Nikko ski and samurai sessions off grid Japan

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Nikko is way off the grid for most international ski visitors to Japan, and pretty far off grid for locals skiers too judging by the empty slopes we encountered at Nikko Yumoto Ski Area. Which is all the more surprising given that Nikko City is a fantastic and very popular World Heritage site, home to arguably the most impressive temple and shrine complex in Japan and close to Tokyo, with a choice of Tobu or JR Rail lines to get you there.

Empty slopes at Nikko Yumoto © Owain Price

World Heritage Nikko

Most people, in winter anyway, seem content to go as far as Nikko town centre and the World Heritage cultural highlights above town of Rinnoji Temple and Nikko Toshogu Shrine. Don’t miss them either – the Toshogu shrine is the last resting place of the first Shogun, Tokugawa Ieyasu. His tomb lies atop a hill in a beautiful Sugi (Japanese Cedar) forest at the pinnacle of a magnificent complex of 55 buildings, most of which are designated National Treasures or Important Cultural Properties.

Tori gate at top of Toshogu shrine Nikko
Solid bronze gate at the top of Toshogu shrine © Owain Price

A line drawn through the shrine’s gates to Edo (Tokyo) runs true North – South. That was done over 400 years ago.

If you think ho hum, you’ve already seen enough temples and shrines think again. Not much prepares you for the sheer scale here. Through each tori arch and magnificent gate you go, “Wow, that’s awesome!” Then the next one is even better. An on and on.

We won’t go into the full detail here, check the link here for a full lowdown on the World Heritage shrine area. Suffice to say if you are into Japanese history and culture Nikko is a must for that. But anyone will find plenty to interest them checking it out for a few hours. My favourite was this gate guardian dude. I swear he blinked when I took the shot .. Climbing all 207 steps (each carved from a single stone) up to the top shrine through the old forest is great to tone up the knees for hitting the snow next day.

Gate guardian Nikko Toshogu shrine
Gate Guardian, Nikko Toshogu Shrine © Owain Price

Nikko Yumoto skiing and Nikko National Park

Nikko’s spectacular natural settings owe much to Nantai volcano, whose eruptions have left a highland landscape of alpine lakes and waterfalls that are mostly within Nikko National Park and really wild.

Nikko town sits at 380m above sea level at the foot of the Nantai highlands, the road winding up to Lake Chuzenji (‘The Lake of the Sacred Temple’) and Chuzenji Onsen at 1,269m. The Kagon Falls at Chuzenji Onsen are the 3rd highest in Japan, with a 97m main drop. A lift drilled through the rock takes you down to a low level viewing area.

The Lake Chuzenji area became popular with European diplomats in the late 19th century. They built lodges, and even had themselves carried the whole way up in sedan chairs. Good old days. They also stocked the lake with trout.

After the war the American military government took up residence in the Hotel Kanaya in Chuzenji, which an enterprising local had opened to cater for well-heeled Europeans at the turn of the century.

The same family subsequently developed the deluxe Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel along the lake from town, which makes a perfect getaway to enjoy the area from in any season. The hotel’s onsen are open to the lake views, which is perfect at sunset as the sun drops over the hills behind the lake on the opposite shore. The French cuisine is a delight at dinner time. Not for younger party crew, there’s just a lounge and not apres action, but it’s a perfect romantic getaway.

Kids skiing at Nikko Yumoto
Bring the kids – 2 ski free with an adult © Owain Price

While snow usually lies outside through winter, the skiing is further on, a winding step up past another couple of waterfalls to little Lake Yunoko (‘Lake of the Hot Spring’) and alpine marshland at 1500m, framed by mighty peaks rising to Nikko-Shiransen at 2578m. In summer the main road continues on over a pass with a tunnel to Katashina in Gunma past Marunuma-Kogen and Oze Iwakura ski resorts. In winter it’s a closed high alpine valley. We didn’t have the time, or the crew, to do some skinning, but there is a wealth of awesome back country on offer here if you do.

Little Nikko Yumoto ski area had a handful of kid beginners and us as the total visitation on a sunny February day with a dusting of fresh snow around. They used to have a few more lifts, but shut down the single chair and double that went higher up the big peaks at the back, replete with tasty tree lines. They also took away the bottom lift so weirdly, the base beginners don’t get a lift – they just step around till they get competent enough to hike up 100m or so above the carpark/base area to the first (of 3) functioning lifts. Not the first time in Japan I’ve wondered, who did the lift placement and slope design? Not a skier obviously.

Nikko Yumoto ski area
It’s like having your own private ski hill at Nikko Yumoto © Snow Action

So that’s another reason why you won’t find a crowd here. But the main one is it’s just remote – tucked away at the head of a high alpiine valley. A fair cluster of onsen hotels at the top end of the lake are testament to Yumoto Onsen’s popularity in other seasons. They come for hiking, fishing, onsen, and exceptional natural environment.

Double chairlift at Nikko Yumoto ski area
Two is a crowd at Nikko Yumoto © Owain Price

In simple ski terms it’s good for a family with little kids to cruise around on, and for properly equipped crew up for a skin/splitboard/hike to enjoy sweet lines few ever ski. The family tickets allow 2 kids to ski free with an adult, so it’s a bargain as well at just ¥3,600 for one day or ¥5,600 for 2 days.

Old single chairlift at Nikko Yumoto ski area
If you’re here on a pow day a simple option is skin up the old single chair line even if it’s socked in © Owain Price

Other activities include snow shoeing, and checking out the source of the hot springs is a nice easy walk. Local company Nikko Base can show you the best of it. Boss Takuhiro Masubuchi is a keen skier.

