Nikko is easily accessed by train, and there are bus services from the Nikko’s main station area to all of the major sightseeing locations. However, because of Nikko’s rural location, renting a car once you get there may be a good idea. A rental car will enable you to more freely explore outlying areas such as Oku-Nikko without being tied down by bus timetables. There are a number of reliable car rental companies with offices which are very close to Tobu Nikko Station and there are also some close to Kinugawa-Onsen Station, so renting a car in these areas is very easily done.
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By Kinugawa-Onsen Station there are also branches of the Nippon and Niconico rental car companies which can be reached on foot in under 2 minutes.
All four of these companies have websites and information in English (see above). Before deciding whether or not to rent a car though, there are a number of things you need to consider.
In order to rent a car in Japan you must have a valid international driver’s license. International driver’s licenses are not issued in Japan and so must be obtained in your home country in advance. You will also need a valid driver’s license from your home country that is at least 3 months old.
There are some countries that do not issue an international driver’s license that can be used in Japan. These countries are Switzerland, Germany, France, Belgium, Slovenia, Monaco and Taiwan. Drivers from these countries should obtain an official Japanese translation of their original driver’s license from the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF). The JAF website has more details about this.
Prices vary, but at the time of writing the average price for a liter of gasoline in Japan is 140 yen. If you want to rent a standard sized five-seater compact car for 24 hours, it will cost you around 10,000 yen. The car will come with a full tank of gas but it should also be returned to the company with a full tank.
Finding Your Way
Almost all rental cars are provided with GPS satellite navigation systems. The GPS may have English on the menu, but if it does not, ask your car rental company to show you how to use it before you set off. The staff at the rental company can also program the navigation system for you with your destination’s address or telephone number. It may also be a good idea to buy an English-Japanese road atlas in advance.
The Rules of the Road
The first rule of the road you should remember in Japan is that driving is on the left! For more details you should obtain a guide to Japan’s traffic rules called “Rules of the Road” which is published by the Japan Automobile Federation (JAF) in English, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish. You can buy these at JAF offices throughout Japan. A digital version is also available to download via the JAF website in English, Chinese, Portuguese and Spanish.
Areas to Explore
Central Nikko can be easily explored by foot or using local bus services. But there are a number of famous rural locations which you can more easily access by car. Here are our recommendations:
Lake Chuzenji is a 31 minute drive from Tobu Nikko Station. This scenic lake is surrounded by forested mountains which are especially beautiful in the fall foliage season. Around the lake are attractions such as Chuzenji Onsen hot spring spa, and Chuzenji Temple. Cruise trips over the lake are also available from its eastern shore.
The waterfalls of Nikko are famous for their beauty and can be readily accessed by car. In the central Nikko area the Shiraito Falls can be reached by car in 8 minutes from Tobu Nikko Station, the Jakko Falls in 12 minutes, and the Kirifuri Falls can be reached in 7 minutes. Around Lake Chuzenji the Kegon Falls are a 31 minute drive from Tobu Nikko Station, and the Ryuzu Falls are further 9 minutes’ drive west along Lake Chuzenji’s northern shore. From the Ryuzu Falls drive north another 9 minutes to reach the Yudaki Falls.
Yumoto Onsen is a hot spring spa resort in Oku-Nikko located on the shore of Lake Yunoko and surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. The milky-white mineral waters of the springs are said to be good for aching muscles, neuralgia, and general fatigue as well as having a beautifying effect on the skin. There are several resort hotels in Yumoto Onsen which is a 44 minute drive from Tobu Nikko Station.
Akechidaira is a famous plateau on the way to Lake Chuzenji which has stunning panoramic views over the Oku-Nikko region. There is a parking area by the lower station of the Akechidaira Ropeway, and from there it is a 3 minute cable car ride to an observation point with views over Lake Chuzenji and the Kegon Falls. Akechidaira can be accessed via the Dai-2 (number 2) Irohazaka road (see below).
The Irohazaka are two famous sightseeing roads that wind through Nikko’s most famous scenery and they can only be enjoyed by car. The roads connect central Nikko with Oku-Nikko, The number 2 road leading up to the mountainous area around Lake Chuzenji and the number 1 road leading back down. The roads have a total of 48 sharp turns and are therefore named after the old Iroha poem which was traditionally used to remember the 48 syllables of the Japanese alphabet. There are two rest stops with look-out points on the number 2 route at the Kurokamidaira Plateau and the Akechidaira Plateau. From the Akechidaira Plateau you can access the Akechidaira Ropeway. This is a beautiful driving course which is particularly popular in the autumn foliage season.
Renting a car in the hot spring spa resort town of Kinugawa Onsen will give you easy access to attractions which cannot be reached by train, such as the Edo Wonderland historical theme park, the giant maze at Grand Maze Palladium, the museum of optical illusions at Trick Art Pia Nikko, and the Nikko Kinugawa 3D Space & Dinosaurs Museum.
Article and original photos by Michael Lambe. All rights reserved.