and lush green mountains, the magnificent piece of landscape is also the final resting place of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康), the founding shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate from 1600 until Meiji Restoration in 1868. The Shinto mausoleums of Tokugawa Iayasu and his grandson Tokugawa Iemitsu (徳川家光) in Nikko are part of “Shrines and Temples of Nikkō” inscribed in the UNESCO’s World Heritage in 1999. These historical sites draw huge crowds of visitors daily to the otherwise sleepy hilltown of Nikko.
There were so much to do and see in Nikko but we could only do a very long day trip this time. We booked the earliest direct train, Tobu Railway’s Revaty Limited Express leaving Tokyo’s Asakusa Station at 06:30, and the last return train leaving Nikko at 19:18, leaving us about 11 hours in Nikko. We also got the Nikko All Area Pass, which covered our local bus fares in the Nikko and Chuzenji Lake area and discount on the Tobu train tickets. We planned to check out the shrines and temples in the morning, and then visit the scenic Chuzenji Lake (中禅寺湖) and Kegon no taki (華厳の滝, Kegon Waterfall) in the afternoon. As soon as the Revaty train pulled into Nikko Station at around 08:20, we were excited to see the beautiful weather.
Our journey to Nikko began from Tobu Asakusa Station (浅草駅), a monumental terminal building constructed in 1931.
In order to take the 6:30 Revaty Limited Express, we had no choice but to get up early and left Shibuya at about 5:30.
The train arrived in Nikko at around 08:20. We hopped onto a Tobu bus in front of Nikko Station for the nearby temple and shrine area. Attempting to avoid the crowds later in the day, we decided to first visit Toshogu Shrine (東照宮), the single most popular attraction in Nikko.
Toshogu Shrine is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Tokugawa Shogunate that ruled Japan for 250 years until Meiji Restoration in 1867. Because of its historical significance, the shrine is highly popular among local Japanese. After a short walk along the procession route, we entered through Ishidorii (Stone Torii Gate), a beautiful timber gateway erected by the powerful feudal lord Kuroda Nagamasa, into the shrine complex.
Despite our early arrival, the Toshogu Shrine was already full of student groups and tourists. We passed by a group of students below the Gojunoto (Five-Story Pagoda) as we entered the complex.
We entered the central complex through Omotemon Gate (Front Gate) or Nio Gate that is guarded by a pair of Nio (仁王) guardians.
Once entered the forecourt, we could already appreciate the meticulous relief carvings and vivid architecture features on the Sanjinko (Three Sacred Storehouses). Toshogu presents quite a contrast compared with most other Shinto shrines that are usually minimalist in design and natural in colour tones.
At the forecourt, the Shinkyu-Sha, the sacred horse stable, houses a real horse. This comes from the tradition made by early emperors who would donate to the Kibune Shrine in Kyoto either a white horse to stop the rain in a rainy year, or a black horse to welcome the rain in a dry year.
The front facade of the Shinkyu-Sha, the sacred horse stable, featues the Sanzaru (Three Wise Monkeys) on eight frieze panels depicting ordinary lives of people. The most famous panel is undoubtedly the adorable “See No Evil, Speak No Evil, Hear No Evil”.
Beyond a large tori and a flight of steps is the Yomeimon Gate (陽明門), the gate of setting sunlight.
With 500 beautiful wooden carvings, the Yomeimon Gate (陽明門) is considered by many the most impressive gate in Japan.
The impressive Yomeimon Gate represents the Main Gate of the Imperial Court in the entire complex.
As far as the legend goes, Yomeimon Gate is also called the “Gate of the Setting Sun” because visitor can gaze upon it all day without getting tired.
Impressive decorations at the gate includes a golden lion housed in a niche.
And a lot more that depict anecdotes, legends, wise people, sages, etc.
Another famous feature at Toshogu is Nemurineko, the tiny carving of the sleeping cat on the beam of a hallway. A work by master carver Hidari Jingorou, the napping cat under the warm sun is a depiction “Nikko”, which literally means “sunlight”. It marks the entry point of the path that ultimately leads to the final resting place of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康) on the hill.
Taking the earliest direct train from Tokyo and came to Toshogu immediately upon arrival, we thought we could enjoy a bit of peaceful time at the highly popular shrine before the tourist groups came. That totally didn’t happen as the shrine was already full of student groups when we arrived. Walking up to visit the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康) was not a peaceful journey at all.
