About 100 km north from Tokyo is Tochigi Prefecture, blessed with various destinations such as the World Heritage site Nikko, picturesque highlands, and long-established hot springs. Particularly, this time of year with snowy winter scenery and then the cherry blossoms in spring are fascinating. Here are some recommended places in Tochigi.
Two shrines and one temple (Furatasan Shrine, Toshogu Shrine, and Rinno-ji Temple) and the surrounding ruins in the “Nikkosannai” area are designated as a Unesco World Heritage site. The area is about five minutes by bus from Nikko Station. The religious architectural structures and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Edo Shogunate, are highly valuable treasures.The vermilion-lacquered bridge at the entrance to the area is Shinkyo (Sacred Bridge), a beautiful arched bridge-a fitting entrance to the sacred spot of Nikko. Historically, Nikko Futarasan Shrine was dedicated to Mt. Futara (also known as Mt. Nantai) as its sacred mountain. The 1-km stone path leading to the detached Takinoo Shrine from the back of the main approach goes through the woods and abounds with huge rocks, natural springs and waterfalls. Along the way is the “Undameshi no torii,” a lucky sacred gate, where you can try your luck by throwing pebbles three times through the center hole. The number of the stones that go through the hole will tell you the level of your fortune. Attractions include Nikko Toshogu, the shrine dedicated to Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu, the Yomeimon Gate (Gate of Sunlight) with its over 500 ornate wood carvings in gold and vivid colors, and the ever-charming “three wise monkeys” that symbolize the principle of “see no evil, speak no evil, hear no evil” that every child has heard. Sanbutsudo Hall (Hall of the Three Buddhas) is Rinno-ji’s main building, and houses three large, gold-lacquered statues of the three deities enshrined in the temple: the Senju (thousand-armed) Kannon, the Amida-Nyorai Buddha, and the Bato (horse-headed) Kannon. Also in Rinno-ji is Taiyuin, a calm and stately temple with an impressive 315 lanterns standing like a forest on the ground.
The mountain area beyond the Irohazaka mountain pass that includes Yumoto Onsen is called “Oku-Nikko,” or outlying Nikko, and has an abundance of natural scenery with lakes, waterfalls, and marshlands. Mt. Nantai is 2,486 meters in height and is a great place for hiking from spring to autumn. Kegon Falls, a waterfall of 97 meters, is one of the most famous falls in Japan. Senjogahara is a highland moor at an altitude of 1,400 meters above sea level. It was inscribed as a registered wetland under the Ramsar Convention in 2005. Various animals and plants inhabit the marshland, and the alpine plants are particularly beautiful from spring to summer. When it comes to food in Nikko, yuba is a must. In the tofu family but composed of delicate layers of the skin of the boiled soybean milk, yuba was originally a convenient food for Buddhist priests to carry.
If you go a little further by train from the World Heritage site, you will come to Kinugawa Onsen, one of the largest hot springs in the Kanto district. There are numerous Japanese-style inns and hotels along the grand gorges of the Kinu River. Kawaji Onsen, located in a mountainous area where the Kinu River and Ojika River meet, is a calm hot spring resort that retains a traditional peaceful atmosphere. Yunishikawa Onsen to the northwest of Kawaji Onsen is a quiet, rustic hot spring village nestled in the mountains. The Kamakura Matsuri festival takes place from early January to late March when the village is covered with snow. You can enjoy a barbeque in kamakura, (snow huts) in the daytime, and in the evening, see the fantastic views of the candle-lit huts dotted throughout the village.
