An easy two hours by train from central Tokyo, Nikko has for centuries offered foreigners and Japanese travelers alike a breathtaking escape from city life.
Located in Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is one of Japan’s most resplendent autumn destinations, thanks to its dazzling tableau of colored leaves and superlative waterfalls, but the area’s historical, natural, and Instagrammable places make the trip attractive in every season.
Nikko’s headliner is the magnificent Nikko Toshogu Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Cultural Site. The sacred premises were constructed to honor Ieyasu Tokugawa (1543-1616), the shogun who united Japan, initiated a 260-year-long stretch of national peace, and established Edo (the former name of Tokyo) as the center of Japan’s government. It is said that Ieyasu had no special connection to Nikko during his lifetime, but wished to be enshrined in a place to the true north of Edo, under the North Star, from which propitious location he could continue to seek world peace. The second Tokugawa shogun, Hidetada, dedicated the shrine to the memory of Ieyasu in 1617, and it is a lavishly decorated tribute to one of Japan’s most important historical figures.
Visitors to Toshogu find themselves dwarfed by the massive stone torii gate at the shrine’s entrance and greeted by the fragrance of ancient cedars. Climbing stone steps brings into view a 36-meter-tall, five-storied red pagoda (rebuilt in 1818 after a fire destroyed the original 1650 structure), decorated with carvings of Chinese zodiac figures. Thanks in part to its mountainside location, the pagoda actually reaches the same elevation as Tokyo Skytree® tower, a lofty 634 meters above sea level. In fact, Skytree was built using many of the same construction techniques, such as a central pillar, that offer pagodas in Japan lasting stability.
Many who explore Toshogu Shrine are greeted by the lively and brightly decorated carvings which cover the surfaces of the buildings and walls. Toshogu is visited, at one time or another, by nearly all students in Japan, and these school excursions have ensured the carvings are known throughout the country. A famous example appears in a series of carved panels adorning the outside of the shrine’s sacred horse stable. The eight panels illustrate the life stages of three “wise” monkeys. Panel #2 in the series depicts one monkey covering his ears, another covering his eyes, and a third covering his mouth, illustrating the advice Japanese parents often offer their children: “Hear no evil, see no evil, and speak no evil.”
The next and most elaborate structure at the shrine is the Yomeimon Gate, also known as Higurashi no Mon (the Sunset Gate), suggesting that people can happily gaze upon it from morning until dusk, without getting bored. It is a massive structure, supported by carvings of dragons, lions, and mythical protective beasts, but observed from below, the gate gives the illusion of being as weightless as bird wings in flight. Recently restored with paint and gold, the over 500 carvings, including peaceful scenes of scholars and children playing, are meant to represent the blessings of an era without war.
Finally, nearly everyone who visits Toshogu goes in search of the nemuri-neko, a surprisingly diminutive carving of a sleeping white cat at the gate entrance to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb. Said to represent a world “as peaceful as a sleeping cat,” the theme is reinforced by a charming carving on the gate’s reverse, of frolicking and fearless sparrows.
While a visit to Toshogu can easily consume an entire day, there are two other religious sites nearby to entice travelers: the Nikko-zan Rinno-ji Temple, and Nikko Futarasan Jinja Shrine all add to the grandeur of the World Heritage Site.
En route to or returning from Nikko, two additional Tochigi attractions appeal to nature-lovers and photographers from around the world: the bamboo forests of Wakayama Farm, and the floral fantasy land of Ashikaga.
One of the country’s great bamboo forests, the Wakayama Farm Four Seasons Bamboo Forest is located between Utsunomiya JR station and Nikko. It is 60 acres in size, less crowded than both the famous groves of Kyoto or Kamakura, and boasts roots in land owned by the Wakayama family for 350 years.
About a century ago, Zenzo Wakayama took his university degree in modern agriculture, raising bamboo shoots and chestnuts for consumption. His son, Yukio, continued in his father’s footsteps, but also harvested bamboo for building purposes. The introduction of plastics and petroleum products decimated the livelihoods of many of Japan’s bamboo growers, but current CEO Taro Wakayama refused to give up. Taro decides to focus less on bamboo’s utility and more on the material’s aesthetic quality, which can transform a dull urban landscape into something warmer, more beautiful, and sustainable.
Though Wakayama Farm raises 15 different kinds of bamboo, visitors can stroll through and learn about four unique varieties. One is the Kinmei Moso bamboo, which has elegant golden culms marked with a distinct vertical green stripe on alternating nodes. Inside the grove, light comes filtering through as a magical golden glow. Another variety, Kikko bamboo, is named for its culms that grow at bent angles, reminiscent of turtle shells. This type of bamboo is the favorite haunt of tiny green frogs, who perch where the joints break open.
Guests at the farm can enjoy nighttime light-up events, and can even reserve overnight stays camping on a hammock suspended above the delicate bamboo root system. Green tea served in bamboo cups and accompanied with a delicious homemade chestnut sweet, boxed lunches featuring bamboo cuisine, and bamboo craft experiences are also available with advance reservations.
Situated between Nikko and Tokyo, the Ashikaga Flower Park is a Tochigi must-see in spring, when the park’s 350 wisteria trees and 5,000 azaleas burst into blossom. What began as a local farmer’s wisteria tree which grew luxuriously and garnered fame, has burgeoned today into a massively popular tourist spot with its own new train station, gift shops, restaurants, and year-round attractions, including one of Japan’s top three winter night light-up events.
Four of Ashikaga Flower Park’s wisteria trellises are designated as natural monuments of Tochigi Prefecture. Two feature trees nearly 160 years old, which spread out 1,000 square meters. Another has extra-long hanging flower clusters up to 1.8 meters in length. In addition visitors can enjoy an 80-meter-long wisteria tunnel with white flowers, which is also designated as a natural treasure of Tochigi Prefecture, as well as yellow wisteria blossoms.
From peonies to spring tulips, summer roses to irises, and hydrangeas to autumn water lilies, each season is celebrated in rich fields of colorful flowers at Ashikaga. When winter arrives, from mid-October until mid-February, the enthusiastic workers at Ashikaga install tiny lights, each shaped to mimic a wisteria flower. The lights are hung below the actual wisteria branches, so as not to harm the trees, and the effect is extremely lifelike. Adding a more child-pleasing effect, the entire park is lit up by an enormous LED fairytale castle as backdrop.
Employee Himika Hayata says that Ashikaga Flower Park is unique in that visitors can enjoy flowers reproduced with light and real flowers together. The illuminations, created by flower professionals with great attention to detail, will surely impress and amaze guests.
Article written by Kit Pancoast Nagamura
Ashikaga Flower Park
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