Nikko National Park: Experience diverse natural beauty and cultural heritage

Nikko National Park is located in a mountainous region northeast of Tokyo and spans three prefectures—Gunma, Tochigi and Fukushima—covering an area of 114, 908 hectares. Most of the park is comprised of mountains in the Nasu volcanic zone, and includes Mt. Shirane (2,578 m), Mt. Nantai (2,496) and Mt. Nasu (1,917 m). At the foot of these mountains are magnificent lakes, marshes, waterfalls, valleys and mixed forests, which are home to flourishing wildlife. Nikko City, home to the UNESCO World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko, is nestled in these beautiful natural surroundings.


What is Shugendo?

Shugendo is a syncretic faith often referred to as “mountain worship.” It blends elements of Shintoism and Buddhism with ascetic practices in nature, like waterfall meditation and mountain training, emphasizing a reverence for the mountains and surrounding nature. Nikko’s history of Shugendo begins with the legendary monk Shodo Shonin (735–817), who was guided to Mt. Nantai by a message from the deity Myojo Tenshi. Records show that he was the first to summit Mt. Nantai, and that he discovered areas like Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls. He also laid the foundation for many of Nikko’s historic temples and shrines, including Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple, Chuzenji Temple, and Nikko Futarasan-jinja Shrine. To this day, Shugendo practitioners dressed in traditional vestments, are sometimes seen climbing the holy mountains of Okunikko, as a practice of worship.


Exploring Nikko’s spirituality and nature

Nikko Futarasan-jinja Shrine was founded by Shodo Shonin in 782. The shrine is dedicated to the deities of Nikko's three sacred mountains: Mt. Nantai, Mt. Nyoho, and Mt. Taro. Nikko Futarasan-jinja Shrine is composed of three shrine complexes in Nikko. The head shrine is part of the UNESCO World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko. Another, known as Chugushi, is situated on the northern shore of Lake Chuzenji near the base of Mt. Nantai. A shrine known as Okumiya is at the summit of Mt. Nantai. Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple is also part of the UNESCO World Heritage Shrines and Temples of Nikko. Three golden Buddha statues (known collectively as the Nikko Sanshogongen Honjibutsu) in the main hall represent the Nikko's three sacred mountains in buddha form. After strolling the temple grounds and beautiful gardens, follow in the footsteps of Shodo Shonin to visit some of Nikko’s natural wonders. Lake Chuzenji is one of the symbols of Nikko, and an ideal base for climbing Mt. Nantai. Its shores are covered in tranquil forests that are most popular in autumn, when the leaves change color. To the north of the lake, Yumoto Onsen in Nikko National Park is famous for its high-quality hot spring water. The hot spring was discovered by Shodo Shonin over 1200 years ago. Kegon Falls is considered one of the three most famous waterfalls in Japan and is famous for its natural beauty. View its dramatic 97-meter drop from the base of the falls. On the northern side of the lake is Mt. Nantai, one of Japan’s 100 Famous Mountains. The climb to Futarasan-jinja Shrine Okumiya at the top of Mt. Nantai is suited to advanced climbers. When the weather is good, the summit offers sweeping views of Lake Chuzenji and Senjogahara.


A Shugendo experience

The Nikko Natural Science Museum has a section where you can learn more about Shodo Shonin and Shugendo. You can also find information about sightseeing spots in Okunikko, at the museum. For a more immersive experience, don traditional vestments and join a Shugendo Experience tour of the Kifuri Highland with NAOC Nikko Base. The tour begins with a traditional mountain ritual, followed by a several-kilometer-long hike past three waterfalls. Participants can experience takigyo, traditional Shugendo waterfall meditation. Practitioners believe that contemplation under the waterfall cleanses both body and soul. While in Nikko, be sure to try yuba, the local specialty. Yuba is made of soy milk skin, and it is a traditional food in Nikko, where it has long been eaten as a valuable source of protein by ascetic practitioners. Today, yuba is used in a variety of dishes at restaurants and hotels in Nikko, and is also popular among vegetarians.

Areas of Nikko