Utsunomiya (population of over 500,000) is the prefectural capital and the largest city in the Kitakanto district. Around the town are many stone buildings and monuments because good-quality stone is found in the Ooya area in the western part of the city. The history of Ooya stone mining can be found at the Ooya Stone Museum. In particular, the remains of underground mining are awesome. A dynamic and mysterious underground labyrinth is created by the huge mine of about 20,000 square meters, with an average depth of 30 meters and 60 meters at the deepest level. Hachimanyama Park in the center of the city, well-known for its beautiful 830 cherry trees and 5,000 azaleas planted following the natural landscape, is a popular attraction. Recently gyoza (Chinese dumplings) has become a specialty of Utsunomiya and is also very popular. There are about 30 gyoza-only restaurants in the city, and many tourists visit the city just to enjoy the specialty. Why not try sizzling hot gyoza? Utsunomiya is also noted as a hometown for jazz musicians, including Sadao Watanabe. About the town, you will see various things connected to jazz and can enjoy live performances of jazz at live houses. Check the schedules and places in advance to be safe. If you like drinking, having cocktails at a quickie bar is fun and easy. Utsunomiya boasts that it has produced many brilliant, worldwide award-winning bartenders though it is undocumented. Have a drink alone, or invite your friends to see if the bartenders are as good as they say.
Nasushiobara in northern Tochigi prefecture is famous for its hot springs with an abundance of healthy waters, and also for dairy products. There are 11 baths, each unique in components and quality, to soak in at Shiobara Onsen hot spring village along the Hoki River. Yuppo no Sato is a foot bath facility where you can experience hot springs without going to the trouble of undressing. It has a 60-meter long foot bath you can walk in. This is more than just a footbath. Pressure points on the soles of your feet are stimulated by the various-sized rocks on the bottom of the pool as you walk in the pool.The specialty of Shiobara Onsen is “soup yakisoba” (pan-fried noodles in soup). The balance between the sauce of the noodles and the soup is perfect and you will want to come back for more. Numappara Moor is a highland moor (1,230 meters above sea level) with 230 kinds of plants documented. For shopping lovers, Nasu Garden Outlet is the place to go with its 110 famous designer brand shops and restaurants. LOCO MARKET at the outlet is a food theme park of local specialties. You are sure to find good souvenirs among the fresh vegetables direct from the local farmhouses, sweets made from local fresh milk, and many others. Skiing and playing in the snow at the Hunter Mountain Ski Resort in the winter and viewing the cherry blossoms at Karasugamori Park in spring makes Nasushiobara an enjoyable place to go throughout the year.
One of the Imperial Villas is in Nasu. Nasu Onsen-kyo is a historic hot springs which marked its 1,380th anniversary in 2010. Shika no Yu is the representative bath of the area and many to go there, as people have for centuries, for their health. Sesshoseki, north of Shika no Yu, is an area with volcanic gases where you can feel the earth’s energy. Nasu Kogen Tenbodai (observatory deck) is popular among couples who visit Nasu because of its romantic night view from dusk to dawn. Nasu Highland Park is an amusement park with more than 40 kinds of attractions, including 10 roller coasters. Even on rainy days, you can enjoy attractions such as character events in each season and the indoor roller coaster SHINPI. Rindoh-ko Family Bokujyo is a stock farm where you can milk a cow, ride a horse, make butter and cookies and other farm. The zip-line KAKKU is a new and exhilarating attraction where you zip along a wire over Lake Rindo down from a 17-meter-high perch. A hearty meal of Nasu wagyu beef after all that playing will restore lost protein. The tender, finely textured meat is delicious.
Mashiko is famous for its pottery, called Mashiko-yaki, in subtle colors and rustic textures. A pottery festival is held twice a year, in spring and autumn, and attracts crowds seeking bargains in daily ware and art works. The oldest and largest wood-powered climbing kiln in the town is at Iwashita Seito. The kiln was built using natural landscape and is a must-see. You can try your hand at using a potter’s wheel and glazing. If you are interested in knowing more about Mashiko-yaki, visit the Mashiko Togei Bijutsukan (a pottery museum) and Mashiko Sankokan (The Mashiko Reference Collection Museum). When you are ready for a rest, why not have a cup of coffee served in a Mashiko-yaki cup? There are many tasty cafes and bakeries in town.
