I arrived in Nikko well after sun down. A stunning, pink-washed sunset had been quickly replaced by the black night sky. As I got off the train, I breathed in the cool, fresh air. It was good to be back!
The township looked pretty deserted. There was no music blaring from bars, nor people eating in busy restaurants, as you would usually expect on a Saturday night. It was very calm and quiet. The only shop that was open was a convenience store, so I picked up a few things to eat for dinner and headed up the road to my lodgings for the night. My accommodation was a hostel right by the rushing Daiya River. It was so loud it sounded like rain was pounding on the roof. After getting some local knowledge from the owner of the place, I knew I had to be up early to make the most of my one-day to explore. I went to sleep to the sound of the river, excited for the following day.
I’m never one to get up early, so not surprisingly, it was already 8:30am before I was up and on my way. It was probably a blessing in disguise as I had a big day ahead of me and needed all the rest I could get. After picking up a Bus Pass, I jumped on a bus that snaked its way up into Oku-nikko, the hinterland of Nikko. In about 45 minutes, we had ascended roughly 700 metres. My first stop was Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls, the most famous waterfall in Japan.
For the massive waterfall that it is, Kegon Falls was surprisingly easy to get to. From the bus stop, it was a quick 5 minute walk. The upper (free) platform gives you a teasing peak at the top half of the waterfall. It really is worth it to pay for the elevator ride down through the rock to the lower platform where you get a magnificent view of the whole waterfall, plus a few others in the vicinity. With gusts of cold water spraying over us, we stood in awe of the amount of water that was tumbling off the cliff from Lake Chuzenji and smashing on the rocks 97 metres below. Kegon Falls itself has such a grand, powerful presence, yet with all the greenery around it, it also had a softer feel. There’s no doubting its status as one of Japan’s most beautiful waterfalls.
After tearing myself away from Kegon Falls, I had a quick look around Lake Chuzenji, before jumping back on the bus and climbing higher up into the mountains. The next stop was Ryuzu Falls. In Japanese, this double waterfall is called ‘dragon’s head’. Ryuzu Falls is most famous in autumn when the deciduous trees change to red and yellow. Being summertime, the trees were full of green leaves which made for a pretty scene, but at the same time, covered up a lot of the water. A souvenir shop and restaurant sit basically at the edge of the bank, which kind of ruins the atmosphere. In the photo below, I’m standing on the balcony. I was so close I felt like I could have almost touched the waterfall. I would have moved on straight away, but my stomach was telling me it was lunchtime. At least the view from the restaurant encouraged us to slow down and admire the beauty in front of us!
After slurping down a delicious bowl of soba, I was eager to keep going. Above Ryuzu Falls was an intriguing staircase of rocks, the ‘tail’ of the dragon. The water looked like it was flying past on a magic carpet. My immediate thought was that this would make a fun waterslide! This slope was actually created from the powerful force of lava, and you can easily imagine the burning hot liquid crashing down through the trees.
From the top of the falls, a hiking trail follows the river upstream, through the woods and on into the Sanjogahara Marshlands. This area was so unexpectedly gorgeous that it was probably my favourite part of the whole trip. There was waterfall upon waterfall breaking up the cool, crystal clear river. Some waterfalls were like a washing machine, vigorously churning bucketloads of water. Others were gentle and calm, sweeping over the moss-covered rocks.
Above, the trees rustled in the breeze and birds continually called to each other. A few carefree ducks swam by every now and then. There were just a few other hikers that I passed, and each time we greeted each other warmly.
It was just a beautiful place!
After wandering through the marshlands, I decided to catch the bus again, but not before indulging in an ice cream! I bought what was probably the most delicious strawberry ice cream I’ve ever eaten! I’m not sure what ingredients were used, but it was advertised as available for a limited-time only. It could have been the best 300yen I’ve ever spent!
With a satisfied stomach, I hopped on the bus and made my way to Yudaki Falls. Like most of the waterfalls in Nikko, Yudaki flows down a rock cliff created from the lava flow of a nearby volcano. From the top of the waterfall, the Yugawa River seems to just drop off the earth and vanish! It was a little scary. The waterfall surges down at a steep 45 degree angle. As you walk down the zigzag stairs along the side of the waterfall, you can really feel its strength and force. Nothing can get in its way!
From Yudaki Falls, Yumoto Onsen was a 15 minute hike away. The final stop for me. Yumoto Onsen sits on the northern shore of Lake Yuno where there were many fishermen in boats and families playing at the water’s edge. It’s almost 1,500 metres above sea level, so a little breezy and chilly. There were numerous times when I thought I should get my jacket out of my backpack, but managed to get by without it. In winter, this town actually turns into a ski resort!
The town is made up of 22 hot springs and had that distinct smell of sulphur, although it wasn’t as strong as places like Beppu in Oita. The milky-white water is believed to have healing powers as well as being good for beauty (skin). There’s only one thing to do in an onsen town: get in the water! I found a ryokan that had an outdoor hot spring bath and soaked for an hour so, giving my body the relaxation it desperately needed. It was the best way to wrap up an incredible day.
I’d spent 5 hours getting from Nikko town to Yumoto Onsen. The return trip, past Lake Yunoko, Yudaki Falls, the marshlands, Ryuzu Falls, Lake Chuzenji, down the mountain and back to reality, was just 75 minutes. An unusually talkative young Japanese guy sat next to me on the bus, and I had a great 3-hour conversation with him, all the way back to Tokyo in fact!
The final descent on the winding Irohazaka Road gave us a spectacular send-off. A little Bambi even came out to greet us. She dashed onto the road, and the bus slowed down to avoid hitting her! Then she proceeded to prance up the road, past 3 or 4 other cars, before realising it was not a good idea to be there.
Oku-Nikko is a waterfall paradise; a treasure for nature lovers; a wilderness escape up in the clouds; and in my opinion, one of the prettiest places in the world!