In days past, the Taisho Emperor used to come to mountainous Nikko to escape the heat of Tokyo's summers. But the emperor's loss can be your gain: Nikko is positively gorgeous during the winter, and with plenty to do, see and eat, it should be on your list of must-see destinations come the snowy season.
Conveniently, Nikko is a short distance from Tokyo, making it an easy day trip. From Asakusa Station in Tokyo, Nikko can be reached in under two hours by using the silky-smooth "Spacia" limited express train on the Tobu Line.
But what can you do there? Plenty.
- The city's most famous attraction is the Shrines and Temples of Nikko. The collection of UNESCO World Heritage sites can be enjoyed year-round, but takes on a special beauty in the snow. On a warm, sunny day in January, crowds were miniscule compared to the swarms of tourists that take over the area come summer. A winter visit can give you the authentic experience of what Nikko ought to be: a mountainside wonder to be enjoyed in peace and contemplation. (see photo gallery)
- Foodies, you're in luck, too. The Nikko region has a local delicacy perfect for winter. The streets are lined with shops and restaurants serving yuba, a healthy and delicious food made from the skin of heated soy milk. Yuba is found in many, many forms, but its most popular is in a nice bowl of hot noodles: ramen, udon, or soba, which is a great way to warm up on a chilly winter's day. (see full article)
- For something a little faster paced, check out a professional ice hockey game. The Nikko Ice Bucks are a member of Asia League Ice Hockey and face off against teams from around Japan, China, Russia, and Korea. Their fanatical supporters rock the Nikko Kirifuri Ice Arena from September through the end of February, so be sure to check the game schedule to see when they're playing. (official site)
This quaint hot spring town is a bit off the beaten path, so use that to your advantage this winter.
- The town is built around a sulfurous natural hot spring that was discovered in the eighth century, and you can't go 10 meters in any direction without finding an incredibly relaxing hot spring bath (onsen). These aren't inner-city baths with hot water pumped in - this is the real McCoy, coming straight from the earth. There are numerous public onsen (as well as foot baths) available, including some incredible outdoor baths (rotenburo) with scenic views of the snowy backdrop of the town. Most hotels and ryokan (for example, here) provide free hot spring access to their guest.
- The incredible Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival is held during January and February, and is on the must-see list. Jaw-dropping ice sculptures are housed in igloo-like snow domes called kamakura. The intricacy of the ice statues is stunning. The festivities are set off by a beautifully coordinated LED light and music display at night, which turns beautiful art into a surreal, dream-like experience. Best of all, the festival is free. (see full article)
- In the 8th century, Priest Shodo (the founder of Nikko) discovered the natural hot springs in this area, and they have been taken advantage of ever since. In the corner of town, you can visit the Yunodaira Marsh, the fountainhead of the hot springs, where you can see boiling puddles forming on the ground. As the town's tourism depends on the onsen, it makes sense that there is a Hot Spring Temple (Onsen-ji) next to it, which is very pretty in winter. Keep your eyes peeled around this area, as wild monkeys are often spotted running around. (see full article)
- Make use of the area's incredible natural beauty. During the winter, the ski and snowboard slopes of the Nikko Yumoto Ski Area are open for business and are just a short walk from the center of town, with plenty of rental shops around. Depending on snowfall, there are also plenty of incredible hiking trails leading in all directions, including around the bordering Lake Yu-no-ko, to many of the nearby waterfalls, and up the mountains.
The best way to get to Nikko from Tokyo is to take the Tobu Skytree Line to the Tobu Nikko Line. The Spacia limited express train - which is as smooth as an airplane ride but ten times more spacious - can get you there from Asakusa in a cool hour and 50 minutes. Budget travelers can get there in about two hours and 40 minutes by taking the rapid or section rapid trains along the same route. Traveling around Nikko and Yumoto Onsen (via the beautiful Chuzen-ji Lake) can easily be done by the well-organized bus system running through the area, which is also operated by Tobu. Consider one of Tobu's unlimited-use passes to save time, money and hassle. Passes can be purchased at the Tobu Sightseeing Service Center in Asakusa Station, where the staff speaks excellent English and can help you plan your trip.