To the east of Mashiko is Motegi, a town near the Ibaraki Prefecture border. A steam locomotive runs between JR Shimodate Station and Motegi Station once a day on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Relaxing on the train while eating an ekiben, or boxed meal, is a nice experience. Twin Ring Motegi racing circuit is located 15 minutes from Motegi Station by bus. It has two courses and hosts international races. An IndyCar(r) Series is held as well as domestic four-wheel and two-wheel races. You can experience driving racing-karts and also see ASIMO, the world’s first two-legged robot.
Ashikaga is in the southwestern part of Tochigi Prefecture, and the Watarase River runs through the center of the city. Ashikaga Gakko (Ashikaga School) is known to be Japan’s oldest school. You can take a kanji (Chinese character) test and join a program reading Analects of Confucius aloud. On the mounds and moats surrounding Banna-ji, a temple near Ashikaga Gakko, residences in the style of samurai of the Kamakura period (1192-1134) can be seen. It is a famous viewing spot for cherry blossoms and attracts many people in spring. Ashikaga Flower Park is noted for wisteria with three 1,000-square-meter gigantic wisteria trellises and an 80-meter-long white wisteria tunnel. The wisterias are at their best from April to May.
Sano is home to Soshu-ji, a temple famous for yakuyoke, or expelling evil spirits, and is commonly called Sano Yakuyoke Daishi. In recent years, Sano ramen has made Sano popular throughout Japan, and there are about 200 ramen shops in town. Clear, soy sauce-based soup is its signature taste. Sano Premium Outlets has been popular since opening in 2003. You can enjoy shopping in this sophisticated outlet mall at the 180 domestic and overseas brand shops. Tochigi Prefecture is the largest producer of strawberries in Japan. Picking vine-ripened strawberries can be done at Sano Kanko Noen from December to mid May, and many people have fun picking their own.
Tochigi is close to Tokyo, and it is home to many historic sites, beautiful nature, delicious food, and shopping. It is truly a wonderful place to visit.
Access from Tokyo
From Asakusa Station: about 2 hours by Tobu Railway limited express
From Shinjuku Station: about 2 hours by direct limited express using JR and Tobu lines
From Tokyo Station: about 50 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train
From Ueno Station: about 110 minutes by JR Tohoku Line
From Shinjuku Station: about 100 minutes by JR Shonan Shinjuku Line rapid train
From Tokyo Station: about 75 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Nasushiobara Station, about 1 hour by JR Kanto bus to Shiobara Onsen
From Shinjuku Station South Exit: highway bus
From Tokyo Station: about 75 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Nasushiobara Station, about 50 minutes by Toya Kotsu bus to Nasu Yumoto
From Shinjuku Station South Exit: highway bus
From Tokyo Station: about 40 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Oyama Station, about 25 minutes by JR Mito Line to Shimodate Station, about 40 minutes by Moka Railway to Mashiko Station
From Tokyo Station: about 50 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Utsunomiya, about 70 minutes by Toya Kotsu bus
From Tokyo Station: about 40 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Oyama Station, about 25 minutes by JR Mito Line to Shimodate Station, about 1 hour by Moka Railway to Motegi Station
From Tokyo Station: about 50 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Utsunomiya, about 1 hour by JR Kanto bus
From Asakusa Station: about 75 minutes by Tobu Isesaki Line to Ashikagashi Station
From Tokyo Station: about 40 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Oyama Station, about 50 minutes by JR Ryomo Line to Ashikaga Station
From Asakusa Station: about 1 hour by Tobu Isesaki Line to Tatebayashi Station, about 15 minutes by JR Tobu Sano Line to Sano Station
From Tokyo Station: about 40 minutes by Tohoku Shinkansen bullet train to Oyama Station, about 35 minutes by JR Ryomo Line to Sano Station
From Tokyo Station and Shinjuku Station: about 90 minutes by highway bus