Mystical Nikko is a small, historic city perched on the edge of Nikko National Park, in Tochigi Prefecture. The area’s most famous attraction is Toshugo, an opulent shrine that dates back to 1616 and the final resting place of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founding ruler of the Tokugawa Shogunate, or Edo Period. Toshogu, along with Nikko’s other significant temples and shrines, led to the designation of the town’s spiritual structures as a collective UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999.
However, Nikko is as much known for rich natural beauty as it is for cultural heritage, with verdant landscapes and rolling hills comparable to the British Lake District and European Alps. Nikko is a sacred land with a long legacy of both Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship, and visitors are still drawn in by the region’s natural landmarks; scenic lakes, steaming hot springs (and therefore, charming onsen towns), roaring waterfalls, and majestic peaks – fringed with azaleas in the summer and fiery autumnal foliage in the fall.
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The vast and heavily decorated Toshogu Shrine honors Tokugawa Ieyasu as the deity Tosho Daigongen (The Great Deity of East Shining Light), and is comprised of around a dozen buildings, set within lush forest. The abundance of wood carvings and gold leaf differentiate Toshogu from the simplicity of traditional Japanese temples and shrines. Treasures of note include a five-storey pagoda, a carving of the “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” monkeys, and the gilded Yomeimon Gate, which is perhaps Japan’s most ornate structure.
Pooled at the base of sacred Mount Nantai, Lake Chuzenji was created when a volcanic eruption from Nantai blocked the valley below, around 20,000 years ago. The sapphire-hued lake has a surface area of 4.5 square miles and can be explored via cruises that depart from Chuzenjiko Onsen on the lake’s eastern shore, a road trip along the Chuzenjiko Skyline up to observation points, as well as on foot with a 15.5-mile hike around the lake’s circumference.
The most famous of Nikko’s many waterfalls and one of Japan’s Three Great Waterfalls, Kegon’s cascades plummet 318 feet from Lake Chuzenji into the valley below. The falls are arguably most impressive in mid to late October, when koyo (fall foliage) is at its peak, but are also a sight to behold in the winter, when the waterfall freezes solid.
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