JAPAN 2020: Nikko

Our last destination in Japan was one that had never really been on our radar before planning this trip: Nikko!

We had planned to mostly spend our time in big cities, so we thought it would be appropriate to schedule some time to relax at a hot spring town as well. While we looked into other towns, including Hakone (which, at that point, was still recovering from flooding), we eventually settled on Nikko, as we found a great place to stay and the Tobu Nikko Pass would make travelling there a breeze (not sponsored, just enthusiastic!).

We stayed at the Asaya Hotel in nearby Kinugawa Onsen. While the location was a lot further from the rest of the sights in Nikko than we expected, the hotel was otherwise perfect!

Kinugawa Onsen itself is, for lack of a better word… creepy. The town has definitely seen better days. Quick Google searches explain that the entire town was once filled with bustling hot spring resorts when Japan’s economy was booming, but many went bankrupt when things started to stagnate, and as a result, the entire town has an eerie vibe. On our train ride in, we saw abandoned hotels that were literally crumbling from lack of maintenance, and the train station and roads surrounding our hotel were overrun with weeds. We were definitely apprehensive until we saw Asaya’s bright, modern! neon sign shining above the dark buildings around it.

Asaya had many glowing reviews on the internet, which is why we booked it in spite of its distance from other attractions, and we quickly understood why. Though the hotel’s decor was a bit dated (the abundance of muted pink in the attached pictures illustrate this pretty well), the entire place was very clean and well-maintained. The front desk staff spoke perfect English (a pleasant surprise, as we seemed to be the only foreigners there) and talked us through our bill, which made check-in a breeze and gave us some piece of mind, as the hotel was the most expensive of our lodgings in Japan, by far.

Our room was basic, but we didn’t spend that much time there because there was so much to explore in the rest of the hotel! My favorite amenity, by far, was the rooftop onsen. It was my first onsen experience, so I was understandably a bit nervous about proper etiquette (and being naked!!!) but I was determined to get it right so that I could soak! in relaxing hot water! on top of a building! breathing in fresh air! surrounded by mountains! It was every bit as amazing as it sounded!

My second-favorite amenity had to be the all-you-can-eat-buffet. It sounds so cheesy, especially in a country with so many great restaurants, but it was kind of nice to put the language barrier aside and eat as much as I wanted without having to worry about having an English menu or calling over a waiter every five minutes. (Also, many restaurants close super early in the countryside! Who knew!) (Also, glad I got to enjoy an all-you-can-eat restaurant right before they probably go extinct post-Covid!)

My favorites were the small dishes that came with a tiny candle and a lighter, so you could heat up your hamburger steak (or sukiyaki, or mini udon bowl) right at your table

In addition to the hamburger steak and sushi pictured above, we stuffed our faces with other Japanese food like, tempura, kushikatsu, soba, curry, and even pasta and pizza with options catering to Japanese tastes (that is, fish roe pasta and pizza topped with corn). There was even one of those make-your-own soda fountains, but with Japanese flavors. I probably had enough melon soda to fill a small swimming pool. (I don’t even like melon soda that much, but… do as the locals do, right?)

The hotel had a modest arcade (which had that awesome table-flipping game) and games like table tennis and billiards available, though they were fully booked up. (We were there during school break, and a lot of the other patrons were large groups of high school-/college-aged friends. The kids love their table tennis!) They had karaoke as well, but I chickened out of calling for a reservation because I assumed the desk would only speak Japanese!

At that point in our trip, however, we actually really appreciated having time to just chill out in our yukata, drink some fruity chuhai, and try to make sense of what’s on TV!

The path that leads to each of the different shrines, including Toushougu Shrine (ahead) and Rinnou-ji Temple (to the right)

We spent the sunniest days of our trip exploring the temples and shrines of Nikko! Conveniently for us tourists, they were all located within walking distance of each other, and we were able to visit both Toushougu Shrine and Rinnou-ji Temple before the area closed around sunset.

Toushougu Shrine was probably one of my favorite shrines of our entire trip. The architecture was beautiful, and this is definitely one of those times where pictures don’t do these intricate designs justice.

One of the main draws of Toushougu in general is these carvings! You may recognize them as the “hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil” monkeys.

This cat carving guarded the entrance to the tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu.

We met another tourist, who was nearing the end of his trip, who said that the tomb was his favorite spot from his entire visit! It’s located at the top of a hill and required climbing up 200+ stairs. Though we huffed and puffed the whole way up, the trek was definitely worth it – we were surrounded on all sides by vivid green trees, the crisp mountain air was cold and refreshing in our lungs, and the only thing we could hear was the rocks crunching beneath our (and other tourists’) feet.

We also saw Shinkyo Bridge (though we couldn’t bring ourselves to pay the fee to actually walk across, so we admired it from afar instead).

On another day, we took a bus to Lake Chuuzenji. I was very excited to see the lake, maybe ride a boat across, then drink some coffee at a cafe… but alas, it was raining buckets on the day that we went, most of the businesses up by the lake were closed (presumably because of Covid), and the boats wouldn’t be in-season for another month.

Despite all that, we were still able to visit Kegon Falls! This is another instance of “the pictures don’t do it justice” – we weren’t expecting to be impressed by a waterfall, but the view from the lower viewing deck emphasized the falls’ impressive height. We could see multiple, smaller flows on either side of the main falls as well, and had a great view of the water flowing over rocks and down the mountain. We even wondered if the heavy rain caused the lake and falls to overflow more than usual!

The roads up the mountain to the lake and back down are known as the Irohazaka Winding Road. Bryan briefly contemplated renting a car while we were in Nikko, so we wouldn’t have to rely on the relatively intermittent public transportation, but ultimately decided against it. Driving up this road while riding the bus definitely affirmed our decision! There was even an announcement before going up, in English, that the bus would be swaying back and forth until we reached the top, but we weren’t prepared for how intense that swaying would be! It was an extreme experience, but we were glad to be in the hands of the professional bus driver, who probably navigates that route several times a day, instead of taking on those sharp turns on our own.

Once we were back in town, we walked up and down one of the main roads in Nikko, occasionally dipping into random shops and restaurants to escape from the rain. We took a quick pudding stop (this shop was actually one of the few in Nikko that had other people in it!), then got a couple of mugs of hot beer from Murmur.

I know I say that a lot of things in Japan were “highlights” – but HOT! BEER! was a literal revelation! I even made it when we got back home! Microwave your dark beers, friends!

On our last day in Nikko, we visited Tobu World Square. This was another visit that we didn’t plan in advance, but it was on the way home anyway, and we got discounted admission with our Tobu Nikko passes, so… why not?

In a nutshell, Tobu World Square is a collection of miniature versions of different Japanese and other world landmarks.

One of the displays, with my pointing hand for scale

We had no idea what to expect, or how long we’d be in there, honestly, but it was another strange and happy surprise of our trip. Though we only planned to be there for an hour, maybe, we actually spent close to three hours wandering around the grounds, admiring the little details in each display and taking lots of pictures!

It was actually a fitting way to cap off our entire trip, as we were able to recognize many of the Tokyo displays from our sightseeing the week before.

We were able to “travel” the entire world, including a quick stop back home in New York City…

… cross the Atlantic Ocean to Europe…

… and finally, back to Asia!

Rainy weather aside, Nikko was still a great respite from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo. I would love to visit again someday, maybe finally get to take a boat cruise on Lake Chuuzenji! Or maybe just to soak in the rooftop onsen again! I’m not picky!

I have one last part coming up, with general lessons learned and tips for others who want to visit Japan, whenever we’ll be able to do that again!!!

2 thoughts on “JAPAN 2020: Nikko

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