NIKKO, Oct 16 — If spring in Japan is the season for renewal, then autumn is surely one for reflection and remembrance. Nowhere else in the Land of the Rising Sun is this more relevant than in Nikko, located 125 kilometres from Tokyo and famed for its holy shrines and autumnal foliage.
When folks visit Nikko, it’s usually to the Nikko National Park. This national park in the Kanto region includes both the UNESCO World Heritage site of “the Shrines and Temples of Nikko”, near the town of Nikko, as well as the natural splendour of scenic Okunikko, the mountainous region of Nikko to the west. Here you will find lakes, waterfalls, streams, marshlands and endless trails for lovers of hiking.
The season for viewing autumn leaves or momijigari in Nikko stretches up to three months, from late September to late November. Therefore, Nikko is a far more forgiving destination for “hunting” autumn leaves — momijigari is a combination of momiji (“maple leaves”) and gari (hunting”) — as the landscape of riotous colours travels slowly from the mountain peaks down to the valley.
If you’re arriving earlier in the season, start in Okunikko. The highest point here would be Mount Nantai, a 2,486-metre high volcano often covered with mysterious mists. The adventurous hiker can attempt tracing the trail to its peak; expect to climb for about four hours and cover four kilometres before you reach its summit.
Those who are less athletic may prefer to wander the flatter, more forgiving marshes of the Senjogahara Plateau. At an elevation of 1,400 metres above sea level, Senjogahara is one of the largest marshlands in Japan. Whilst flowers cover the marshes during summer, during autumn it becomes a field of gold. There are sturdy wooden walkways for visitors to explore the marshes, alive with the songs of wild birds and the gentle trickling of streams.
Further down Mount Nantai is Lake Chuzenji, which was supposedly formed by an eruption of the volcano 20,000 years ago. At 1,269 metres above sea level, Lake Chuzenji is one of the highest lakes in Japan. Expect serenity mixed with a healthy dose of kitsch; you can often find kawaii (Japanese for “cute” or “adorable”) swan-shaped boats upon its placid waters.
Fans of waterfalls shouldn’t miss two stellar specimens at Okunikko. The Kegon Falls is considered to be one of the three great falls of Japan. Its 97-metre drop is jaw-dropping. The Ryuzu Falls, on the other hand, is distinguished by how its thunderous stream diverges into two smaller ones by a large rock. Both waterfalls are dramatic reminders of the powerful forces of Nature.
Visitors to Nikko later in the momijigari season may opt to focus on the Nikko World Heritage Temples and Shrines area near the town centre. The line between town and temples is clearly delineated by the iconic Shinkyo Bridge over the Daiya River. This sacred bridge leads pilgrims into Nikko, considered by many to have been founded by the Heian-era Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin. According to ancient records, he crossed the Daiya River in the year 766 and built the Shihonryuji Temple (later renamed Rinno-ji Temple).
Shodo Shonin was also the first person to climb Mount Nantai and explore the Lake Chuzenji. At the great lake, he was said to have carved a thousand-armed statue of Kannon (the bodhisattva of mercy in Japan, known in Chinese-speaking countries as Guanyin) from a single gigantic katsura tree.
Truth or myth, there’s no doubt that without Shodo Shonin, who passed away in the year 817, there would be no Nikko as we know it today — a pilgrimage site of temples and shrines. Today his visage watches over devotees and tourists alike; everyone enters the Nikko World Heritage Temples and Shrines site passing by his statue, erected in recognition of his contributions to Buddhism in Japan.
Take your time to explore the Shinto shrines (Toshogu and Futarasan-jinja), Buddhist temple (Rinno-ji) and mausoleum (Taiyuinbyo). The juxtaposition of religious architecture with autumnal foliage is sublime. All over, different trees such as maple (kaeda), ginkgo (icho), larch (karamatsu), beech (buna) and zelkova (keyaki) are stunning with their fiery branches of red and orange, copper and gold.
Taiyuinbyo is the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa Shogunate. Here you will find the Nitenmon, the largest gate in Nikko. “Niten” means “two gods”, a reference to the deities Jikokuten and Koumokuten who stand guard at the gate. Next door, at the Futarasan-jinja shrine, an enormous torii gate catches the eye of all those who enter.
The extravagantly decorated Toshogu Shrine — all covered with ornate carvings and gold leaf — is not a single structure but a complex of over a dozen different shrines and buildings. Fret not; its sprawling effect is subdued by the beauty of its surrounds. Nowhere else in the world has a nation better captured the idyll of sacred spaces nestled away inside fairytale forests.
Finally drop by the Rinno-ji Temple, the heart of Nikko given its history. Wandering around its Japanese-style Shoyoen Garden, one can’t help but wonder if the venerable Shodo Shonin once walked here too. Whether he enjoyed the view of the small pond framed by maple trees. What thoughts he had as he observed the drifting leaves of momiji floating on the pond’s surface. Autumn is a season for reflection, as we’ve said, and Nikko is a wonderful place for it.