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Discover the Superb Shrines and Temples of Nikko

Beautiful Vermilion Shinkyo Bridge in Nikko

“Build a small shrine in Nikko and enshrine me as the God. I will be the guardian of peacekeeping.”
Shogun Ieyasu Tokugawa, 1542–1616

Packs of chattering monkeys stand between you and the entrance to this distinctive shrine complex in the mountains of northern Japan. Avoiding the creatures as best you can, pick your way through the woodland up the final stairs, and you will find yourself face to face with the remarkable Rinno-ji temple, founded in 766. Its large hall is full of treasures from Edo-period Japan, and there is a beautiful nineteenth century landscaped garden outside.

The stunningly beautiful Nikko Historic Areas, with its well-protected historic buildings, was named fourth best in National Geographic’s 2008 “Places Rated” Destination Stewardship survey.

Venture farther into the shrine complex and you will find that the temples become more and more magnificent, with lines of ornate stone lanterns, tombs, treasure towers, and statues showing antique samurai baring their teeth and ferociously flashing their eyes at visitors. The Taiyuin-byo Shrine, which houses the ashes of shogun Tokugawa lemitsu (1603–1605), is especially superb. It sits at the top of a series of decorative red and golden gates, in grove of Japanese cedars.

Taiyuin-byo Shrine, Nikko, Japan There is something about the geographic isolation of Nikko, a village set high in the mountains, that makes this multiplex feel very different from other shrines and temples you may see anywhere else in Japan. The Shinto belief in Kami, the existence of a spiritual being or genius of a particular place, seems remarkably moving here in the silence of the forests, and the sensation that something enchanting lurks nearby is not easily shaken off.

Close by, the historic, vermillion Shinkyo Bridge and Nikko Botanical Gardens are also very picturesque, as is Ganmna-ga-fuchi, a scenic river that runs a pastel, mineral blue through the old lava flows of nearby Mount Nantai and has a statue-lined footpath. The beautiful vermilion arch of Shinkyo Bridge is the classiest image of Nikko. The current structure of the sacred bridge was built in 1636 and went through major renovation in the early 2000s. Nevertheless, there has been a bridge on the site right through recorded history. Originally, it was only open to the highest levels of aristocracy; but after the restoration, it has been open for the general public to cross. And the five-story pagoda is one of a striking selection to be found in the shrine complex at Nikko.

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Unwind at Zao Onsen in Japan’s Yamagata Prefecture

Zao Onsen, Yamagata City, Yamagata Prefecture

Open-air baths do not come more extraordinary than this. Nestled at the mouth of the Zao national park, the biggest of the steaming pools of purifying waters at the Zao Onsen is big enough to hold 200 people. The best part of the rustic dai rotem buro, a trio of bubbling outdoor pools, is a enormous tub built into a ravine with impressive views of the forest-covered mountains. Zao Onsen is one of the most well-known and long-established skiing & snowboarding resorts in Japan as well as a popular all year traditional onsen hot spring resort village. The water rushing from the hot springs will ease your joints in all seasons, leaving you totally relaxed.

Discovered as far back as 110 C.E., the Zao hot springs are the oldest of the three famous hot springs of Japan’s northeast Tohoku region. According to local legend, an injured warrior drew an arrow from his body and cleaned the wound at a spring. The injury recovered inexplicably, and the healing properties of the waters became famous. The high acidity of the milky white waters, which preserve a constant temperature of nearly 125 deg F, is still regarded as a cure for skin conditions and gastrointestinal disorders.

Snow Monsters of Zao Onsen The village has managed to preserve its traditional charm and an virtually Zen-like sense of calm. After a soak in the springs, wander through the lantern-filled streets lined with rickety ryokan inns. A bus ride away from Yamagata bullet train station, Zao Onsen is as popular with skiers as with hot spring lovers. When snow falls, it is transformed into a winter wonderland with fantastic ice-covered trees, better known as “snow monsters.” One of the oldest ski resorts in Japan, the mountain at Zao Onsen reaches an altitude of more than 4,000 feet. For the brave, the Wall is a 1,000-foot run with a 30-degree slope. For a more laid-back option, lights light up the piste for romantic night skiing.

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