The resplendent autumn colors of Nikko

By Vicki L Beyer

We've all heard the adage: "Don't say 'kekko' (enough) until you've seen Nikko."

This is all the more true in autumn, when Nikko is ablaze with color. Yes, there are beautiful autumn colors to be found across Japan, but in Nikko you can enjoy them completely in nature, or as they complement (and are complemented by) man-made structures. While it is possible to visit Nikko as a day trip from Tokyo, in this season, it is advisable to plan to spend at least two days.

The World Heritage-listed shrines and temples

The Toshogu/Futarasan Shrine complex and Rinno-ji Temple received World Heritage recognition in 1999. While the temple has more than 1,200 years of history as a center of Buddhist asceticism, the shrines are more recent, being affiliated with the Tokugawa family that ruled Japan from 1603 to 1854.

Visits to the complex often begin from Shinkyo, the sacred bridge across the Daiya River at the bottom of the valley. For most of the year, the gracefully arched bridge with its deep red color, sits in contrast with the green of the hillsides that form its backdrop. In autumn, russet and gold tones join the evergreens, to provide a more subtle surrounding for the bridge.

Proceeding up the hill, visitors encounter first Rinno-ji Temple. Although the main temple is currently undergoing restoration, it is still possible to enter, and even to view some of the restoration efforts. Be sure to stroll through Shoyo-en Garden, which features a number of fine maples that are brilliant red in this season, as well as other trees featuring autumn foliage. Through Nov 15, the garden is open and floodlit from 4:00 to 8:00 pm, for an extra opportunity to enjoy the views.

Higher up the hill is Toshogu, which is celebrating the 400th anniversary of its establishment this year (2015). Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the dynasty, personally chose this as the site where his spirit would be enshrined. There are more than 40 buildings on the site, including gates, cloisters, sub-shrines, storehouses, and even a stable for the sacred horse. The buildings are all opulently decorated, including by some of the most famous carvings in Japan, such as the three monkeys of "see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil" fame, and the sleeping cat. Most of the trees on the mountainside are evergreen, which actually draws even more attention to the foliage of the deciduous trees.

Facing Toshogu's main gate, visitors can proceed up the road to the left to reach Futarasan Jinja. Also sitting on the mountainside amid the autumn colors, the various shrine structures present different shapes and colors to be appreciated in this season.

Tamozawa Imperial Villa

Built as a summer retreat for Crown Prince Yoshihito, who later became the Emperor Taisho (1912-1926), this imperial residence was renovated and opened to the public in 2000. The house itself comprises 106 rooms and 13 atria. Visitors are permitted to wander through about half of the structure, often including the second and third story rooms used by the current emperor when, as crown prince, he was evacuated here during World War II. The house is fascinating, but in this season, particularly enjoy the views from the house into the atria and the garden, where many of the plants and trees have changed color for the season.

It is also pleasant to stroll through the garden to enjoy the autumn leaves. In the lower part of the garden visitors can even see the entrances of bomb shelters left over from the war years.


The section of the Daiya River below the imperial villa is a gorge known as Kanman-ga-fuchi. It is really only accessible from the other side of the river, and is a very pleasant stroll. The wild water water plunging through the gorge can be mesmerizing, but another fun feature of the walk is the "narabi-jizo," a line of sitting Jizo statues, most covered with green moss and sporting red caps and bibs. It is said that if you count them on the way up and again on the way down you will be unable to obtain a consistent count.

Waterfall Walks

Being situated in a mountain valley as it is, there are lots of waterfalls in Nikko. Two that are short hikes (less than an hour each) up the mountainside across the road from the imperial villa are Urami Falls and Jakko Falls. Jakko Falls is a series of seven falls cascading down the mountainside, while Urami Falls is a single 45 meter falls over overhanging rock. A boardwalk allows visitors to actually walk behind the falls as well. Although of course the falls contain less water in the autumn than during other seasons, both falls are spectacularly framed by autumn foliage.

Lake Chuzenji/Kegon Falls

The mother of all waterfalls in Nikko is the 97-meter-tall Kegon Falls, which pours out of Lake Chuzenji, a volcanic lake high above the town of Nikko that was created during an eruption of Mt Nantai some 20,000 years ago.

The lake is accessible from Nikko by car or bus, ascending and descending on one-way roads comprised of a series of 48 hairpin curves known as the "Iroha-zaka." Being that much higher in elevation than the town, the autumn leaves are also that much more spectacular. Fair warning -- because of the beautiful foliage, the Iroha-zaka is known to have traffic jams in the autumn. Most people would say any inconvenience is worth it.

When visiting the falls, be sure to take the elevator down to the foot of the falls to appreciate its full splendor.

The lake is about 25 kilometers in circumference with a hiking course all the way around. Sightseeing boats offer an opportunity to get on the water and view the fall colors from a different angle.

Nikko is easily accessible by public transportation from Tokyo (either JR or Tobu railway lines) in just over two hours. There are buses from the JR and Tobu train stations to Shinkyo (10 minutes), Tamozawa Imperial Villa (15 minutes) and on to Lake Chuzenji (40-50 minutes).

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More than 20 years in Japan, and never made it to Nikko. One of my few regrets about being there.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It's beautiful, but best avoided during the main school trip seasons - sooooo many people.

1 ( +1 / -0 )

It is beautiful, but the two photos accompanying the article aren't very impressive!

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