Autumn has never looked this good.
Given the best of both worlds, nature and natural history, it’s no wonder that Nikko’s name is derived from the kanji characters for sunlight. Packed with spectacular UNESCO World Heritage Sites set against a backdrop that showcases the very best of the seasons (in autumn it’s like stepping into a billboard promoting travel to Japan), Nikko is a shining gem.
The red-lacquered Shinkyo Bridge spanning the Daiya River is a sight linked to the legend of Nikko’s founder, Buddhist priest Shodo Shonin.
The tale recounts how the traveling priest managed to cross the fast-flowing river on the backs of two giant serpents on his way to Mount Nantai. Shrouded in myth, this sacred footbridge has been reconstructed multiple times but continues to retain its original architectural design from the 17th century. You’ll spot it on every postcard, guidebook and kitsch keyring. This is #classic Japan.
Crossing Shinkyo Bridge, there’s a small yet dynamic gorge with intriguing rock pools formed approximately 7,000 years ago. After an ancient eruption near Mt. Nantai, the Kanmangafuchi Abyss is lined with nearly 70 stone Jizo statues, the guardian of children and travelers, and stretches 100 meters along a gorgeous riverside trail. Alternatively known as Bake Jizo, or “phantom statues”, the number of figures appears to change for each person who counts them along the path.
Just opposite lies the Nikko Botanical Garden, exhibiting a variety of 2,200 plant species both owned and operated by the University of Tokyo.
While the garden is undoubtedly a marvel in spring when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom, a carpet of fallen leaves among autumn-tinted alpine trees and golden maples is a vivid contrast of colors that’s practically edible.
From central Nikko, Rinno-ji Temple—the first temple founded in 766 by Shodo Shonin—is accessible on the Tobu Bus from Tobu Nikko Station. There, the Sanbutsudo Hall (Three Buddha Hall) enshrines three carved, gold-lacquered statues of seated Buddhist deities: the Amida Buddha, Senju (thousand-armed) Kannon, and the Bato (horse-headed) Kannon.
The small Edo-period Japanese garden called Shoyo-en on the temple grounds is well worth a visit, especially in the first half of November. The garden is also illuminated in the evening at the end of October to mid-November giving visitors a chance to see the red leaves lit up in fiery hues.
Further uphill, the most famous temple of Nikko is always abuzz with tourists. Toshogu Shrine is intricately ornate with decorative woodwork. Most famed for the Three Wise Monkeys, the shrine is a work of art synonymous with the power of the Tokugawa shogunate.
Nearby, the modest tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu is Futarasan Shrine at the top of Mt. Nantai. Dedicated to the spirits of Nikko’s three holy mountains: Nantai (male), Nyotai (female), and Taro (their mountainous offspring), it’s believed to benefit those looking for their perfect match.
Explore the tree-lined slopes of Mt. Nantai and the neighboring mountains surrounding Lake Chuzenji to see the colors of autumn from mid to late October. Ryuzu (“Dragon’s Head”) Waterfall is another of the first spots for early fall foliage.