Located north of Tokyo, approximately an hour’s ride via the shinkansen, the Tochigi prefecture is home to many attractive sites, both natural and man-made, from famous onsen and ski resorts in the Nasu region, and a national park, to UNESCO’s ‘Shrines and Temples of Nikkō’ World Heritage Site.
If you are tried of the bustling city, a quick getaway to Tochigi prefecture can heal your body and mind.
When my partner first told me we were going on a weekend trip to Utsunomiya, I was hesitant to commit to excitement. Make no mistake that being in Japan was in and of itself a thrilling affair for me as I had been dreaming of exploring the country since I was a little girl with her eyes glued to the Ghibli studio movies on the television. On top of that, it was my second visit to Japan but when I was told that the next adventure would be in Tochigi prefecture, as I had never heard much of anything about the location, I could not help but feel reserved until we finally arrived in Utsunomiya, on an overcast, Saturday afternoon and my heart changed.
How to get to Utsunomiya
Before I get into the weekend itinerary and my Tochigi adventure, I would like to offer a brief guide on how to get to Utsunomiya, the capital of the prefecture.
If you are coming from Tokyo, my advice is taking the fast, Tohoku-Hokkaido Shinkansen bound fro Sendai. It takes around an hour-hour fifteen minutes, and costs between 4500-5000 yen (42-47 USD). I think this is a one-way ticket price, and so if you wish to return by regular train, you can do that directly from Utsunomiya station, though it will take roughly two hours.
A cheaper option is taking the local Utsunomiya Line train, then switching to the rapid Line at Akabane station. One-way tickets are around 18 USD, but it takes two hours and twenty minutes to reach your destination.
If you want to go there from more distant cities, say Osaka, I think taking a flight would be a much more convenient option that will still respect your budget.
Weekend itinerary in Tochigi
We arrived in Utsunomiya in the afternoon, around 3 o’clock. Since we had the whole weekend to ourselves, we decided not to go head out from Tokyo too early, however, if you would prefer having more time to explore, I do think that arriving at Utsunomiya around 10 or 11 o’clock in the morning would be more than enough for you to both relax and have an exciting time.
Something that caught my eye — and I am sure this is greatly appreciated by all travellers — is how convenient the area surrounding the Utsunomiya train station is. In fact, as we were descending the stairs to leave the station, we could already see the building of our hotel, and the journey there ended up being around ten minutes (on foot). There were plenty other hotels surrounding ours too, there was a convenience store nearby, a pub, some restaurants and a big taxi stand right outside the station, so my advice is to find an accommodation in this area as it is both affordable and practical.
The only downside of the location is that it is not that close to some sightseeing spots.
Now, I’ll finally move onto the weekend itinerary, so buckle your seats!
Utsunomiya castle ruins PARK
The Utsunomiya castle was the main castle of the Utsunomiya clan which ruled the area from the Heian period (794-1185) to the 16th century when it was conquered by one Toyotomi Hideyoshi, one of the three great Japanese warlords. In the pre-Meiji times, the castle was gigantic, with eight turrets, and it covered a large area surrounded by moats. When travelling to Nikko, shoguns used to stay there to rest. During the Meiji restoration, however, much of the castle was destroyed in the fights between the Imperial and the Tokugawa forces.
In 2007, two of the turrets along with a part of the old moat and of the connecting walls were reconstructed, though the renovation was met with both approval, and criticism as it is not the most genuine reconstruction of a traditional Japanese castle.
Nonetheless, the castle’s ‘ruins’ and the park surrounding it are perfect for a casual stroll and taking in the nature around it. We could see parents playing with their children, owners walking their dogs, couples walking hand-in-hand, and the elderly taking a comforting evening stroll around the area. It was a peaceful image, topped by the bettering afternoon weather.
Going westwards from the train station will lead you to streets filled with shops and restaurants, and among them, a big, wooden torii and a set of stairs leading up to the the Futaarasan (also named the Futaarayama) Shrine. Somewhere halfway up the stairs, you will find lanterns and more gates, on the left and right, and one of the gates will lead you to another shrine. However, you want to proceed climbing up for once you pass the gate on the top, you will be welcomed by the peaceful century Futaarasan Jinja.
While the shrine is over a millennium old, it had been destroyed by many fires over the course of its history, and its main building today is a reconstruction from the 19th century. Nonetheless, the reconstruction did not do a disfavour to the building as it still stands beautiful and tranquil.
Because the area used to be a forest, you will find plenty of trees growing around the shrine’s premises, and you will also find a cute little gravel yard. We visited the shrine late in the afternoon (it must have been around six or even seven pm already) so aside from a handful of believers, there was no one else at the shrine so my partner and I could catch some peace and quiet before returning to our hotel.
MEGA Don Quijote
An honourable mention goes to the MEGA Don Quijote, located right across the street from Futaarasan Jinja. It is a convenience store with sufficient groceries, household items and plus – you can get takeout sushi and other prepared foods.
