World Heritage Site Nikko & Kegon Waterfall Tour Report!
On 3 September 2008 I tried one of our Sunrise Tours for myself, and visited Nikko and Kegon Falls! Leaving from Tokyo, I got to experience all of the natural beauty of Nikko National Park, Kegon Falls, Lake Chuzenji, and the history of Nikko's Toshogu Shrine. Considering the pickup service, large lunch, and English guide, this was a great deal for only JPY 13,500!
(1) The big green sign is easy to spot!
(2) The Sunrise Tours counter is on the right immediately after heading down the stairs into the bus terminal. Check-in was easy - I just had to say my name!
(3) After checking in I was given my bus ticket and a sticker, and I was handed a JAPANiCAN fan too!
*Pick-up service is also available from 42 different hotels in Tokyo, as well as Tokyo Station. (Pick-up times and details are here)
I always get excited whenever I ride on a big bus! The tour guide cheerfully directed us to our seats.
Using the expressway, it took about three hours to get to Nikko. During the ride, our tour guide explained to us the history and significance of Nikko, and had plenty of pictures for us to see. To give everyone another taste of traditional Japan, she also passed around pictures from her Japanese-style wedding ceremony!
The highlight of every long car trip or bus ride has to be the highway service area! Lunch wasn't until 2:00 p.m., so our guide advised us to grab a quick snack. In Japan, highway service areas are much more than a fast food chain and a gas station quick shop. They showcase local culinary specialties (the soft serve ice cream was very popular!) and craft products (great for souvenirs!) and give everyone a taste of the local culture. We stopped in Sano, Tochigi Prefecture, and even just sitting on the bus I felt refreshed!
The main attraction of our tour was the UNESCO World Heritage Site Toshogu Shrine. Looking at all of the exquisitely ornate carvings, I was amazed to think of all the carpenters, painters, and sculptors who must have gathered at Nikko in the Edo period. The guided tour around the shrine lasted about 30 minutes. Our guide told us the stories behind the Three Wise Monkeys who hear, speak, and see no evil, the five story pagoda, and the Howling Dragon located within the shrine. If you stand underneath the Howling Dragon and clap the wooden paddles together, the reverberations from the floor and ceiling combine into a ringing sound like a bell. I was happy I stayed with the group to learn from our guide!
Unfortunately, the main sacred hall was undergoing renovations, so we were only able to see half of it. But, I did feel lucky to get a chance to see and appreciate the skill of one of the craftsmen applying lacquer to the shrine.
After the main hall we had an hour of free time. According to the guide, there are still many different things to see around Toshogu Shrine. As for me, although it was my third time to Nikko (I've been once before in elementary school, and once with my friends three years ago), I had never seen the famous Nemurineko (Sleeping Cat) carving, so I knew where I was going!
Nestled among peony flowers and dozing away in the warm rays of the sun, the cute little cat carving was inspired by the name "Nikko" which literally means "sunlight." (The shrine complex where the Nemurineko carving is located requires a separate entry fee not included in the tour price, JPY 520.) After passing through Nemurineko's gate and climbing the 200 steps beyond, I reached the mausoleum of the Tokugawa Clan. The remains of Ieyasu Tokugawa, who ushered in the Edo Period of Japan's history, are enshrined here. It was interesting to hear the history of such a great man earlier on the bus, and it made visiting his grave even more meaningful to me.
If you have about 10 minutes left, I definitely recommend Rinnoji Temple, located right next to the bus parking lot!
By the time 2:00 p.m. rolled around I was famished from all of my exploration! We all boarded the bus and went to a restaurant located down the hill. Vegetarian options were available, and our guide took all of our orders before we left the bus. The menu included a dried tofu and vegetable stew, spinach in a sesame dressing, salad, tempura, udon noodles, rice, pickles, and an orange.
After lunch our bus started the climb up Iroha Hill, a mountain road famed for its 48 hairpin curves carved through deep foliage. The twisting roads draw in hordes of leaf-gazers every fall as the entire mountain is consumed with blazing reds and yellows. The name "Iroha" comes from the fact that the number of curves is equal to the number of characters in the Japanese alphabet, each curve named after one character. The equivalent in English would be "ABC Hill." Climbing up the hill, we were all led in a rousing Japanese alphabet sing-along by our tour guide until we reached Lake Chuzenji at the top.
A cool breeze blew across our lofty position as we took in the view of the lake, refreshing us. Everyone did as they pleased during the short 15 minute break at the lake, strolling along the pier, relaxing on the benches, or admiring the beauty of the famously deep lake.
After leaving Lake Chuzenji, we climbed further up Iroha Hill to the most famous of Nikko's 48 waterfalls, Kegon Waterfall. This was the last stop of our tour. Surrounded by expansive nature, my breath was taken away by the power of the waterfall crashing into the pool below.
Leaving Kegon Waterfall, this time we zigzagged down the Iroha Hill road, and then back to Tokyo on the same expressway from the morning. There were two drop-off points, either at Shinjuku Station's West Exit, or Sukiya Bridge in Ginza. Our guide came by and checked with each passenger to make sure they knew how to reach their hotel from the drop-off points, and to chat about what sights they would be seeing the next day. At 7:30 p.m. we reached Shinjuku, and then at 8:00 p.m. Ginza, and our tour was over.
I had a great time talking with travelers from around the world, and with our wonderfully kind guide. I hope you will also take the chance to experience so much history, culture and beauty on our Nikko & Kegon Falls Tour!