#49 Koyo in Nikko, Japan

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When we think about koyo, amazing colours come to our mind. Gold, crimson, marigold yellow, maple syrup brown, tangerine, plum red…

Going leaf spotting is a tradition in Japan — there is even a specific term for it — momijigari. It is simply the act of enjoying the gorgeous autumn foliage. In this tech-obsessed world, a little spot of koyo is just what we needed.

For some, it could be a lot of fuss for nothing. Then again, the whole idea is to chill and relax. It’s for scenery and nature lovers, and for people who just want to take their mind off the hustle and bustle of real world. A refreshing change indeed for many who travel on a tight itinerary, and a great break for those who have spent a couple of hectic days in Tokyo.

I love trees and autumn is my favourite season. So yes, observing the koyo is just right up my alley. :-)

Here’s my trip report, hopefully it helps you get all the manic planning out of the way and focus on the beautiful scenery.

“Better early. Late, many people,” so the advice went.

We initially planned for the 8:10 train, but we went for the 7:10 instead (both are Section Rapid). So imagine our surprise when we boarded the train – gleefully proud that we woke up extra early – and saw that the train was already more than half full! So the advice was solid after all.

We sat at carriage #6 since we were going to Tobu-Nikko.  Both carriages #5 and #6 go to Tobu-Nikko. But if you’re seated in carriages #1 through #4, you’ll end up at Kinugawa Onsen. The train gets separated at some point in the journey. Be warned!

The train chugged its way out of Asakusa, northwards into the suburbs of outer Tokyo. We continued our journey past Saitama (the hometown of One Punch Man) and we watched as the scenery flattened out into the vast farmlands of Tochigi. It was a brilliant padi green, against a blazing blue sky.

At around 9.30am, we arrived at Nikko. Here we go!

nikko-train-station-scene

Quite orderly inside the station :-)

nikko-bus-station

As you can see, there are many people who are interested in leaf peeping!

Okay not quite!! We needed to figure out what bus to take!

Although there were a lot of visitors, the station staff were not flustered at all. There were booths with helpers ready to answer questions, usher day trippers to the correct buses, and sell tickets to make the onward journey. With the help of my Japanese friend Ryo, we quickly found out that we needed to buy an extra ticket or pay ala carte with our Pasmo card to get to Lake Chuzenji.

To go to Lake Chuzenji, look out for buses 2A (Yumoto-Onsen) and 2B (Chuzenji Onsen). It will be the final stop for Bus 2B, but the Bus 2A will continue past the lake to Yumoto Onsen. Alight at Stop #24: Chuzenji Onsen for Lake Chuzenji.

(The 2 Day Nikko Pass only allows free rides on Bus 2C. We used our Pass to ride the Bus 2C: the World Heritage Sightseeing Bus till the final stop, then connected to Bus 2B. Don’t do this, even though it’s true you could save 200JPY. By the time Buses 2A and 2B leave the starting point, it gets packed to the brim. We almost did not get on the bus. Just take Bus 2A or 2B at the bus bay in front of Tobu-Nikko station.)

nikko-traffic-jam

Long line of cars and motorbikes making its way up the narrow two-lane mountain road (some portions were only one-lane)

On our way up, the buses were jampacked – meaning it would be difficult to board a bus from any of the stops mid-way if nobody got off. From what I saw, few people got off the bus since most of the visitors want to go further up, to Chuzenji and the onsens which are at the end of the lines.

All along the bus route, there are tons of places to visit, but they are all pretty far apart (not really possible to walk as there are no pedestrian paths on the super-narrow roads). Unless you plan to stay a night or two in the area, you gotta make some hard choices.

In itself, the bus journey was time-consuming. It took one hour to wind its way up the tight hairpin curves, puffing uphill together with a long line of cars on the single-lane mountain road.

So our itinerary was kept simple: Kegon Falls, lunch, a walk amidst the fiery golds and seductive crimsons of leaves next to Lake Chuzenji, then a visit to Futarasan Shrine (the one next to the Lake).

nikko-lake-chuzenji

 

A stroll next to the lake took me through a lovely forested trail with bright yellow maple leaves underfoot and a blazing canopy of beautiful red leaves overhead. :-)

 

Is that an eruption?

nikko-koyo-scene

A lovely lakefront stroll next to Lake Chuzenji

nikko-lemonmilkicecream

As weird as it sounds, it tastes heavenly! It’s not sour at all.

Eat some lemon milk icecream, specialty from Tochigi!

futarasan-shrine-nikko

If you’re keen to fit in a visit to a shrine on this day trip, this is the place to go!

We ended off with a little jaunt in the Futarasan Shrine next to the lake. There wasn’t much time left after that, so we headed to get the bus back to Nikko station.

nikko-bus-schedule-return

The bus schedule for returning to Tobu-Nikko Train Station

The buses heading back down to Tobu-Nikko were few (as compared to the number of people who were in the line).

We figured that we needed to board a 15:30 bus latest in order to connect with our second last train – the Section Rapid on Tobu-Nikko — at 16:31. We aimed for 14:50 but it was way too full.

The lines were super long. We queued for 40 minutes before we boarded at 16:20. Praise to the management though, they seemed to deploy extra buses on that day to alleviate the long lines, since three buses appeared at the same time.

