Nikko, Japan - My Family Travels

A Samurai-era living history museum and theme park, the beautiful Nikko National Park filled with temples, and UNESCO's World Heritage Sites are part of the charm of this central Japanese city.

The Edo Mura Village outside Nikko was described to us alluringly as “Japan’s answer to Colonial Williamsburg,” and perhaps for the Japanese-speaker it is.  Unfortunately, the foreignness of the culture and lack of English language labels left us in total confusion.  This rural ‘Samurai theme park’ was especially disappointing in comparison with Nikko’s more traditional tourist attraction, the Nikko National Park.

If you’re going to spend a long and tiring day from Tokyo to see the best of Nikko, head straight to the vermilion painted Shinkyo bridge (once only open to the Shogun) and visit UNESCO’s World Heritage recognized temples and historical shrines. 

Families spending a weekend away from bustling Kyoto, Osaka or Tokyo should first go to the park, where even young children can recognize the vast power and material wealth of the Shogun Tokugawa (popularized  in James Clavell’s “Shogun”) at the Toshugu Shrine. This enormous carved wood and gilt mausoleum, set in a grove of 13,000 cedar trees, is the central attraction within Nikko’s Rinnoji Temple complex.

The next day, you’ll be better prepared to enjoy Edo Mura’s small park and the costumed workers who wave guests into various displays. You’ll find a few Japanese-style, gory haunted houses; a fun but confusing show where Ninja warriors leap around a “tricky house” full of hidden doors; and many photos ops for those who’d like to have their picture taken with costumed 17th-century noblemen. It is well done, it’s wildly popular with young Japanese boys, and the pleasant open-air restaurants are moderately priced at lunch.

Our 9-year-old son loved the Samurai ‘fight’ that took place in the village green (we never could figure out who were the good guys and the bad guys), and his parents liked the wooden architecture and reenactors. Stay alert and you may catch some of the live music and theatre performances, which  probably transcend the culture gap more easily.

Weekenders should consider the hotels recommended by the excellent Frommer’s Japan:  Nikko Kanaya Hotel (0288/54-0001) is a large, rustic country lodge built by the Kanaya family as a ‘hill resort’ for foreigners in 1873; Turtle Inn (0288/53-3168) is a small pension with Western and tatami style rooms and a highly recommended restaurant. Both are within a short bus ride or long walk from the Nikko Tobu Rail Station. 

I must add that we stayed late into the evening to try yuba, a local specialty made of soybeans, and a dish once prepared only for high priests and the imperial family.  We dined at Masudaya on the main street, about 5 minutes’ walk from the station, and found yuba to be a singularly odd and unpleasant dish. At least my husband could tell his friends he’d tried it! 

Dear Reader: This page may contain affiliate links which may earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. Our independent journalism is not influenced by any advertiser or commercial initiative unless it is clearly marked as sponsored content. As travel products change, please be sure to reconfirm all details and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.