Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture
Nikko not only hosts my favorite must-see World Heritage Site in all of Japan, it’s home to two eye-popping theme parks—one that lets you wander around an authentically recreated samurai village dressed as the period character of your choice, and another that seems like it would be the acme of camp, but turns out to be astonishingly impressive. And it’s all just an easy weekend trip from Tokyo!
#1 Attraction: The Nikkō Toshōgu Shrine
There’s no greater “power spot” in all of Japan than the Nikko Toshougu Shrine, which combines the good luck abode of a dragon, the tomb of the mightiest shōgun of all time, and the World Heritage Site seal of approval.
This shrine delivers pristine gold-and-red goodness at the highest level.
It boasts a gorgeous five-story pagoda, with mossy lanterns galore
You can see the original hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil, see-no-evil monkeys
And hunt down a few lovely easter eggs, like the furry elephants with claws (carved by someone who obviously had never seen a real elephant)…
…and the famously elusive sleeping cat.
It’s also where the shōgun to end all shōguns—Ieyasu Tokagawa—is buried. His solemn tomb is as grand and awe-inspiring as you might expect.
#2 Attraction: Tōbu World Square
Nikko is home to the fabulous theme park that’s entirely landscaped in bonsai trees and where you can visit over a hundred miniature world monuments in a day
In case you don’t remember from the last Japanagram, the models at this place are so amazing that if you do an online image search with a photo of one, it’ll deliver pictures of the real landmark.
Endless entertainment is provided by the 1:25 scale figures populating the famous scenes (easter eggs galore, if you look closely!)
And the quirky moments in time the model-makers chose to illustrate
But the most amazing fact is that the landscaping around the 1:25 scale models is alive, and perfectly trained to match the buildings. How they cultivate so many bonsai on such a grand scale is one of the great mysteries of Japan.
(More amusing easter eggs and photos of this incredible place are here.)
#3 Attraction: Edo Wonderland Nikkō Edomura
And finally, set aside a day to immerse yourself in samurai life at Edomura, an entire town built to look like it would have during the three hundred years when the samurai ruled Japan.
Staff members dress in period clothing
And you can too! There’s a place right near the entrance where you can rent the costume of your choice and walk around in it for the day to make your visit even more immersive (and Instagrammable)! If you’ve ever longed to be a samurai lord, a ninja assassin, or the world’s most desirable geisha, now’s your chance.
They have tons of costumes to choose from, but here’s a small sample of roles for men, women and children:
Costumed or not, every building houses something interesting, and many showcase how traditional Japanese crafts were made and used.
There are also two theaters, one for live performances, one showing a constant stream of shorts about geisha, oiran, ninjas and Edo Period life. All the movies and stage shows are included in the price of admission.
In addition to the jail and other rarely-documented Edo town life spots, there’s a highly entertaining “ninja trick house” where the angles are so deceiving…
it’s genuinely hard to walk through it while keeping your balance
And all of this entertainment is within a short train ride from central Nikko, which is a charming town filled with restaurants, inns and hotels at every price range, framed by a bridge that’s a destination photo in itself.
Here’s where Nikko is:
And here’s a closer look to show where the main attractions are:
How to get to Nikkō from Tokyo:
Here’s the website where you can reserve and pay for tickets on Tobu railway express lines (the Kegon and the Spacia are the ones you might see recommended, depending on when you decide to leave Tokyo). The rest of the trains can be boarded with your Suica or PASMO transit card.
I used the Japan Navigation phone app to figure out this route, and you can easily use it too, with your actual date and preferred arrival time. It’s also good for finding the easiest way to get to Tokyo Station from where you’re staying. Here’s where to get the app and how to use it.
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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, produces the monthly Japanagram newsletter, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had
2 thoughts on “Time travel to a samurai village, check out Westminster Abbey, then swoon over the most opulent golden shrine in Japan”
Aw, man. Hiroshi took me to Toshogu and the waterfall for one of our first dates and it was wonderful but I never did make it to Tobu Square of Edo Wonderland. Someday….
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My sistah! I never seemed to make time to see those weird theme parks because the Toshogu Shrine is so good at expanding to to fill all the time. Kind of envious that you have such a great memory associated with it!