Anyone who has followed me for even a few days knows that I absolutely love Japan during the months of autumn. While the cherry blossoms always end up taking all of the glory, they simply cannot compete to the awesome splendor of the fall foliage. In all honesty, I don’t think that there is any other place in this world that is as beautiful as Japan during October and November. Though I am most certainly biased in my selection due to my ever-increasing love for this country, anyone should be able to easily understand where I am coming from. I mean, just look at some of the imagery in this article!
Anyway, when it comes to spots to savor the autumn vibes, an annual favorite of mine has always been Tochigi Prefecture’s Nikko area. Home to the legendary Toshogu Shrine that enshrines the first Tokugawa shogun, this rather rural slice of Japan is historically famous for also being a major spiritual enclave. Adding to its charm, Nikko also is nestled within the mountains of Tochigi Prefecture. These dual factors combine to create an juxtaposition of ancient architecture and vibrant vegetation. Simply put, it’s a sight that will be etched into your memory for all eternity.
Though I’ve been to Nikko many times now, I hadn’t ventured far from where the main allures are located until recently. Instead, I’ve always opted to stop by the nearby Edo Wonderland in Kinugawa Onsen every trip. This year though, I alternatively elected to head deeper into the mountains of Nikko where Lake Chuzen-ji is located. Until just this year, I had put off this part of Nikko due to wanting to experience my old favorites like Taiyuin-byo. Though it’s a bit difficult to fit into a standard visit to Nikko, I need to chide my former self for missing out on Lake Chuzen-ji all these years.
How to Get There
Before going over what’s on offer in this neck of the woods, allow me to briefly cover some key logistics. At the risk of sounding overly obvious, know that a visit to Lake Chuzen-ji will first necessitate that you be near Nikko. This can easily be accomplished in a number of ways. Travelers can either head up to the aforementioned Kinugawa Onsen via an express train from Asakusa or take the bullet train to Utsunomiya Station. In either case, you’ll need to make the final leg of the journey via local trains so refer to Jorudan or a similar service for schedules. Note that there’s actually a Tobu Railways and JR station for Nikko so be careful when entering your destination.
Once you’re actually in the vicinity of Nikko itself, you’ll need to either rent a car or hop a bus over to Lake Chuzen-ji. The whole trip should be around an hour. Those who can’t drive (such as myself) are highly encouraged to buy a two-day pass at the tourism information counter inside the Tobu Nikko Station building. For around 2,000 yen, you can hop on or off the bus as many times as you’d like. Seeing as the price is already less than the combined fare to and from Lake Chuzen-ji, the two-day bus pass is a real bargain. Time allowing, you can even get off at the area where the Toshogu Shrine is on the way back too.
By the way, you know how they say that the journey is the destination? Well that saying certainly applies to the ride to Lake Chuzen-ji. You see, this body of water is located high in the mountains that surround Nikko. To get there via an automobile, you’ll need to ascent the impressive Iroha-zaka. Simply stunning in autumn, this winding road consists of nearly fifty hairpin turns. During autumn, the entire path is engulfed in the heavenly hues of autumn. In fact, at least as far as I’m concerned, this vista alone is enough to easily justify visiting Lake Chuzen-ji.
Alas, this also means that traffic on the Iroha-zaka can get majorly backed up during peak season. If you’re planning on going to Lake Chuzen-ji during the months of autumn, I highly, highly, HIGHLY suggest that you avoid weekends. This is because the Iroha-zaka gets backed up worse than the arteries of the mayo and vodka guzzling Homer Simpson. While you’ll at least be able to marvel at the spectacular autumn leaves from the window of your vehicle, sitting in traffic with thousands of people doesn’t make for a good vacation.
What to See at Lake Chuzen-ji
Like a fine wine or a craft pour over coffee, Lake Chuzen-ji isn’t something that you should rush through. In a stark contrast to the rest of Nikko, this part of Tochigi Prefecture is far more suited to slow travel. A big part of the allure of Lake Chuzen-ji comes from just leisurely strolling about while admiring the vibrant hues of fall. Because of this, I suggest that you visit the following attractions on foot. On my recent visit, I was able to make my way to all of these spots in but a mere half a day. You have plenty of time so go slow!
This Buddhist temple is the namesake for Lake Chuzen-ji. Pictured above, the compound can be found on the southeastern shore of the lagoon. It was originally erected over a millennium ago by Shodo Shonin, the founder of Nikko, Chuzen-ji houses a six-meter-tall statue of the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy Kannon. The effigy is carved from but a mere single piece of timber and is quite the sight to behold. At another part of the Chuzen-ji complex, you’ll also find a the entire Deva King pantheon as well as a depiction of a dragon by the same artist that did the famous “Crying Dragon” at the Toshogu Shrine.
- Kegon Falls
Standing at nearly 100-meters-tall, Kegon Falls is one of the most impressive waterfalls in all of Japan. In fact, along with Nachi Falls in Wakayama and Fukuroda Falls in Ibaraki, Kegon Falls constitutes a trio of the country’s very best. What makes this waterfall so noteworthy is that it is the only point of exit for nearby Lake Chuzen-ji. As such, Kegon Falls boasts a ferocity that only Mother Nature can manage. It’s truly a sight to behold from any of the available observation decks.
- Futarasan Shrine
This is actually the second of three shrines that are dedicated to holy Mt. Nantai. While the first is located directly next to the Toshogu Shrine back down in central Nikko and therefore well visited, the Futarasan Shrine on the shores of Lake Chuzen-ji sees far less foot traffic. Traditionally, it is also the starting point for those looking to scale Mt. Nantai. Should you give the hike a go, be sure to keep an eye out for the third and final Futarasan Shrine at the summit of the mountain.
One other attraction that I’d like to recommend is the Akechidaira Plateau. Unlike the above three spots, this majestic viewpoint is only accessible via the Iroha-zaka on the way up. As such, if you want to enjoy the Akechidaira Plateau and its commanding vistas, you’ll need to get off prior to actually arriving at Lake Chuzen-ji. From there, you can ride to the top of a nearby crag via the Akechidaira Ropeway. Just remember that the Akechidaira Plateau cannot be reached via the descending section of the Iroha-zaka. You either hit it on the way up or not at all.
Note that the greater Lake Chuzen-ji area has a few other draws as well such as Senjogahara and a number of European embassy villas. Sadly, these are either inaccessible to tourists or don’t otherwise combine well with your average itinerary. While I’d encourage you to sample activities like a relaxing boat cruise across Lake Chuzen-ji, I also realize that most visitors to Japan are pressed for time and don’t have the leisure of spending a few days just enjoying this small slice of Tochigi Prefecture.
Other Nearby Attractions
This should really go without saying but if you’re going to go all the way up to Lake Chuzen-ji, you absolutely need to also stop by Nikko’s sacred collection of shrines and temples. To be frank, I simply could not imagine anyone visiting this part of Japan without seeing the likes of the Toshogu Shrine or recently refurbished Rinno-ji. Seeing as I’ve already written at length about Nikko in previous articles though, I am going to defer to my prior work here in the interest of brevity.
- Seeing it ALL in Nikko
Getting the Most Out of Your Visit
- Nikko’s Taiyuin-byo
The OTHER Tokugawa Shogun’s Mausoleum
- Nikko’s Takino-o Shrine
In Search of Shodo Shonin
Until next time travelers…