Just a few minutes of short walk led us to the hill platform of the mausoleum. Compared to the shrine buildings downhill, the mausoleum carries a more harmonic relationship with the natural surroundings.
The bronze urn on the hill contains the remains of Tokugawa Iayasu (徳川家康), the most powerful shogun of Japan before the modern era.
The calligraphic sign Tōshō Dai-Gongen (東照大権現) near the mausoleum is attributed to Emperor Go-Mizunoo (後水尾天皇) from the 17th century.
The curved archway of Karamon Gate (唐門) symbolizes the authority of the Gohonsha Main Shrine Hall behind. Despite the renovation scaffolding, we were able to enter the hall as a group to have a peek of the space where events and festivals would be held annually.
Small alleyways of tiny izayaka (居酒屋) and eateries situated a block or two away from train stations, yokocho can be found in many districts in Tokyo. From 6pm to sunrise, yokochos offer a relaxing venue for drinks and snacks after work. We knew it would be chaotic, cramped, noisy, and messy, but we loved to have a yokocho (橫丁) experience during our Tokyo stay. We picked Ebisu Yokocho, a popular indoor alleyway just a block away from Ebisu Station. Since 1998, Ebisu Yokocho has successfully converted the declining Yamashita shopping centre into a popular venue for food and drinks. Just like other yokocho, eateries in Ebisu Yokocho serve different Japanese cuisine, from sashimi to yakitori. As soon as we entered the covered alleyway, we were overwhelmed by the smell of cigarette, sake and grilled meat in the air. Entering from the relatively dark and empty street, the warm and crowded yokocho felt like a completely different world. We were lucky to find a table available at one of the eateries. The food wasn’t as cheap as we thought, but the experience of enjoying beer and small dishes of Japanese food in a crowded alleyway was pretty interesting.
The main street entrance of Ebisu Yokocho is just a block away from Ebisu Station (恵比寿駅).
It was about 20:00 when we arrived at Ebisu Yokocho. It was still early in the night but the place was already quite packed.
Most visitors were locals, but there were also some foreign tourists enjoying the local cuisine and sake. There is however no English menu at the eateries and most staff don’t speak English.
Most yokochos in Tokyo are outdoor. Ebisu Yokocho on the other hand was established in the former Yamashita Shopping Centre.
Many visitors seemed to be groups of colleagues having a break after work.
The yokocho was cramped and noisy, but the atmosphere was energetic and fun.
There are two other entrances from side streets into Ebisu Yokocho.
Slot window and a wall mural illustrating the floor plan of Ebisu Yokocho.
Colourful neon signage of the eateries.
A man walked by the colourful side entrance of Ebisu Yokocho.
Only 15 minutes of walk separates Nakameguro (中目黒) and Daikanyama (代官山), two pleasant residential neighborhoods close to Shibuya and Ebisu. Last year in 2016, I made my first visit to Daikanyama, and was immediately captivated by its elegance as an upscale residential and shopping area. This time, we ventured further south towards Meguro River into the neighborhood of Nakameguro. While Nakameguro is not as established as Daikanyama, its charm as a hip and lovely residential and shopping area has become quite well known to both the locals and foreign visitors. Our stroll in Nakameguro and Daikanyama began at Higashi-yama Restaurant, where we had a fine lunch. Then we found our way to the Meguro River, a canal like waterway that used to be an awful stream filled with industrial waste before the 1980s. The fate of Nakameguro changed its course after the government cleaned up the river in the late 1980s. Since then the first group of hipsters moved in, and soon trendy cafes, boutiques and residential developments mushroomed along the Meguro River, and gradually transformed the area into one of the most desirable residential neighborhood in Tokyo. We walked along the river and stopped by a number of shops, before heading over to Sarugakucho (猿楽町) of Daikanyama for a revisit of the magnificent T-Site and the nearby boutiques. Literally means “monkey fun town”, Sarugakucho of Daikanyama is a popular spot in Tokyo simply to enjoy life: unique fashion boutiques, coffee shops, bookstores, hair salons, organic vendors, furniture and design shops, etc.
The Meguro River seems like a canal with peaceful and clear water.
As the government cleaned up Meguro River, the character of Nakameguro was completely transformed into a pleasant residential neighborhood and a concentration of interesting shops, cafes and restaurants.
Many shops along Meguro River are catered to serve the immediate community of local residents, such as hair salons.
Or local eateries…
Considered as one of the star attractions in the area, COW Books in Nakameguro has a charming collection of rare and out-of-print books.