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Source: tobu.co.jp/foreign/pdf/timetables.pdf

After an arduous wait (made bearable by eating more ice-cream) and then the snail-paced bus ride downhill, we reached Tobu-Nikko Station only at 16:55. Just nice to get the last train at 17:39 – here, when I say last train I mean the final Section Rapid train for the day that our 2 Day Nikko Pass is valid for.

(Technically there are still trains after that. If we missed the 17:39, we’d have to pay the difference for the Limited Express, or staying overnight in the town.)

What a rush! With a few minutes to spare, we grabbed a couple of beers – since it’s a long 2.5-hour train ride back – and headed back to Tokyo. Exhausted but heady from all the gorgeous leaf peeping (momijigari).

My first momijigari accomplished! :-)

I hope you’ll have a fruitful and less-frustrating planning time with my tips. Happy leaf peeping! Till next time!

P.S. You can visit Nikko in spring, summer and winter too!! :-)

QUESTIONS. TIPS. IMPORTANT NOTES.

What is all these about the different kinds of trains?
The 2-Day Nikko Pass is only valid for Section Rapid (marked light blue in timetable) trains. If you want to take the Limited Express (marked pink), you’d have to pay extra. According to Japan Guide, Limited express trains stop only at major stations and a small premium fee is to be paid on top of the base fare.

Check out this link for the timetable.

There are a couple other trains which ply between Asakusa and Tobu-Nikko, but if you board any category that is faster than Section Rapid, and therefore in a more expensive category, you will have to pay the difference.

Here is a short explanation on Japan Guide to the different train categories. (Link)

What shall I see or do?

If you want to see everything in one day, it’s impossible. We chose Kegon Falls and Lake Chuzenji because they are our first choices, plus they are close to one another (5-8 minutes walk apart). We swung by Futarasan Shinto Shrine (next to Chuzenji, not the Futarasan jinja) as we had a bit of time left. That’s about all the time you’ve got. For us, we mostly wanted to relax and enjoy the leaves, not rush from one stop to another.

If you want to see and do more, such as check out the Tosho-gu Shrine, take photos at the red bridge at Futarasan jinja and get a dip in an onsen, plus visit the lake and the falls, then you’ll need one more day here.

(You could try and self-drive to squeeze everything in one day – but the expense, and the parking… well that’s for you to think about.)

How many days?

Two days, if you have the time and money to spare. If you’re a budget traveller like me, who has plenty more days to spend in Tokyo (or the rest of Japan), you might want to stretch your money a bit and go for a day trip instead. The hotel prices here can be prohibitively expensive; I choked a little when I looked at the prices.

That said, if you plan ahead (at least 6 months), you might still find affordable places – they exist, just in very short supply, and they get snagged up pretty quickly.

Which pass to buy?

If you’ve read up just a little, you’ll see that you have many options for Nikko Passes (2 Day, All Nikko etc.)

We got the 2-Day Nikko Pass — it seemed like the most economical option for a day trip. We felt a bit duped later, since it did say it covered the bus journey, but in fact the bus segment that’s included within the pass does not go all the way to Lake Chuzenji. My bad for failing to read the fine print.

That said, the 2-Day Nikko Pass provides the cheapest return-journey to get from Asakusa (Tokyo) to Tobu-Nikko Station, so I guess it did its job. Make sure your Pasmo/Suica card has a value of at least 2500JPY inside, and use this as a backup to pay any difference on the bus.

The return journey fare per person from start to end was in total around 4400JPY (2 Day Pass + Pasmo bus fare). If you’re staying at least one night, definitely take the All Nikko Pass (4620JPY; it is valid for 4 days).

Important tips about the Pass:

You need to exchange a print-out that comes as a receipt/proof of purchase at the Asakusa Tobu Information Center before your journey, especially if you intend to start early like us. The Information Center’s opening hours are rather ambiguous. When we were there, a sign on the door says “8am to 7.15pm”. (On Google it says “7.45am to 5pm”, another website says “7.20am to 7pm”) Don’t leave it to chance, get your passes before you head up to Nikko — ideally sometime on a weekday (non PH) afternoon, so you’re sure it’s open — so you can catch the 7.30am train.

Also, one final thing, only foreign travellers outside Japan are eligible to buy the 2-Day/All Nikko Pass, and you have to buy it at least 4 days before your intended date of visit. Plan ahead! (This information is accurate as per my experience and as of end-October 2016)

Other notes:
1. Bus and train timings and prices may be different, depending on which time period in the year you’re visiting: October to April, May to September

2. If time is more of an issue than money for you, there is the much faster Shinkansen – a sleek white pointy-headed beauty. When I checked, the Shinkansen train fare was 3 times more at >8000JPY, while the Tobu-Nikko return journey is already included in the 2-Day Nikko Pass (2620JPY).

Resources:
– Information about the Nikko Pass – http://www.tobu.co.jp/foreign/en/pass/
– An English-language train search engine in Japan (does not always give the cheapest option, it’s a bit like Skyscanner) – http://www.hyperdia.com/en/
– Bus information for Nikko Area – http://www.tobu-bus.com/en/nikko/
– Train timetable between Asakusa/Tokyo Sky Tree and Tobu-Nikko/Kinugawa-Onsen – http://www.tobu.co.jp/foreign/pdf/timetables.pdf

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