Hear Tochigi, see Tochigi, speak (about) Tochigi
Heavyweight cultural heritage combined with a breathtaking natural landscape.
The fact that the awe-inspiring Nikko isn’t the only major attraction in Tochigi says a lot about this prefecture, located just two hours north of Tokyo. It’s a rewarding destination at any time of the year, encompassing all of the features you need for a complete ‘I’m in Japan’ experience. Aside from the shrines and temples, there’s remote hot springs, gorgeous seasonal parks, traditional crafts and a committed approach to the production and consumption of gyoza. It’s an easy day trip from the capital but merits much more.
You shouldn’t and couldn’t ignore Nikko as a stop on your Tochigi travels. The grand Toshogu Shrine is just one of the UNESCO World Heritage Sites that make up the area, part of the Nikko National Park which extends into the surrounding Gunma, Niigata and Fukushima prefectures. This is where the famous warrior Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried and the grand, gilded buildings work hard to provide a suitably stately setting.
You can also spot the ‘three wise monkeys’, relief carvings depicting the proverb of “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil”. You’ll likely have to elbow your way through the tourist route as Nikko is enormously popular, especially for autumn leaves viewing. In Nikko you can also watch painters mastering the art of ‘hitofude ryuu’, using one single stroke to paint the body of a dragon.
For a bit of natural beauty, travel northwest to the Oku-Nikko region to see the Kegon-no-taki waterfall and Lake Chuzenji at the bottom of Mount Nantai. Escape the crowds by heading further to the Nasu highlands, sinking in (relative) silence in one of the hot springs that connect to form the Nasu-onsen-kyo at the foot of the Nasu volcano.
Utsunomiya is the prefectural capital, right in the center of Tochigi. This is also Japan’s gyoza capital, with more than 200 speciality stores plying various versions of the delicious Chinese dumpling – you’ll know you’ve arrived by the gyoza statue in front of the main station. The city mostly functions as a well-connected base but while there you can visit the Oya-ishi quarry ruins underground to see the local Oya stone in its other-worldly glory
In the southwest, mountainous Ashikaga is a beautiful place for witnessing the wisteria in spring. Ashikaga Flower Park has more than 350 wisteria, which are lit up in the evening, as well as the usual wisteria-themed food and drink to ramp up the botanic effect. Over a November weekend, the Coco Farm and Winery hosts a huge wine festival to celebrate the harvest and the last days of sunshine before the winter sets in.