Blue Blue, a unique clothing store owned by Seilin & Co. Hollywood Ranch Market selling a wide range of garments that combines traditional indigo dyeing and contemporary fashion.
Over at Daikanyama, shops are more concentrated in a clusters of narrow streets of Sarugakucho near T-Site, the famous Tsutaya Bookstore and its garden of shops. UES Jeans is a small boutique that sells high quality denim. They believe a garment should be fully used till the end of the product’s life. The name “UES” is derived from the word “waste”, with reference to the Japanese habit of reusing old clothes for dust cloths at the end of the garment’s life.
Designed by architect Akihisa Hirata in 2007, Sarugaku is a cluster of six commercial blocks surrounding a valley-like courtyard in a narrow site.
At Sarugakucho, we couldn’t resist to check out Okura (オクラ), one of the most popular boutiques in the area. Under the same mother company as Nakameguro’s Blue Blue, Okura is renowned for their garments that perfectly combine traditional indigo dyeing and tailor techniques with contemporary fashion trends and functions.
Maison Kitsune is another unique boutique in Sarugakucho. Maison Kitsune represents a success story of international collaboration. It is founded by French electornic musician Gildas Loaec and Japanese architect Masaya Kuroki, in an attempt to create a brand under the intertwining influences of music and fashion. “Kitsune” is the Japanese word for “fox”, representing a character of versatility and the power of changing appearance.
Our brief afternoon walk of Daikanyama ended at the T-Site, the garden retail complex behind Tsutaya Bookstore.
Other than Tsutaya Bookstore, the stylish restaurant Ivy Place is the main focus in the T-Site.
At the T-Site, the primary attraction is definitely the Tsutaya Bookstore. It was our second time to visit this beautiful bookstore. Similar to my first visit a year ago, we were delighted to find that every corner of the complex was enjoyed by customers of all sorts.
To us, Tsutaya and the T-Site represents an ideal venue to spend a Sunday afternoon.
It was getting dark as we left Daikanyama. We leisurely walked back to our hotel in Shibuya to take a little break before dinner.
After Ebisu, our next stop was Higashi-yama Restaurant in Nakameguro (中目黒). In a quiet residential street in Higashi-yama 15 minutes walk from Nakameguro Station, Higashi-yama Restaurant was well hidden from the street. We came across this restaurant from our online research. We were attracted by the minimalist food presentation and the atmospheric interior setting. We reserved a table for lunch through their website two weeks prior to our departure. After the traditional Kaiseki experience at Ueno Park the day before, we were hoping that Higashi-yama would offer us a contemporary interpretation of Japanese cuisine. “A detached house located in Higashi-yama, Meguro-ku, Tokyo, away from the clamor of the city, and be a place where people meet and discuss what matters most to them, a place where new communication is born.” According to the description on their website, the story of this tranquil spot in Tokyo’s Higashi-yama where people come and chat and enjoy modern Japanese food all began in 1998. Our experience of Higashi-yama began at a narrow stairway off the street.
A flight of steps led us away from a residential street up to a hidden courtyard.
Well hidden from the street, the entrance courtyard offers a serene buffer between the street and the restaurant. The courtyard served well to decant our souls of hastiness and calm down our hearts (as we were almost late for the booking).
The interior of the restaurant is simple and unpretentious, with traditional Japanese dark timber millwork in a bright and simple setting.
A tall shelf displaying wine and sake anchors one corner of the interior.
Wood is such an important material in Japanese culture, from table, chopsticks to chopstick holders.
The appetizer consisted of eight ingredients fresh to the season.
Both the taste and the beautiful presentation of the food matched with the overall ambience of the restaurant.
One of the main dish we ordered was the grilled snapper.
The other main we chose was the tempura seasonal ingredients.
After the tasty appetizers and main dishes, we were led by the staff downstairs via a beautiful and modern stair.
The water feature by the stairwell seems like a contemporary interpretation of a chōzubachi water basin in front of a zen tea house.
We were led to a comfortable sitting area for dessert.
Mocha pudding and mango ice-cream came went well with hot Japanese tea.
An interesting copper sculpture was mounted on the wall over our head.
Opposite to our sitting area, a staff was preparing tea and chatting with another customer by a high counter.
After dessert, we paid the bill and were led to exit the building through a copper door directly back to the street. Overall, Higashi-yama Restaurant offered us a fine experience, with good food to satisfy our taste-buds and a zen and minimalist environment to sooth our souls.