Nikko and Kamakura—Don't Leave Japan Without Them
by Charles N. Barnard
It never fails. The traveler is no sooner arrived in one of the world's great destinations — a city like Tokyo,
for example — when he is advised that his experience will be incomplete if he does not make certain short
but essential trips out of town. In Athens, it is Delphi which simply must not be missed; in Paris, it is
Versailles; in Rome it is Villa d'Este; in London, perhaps the Cotswolds; in Naples, it is Pompeii. No matter
which of the major squares we land on in this game of travel, it seems there are always additional day trips
to be considered — and if we omit them, we are warned that we will rob ourselves of some important aspect
of our whole trip.
True, but not to complain. Day trips, in my experience, can sometimes be the most colorful stitches in the
travel tapestry. In the Tokyo area, this means, without question, excursions to Nikko and Kamakura. These
two small, contrasting sites on opposite sides of the sprawling Japanese capital are historically important,
full of interesting sights and easy to get to from Tokyo. Each is closely linked to Japan's first great shogun,
Nikko and Kamakura are just as popular with Japanese tourists as with foreign visitors. Millions make the
short train trip to see the great ornate shrines and temples of Nikko every year — or to view the looming
bronze Buddha and some fine old Zen temples in Kamakura. Most of these pilgrims made their trips on
weekends, creating throngs which can dismay a foreign visitor — but, remember, in Japan, crowds are part of
the experience and part of the scenery.
Nikko is a 200,000-acre national park in mountainous terrain 136 kilometers
northeast of Tokyo. Packaged one- and two-day tours (bus or train) are
widely available from travel agents in all Tokyo hotels. Nikko can also
be visited by any traveler who wishes to explore on his own, guidebook
in hand. It can be reached by trains of the Japanese National Railroad
or, preferably, by a private railroad, the Tobu Railway. The trains transport
daytrippers through the seemingly endless suburbs of Tokyo, then swiftly
over flat farmland, and finally into the park area itself: forested foothills
with major mountains in the distance.
Nikko, when one arrives at its small station, appears to be a typically undistinguished
Japanese town of about 30,000 population, with a long main street which
seems to head straight uphill toward the surrounding mountains. There
is no hint of the spectacle that awaits the visitor just beyond the trees.
The elevation of Nikko town is more than 3,000 feet, and the air is clean
and cool even in summer. There may be snow on the ground as late as April;
azaleas begin to bloom in May. The most favored season for most travelers
is autumn, when foliage in the mountains can be as colorful as in North
Busses will take visitors from the railroad station to the very entrance
of the hilly shrine complex, or one can walk the distance in 20 minutes.
The first hint that something special is in store at the end of this stroll
is the sight of a gracefully arched, coral-pink, Chinese-style bridge
— Sacred Bridge — which spans the rushing Daiya River. It
was here, we are told, that a priest named Shodo crossed the torrent on
the backs of two huge serpents 1,200 years ago. (A note to relieve anxiety:
whether one believes all the mythology of Nikko or even understands the
true meaning of its many shrines, pagodas, temples and mausolea, is irrelevant.
For a western tourist, Nikko is primarily a place to ooh and aah over.
Bring plenty of film.)
Beyond the Sacred Bridge, the visitor will enter a new and awe-inspiring environment, a forest of more than
16,000 majestic cedar trees which are more than three centuries old and reach to the sky like the massive
columns of a great Gothic cathedral. They were planted by a Japanese nobleman to provide an appropriate
setting for the historic structures which the shoguns of the Tokugawa clan had built in these hills to honor
their own memory. For all the elegance of architecture and decoration which Nikko represents, this cedar
forest impresses many visitors as the most memorable monument of all.
Nikko can overwhelm, confuse, exhaust and exasperate visitors who are overly diligent about seeing and
understanding everything. This is not necessary. There are, say, five major sights to be visited, all within
walking distance of each other. Allow two hours for this and be ready for many steep flights of stone stairs.
We have already found the first important structure in Nikko, the Sacred Bridge. A walk uphill from here
through the cedars will bring the tourist to the second important landmark, Rinnoji Temple, a complex of
several graceful buildings, one of which is the largest in the area. This is where general admission tickets
are sold; English-language guidebooks (with maps) are available to explain who is enshrined in what
building, what route to follow, what the horse-headed goddess is doing here, etc.
