I arrived in Nikko early in the morning, having been assured by the guidebooks that I would want an entire day to explore the area. Once again, the guidebooks were wrong. It was supposedly a short walk from the train station to the World Heritage site, so I set off on foot. The directions were simple enough: head straight down the town's main thoroughfare, and you'll bump right into the National Park. At least the guidebooks got that much right. Unfortunately, the walk wasn't what I'd call short, and it was uphill the entire way. Given the amount of walking at the World Heritage site, the smart option is to save your energy and take the bus.
The town itself has seen better days. Many of the buildings were run down and there was no shopping to speak of. Although there were a few restaurants, none looked promising. I recommend packing a lunch or picking something up at the train station before you head off. In contrast to the lackluster town, the mountains in the distance were beautiful, so I had high hopes that things would improve once I reached my destination.
My first disappointment came at the Shinkyo (Sacred Bridge). It's rumored to be one of the most beautiful bridges in Japan, but its charm was lost on me. The river and gorge are lovely, but the bridge itself has seen better days. For a small fee, you can cross the bridge, but everyone seemed to bypass that option and photograph it from a distance. In spite of being a bit blah in person, it photographed beautifully. You'll have to trust me that the camera somehow worked wonders.
The World Heritage site just past the Shinkyo was teeming with tourists. Everyone from schoolchildren in bright yellow helmets to businessmen in navy suits was dutifully following flag-waving tour guides and snapping pictures. It was the most crowded tourist area that I visited during the entire trip. I will admit that I might have enjoyed the experience more if the site had been less crowded, but I'm not sure the style of the buildings (red lacquer with gold and black trim) would ever resonate with me.
In a nutshell, there are a series of temples, shrines, and masoleums and one surprisingly cool pagoda all done in the same style. Some might find it exuberant, but I found it gaudy. There were cool statues here and there, but the combination of carving, gilding, and lacquer caused so much sensory overload that it was hard for anything to stand out.
One of the more famous sights is the carving of the three monkeys who "see no evil, speak no evil and hear no evil". They're one of a series of monkey carvings, and it's anyone's guess why this one caught the public's imagination.
The lovely forest around the site was one of the highlights of my visit. The leaves were beginning to turn, and the tall, peaceful cedars were a needed contrast to the bustling tourist sites. I had too many blisters (and too little patience) to venture very far into the park. In retrospect, I think my time would have been better spent there than at the World Heritage site. Live and learn.
Should you decide to visit Nikko in spite of this not-so-glowing review, some tips to remember are:
1) Take the bus. Seriously. Take the bus. Your feet will thank you.
2) Pack a lunch.
3) Wear comfortable shoes.
4) Buy the 1000 yen combination pass when you first enter the site. This is such a great deal that I can't imagine anyone wouldn't take advantage of it. It grants you access to all of the major buildings and costs the same or less than a ticket to one of the temples alone. Inexplicable, but a great deal nonetheless.
5) Consider bringing a tripod. The forest is thick, and the light is perpetually bad.
6) Get there early in the day to beat the crowds. I arrived mid-morning along with many tourist buses. If I had it to do over, I'd have made a push to get there when they opened at 8am.
7) If you only have time for one day trip from Tokyo, consider Kamakura over Nikko. Details forthcoming!
Shinkansen = awesome!