Walking vacations in Nikko & Yumoto Onsen

Ah how glorious
Green leaves, young leaves
Glittering in the sunlight
Ė A haiku on Nikko, by Matsuo Basho, one of Japanís most significant 17th century poets

Nikko National Park

Nikko National Park is situated 125km (around two hours by train) north of Tokyo, in the Tochigi Prefecture, and lying on Japanís version of the ĎRomantic Roadí, renowned for its picturesque scenery. It is most famous for the lavish, UNESCO-protected Toshogu Shrine, which was constructed in the 15th century to commemorate Tokugawa Ieyasu, head of the powerful Tokugawa Shogunate that led the country for close to three centuries. Nikko has long-served as a center of Buddhist and Shinto mountain worship, inspiring the Edo-period haiku master Matsuo Basho among others, but besides its ancient cultural and religious heritage, this region is absolutely sublime walking territory, a great way to escape the occasional crowding in the town of Nikko itself.
This stunning mountainous landscape offers hiking trails past small villages, lakes, waterfalls and hot springs, through forests and by the side of gently flowing rivers. On the Oku Nikko plains sightings of deer and monkeys are common, as are views of Mount Mitsudake and Mount Orogura, while waterfalls such as Ryuzu and Yudaki are nationally famous. Nikko is considered one of the most beautiful parks in the country, and for walkers it offers an opportunity to explore historic, rural Japan and to be immersed in the traditional culture here as well as meeting local people, a world apart from what you’re going to get on a regular sightseeing tour.

The five-storey pagoda by the main gate, and the intricate Yomeimon Gate, are two of the most handsome structures in the Toshogu Shrine complex. There is also a museum, where you can see the shogun’s personal effects including swords, armour and personal letters, and a sombre mausoleum. Tokugawa, the ‘Great Deity of the East Shining Light’, is celebrated as a strategic mastermind, no doubt a factor in the length and stability of his dynasty. While here you might also visit the Futuarasan-jinja and Rinnōji shrines which make up the rest of this UNESCO World Heritage Site. The vermillion Sacred Bridge across the Daiya River is reckoned among the most beautiful in all Japan.

Other points of interest in the area for walkers include the Oze Marshlands in a lava-formed valley, surrounded by the Nikko Mountains and thronged with alpine flora and wild birds; the Kegon Falls, at 97m one of the highest waterfalls in Japan, and Lake Chuzenji, which is a popular summer resort for its hot springs and magnificent seasonal foliage, and was created by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago.

Yumoto Onsen

Yumoto is a small town next to Lake Yunoko in Okunikko, a region of the park that lies at a higher elevation. Many Japanese people come here during the summer to escape the heat, and itís a year-round walking destination. Yumoto has two principal claims to fame: its scenery, and its hot springs.

The town gets very busy in October, as the autumnal changes in the foliage are known for their beauty. Typically, the colour change begins in Yumoto from early October, descending to Lake Chuzenji by the middle of the month and reaching the town of Nikko in early November.
A mildy sulphurous odour clings to the town, indicating the thermal activity going on all around. This is volcanic terrain, and it has resulted in hot springs resorts popping up all around Nikko, many of them historic. Yumoto is among the best known, with many onsen (traditional inns with hot spring bathing facilities). The mineral-rich waters are considered beneficial to ailments such as rheumatism and skin complaints.

Note that more than half of Japanese onsen still refuse access to people with tattoos, as decorative skin art is strongly linked with yakuza gangs. Even though you probably donít resemble a gangster in the slightest, if you have a tattoo you may not be able to bathe in an onsen, so itís worth checking with your operator beforehand if the places youíre going to be visiting are either tattoo-friendly, or if they can make arrangements for covering them up.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about Japan walking or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.


Walking vacations in Nikko and Yumoto are typically tailor made, self guided trips of around four days, which is enough time to explore the area’s key destinations. There are also small group tours available, led by expert English-speaking guides that take in Nikko and Yumoto as part of a wider, two-week walking tour of Japan. Expect to walk between eight and 14km each day, over generally moderate terrain, though of course this is mountainous territory so you will find a few ascents in places. Along the way you’ll stay in traditional ryokans and minshukus which are a very special way to discover rural Japanese culture and cuisine – do come prepared for sleeping on futons with quite hard pillows.

As with any walking vacation we recommend familiarising yourself before you go with the Seven Principles of the Leave No Trace philosophy – sticking to the center of marked trails and watching out for dropped waste are beneficial to preserving pristine environments that you’re going to find in places such as Nikko.
At Responsible Travel, we think the best people to advise our travelers are often... other travelers:

ďHard to choose the most memorable moment. Bathing naked in hot spring under the stars. Walking snow packed paths, through the mountains...We had an amazing experience and the people at the inns couldnít have been more kind and helpful.Ē Ė Prue Thimbleby on a Nikko and Yumoto Onsen walking vacation

ď(Highlights were) walking for days with seeing hardly anybody, only wonderful nature. And the amazing food in the local inns...Donīt hesitate to do this on your own, itīs perfectly safe and very well sign-posted.Ē Ė Babette Braun on a Nikko and Yumoto Onsen walking vacation
Written by Rob Perkins
Photo credits: [Page banner: Guilhem Vellut] [Nikko National Park: Koichi Sato] [Yumoto Onsen: Jranar] [Practicalities: Guilhem Vellut]