Following the flow of visitors from Rinnoji, one begins a slight uphill walk through a great stone torii
(gate). Then a five-story pagoda, standing among the giant trees, announces arrival at the outer precincts of
Nikko's most important attraction, Toshogu Shrine, dedicated in all its glory to Ieyasu Tokugawa, the first
shogun of Japan.
A great stone staircase leads steeply to an ornate gate. Beyond are three brightly painted buildings which
are storehouses. They face the Sacred Stable where a white stallion stomps restlessly in his stall. This
simple but elegantly decorated building is famous for the carved figures of see-hear-speak-no-evil monkeys
in its frieze.
Above the buildings on this mid-level, another gate looms at the head of another set of steep stone steps.
This is Yomeimon Gate, flanked on each side by a gilded drum tower and a matching belfry.
After passing through Yomeimon Gate, the visitor has arrived at the inner precincts. A quadrangle of
buildings includes the Oratory, the Main Hall, the Sacred Palanquin House and the Hall of Sacred Dancing.
Visitors may enter the Oratory, where young women in brilliant costumes of white kimonos with red skirts
tell the story of the shrine — alas, only in Japanese.
The purchase of an extra ticket at this point (about $1) will entitle the visitor to go beyond the main hall to
the Inner Shrine and the tomb of Ieyasu Tokugawa himself. A carved figure of a sleeping cat, much copied
in souvenirs, is found over the gold and white gate which leads to the tomb.
The tomb itself, somewhat of anticlimax, is reached after a 10-minute walk
through the woods and climbing a final 207 stone steps.
Construction began on Toshogu Shrine 18 years after Ieyasu's death and continued for two years until
1636. In this time, 15,000 of the finest artists and craftsmen that could be found in Japan were brought to
Nikko to labor on this dazzling tribute to a dead soldier/politician, a generalissimo who was posthumously
anointed as the East-Illuminating Incarnation of a Bodhisattva — in short, a new Buddhist god. Everything in
sight is carved, painted and gilded with enough gold leaf to cover six acres. Maintenance of all this grandeur
is continuous; the 300-year-old buildings look almost new. The gold gleams, the paint is fresh, and the
forest paths are swept.
For those who have come to think of Japanese style and design as being invariably subdued and in good
taste, however, Toshogu shrine may seem a great and gaudy contradiction. James K. Weatherly, author of
the excellent guide, Japan Unescorted (published by Japan Air Lines), makes one of the most plausible
explanations of these excesses. He says, "Toshogu, plastered with gold and polychrome, is less a reflection
of traditional Japanese taste than of the megalomania of the Tokugawas."
Two more major attractions at Nikko will complete a demanding sightseeing day: Futaarasan Shrine (at the
end of a beautiful walk lined by giant cedars) and the mausoleum of Tokugawa Iemitsu, grandson of
Ieyasu, a less-is-more kind of place which is in better taste than his grandfather's more-is-more memorial.
For those travelers who may be as interested in the beauties of unspoiled
nature as in the works of man, Nikko provides a hinterland that can be
explored by sightseeing busses or via many hiking trails. The principal
attraction is Lake Chuzenji, a sparkling body of water formed centuries
ago when volcanic lava dammed a river. The lake area has a mini-resort
character. There are several hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops. It
can be reached via a 50-minute bus ride on a spectacular mountain road
which climbs 1,000 feet above Nikko. There will be white cranes in rice
fields along this road, pheasants in the fields, and small packs of wild
monkeys roaming in wooded areas. Lake Chuzenji itself is stocked with
salmon, trout and carp and is a popular sport fishing site. Sightseeing
by motorboat is available in summer.
Near the lake is Kegon Falls, a 325-foot cascade which thunders into a gorge with great force at certain
seasons and has been the site for some spectacular suicides. An elevator takes waterfall buffs to the basin
pool for an awesome view.
For some visitors, Nikko may seem worth an overnight stay and a second day of sightseeing. Good
accommodations can be found at both the Lake Chuzenji area and near the entrance to the shrines. At the
lake, the Nikko Prince Hotel offers 60 rooms and a fine view of the surrounding scenery. In town, the
venerable Kanaya Hotel, more than 100 years old, has a European flavor and homey comfort. (Also a good
place for lunch.) It has played host to the Emperor of Japan and to other world leaders in its time.
