Besides hanging out in our hotel’s onsen in Nikkou, we spent some time at two other places in the area. The first of these was Edo Wonderland (日光江戸村), a theme park based on the Edo period in Japanese history (1603-1867). This is where much of popular Japanese history comes from, including things like Samurai warriors which you might see in a classic jidai geki (時代劇, period film).
The admission is quite expensive, at around $37 for adults, but the park does have much to offer for the money. Most impressive to me was the overall visual design of the park, including many buildings which look as they if they came right out of a movie. I am not sure how accurate things are historically, but just strolling through the streets and viewing the sights is a joy.
There are three types of attractions at this park: restaurants, shows, and exhibits to experience history. This latter category includes displays of lifelike full-size models of warriors and other figures, as well as miniature models of cities. There is also several gift shops which have a variety of interesting items. You can see a full map with English descriptions here.
I can’t vouch for the entire set of restaurants (there is over 10), but the one we tried had food that wasn’t particularly impressive (I ordered Udon noodles). One of the more memorable experiences was daruma doll painting where my son was able to participate, and we took home the finished product for a small price (around 500 yen). We saw a few shows and the “Hinomi open air theater” one was fairly entertaining. It involved a story about a shopkeeper who was in trouble since he couldn’t pay his gambling debts, and was in danger of loosing his wife and store to the debt collector. The Japanese was fairly advanced with a classic feel to it and quite hard to understand, but by partway through I got used to it enough to follow the basic plotline. There was another show which took place on an outside stage involving ninjas fighting and running around which was great fun to watch.
One of the hidden gems of the park is a place where you can take off your shoes and wash your feet in a running stream that passes under one of the Edo-styled bridges. It’s refreshing and a good way to rest tired feet.
We only saw a fraction of the shows and other experiences in our 3-4 hour stay, and if you are dedicated enough you could probably spend an entire day at the park exploring everything. There is even a place where you can dress up in period-garb and walk the streets to get your picture taken, though this was very pricey (around $100).
All in all a very fun experience, highly recommended to lovers of classical Japan.
Nikkou contains several shrines, including Toushouguu (東照宮) which is a UNESCO world heritage site and was dedicated to the emperor Tokugawa Ieyasu (徳川家康). Tokugawa was the founder and first shogun of the Tokugawa shogunate of Japan, which virtually ruled Japan from the Battle of Sekigahara in 1600 until the Meiji Restoration in 1868 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tokugawa_Ieyasu).
Toushouguu shrine was built in 1617 and is a beautiful monument of Japanese art, craftsmanship, and Shintoist ideas. Like other shrines in Japan there are many steps to reach the topmost part, here over 200. This is actually relatively few, since there are some shrines with over 1000 steps to traverse. When exploring the shrine be careful to avoid slipping, since the stone ground can be slippery, especially after rain.
This shrine closes early at 5pm, so be sure to factor that into your plans. We arrived around 4pm and were able to see most the grounds in around an hour, though we moved at a pretty quick pace. If you take your time to explore every building you can easily spent several hours here. There are several places to buy omamori (religious amulets) or other shrine-related items which make nice gifts.
You’ll probably want to take a taxi since it’s over a mile from the nearest station.
Toushouguu is a great place to stop by if you happen to be in Nikkou for other matters, or if you are a fan of Japanese history you can make a special trip just to see it.