Natural and cultural brilliance make historic enclave Nikko a must visit on any Japanese itinerary

Nikko in Tochigi prefecture had an early start in Japanese history with the founding of its UNESCO listed Rinno-ji and Futarasan Shrine in 766 AD. Destined for cultural resplendence, the site was chosen as the final resting place for Japan’s last definitive warlord, Tokugawa Ieyasu in 1617.

As the troubled last pages of Japan’s final shogunate unfurled, Nikko received a new lease of life as the preferred summer retreat of the royal circles and foreign dignitaries. Resplendent villas and hotels still stand today receiving guests much like they did in the decades past. These establishments now offer very rare glimpses into the unique dynamism of the old and new influences that shaped modern Japan.

Besides offering brilliant cultural and historical facets that are endlessly fascinating, Nikko is also the gateway to some of Japan’s most alluring natural hideaways - namely Okunikko (Inner-Nikko) and Kinugawa Onsen.

The untamed attractions of Okunikko occur chiefly around Lake Chuzenji. Discovered over 1200 years ago, this highland region is renowned for its natural splendours which include gorgeous foliage in autumn and frozen waterfalls in winter. Kinugawa Onsen is famous for its clear mild thermal water and scenic settings.

It takes just under 2 hours to reach Nikko from the Tokyo Sky Tree station via the Tobu Skytree line. A trip here is quite akin to a travel through time into one of Japan’s best-known cultural hotspots.

Here are some of the best allures of Nikko that are unique to this remarkable city and its stunning surrounds.

Historic Hotels

1. Nikko Kanaya Hotel

Japan’s oldest resort hotel was founded by Zenichiro Kanaya in 1893 and has since received a host of foreign dignitaries the likes of Frank Lloyd Wright, Albert Einstein and Paul Claudel. Operating much like it was, the dust of time has settled richly on this historic property where the decorum of footmen and liveries of a bygone era are still grandly intact here with families that have worked on the property for generations. The large, albeit somewhat staid rooms, mostly come with spectacular views of the mountain.

2. Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel

Nikko Kanaya’s sister property was raised in 1940 by the bank of Lake Chuzenji that is cool in summer but frosty in winter. The property was decorated with the exacting aesthetics of the early nineties, which was the last time this property was fully renovated. The rooms all face the lake through considerable foliage which nonetheless presents a pretty view. There is an outdoor onsen here that offers a warm respite from wintry chills.

3. Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel

Founded by John Kanaya, scion of the Kanaya hotelier family, the Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel is an impressive show of tasteful aesthetics and grand hospitality diffusing dandyism and the refinements of a lost epoch. The luscious suites of this boutique sized property stare out into the river with interiors that are plush yet traditionally attuned. Gentlemen’s preferences are catered to within its cigar salon while indoor and outdoor hot springs present the perfect foil for seasonal chills.

Gourmet Attractions

Main Dining Room, Nikko Kanaya Hotel

The classical French fares here are served with exacting manners by staff dressed in 3-piece tailcoats and maid’s liveries at this experiential establishment that really takes one back. The food here is sublime, with wonderfully assembled creations balanced with just a touch of Zen. The winter menus here include starters of caviar on endive, mains of grilled rainbow trouts and Tochigi Sirloin with Périgueux sauce and desserts of creme brulee, all imbued with wonderfully nuanced flavours and a richness that suited the season well.

Dining Room Mizunara, Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel

This younger looking restaurant may have a brighter and more cheerful interior but espouses the same formal rigours on its staff as its sister restaurant at Nikko. The French menu here is just as classically attuned with a special entree - the ‘hundred years curry rice’ as its signature offered at lunch.

Seiyo Zendokoro John Kanaya Azabu restaurant, Kinugawa Kanaya Hotel

This restaurant’s west-east pluralism on traditional kaiseki has resulted in satisfying treats to the senses as well as a comforting richness to an elegant culinary tradition that can sometimes be a tad too light in the deep of winter. Delightful tartlets initiated the meal with the proceeding courses all featuring the most flavoursome regional produce that are methodically assembled with the best of Japanese and Western techniques. Dinner was followed upon by a coffee and chocolate trolley in the lobby, a genteel touch that is quite rare in the hospitality realm today.

Bar Dacite, Nikko Kanaya Hotel

This charming bar inside the historic Kanaya Hotel is well worth a visit for its unique ambience and traditional yet fancy cocktails. A sitting here goes beyond tipples as the space is crammed with all sorts of aged paraphernalia preserved from the century past.

Sake Making Tour ( )

Sake making is a time honoured industry in Tochigi prefecture and one can have a peek into the secrets of Japan’s favourite spirit at Watanabe Sahei Shoten, the workshop of a family of sake makers who have been honing their craft here for generations. An English speaking guide can be arranged free of charge at the workshop where introductions to sake, from the grading of the grains to the distillation process, can be made.

Cultural Attractions

Temples Traipsing

A trio of shrines and temple, the Futarasan Shrine, the Tosho-gu and Rinno-ji, with a total of 103 buildings and structures between them, make up the UNESCO heritage site of Nikko. Of the three, the most architecturally resplendent is the Tosho-gu, the shrine dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of Japan’s final shogunate. Extensively renovated and enhanced by the shogun’s grandson, Tosho-gu is one of Japan’s most decadently elaborate historic buildings, an endeavour that almost bankrupted the government of its day. The masterful carvings that adorn the gates, doors and roofs are all magnificently wrought, and one should be on a watchout for panels depicting the iconic phoenixes, 3 monkeys and sleeping cat.

Tamozawa Imperial Villa

This elegant museum, once the imperial villa of the Meiji Emperor, is a sprawling wooden complex partially made up of Edo style buildings that once belonged to the Tokugawa family in Tokyo. Extensively renovated and reopened to the public since 2000, one can get an intimate glimpse into the daily life of the Japanese royal family as one steps inside the emperor and empress’ chambers and audience halls of yore that reflect Edo and Meiji era aesthetics and architecturally styles. Comprising 106 rooms, this is one of few remaining large-scale wooden complexes in Japan and is fronted by an elegant garden dotted by the seasonal markers of cherries and maples.

Natural Attractions

Although the temples and shrines of Nikko are all gorgeously melded by the majestic and massive cedars that have shaped the landscape here for centuries, the natural splendours of the region can be better explored at Okunikko where attractions include the scenic views of Lake Chuzenji, the mystical pains of Senjogahara and the sublime beauty of the Kegon and Ryujin falls, which are ethereally frozen in the deep of winter.