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A Guide to Nikko Waterfalls

Kymberly became interested in Japan and made several solo trips before moving there to teach English in 2010 and 2011.

A small section of Kegon falls in winter.

A small section of Kegon falls in winter.

Nikko (日光), a small town in Japan's Tochigi prefecture, is well known for its large temple complex, which includes Toshogu Shrine, Rinnoji Temple, Futarasan Shrine, and Taiyuin Mausoleum. However, Nikko is also surrounded by many rivers and mountains with gorgeous waterfalls. Many of these waterfalls are within walking distance from bus stops, car parks, or as half-day or full-day walks from Nikko and Lake Chuzenji.

Notes on naming: The -taki or -daki ending on a name means "waterfall" in Japanese. The -ko ending means "lake."

Nikko: Land of Waterfalls

Traditionally, Nikko has been called the land with 47 or sometimes even 72 waterfalls; some large, tall and majestic, and some quite small, falling only a couple of meters. Surrounded by lush forest, national parks and tall mountains, the scenery changes each season.

Bright greens and blossoms color the waters in spring, after the ice has melted. In summer, Nikko's waterfalls are shaded by range of lush greenery, water dripping from leaves and moss.

Stunning colors in fall and piles of fallen leaves signal winter's approach. Nikko is beautiful in mid-winter, when many of the waterfalls are half or fully frozen, rocks covered in snow and icicles.

In summer you can hike through the marshland between two of the main waterfalls (Yu falls and Ryuzu falls), and in winter, you can cross-country ski along the same route.

A small section of Urami falls in winter, Nikko.

A small section of Urami falls in winter, Nikko.

Yu Falls

Yu falls (Yudaki - 湯滝) are found at the edge of Yunoko lake, opposite the onsen ("hot spring") town of Yumoto. There is a bus stop at the bottom of the falls (Yudaki-iriguchi), on the bus line from Nikko and Lake Chuzenji to Yumoto onsen.

A long, stepped descent snakes down the cliff directly next to the waterfall, a stunning drop of 70 meters. These stairs may be closed for safety when the ground is icy. In summer, be prepared to be overtaken by many energetic school groups.

The waterfall splits at the bottom on a huge rock, protecting a small tree.

An observatory platform and a rest-house with grilled mochi (soft rice cakes), other delicacies and souvenirs can be found at the bottom of the falls.

Tip: It is a beautiful 30-minute hike from Yumoto onsen to Yu falls, along the edge of the lake (on the opposite side to the road). Arrive early in the day to avoid the school and senior groups, out for a day of hiking.

Ko Falls

Not far from the base of Yu falls, heading towards the Senjogahara marshlands, is a small, peaceful waterfall of about five meters. Ko falls (Kodaki - 小滝, meaning child falls) is surrounded by overhanging trees, and looks stunning in all four seasons.

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You will walk past Ko falls if you want to walk along the boardwalk, through the marshlands, from Yu falls to lake Chuzenji (about 2-3 hours).

Ryuzu Falls

Ryuzu falls (Ryuzunotaki - 頭ノ滝) is a very long, stepped waterfall, edged by spring and autumn flowering azalea plants and maples - beautifully colored in spring and autumn.

In winter, snow sits on the higher rocks, and the falls half-freeze. In summer, the edges are shaded by dense greenery.

Ryuzu means "dragon" in Japanese, and it was named for the rock towards the end of the falls, which is shaped like a dragon's head.

Ryuzu falls is about 210 meters long, and is one of the four most well-known waterfalls around Nikko. The top of Ryuzu falls is at the edge of the Senjogahara marshlands, and the end of the boardwalk hike from Yunoko lake to Chuzenji lake.

In winter, the stairs alongside the falls may be closed in icy conditions for safety. There are souvenir shops and a cafe at the base of the falls.

Buses between Chuzenji and Nikko regularly stop at the base of the falls.

Tip: Chuzenji lake is gorgeous in all seasons, and edged with paths, cafes and souvenir stores. It is the highest lake in Japan, at over 1200 meters above sea level. You can walk around the edge of Chuzenji lake from Ryuzu falls to Kegon falls in 1-2 hours. In autumn, the leaves can form drifts up to your knees!

Kegon Falls

Kegon falls (Kegonnotaki - 華厳ノ滝) is the most famous of Nikko's waterfalls, being the tallest at 97 meters. It is also ranked in the top three waterfalls in Japan, with Fukuroda falls (Ibaraki prefecture) and Nachi falls (Wakayama prefecture).

Right next to the bus interchange in Chuzenji, Kegon falls has a number of souvenir shops and cafes at the top. An elevator began operating in 1930, taking visitors down the rocky cliff wall to a tea house and observatory platform built at the base of the falls.

