Japan for families: Things to do in Nikko

Saying my daughter is fascinated by Japan is quite the understatement.

From the culture and cuisine to cutesy Kawaii, she already has a deep yearning to explore more, get deeper into its cuisine besides our regular sushi takeouts, and learn more about this part of the world that has gripped her imagination.

So, during her spring break, I decided to take her on a mommy-daughter trip to Tokyo to explore Japan for families with an overnight side trip to Nikko, a small city tucked into the mountains roughly 1.5 hours from Tokyo. I wanted to contrast Tokyo’s skyscraper, technology-infused heartbeat with a slower, sleepier side of the country for her.

From traveling back in time to the Edo period to traveling along a river in a traditional wooden canoe, here are some memorable experiences we shared together and that I highly recommend for anyone looking for tips on Japan for families.

First… Getting there

Located in Tochigi Prefecture, Nikko is less than a two hour train ride with Tobu Railway from Tokyo’s bustling center. Tobu Railway offers a discounted NIKKO PASS which includes train tickets, unlimited public transport, as well as offers for the key attractions in the area. Pick up a pass so you can explore the region with relative ease. 

Now… On to things to do in Nikko!

Things to do in Nikko - Japan for Families

Explore Edo Wonderland

The standout experience for my daughter was getting to travel back in time to 17-th century Japan and the Edo Era through culture, costumes, and characters at Edo Wonderland. At the Juki Kimono Rental Shop, we got to pick out traditional folk attire from the period – from samurais and princesses to ninjas and geishas. 

Once we donned our outfits with professional assistance, we were able to freely explore the village, which is divided into five architecturally unique areas: Kaido (Road to Edo), Shukuba-machi (Inn Town), Shokagai (Market District), Buke-yashiki (Samurai Residence), and Ninja no Sato (Ninja Village). 

There are several artisans, skilled workers, and handicraft sections where you can stop and learn new skills. From learning how to become a ninja and sword-carrying samurai to how the local policemen and firemen dressed and patrolled in those times. Plus, there are tons of cultural performances such as a high-energy ninja show to a mesmerizing geisha dance.

And while there, dig into scrumptious, grilled skewers of chicken, beef, pork and duck at Yama Kujira.

Stay at Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel

You can’t visit Japan’s countryside without dipping into an onsen – natural hot springs. A 50-minute taxi drive from TOBU Nikkon Train Station will take you to Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, located near the shores of stunning Lake Chuzenjiko.

Besides its historical significance being one of the oldest Japanese resort hotels, the main draw to this iconic landmark is its open air hot springs and thermal baths, which guests can enjoy for free. We tucked into French-inspired cuisine at its Mizunara restaurant with stunning views facing the lake, and my daughter felt every bit the little princess being handed juice by waiters wearing bow ties.

She got a kick out of it.

See Kegon Falls

I didn’t know what to expect when we headed to Kegon Falls. I’ve seen a lot of impressive and powerful waterfalls from Canada and Iceland to the Faroe Islands. Kegon, while the tallest waterfall in Japan at roughly 100 meters, wasn’t quite as grand as I had anticipated.

Kegon Falls is certainly beautiful the way it cuts through the landscape of jagged rocks, though I was expecting stronger sprays with volume. It is worth checking out because of its panoramic location. You can access it via a paid platform that takes you 100 meters deep through an elevator through the rocks. I can only imagine how it would look against a fiery backdrop of reds and oranges of autumn or white snow and frozen ice of winter.

Enjoy a Kinugawa River Boat Ride

One of my favourite experiences while exploring Nikko was going on a traditional wooden boat ride along the Kinugawa River. Besides having the whole boat to ourselves and gliding down the relatively calm river through a lush valley for several kilometers, what was fascinating was watching how the boat captain steered the boat with his single oar.

The physically demanding task saw him bending to a lying position with each pull of his oar. Overall, sitting on bamboo mats, shoes off, while feeling fresh sprays from the river, and riding out some exhilarating rapids, it felt oh so good to be experiencing it all with my daughter.

Visit Nikko National Park

You know when you arrive at a place and immediately start making plans to return during a different season?

That was exactly how I felt, on a beautiful sunny day no less, when I arrived into Nikko National Park. I knew that visiting the park during autumn as the leaves change into fiery reds, oranges, and yellows would be spectacular. 

Perfect as a day trip from Tokyo in under two hours, Nikko National Park is lush with lakes, mountain ranges, valleys, waterfalls and forests. We even stopped by some natural sulfur springs and found some macaque monkeys scurrying around the area. 

Marvel at Nikko Toshogu Shrine

Founded in 1617, this UNESCO World Heritage site has some of the most intricate designs I’ve seen on all my travels. This shrine was built to worship the founder of the Edo Shogunate, Tokugawa leyasu. It is a complex of shrines including a Buddist temple, and is also home to the famous “Three Wise Monkeys” –  see no evil… speak no evil… hear no evil

Toshogu Shrine is the largest draw to the region and deservedly so. If you’re up for it, climb up  the long flight of stairs that lead you to Tokugawa leyasu’s mausoleum.

Cross the Sacred Bridge 

This crimson-red bridge over a river valley and against a backdrop of forest is what postcards (well, Instagram selfies) are made of. Hailed as one of the most beautiful bridges in Japan, the Shinkyo Bridge known as the “sacred bridge” is the entrance to Nikko‘s shrines and temples. Built in 1636, Shinkyo was renovated over 20 years ago and you can walk across it for a modest entrance fee.

Other activities to try and things to do in Nikko

I personally love cooking classes, but my daughter has the patience of a gnat so I couldn’t fully enjoy the soba noodle making class. Nikko is called the “town of soba” and these buckwheat noodles are a regional speciality. There is even a Nikko Soba Festival held every year. 

For those with a sweet tooth, don’t miss the infamous shaved Ice at Shogetsu Himuro. There are apparently five ice houses in the entire country and three of them are based in Nikko. The sweet dessert uses natural frozen ice from nearby springs and comes in various flavors – from matcha green tea flavors to creamy strawberry and more.

One of my favorite photo shoots was along Suginamiki Cedar Avenue. It is supposed the longest tree-lined avenue in the world at over 35 kilometers, and it is framed by 400-year old Japanese sugi (cedar) trees. The size of the trees, many standing over 30 meters tall, and the breadth of their roots were nothing short of awe-inspiring.

One of those little moments that reminded me of just how incredible our planet is.

More images from Nikko

You can view more images of things to do in Nikko in my image bank.

Things to do in Nikko - Japan for Families

Special thanks to TOBU Japan and its local partners for making this trip to explore Nikko possible (and memorable). As always, all expressions are solely mine. Japan is a stunning place and I will be back with my entire family.