If your wallet won’t stretch to the deluxe Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel check the booking.com selection in the onsen village here or back at Chuzenji onsen, which has restaurants and bars. It suits self-drive, but there are regular buses that run all the way up from Nikko’s JR and Tobu Line stations, so you certainly don’t need a car.

So far so good, some classic culture and off grid, albeit limited skiing, in a stunning away-from-it-all natural environment are on the table to convince you to check Nikko out.

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Lake Yumoto, Nikko
Lake Yumoto looking towards the ski area/onsen village end © Owain Price

Edo Wonderland aka Samurai fantasy heaven

But come on lads, after fantasising about being a pro skier/rider what’s your #2 life goal fantasy in Japan? Being a samurai swordsman of course! And you can. In fact I am, I did lesson one already at the totally awesome Edo Wonderland, a fantastic theme recreation of an Edo era postal town.

The Shoguns built key roads and spaced out postal towns along them to ensure the flow of information and control to keep Japan’s hard won unity intact. Edo Wonderland’s recreation is very detailed, all staff are in costume and character, and all visitors are encouraged to follow suit by bringing or renting an outfit on site.

Edo Wonderland Nikko Samurai Lord and Lady
Just call me Lord, Samurai Lord .. at Nikko’s Edo Wonderland they did, all day .. © Snow Action

So suit up your fantasty and go for a stroll.

And just call me Lord, Samurai Lord! It’s the most expensive guy’s outfit (fair enough considering how long it took the little costume shop lady to get it all on. Tip: they had warm underwear/under layers back in the Edo day, so you will cook in thermals as I was), but simpler samurai and ninja suits are quicker to get into, cheaper, and just as much fun.

I soon got used to everybody bowing to the Lord as I surveyed my domain. Yep, feudalism has a lot to recommend it if you’re on the top of the pyramid..

Young guys getting in the samurai/ninja spirit too © Owain Price

For girls, the princess kimonos have to be the go. They seem to think women of married age should dress more dowager style (as they traditionally have to do) but hey, single girl outfits are prettier, easier to get on, and the hair is way simpler, so ladies 40 is the new 30 and all that, just go for those.

As for the kids well, black ninja outfits and a sword, what could go wrong?

Nothing says girls can’t sword up either! © Owain Price

Once you gear up you really do feel more in tune with the surroundings. Edo Wonderland boasts fascinating displays, parades, shows and plenty of hands on activities like samurai sword or archery lessons, or calligraphy or traditional music if you want something more arty less action. No prizes for guessing what I enrolled in.

Traditional food, beer and sake stalls and restaurants will keep you well fortified, you need a few hours here to get the most out of it.

Apart from the samurai sword lesson my absolute favourite was the full on ninja show. In a small little theatre, set as a traditional house/street night scene, the ninjas – all movie stunt people and very, very good – put on a show that’s so full tilt you wonder how they come out unscathed. Like being a few metres of Jackie Chan in full flight. OK, I know, he’s from Queanbeyan and Chinese, but you know what I mean. Highlight, the roll off the roof move. Tip: if you’ve taken the kids, keep an eye on them trying that same roof move back home.

All up visiting Edo Wonderland was one of the most fun days we have ever had in Japan, period. It may sound, and probably is, kitschy enough, but it’s huge fun that all ages can get into. Come with the kids, come with a crew of friends. It may just be the best day you’ve had in J-land.

Check the Edo Wonderland website for full details. Access is easy – there are even day tours from Tokyo, and plenty from the Nikko area.

oiran parade at #edowonderland awesome recreation of an Edo era town great shows and activities from samurai sword lessons to music and you and the kids can dress up for the day to enjoy it even more #nikko #visitnikko #tochigi #oiran #geisha #visitjapan #traditionaljapan #enjoyjapan

Posted by Jsummer on Thursday, February 20, 2020
Oilan parade at Edo Wonderland, Nikko
The Oiran parade – check those platform sandals girls! © Carmen Price

Nikko access and getting around

Nikko makes a great first or last destination for any ski intinerary heading north from (or back south to) Tokyo: Aizu is next door, and Iwate, Akita and Aomori up the shinkansen line. Take the shinkansen to Shin-Utsunomiya then JR Nikko. So it works with a JR East Tohoku Rail Pass.

But Nikko has two rail lines – the Tobu line works just as well. Arriving to Haneda take the lift downstairs and get on the Asakusa suburban line to Asakusa about 40 minutes, then the Limited Express Spacia 2 hours from there to Nikko (you have to change from the suburban line to the Tobo line terminus a block away). This avoids cramming in with skis/boards on the monorail too and flights arrive early enough that you avoid the morning rush hour too.

You can get a 4 day Nikko Pass which includes all local trains and bus lines, and one non-express return trip from Tokyo, plus discount entry to Edo Wonderland, for ¥4,320 for adults, ¥1,060 children. There is plenty of accommodation in Nikko town too, so you could just stay here and do a culture day, a ski day, and an Edo Wonderland day for example. More details/book on Tobu site

Self driving is easy, it’s only 160km, 2 hours or more depending on traffic. The World Heritage site gets busy a lot, in winter the road up to the highlands less so.

Express buses run from Shinjuku, Haneda and Narita.

Remember, Nikko is very popular for the culture side, so best to avoid weekends and holidays. Head up to the highlands and get right off grid. But put on the list – Nikko rocks!

More info on the Nikko tourism site here

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