Most people who visit Japan do the normal route of Tokyo -> Kyoto. The unfortunate thing about this is that you are missing out on so much.
Which is completely normal!
Who has the time to see absolutely everything?
(I sincerely wish I had that much time)
However, one place that you would regret not seeing might be Nikko in Tochigi Pref.
Nikko is known mostly for its elaborately decorated shrines and temples. The architecture of Nikko was once lauded to be the most impressive in all of Japan and 8 of the buildings in the area are National Treasures. It is also known for its waterfalls and other beautiful nature sights.
At Nikko Toshogu, you will also find the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate.
WORD OF ADVICE: While it may be super cheap to go on local trains, it can be confusing if you have to transfer 2+ times. I will admit, I got confused, missed my connection and ended up in the middle of nowhere with no train for an hour. Don’t do this.
If you wanna go cheaply (one way 1,320 yen), find a Tobu Line train that goes straight to Tobu Nikko (東武日光). It should take 2.5 hrs to get there from Asakusa.
If you don’t have a JR Rail Pass and plan on spending the night in the area there is a 2 Day Nikko Pass for sale by Tobu Railways .
If you want to take the SPACIA, the special limited express, you are required to buy the ticket ahead of time. There is also a special express fee of 1,000/person that gets tacked on to the normal train fare of 1,320 yen. The good thing about this is that you know you will get a seat!
Just for your reference, here are is the main tourist area of Nikko (The cluster of spots to the left side. About a 15-20 min walk from the train station, but there are also buses you can take) Kinugawa Onsen and its surroundings are places that I haven’t gone yet….yet. I have a friend who loves Edomura, because it is like a samurai movie town. It might only be worth it if you understand Japanese and/or love samurai and samurai movies.
Image from gotokyo.org
Anyway, now onto the pictures….These are pictures I took in the fall and in the winter:
The temple/shrine area of Nikko is walk able from Tobu Nikko and JR Nikko stations, but Lake Chuzenjiko and Kegon Waterfall, as well as many other natural sights are too far to walk. You need to take the bus.
Bus fare is a better deal if you purchase it around the station area. 2 day passes are available and differ in price by distance you want to travel. It is 2,000 yen to take the bus round-trip to the waterfalls area.
Funny thing is that even though I have been to Nikko twice, and covered a lot of ground, I have not seen everything. Go further north, past the lake and you will find Yumoto Onsen, Ryuzu Waterfall, Yudaki Waterfall, and marshlands where there are hiking paths.
I would recommend an overnight stay if you are intent on seeing everything.
For more info on the parts that lie beyond (aka “Oku Nikko”), you can take a look at this site, it has a good list on what you can go see.