However, if you would like to eat Utsunomiya’s famous gyoza (fried dumplings), go down to the basement floor of MEGA Don Quijote and enjoy over five different restaurants each serving unique types of dumplings. Order your food from any (or all), get your number, take a seat and enjoy delicious food topped with refreshing cold beer. My partner and I tried over 3 types and went back to our hotel full to near tummy-explosion all for around 4000-5000 yen.
Nikko, a small town surrounded by mountains, just north from Tokyo, is home to the 17th century Toshogu shrine – a lavish mausoleum for Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founding ruler of the Tokugawa shogunate, and the Edo period.
The Japanese have a saying that you have never seen ‘kekko’, or beautiful and magnificent, ‘until you have seen Nikko’.
How to get to Nikko
Take the local Nikko Line towards Nikko, via the Utsunomiya line, and get off at Imaichi station from which it is a kilometre’s walk away from the beauty of Nikko! 🙂
Another option is taking the bus from Tochigi Kenchomae and getting off at Shichihonzakura, and then walking about half a kilometre to your destination!
Toshogu Shrine and Nikko Futaarasan Shrine
Shogun Tokugawa Ieyasu’s mausoleum and the Futaarasan Shrine (cognominal to the one in Utsunomiya) are one of three UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nikko city. The three form one hundred and three structures, of which forty-two belong to Tosho-gu and twenty-three to Futaarasan Jinja.
One of the structures that belong to Futaarasan is the so called ‘Sacred Bridge’. According to legend, a priest named Shoudou and his followers climbed Mt. Nantai in the late eighth century in order to pray for national prosperity. When they realised they could not cross the fast flowing Daiya River, the monk and his followers began to pray and as a result a god named Jinja-Daiou appeared with two snakes twisted around his right arm. Jinja-Daiou released the blue and red snakes and they transformed into a rainbow-like bridge covered with sedge, which Shoudou and his followers could then use to cross the river. That is why this bridge is sometimes called “Snake Bridge of Sedge”
What I liked the most about the Sacred Bridge was how sharply contrasted its deep, red colour was to the surrounding greenery. As my visit was in late spring, all the trees and bushes surrounding the area was vibrantly green and thus provided a surreal image of not just the bridge, but the shrine itself.
Tosho-gu was built in the 17th century, during the rule of Ieyasu Tokugawa’s son. Five structures of Tosho-gu are classified as ‘National treasures of Japan’. One of them is the five-storey pagoda which was originally a donation by a feudal lord (daimyou) but it was burnt down and then restored at the beginning of the 19th century. Then there’s the horse stables which are now engraved with the ‘three wise monkeys’ which is yet another familiar image for if you mention Tosho-gu to any Japanese person, they may tell you about the monkeys sooner than about any other detail of the site (at least, this is my experience).
We were sitting in the car, after getting away from the crowd at Nikko, when, after careful calculation, my partner suddenly announced that we were going to a lake. I had already had a delightful time at Nikko and so I happily accepted the unexpected outing! On our way there, he told me that this lake was his go-to ‘sit, relax and watch the fishermen’ spot back when he was working in Tochigi.
The road to the lake is long and slithering. There are many sharp turns, it is rather narrow, surrounded by hills and trees and you’ll find plenty cyclists by the sides of the roads so if you are driving there yourself – do take care. The ride won’t take longer than half an hour from Tosho-gu and you’ll find that the lake-side offers not just a spectacular view of more forested hills across the semi-calm water, but also there is a shrine you can visit and some restaurants where you can grab a meal and relax before returning to Utsunomiya (or heading out somewhere else).
Chuzenji Lake is part of the Nikko National Park, and it was created when Mt. Nantai erupted and blocked the river, around twenty thousand years ago. Yes, you read that right. Not only is it stunning, it is also ancient so I suggest not missing out on seeing the area.
After we spent some time sitting by the lake, my partner asked if I wanted to also go see a waterfall, which I gladly accepted, given how wonderful the nature of Tochigi is. The ride from Chuzenji to Kegon Falls was not so long and, while the place was very crowded (a downside to sightseeing similar places), the falls took my breath away nonetheless.
The one hundred metre tall Kegon Falls is the only exit for the waters of Lake Chuzenji. I was told that, unfortunately, Kegon Falls became famous after a philosophy student and a poet, named Fujimura Misao, committed suicide by jumping down the waterfall in 1903. He carved a farewell poem onto a tree trunk before committing suicide and, unsurprisingly, the contemporary media of the time instantly sensationalised the story; even, renowned Japanese novelist Natsume Soseki even commented on the incident.
Returning to Utsunomiya
Depending on how far you got, returning to Utsunomiya should not pose any difficulties. If you are at the National Park, you can ride back to Nikko and then back the Nikko Line from Imaichi station back to Utsunomiya station. If you are there by car, the ride back should not take you longer than forty minutes!