Kamakura, population 160,000, is 51 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, a seaside town on Sagami Bay which,
in recent years, has become a fashionable suburb for Japanese artists and a popular summer beach resort. It
is not surrounded by spectacular scenery, as in Nikko, but offers other important attractions. Indeed, it is
possible to get quite an argument going between Japanese who favor one or the other of these two popular
recreation places — the old mountains-vs.-seashore debate.
For all of Nikko's gilded fame, Kamakura does not concede second place in any comparison; indeed, it
became capital of Japan in 1192 under the shogun Minamoto and remained the seat of the shogunate
government until 1333. As a result, Kamakura became a center of the Zen faith and still has many old Zen
As with Nikko, day tours to Kamakura are easily booked at any hotel. It is just as easy, however, to take one
of the frequent trains from Tokyo station. In less than an hour, the adventurous traveler can begin his own
The most important attraction for tourists in Kamakura is undoubtedly the 65-foot-tall, 93-ton bronze
Buddha, the Daibutsu, which was cast in 1252 and placed within a temple. A couple of centuries later, a tidal
wave swept in from the sea, destroying the temple, but leaving the Buddha undamaged and standing alone in
the great outdoors. It has remained so ever since. The elements have now turned the bronze green, but have
had no effect on the serene pose of the giant figure or on its inscrutable expression. It is one of the most
famous (and most photographed) symbols of Japan.
The Daibutsu can be reached via an 8-minute bus ride from Kamakura station plaza; there will be no
question of where to get off — Japanese school children by the thousands flock to this historic site at all
seasons of the year. It is the perfect location for making the class picture with the great statue looming in
Another approach to seeing Kamakura is to alight from the Tokyo train at Kita (north) Kamakura station
and begin an easy walk into town, following a route which passes four of the most important Zen temples
of the area. These peaceful premises are noted for their beautiful and well-kept gardens and offer something
in bloom from cherry-blossom time until autumn. There are small admission charges ($1-$2) at all the
The first of the temples is adjacent to the Kita station. Engakuji stands in a heavy forest of trees; it dates
from 1251. A straight-line walk uphill will take the visitor past all the principal buildings, most of which will
Another 5-minute walk along a main highway will bring the conscientious temple collector to Tokeiji, a
former nunnery which was famous for providing refuge to wives who were battered by their husbands or
ill-treated by mothers-in-law. Following the same route, Meigetsuin Temple comes up next, a quiet, nearly
abandoned place in a deep valley. Finally, the impressive Kenchoji Temple, about 25 minutes from
Kita-Kamakura station on foot. This is the largest of the Zen temples north of the city and is approached
through an impressive gate. A handsome garden has been well preserved at the rear of the temple itself.
Even if the history and significance of each of these temples seems as strange and unfamiliar as the last, the
cumulative effect of visiting them all is one of serene, old Japan: weathered wood, copper-green pagoda
roofs, stones that fit as if they had been cut in a lapidary, quiet ponds with prowling golden carp, bamboo
fences laced tight with black twine, ancient trees with limbs supported by crutches.
The route from Kita Kamakura will lead the visitor eventually to the center
of town and Kamakura's largest and most important shrine, Hachimangu.
This brightly painted structure dates only to the early 19th Century,
although a shrine has occupied the site since 1063. Look for the 1,000-year-old
ginkgo tree near the main building — indeed, it appears ratty enough
to be that old! Local legend says that one of Kamakura's early shoguns
was assassinated in front of the ginkgo in 1219; the killer was able to
hide behind the huge trunk of the tree.
The main street of Kamakura, Wakamiya Avenue, leads straight from Hachimangu
Shrine to the center of town and the railroad station. It is a broad thoroughfare
with a cherry-tree-lined pedestrian walkway down the middle — a
tunnel of blossoms in April. Both sides of the avenue are lined with shops,
some quite elegant and some as tacky as in any tourist town. There is
the smell of candy cooking outdoors, the clutter of bicycles and mopeds
parked on the sidewalks, shop doors emblazoned with credit-card decals.
There are souvenirs for $1 and fine lacquerware trays for $200; there
are dress shops, book shops, print shops and antique stores where one
can buy a Samurai sword for $1,000. There are also some attractive coffee
shops and restaurants.
A day-tripper to Kamakura will find all he needs in the way of shopping, eating and browsing on this
avenue — and plenty of convenient trains back to Tokyo whenever he's ready to return to the Big City.
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