From Nikko to Aizu | Uncovering a New Route in Northern Japan

One of Tobu Railways’ Kegon Limited Express at Nikko Station

Recently, I took part in what is locally referred to as a “monitor tour” to assess the viability of a new route that the government and railway companies are considering. The other participants and I started in Tokyo’s Taito Ward and then made our way up to the southern part of Fukushima’s Aizu region. Ultimately, the trip ended in the historic town of Nikko where the famed Toshogu Shrine resides. While there were certainly some sections of the itinerary that still need work, this monitor tour got me thinking that Aizu and Nikko really do make a wonderful pair of destinations.

Now, as long time readers already know, I’ve already covered the Nikko and Aizu regions of Japan in depth before. So, rather than dive deep into the metaphorical weeds, I want to instead focus on introducing this new route. Though Nikko and Aizu aren’t all too far away from each other as the crow flies, even seasoned domestic tourists are likely unaware of the fact that the two locations are conveniently interlinked via a number of railways. If you want to experience a rarely traveled itinerary, definitely consider my following suggestions for your next trip to Japan.

Start the Journey in Nikko

The famous Toshogu Shrine is a must-visit if you’re exploring a Nikko-Aizu route

The monitor tour that I participated in did the reverse of what I am going to recommend to you. We first took the Tobu Railways’ Revaty Limited Express to the southern portions of Aizu to check out the Aizu Kogen Takatsue Ski Resort. Given that most overseas tourists prefer to travel in large loops, I think that it is more logistically sound to check out Nikko first then go to Aizu. This will allow you to take JR’s Ban’etsu West Line from Aizu-Wakamatsu over to Koriyama. From there, you can catch a bullet train north or alternatively return to Tokyo.

Should you opt to heed my advice in regards to the Nikko-Aizu route, you’ll want to take Tobu Railways’ Kegon Limited Express from Asakusa to Nikko. To make the most out of the day, you’ll want to get an early start. Once in Nikko, you can either hoof it over to the spiritual enclave centered around the Toshogu Shrine and Rinno-ji or elect to take a bus. Either way, this part of Nikko easily has a day’s worth of adventures. In fact, you could easily spend the better part of two days exploring what Nikko has to offer (just refer to this guide if you need some inspiration).

In terms of accomodations, there are many options for lodging in and around Nikko. If you’d like to check out the epic Edo Wonderland though, you may want to consider staying in Kinugawa Onsen. Found a little to the north of Nikko, this small hot spring town is the easiest jumping off point for those heading to Edo Wonderland. While you could alternatively make your way to the Aizu Kogen Takatsue Ski Resort like I did, I think that Ed Wonderland is a lot more fun, (especially for those of you who are accident prone and should avoid skiing and/or snowboarding).

Continue on to Ouchijuku

Ouchijuku is a great midpoint destination for anyone trying a Nikko-Aizu route

From Kinugawa Onsen, you can work your way up towards the historic town of Ouchijuku. This locale is the crowning jewel of Fukushima Prefecture and is one of my favorite attractions in all of Japan. Historically Ouchijuku was once a post town on the highway that connected Nikko and Aizu. These days, Ouchijuku looks very much like it did centuries ago. Many of the traditional thatched buildings date from the late Edo Period (1603–1868) and the hamlet itself has been honored as an Important Preservation District for Groups of Traditional Buildings.

Since I’ve covered Ouchijuku in my guide to Aizu-Wakamatsu, I won’t waste your time by fan-boying any further. Just note that getting to the secluded village is a bit of a challenge. Assuming that you’re coming from the Nikko area, you’ll need to take the Yagan Railway to Aizu-Tajima Station and then transfer to the Aizu Railway. You’ll want to ride this line through to Yunokami Onsen Station where you can finally catch a bus up to Ouchijuku. While this may sound daunting on paper, know that it’s quite easy to navigate when you actually do it.

After visiting Ouchijuku, you’ll have to find yourselves accomodations for the night. Here, you have two options. You can continue on to Aizu-Wakamatsu or you can head to one of the hot spring towns near Ouchijuku. Fans of the hit anime series Kimetsu-no-Yaiba (a.k.a Demon Slayer) will want to opt for the latter option as this area is home to Ashinomaki Onsen. Here, you’ll find a traditional ryokan by the name of Okawaso. This facility was the inspiration for the demon lord Muzan’s Infinity Castle. If you’re in the area and can’t get enough of Tanjiro and friends, you really ought to stay here!

Finish at Aizu-Wakamatsu

Aizu-Wakamatsu’s double helixed Sazaedo is a must visit for anyone on a Nikko-Aizu route

You’ll begin your third day already in Aizu-Wakamatsu (or at one of the nearby onsens). As I detailed in this in-depth area guide, Aizu-Wakamatsu is a former castle town that played a tragic but integral part in the final years of the samurai’s rule. All in all, there’s easily a solid day’s worth of exploring to be had in Aizu-Wakamatsu. Personally, I suggest you start with the double helixed Sazaedo, continue on to the reconstructed samurai domicile and end with the majestic Tsuruga Castle. There’s of course more to Aizu-Wakamatsu than just this trio but everything else is more of an add-on.

Once you’ve wrapped up seeing all there is to see in Aizu-Wakamatsu, you’ll again have to make a decision. From here, you can head back towards Koriyama Station where you can hop on a northern bound bullet train. Alternatively, you could elect to head back down to Tokyo too and see another part of Japan. In Either case, just don’t make the blunder that my group and I did on the monitor tour and retrace your steps. This is hugely inefficient and does not present the chance to see anything new along the way home.

Before closing, allow me to note that there’s a lot more that you can do in this neck of the woods. As I’ve outlined in this 2021 article on Nishi-Aizu and Kitakata, this neck of the woods has a lot more niche appeal than just what I’ve noted here. Especially for fans of ramen, the Kitakata area is a bit of a pilgrimage. Known as one of the top three areas for ramen in ALL of Japan, this rural part of Fukushima serves up a serious bowl of noodles. If you’re even a bit of a ramen connoisseur, I cannot more highly recommend that you check out this rarely explored side of Japan.

Until next time travelers…

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Donny Kimball
Donny Kimball

I'm a travel writer and freelance digital marketer who blogs about the sides of Japan that you can't find in the mainstream media.

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