Nikkō (日光) is a small town to the north of Tokyo, in Tochigi prefecture.
A famous Japanese saying proclaims Nikko wo minakereba "kekkō" to iu na. Most tourist literature translates this as "Don't say 'magnificent' until you've seen Nikko", but there's another dimension to this Japanese pun: it can also mean "See Nikko and say 'enough'."
Nikko is above all known for the mausoleums of the Tokugawa Shoguns, which have made it onto the UNESCO World Heritage List. Unlike most Japanese temples and shrines, the buildings here are extremely gaudy and ornate, with multicolored carvings and plenty of gold leaf, and show heavy Chinese influence. Some sense of dignity is restored by a magnificent forest of over 13,000 cedar trees, covering the entire area.
The fastest and most convenient way to access Nikko is on the private Tōbu Nikkō Line (東武日光線)  from Tokyo's Tobu-Asakusa station.
Tōbu Railway runs all-reserved limited express services, known as Tokkyū (特急) trains, to the area. These trains, which use Tobu's "SPACIA" railroad equipment, have comfortable, reclining seats, with vending machines available on most trains. One service, called Kegon (けごん) runs directly from Asakusa to Nikko in the morning, and back to Asakusa in the afternoon. There is one daily departure from Asakusa at 7:30 am, and depending on the season, there may be an additional departure at 9:30 am. The other service, Kinu (きぬ), departs from Asakusa more frequently, but branches off to Kinugawa so you will need to transfer at Shimo-Imaichi station (下今市) to a local shuttle train for the final 10-minute run to Nikko. This train is timed to meet the Kinu arrival. Both the Kegon run, and the Kinu run with transfer, take about 1 hour and 50 minutes.
Regular direct trains, which depart from Asakusa about each hour, cost ¥1320 each way. Rapid, or Kaisoku (快速) trains, take two hours; the slower Section Rapid, or Kukan-Kaisoku (区間快速) takes 2 1/2 hours. You must board one of the first two cars, since the train divides en route.
In addition, Tōbu Railway offers two convenient passes for Nikko, which can be used only by visitors to Japan.
All Nikko Pass allows unlimited buses and train access in the Nikko and Kinugawa area and includes some discounts for nearby attractions, but does not include entry to the shrines. Valid for 4 days, cost ¥4400. Recommended for visitors coming to see Nikko's lakes and falls.
World Heritage Pass covers a round-trip to Nikko and Kinugawa and includes admission to the shrines. Valid for 2 days, cost ¥3600. Some discounts for Kinugawa Theme Park are also included.
These passes can be booked online. For ¥1000 extra, you can get reserved seats and travel on the limited express services.
Travel by JR costs more and takes longer, and isn't really worth considering unless you have a Japan Rail Pass, in which case you can take the Tohoku Shinkansen (Yamabiko, Max Yamabiko, Tsubasa or Nasuno) from Tokyo Station or Ueno to Utsunomiya (50 minutes or 44 minutes, respectively), then connect to the JR Nikko line (43 minutes from Utsunomiya to Nikko). From Tokyo Station, the whole trip will take from about 1 hour 40 minutes to around 2 hours, depending mostly on the connection in Utsunomiya.
By JR and Tobu
In March of 2006, JR East and Tobu began joint limited-express service from Shinjuku station to the Nikko area.
This service offers one daily round-trip between Shinjuku and Tobu-Nikko station. The Nikko limited express departs Shinjuku at 7:12, and makes stops at Ikebukuro and Omiya, then continues via JR tracks to Kurihashi station, where control of the train is turned over to Tobu. Operating over the Tobu Nikko line, the train then makes three more stops before terminating at Tobu-Nikko. The one-way journey lasts about two hours.
Other limited express trains depart Shinjuku for Kinugawa, so you will have to transfer to a shuttle train at Shimo-Imaichi for the final run to Tobu-Nikko. This also takes about two hours. This service is all in addition to Tobu's regularly-scheduled Kegon and Kinu service into and out of Asakusa.
Seat reservations are mandatory, and the fare for this journey is ¥3900 each way. Japan Rail Pass holders can use this train service for ¥1560 each way (covering the portion of the trip between Kurihashi and Tobu-Nikko).
If you plan on taking this service in both directions, consider the JR Tobu Nikko Kinugawa Free Pass (¥7800), sold to Japanese and foreigners alike. Valid for three consecutive days, it includes one round-trip on the joint JR/Tobu limited express service and unlimited travel on local Tobu trains and buses within that area. It does not include admission to the Nikko temples.
Both stations are about two kilometers to the west of the shrine area. You can take a bus, or walk for about 20-30 minutes, following the pedestrian signs along the main road. Halfway between the stations and shrines, you can stop at a Tourist Information Center to get maps, ask questions (some English spoken), use the Internet (¥100/30 minutes), and quench your thirst with water from a small, ladle-drawn waterfall.
View of Shoyoen, Rinnoji Temple
A variety of tickets and passes are available to those travelling to Nikko:
It's best to buy a combination ticket (社寺共通拝観券, ¥1,000) that covers Toshogu, Rinnoji and Futarasan, as separate admissions are ¥600 each. You can buy this at any of the three sites.
Shinkyō (神橋). This much-photographed red bridge separates the shrines from the town of Nikko. In feudal times, only the shogun was permitted to cross the bridge, and even today it's barred from pedestrian traffic — although there's a 4-lane highway rumbling right past. After scaffolding in 2004, the bridge can now be admired in full again.
