Japan’s Romantic Road meanders through some 198 miles (320 kilometers) of breathtaking scenery, dreamy onsen (hot springs) towns and ancient ruins. Linking Ueda in Nagano with Nikko in Tochigi, the route provides the quintessential experience of Kanto’s beauty. And the perfect place to immerse yourself in the history of the Kanto Prefecture.
This serene countryside is loved for the rugged mountain landscapes surrounding Nagano, Gunma and Tochigi. From Ueda’s impenetrable 16th-century castle and the sleepy village of Shima Onsen, famous for its healing waters and charming inns, you could easily carve out a whole trip around the Romantic Road and its beauty. Working your way west to east, you’ll wind up in Nikko—and that is where your adventure truly begins.
Japanese for “sunshine,” Nikko is a place every bit as spectacular as it sounds. Home to some of Japan’s most elaborate shrines and temples tucked away into an endless expanse of mountains, it certainly lives up to its name.
Marvel at the Mountains
Nikko’s first and most obvious hook is its incredible setting. The town itself serves as a grand entrance into a sprawling national park of the same name. The lush woods, pristine waterfalls and magnificent stretches of mountain wilderness will have you in disbelief that Tokyo is just under two hours away.
There’s no better way to take in the serene nature of this destination than with a pair of hiking boots and some snacks for the day. Start with a visit to the Nikko Tourist Information Center, where you can grab an easy-to-follow map of Nikko and the surrounding area, Japanese and English place names included.
The area is webbed with hiking trails fit for the seasoned trekker and the occasional afternoon hiker, so you’ll never run out of new places to explore at your activity level. Fancy an epic lakeside picnic in the shadow of pristine mountains? Head for Lake Chūzenji. How about bird watching through the Senjogahara Marshlands? Nikko has it in spades.
Mount Nasu Hiking Trail
Spend an adventurous afternoon exploring Mount Nasu (sometimes referred to as Mount Chausu), one of the area’s most spectacular and iconic active volcanoes.
If you don’t have ample time to scale the entire mountain, you can take a shortcut. You’ll start with a picturesque ride via the Nasu Ropeway gondola, which’ll land you at the Ninth Station; i.e. the ninth stage of the hike. From there, you’ll climb for about an hour to reach the summit of mighty Mount Nasu.
Don’t feel like a cheater for opting for the gondola, the views and climb are still extremely rewarding and make for an approachable and safe option for those less skilled with mountain climbing. Once you’ve made it to the top, there’s nothing left to do other than soak into the breathtaking scenery that surrounds.
Yahata Azalea and Nasu Nature Path
Meander through endless wildflower meadows in the spring or fiery foliage in the fall with an afternoon spent on the Yahata Azalea and Nasu Nature Path. Winding through more than 200,000 azalea bushes, this 5.6-mile (nine-kilometer) hiking trail is perfect for admiring the flora that earned Yahata a designation as one of the 100 most aromatic sites around Japan! Along the trail, you’ll have sweeping views of the surrounding mountains and valleys, with Mount Nasu off in the distance.
Ichimanpo-no-mori Forest Bathing Trail
There are two types of people—waves, sand and sun people, and mountains, woods and streams people. If you’re the latter, then carving out time for the Ichimanpo-no-mori (Nasu Kaido Red Pine) Forest Trail is an absolute must.
Here, you can experience the phenomenon of forest bathing: the Japanese practice of relaxing in the calm and quietness of a forest. Spanning just a couple of hours, the trail leads you through a woodland paradise of tens of thousands of Japanese red pines, sky-blue hydrangeas and fresh, forest air perfect to reset and refresh.
Immerse Yourself in Vibrant Shinto History
The sacred shrines and temples of Nikko are as magnificent as the nature that surrounds them. Since ancient times, the wild landscape of Nikko has provided adherents of Shinto places of worship where they can honor the natural world and the sacred forces that embody it.
Taking the cake as one of Japan’s most ornate and elaborate shrines, Toshogu Shrine is also one of the most significant Shinto sites in the country. The spiritual history of Nikko can be traced back to the eighth century, when a Buddhist monk found himself so overcome with a love and admiration for the mountains of Nikko that he founded the Shihonryuji Temple (now the Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple).
In the 1,200 years since, Nikko as a whole has morphed into an elaborate patchwork of Buddhist and Shinto faiths, a fusion tradition known as Shinbutsu-shūgō. Deep in the sky-high woods of the national park, the Toshogu Shrine makes it easy to see why nature and its sacred forces are the forefront of both philosophies.
Once you pass through the large stone torii (gate), a feature that traditionally marks the entrance to a sacred space, the energy is palpable. The five-storey pagoda, symbolic of the five elements of existence—earth, water, fire, wind and void—boasts a kaleidoscope of color and intricate carvings is the first thing you’ll spot.
What does the Toshogu Shrine, well, enshrine? Only the most famous samurai leader in Japanese history, otherwise known as Tokuhawa Ieyasu. He was not only one of Japan’s most revered national heroes, but is also hailed as bringing Japan to its most peaceful age from the 17th to the 19th century.
It’s not just a brilliant example of Japanese craftsmanship and one of the country’s major Unesco World Heritage Sites, but also an example of the coexistence of Shinto and Buddhist faith over the centuries. And Toshogu Shrine barely scratches the surface of the spiritual landscape found in Nikko and the Kanto prefecture. The area is chock full of Unesco sites, ranging from historic temples to peaceful shrines proving that Japan’s wilderness is a crossroads of unspoiled nature and deep spirituality.
From the ancient serene mountains to the modern bustling metropolises, there’s a story to uncover everywhere in Japan. Read our Japan Travel Guide to find out more about this fantastical destination.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.