Silver Week in Nikko Day 2: Chasing Waterfalls and Cheating Death

For our second day in Nikko, we bought the 2-day, 3,000-yen bus pass to Yamato Onsen, planning on escaping the central town in favor of exploring the natural landscapes beyond… which is exactly what everyone else in Nikko apparently planned to do. It took our bus a full HOUR just to drive half a mile due to all the traffic. It was a little nightmarish, really.

Eventually our bus got past all the traffic jams, and my friends and I spent the day hopping on and off at different places. First was the cute little lakeside town at Lake Chuzenji, where we made a quick trip to Kegon Falls. Apparently there are a lot of wild monkeys around Kegon, and we were repeatedly warned that they will sneak up on you and nick your stuff–those little theives!–but fortunately or unfortunately, we didn’t encounter any.

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Next was a trip to Ryuzu Falls, which were by far the most forgettable out of all the waterfalls we saw that day. However, my hike the next day brought me once again to Ryuzu Falls, which is how I discovered that you can actually take a small path up to the top of the waterfall (and I really recommend you do, because it makes Ryuzu so much more impressive).

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Our final waterfall, Yudaki Falls, was recommended to us by our fantastic Airbnb host. We would have missed it otherwise, because for some reason it wasn’t really highlighted by the tourist guides. We saved the best for last, though, because Yudaki Falls were by far the most impressive of the three. Probably because you are just so close to the falls; you hear the roar of the water, you feel the mist in the air, and your spine tingles a little bit with the realization of how much raw power is right in front of you.  Even better, the Autumn leaves had just started changing colors, making it all the more beautiful.

Yudaki is not the waterfall to skip, even though it’s pretty far from Nikko itself.

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By the time we took the bus back to Tobu-Nikko Station from Yamato Onsen (the very end of the line), it was pitch-black dark. Funnily enough, the bus ride itself turned out to be a real highlight of the day. There were only six of us at first, and the bus driver wanted an audience. He called all of us to sit at the front of the bus, then proceeded to tell us stories about the forests we were driving through — stories of bears and monkeys and people who had lost their way in the darkness. (Luckily J translated all of his stories for me).

The real fun began after picking up a few more people at Lake Chuzenji. We had reached IROHAZAKA, a pair of dangerous roads that snake up the mountains, connecting the lower elevations of central Nikko with the higher elevations of the Lake Chuzenji region. The newer Irohazaka is exclusively used for upward traffic, while the older Irohazaka is specifically for downward traffic: together, the two roads feature 48 hairpin turns that have led to many accidents.

Driving down Irohazaka at night–in a huge and poorly maneuverable bus–was both terrifying and thrilling. If you looked out the front of the bus as we were swinging around one of the hairpin turns, you couldn’t see any of the road. You couldn’t even see the guardrail. All you saw was the black night and mountain valley waiting to swallow you up.

Everyone on the bus let out little gasps of fear and awe for the most alarming turns, and looking around at all of the faces of the people on that bus, I felt that all language barriers had been broken. It was true camaraderie born of nerves and jitters. We were all in this together. We would be driven off a cliff together, or together, we would live to tell the tale.

Luckily, our driver was extremely skilled, chatting and making jokes to those of us lucky enough to be near the front of the bus as he confidently maneuvered the serpentine road. At one point, he even stopped the bus to let the cars behind him get ahead, and then he commented that you could tell how nervous drivers were by how much they used the brakes. We spent the next few minutes laughing as some cars flashed their brake lights every three seconds as they approached the next curve, and some rode their brakes the whole way down.

In the end, we reached Nikko safely and our anxieties slipped away, leaving only the thrill of the experience. I don’t think any future bus ride will ever compare to that night on Irohazaka.

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Irohazaka from the sky. Looks like a great place for a drive, right? (Note: this is not my photo).

Also, if anyone is thinking about heading to Nikko in the future (it’s easily accessible from Tokyo), I have some practical tips–based solely upon my own experiences, of course, so take them with a grain of salt.

#1: Don’t stay in Nikko. While the traditional hotels in Nikko seem really awesome, they also come with a big, fancy price tag… so for people on a budget, I recommend booking an Airbnb in one of the outlying towns. Another thing to consider: basically all of Nikko shuts down at 5pm, because that’s when the temples close. It makes no sense, but by 6:30 p.m.–even on a Saturday night–most of the city is a ghost town, and the few restaurants that stay open will be mobbed.

#2: My friends and I stayed in an Airbnb in Imaichi, which is a 9-minute train ride from Nikko. Imaichi turned out to be a bit of a hidden gem–despite lacking the natural beauty and the ancient temples of Nikko, Imaichi was much less touristy, meaning that the restaurants there were all at once cheaper, more authentic, and open later than any the restaurants in Nikko. Our host in Imaichi was Yuichi, who was probably the most amazing Airbnb host I’ve ever encountered. His cheerful demeanor simply radiated positive energy. He had recommendations for everything–restaurants, tourist sites, onsens–and his advice never failed us.

#3. Even if you are not staying in Imaichi, you can still go there to eat (as I wrote earlier, it’s only 9 minutes away by train). Two places I highly recommend:

*  Kashiwa Cafe and Dining Bar (珈茶話) — Not only was this place open late (till 10 p.m.), but the guy who runs it doubles as an amazing latte artist. We went here both nights for dinner.

* Toriaezu Dining and Cafe (とりあえず) — The ladies who work here are lovely. We went here for a quick, early breakfast, but it turned into a grand, two-hour affair as we chatted with the wonderful women who made us a HUGE, healthy breakfast (rice, fried egg, pickled cabbage, yogurt with fresh pear, edamame-and-scallop curry, homemade yuba, shredded cabbage salad, and smoked ham) all for 500 YEN. Which is $5 U.S. dollars. Amazing.

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#4: Nikko is PACKED on weekends and during holidays (especially in Autumn when the leaves start to change colors) so if you are looking for a peaceful retreat, you might want to go during the summer or on like a random Wednesday. I’m serious about this one, especially if you are driving there. Yuichi said that during the fall, the 5-minute bus-ride from Nikko Station to the temple area can take two hours. And the 90-minute bus ride from Nikko Station to Yamato Onsen can take 5 hours. Spare yourself that pain.

Okay, so that wraps up Day 2 as well as all my recommendations. Stay tuned, though, because next time I’ll bare all…… figuratively, at least.

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