Tōshōgū (東照宮). The burial place of dynasty founder Tokugawa Ieyasu and the most extravagant of the lot. Ieyasu was buried here immediately after his death, but the present complex was only built in 1634 on the order of his grandson Iemitsu. The shrine took 2 years to complete with 15,000 people working on it.
After two flights of steps you will reach the Sacred Stable, housing a white horse. The most famous symbol here is the carving of the Three Monkeys, who "hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil". You can also find an interesting approximation of an elephant, carved by an artist who had clearly never seen one.
Yakushi-dō Hall (薬師堂), the Hall of the Medicine Buddha, is known for a dragon painting on the ceiling. According to legend, if you clap your hands here the echo sounds like a dragon's roar.
Yomei-mon Gate (陽明門) is an incredibly ornate gate with over 400 carvings squeezed in.
To the right of the main hall is the way to Ieyasu's tomb, entry to which costs an extra ¥520. Look out for another famous carving, this time of a sleeping cat (nemuri-neko). There are 200 stone steps and then you finally reach the surprisingly simple gravesite itself.
Taiyuin-byō (大猷院廟). After completing Toshogu, Iemitsu himself was buried here. Smaller in scale (but not by much), this is generally held to be artistically superior to its predecessor.
Rinnō-ji Temple (輪王寺). Known for its three large Buddha figures, the real reason to visit is the beautiful and peaceful Shōyō-en Garden (逍遥園). Note that the garden charges a separate ¥300 admission, which also gets you into the temple's treasure hall (宝物殿 Hōmotsuden).
Futarasan Shrine (二荒山神社 Futarasan-jinja). Directly to the west of Toshogu and the oldest structure in Nikko (1617). The shrine is dedicated to the spirits of Nikko's three holy mountains Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho and Mt. Taro.
Nikko National Park offers plenty of hiking opportunities.
A short walk from the center of town will get you on a strenuous but rewarding hiking trail to the summit of Mt. Nakimushi (鳴虫山 Nakimushiyama). Allow a few hours for a return trip.
Adventurous hikers might want to take the city bus to Matō, down National Route 122 in the far southwestern corner of Nikko city territory, in order to hike to Akagane Shinsui Koen (Copper Hydro Park), billed as Japan's Grand Canyon, as pollution has killed all the trees and left the valley bare. The infamous Ashio copper mine was located nearby. (See Kiryu for details.)
Aside from the usual good luck charms at the shrines and souveneir shops selling phone straps of Hello Kitty in local dress there are several interesting secondhand shops along Hippari Dako selling used kimono, antiques and knick knacks.
Yuba, the 'skin' that forms on top when making tofu, seems to be everywhere in Nikko. Even if you're not a fan of tofu, it tastes pretty good, especially with soba (buckwheat noodles in a soup broth). Yuba is also one of the most typical edible omiyage from Nikko.
Hippari Dako (on main street just before the shrines). Enshrined in Lonely Planet, every other foreign tourist to Nikko seems to stop here for yakitori (Japanese chicken kebabs) and noodles, so you might as well join the crowd. Every available space is plastered with business cards and scribbled recommendations from visitors. Their menu contains several vegetarain options as well. Dishes ¥500 and up.
Nikko can be covered in a busy day trip from Tokyo, but it's also a good place to spend the night, especially in a traditional Japanese ryokan guesthouse. The shrines are quite atmospheric early in the morning and at dusk, when the tour buses are not around.
Daiyagawa Youth Hostel (大谷川ユースホステル). Tel. 0288-54-1974; . A cosy and very friendly place which can be a bit narrow at times, but it's the obvious choice for budget travellers with ¥2730 for a bunk bed. The owner is very hearty and is happy to lend guide books and answer questions. Either walk about 10 minutes uphill on the main street or take the bus to the tourist information centre, from there take the first right and follow the road up the river for a few minutes. It's a bit tucked away and directly at the Daiyagawa river.
Catnip Bed & Breakfast (キャット二ップ). Tel. 0288-54-3120; . This comfortable family-run B&B is a fair hike from the station but the 40 minute walk is beautiful and the owners promise you a free beer on arrival. Alternatively you can take the #6 bus or arrange to be picked up from the station. The rooms are spacious and charming, with shared bathrooms. A bargain at ¥5000 per adult or ¥4000 for children for the first night, there is a ¥1000 discount for each subsequent night and a hot breakfast is included in the price. The owners speak fantastic English.
Nikko Park Lodge 2828-5 Tokorono. Tel. 0288-53-1201; . This laid-back, friendly lodge is located about twenty minutes' walk from the town center, although the owner is happy to provide rides to and from the train stations (and to the temple area in the morning). There are twin, double and four-person rooms at ¥3990 per person. English is spoken. The lounge has comfortable sofas and a warm stove for the winter. Although most of the rooms have showers, there are lovely Japanese-style hot baths on the first floor. Zen yoga classes are offered every morning at 7AM for ¥300. A simple breakfast is ¥395, but the vegan 'zen' dinner (¥1500, reservation required) is a culinary knockout. Parking is available.
Tōkansō (東観荘). Tel. 02-8854-0611; . A well-located ryokan used to English-speaking guests, the flip side is the large size and consequently impersonal service. Rooms start at ¥9450 per person.