In summer, especially when there is high humidity, the falls may not be visible in the thick mist. In winter, the rocks are covered in thick icicles and snow, often looking quite blue.

Autumn colors on the slopes surrounding the waterfall look amazing, but can cause traffic problems.

Downstream from the main waterfall, there are a number of smaller stepped waterfalls called Shirakumo falls (white cloud falls), also viewable from the tea house and observatory in the Kegon falls basin.

Unfortunately, from the early 1900s after the tea house was built, it was a place where suicides often occurred.

Urami Falls

At 45 meters high, and with multiple paths down the rocks, Urami falls (Uraminotaki - 裏見ノ滝) was visited by famous poet Basho in 1687. Basho's Tanka (Fudou Myouou) was inspired by this waterfall:

For a while:
Shut myself in the fall
Early summer

Urami means "view from behind," indicating you can look behind the waterfall from the boardwalk and read the Tanka carved into the rocks.

Surrounded by colorful foliage in autumn, brilliant greens in spring and summer, and long icicles in winter, the boardwalk offers easy access to this wide waterfall. Be careful of slippery ground, especially if the ground is icy in winter.

You can reach this waterfall by walking northwest along Route 195 from its intersection with route 120 and the Tamozawa bus stop. It takes about 50 minutes to reach the waterfall from the intersection.

Jakko Falls

Another short walk from the main road in Nikko, Jakko falls (Jakkonotaki - 寂光ノ滝) was named after the old Jakkoji temple, built in 820. It is said this was the birthplace of a Buddhist chant, the kugi (nuki) nembutsu, to cure the wounds of hell.

Jakko falls is also known as the seven-stepped waterfall, as there are seven stepped sections in the 50-meter drop.

There is still a small shrine just before Jakko falls, with beautifully carved eaves. It can feel quite eerie, as it is in a remote forest location.

Kanmangafuchi Abyss

The Kanmangafuchi abyss (憾満ガ淵) was made by lava flowing from the eruption of Mount Nantai. It was named for the last phrase in a Buddhist Shingon chant (Kanman).

At the entrance to the abyss stands Jiunji temple, originally built in 1654. Upstream of the temple, looking over the abyss stand about 70 Jizo statues, many with red caps and bibs, made by the locals.

Known as the Hyaku jizo (100 jizo), 30 statues were washed away during flooding. They are also called Bake jizo (Ghost jizo), because despite counting them many times, people couldn't agree on the number they counted.

Kanmangafuchi abyss and the Bake jizo are a peaceful walk through a mossy forest, providing a quieter refuge away from the crowds in Nikko's temple complex.

From the main Shinkyo bridge at the start of the temple complex, walk upstream, staying close to the river. Cross the Kanman bridge, continue along the road to the park with the Jiunji temple. It's about 30 minutes from the main bridge. Alternatively, the entrance is a 10-minute walk from the Tamozawa imperial villa bus stop.

The Taisho emperor composed a poem while walking around the abyss:

Sleeves were wet by the spray at the river of Daiya. Cold moonlight night comes over the shore.

Shiraito Falls

After a very peaceful 1-km walk along a cobbled path, northwest of the main temple complex, you will reach Shiraito falls (Shiraitonotaki - 白糸ノ滝, meaning white thread falls), a stepped waterfall with graceful angles.

Shiraito falls are just in front of the Takinoo shrine, a subsidiary shrine to Futarasan. The priest Kukai built the shrine to the "daughter of god," Tagorihimeno-mikoto, the symbol of the nearby Mount Nyoho.

Takinoo shrine was moved in 1645 to its present location, surrounded by huge trees. A restful break from the crowds at the main temples.

In 1486, Jiko, a priest from Kyoto's Seigoin Temple, wrote a poem about the Shiraito falls:

After many years of marriage, the end is just like this end of the waterfall - it is like white thread.

Nikko Has Many Other Waterfalls!

There are so many other waterfalls in and around Nikko. Some are easily accessible by car or bus, but some are deep in the national parks, and reached by a long day of hiking.

Kirifuri falls, north of Nikko, has multiple falling streams and is definitely worth visiting.

All of these waterfalls are gorgeous in all seasons, and even within the town of Nikko, you can always hear the relaxing sound of running water.

The information kiosk in the middle of Nikko town, and the information desk at the Tobu railway station, have detailed maps of the area, with many waterfalls marked.

Plan to stay a while, and visit as many waterfalls as you can!

Waterfalls around Nikko

Your favorite waterfall in Nikko

Toshogu mausoleum, Nikko.

Toshogu mausoleum, Nikko.

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