Escape into nature and culture in Nikko, Japan

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Kegon Falls in Nikko, Japan.
Kegon Falls in Nikko, Japan.

For travelers looking to escape the hustle of Tokyo, Nikko is an antidote to the capital city's high-octane pace.

Travelers can board the Tobu Railway from Tokyo's Asakusa Station, and in less than two hours, they'll be immersed in Nikko's natural beauty. Soothing hot springs, thundering waterfalls and interactive experiences offer a window into traditional Japanese culture.

Nikko is home to the must-see Toshogu Shrine, part of a Unesco World Heritage Site. It's a gold-encrusted, lacquered wonderland that enshrines the first shogun of the Edo period. Foliage-lined paths balance the shrine's more ornate aspects.

At Kegon Falls, visitors can ride the elevator to the observation platform at the base of the falls and watch the water dramatically tumble 318 feet into the gorge. In winter, the water forms delicate icicles; in summer, the power of the falls refreshes like a natural air‐conditioner.

Thanks to the purity of the region's spring water, Nikko's shaved ice, kakigori, is prized throughout Japan. It's not unusual for Tokyo-based foodies to make day trips to Nikko for shaved ice pilgrimages, so expect a line at the numerous shops that specialize in this flaky, fluffy, frosty treat.

A visit to kitschy Edo Wonderland (about $43 for adults, $22 for ages 6 to 12, free for ages 5 and younger) is like stepping into the 17th-century world of a shogun. The staff dresses in kimonos and samurai outfits, and visitors may rent traditional clothing. There are nonstop performances, including an action-packed ninja spectacle, where agile performers thrill the audience with swashbuckling acrobatics.

Visitors can join several dozen other passengers in a flat-bottom, wooden boat helmed by skilled oarsmen for a ride down the Kinugawa River. During the 40-minute trip (about $12 for adults, $6 for children), they'll enjoy close encounters with impressive rock formations and delicate riverside flora while being sprayed by modest rapids.

For overnight accommodations, the Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel is set in the woods overlooking pristine Chuzenji Lake. It's a traditional Japanese hotel with a simple design aesthetic that is in harmony with the natural surroundings.

The 57 rooms offer total tranquility broken only by the call of wild birds. Each room has a balcony or deck, some with scenic lake views. Common areas are uncluttered, with soaring ceilings and natural materials that wouldn't be out of place in an Adirondack Great Camp.

The hotel has its own natural hot spring; after a day of sightseeing, relax in the healing waters. There's a small spa for additional treatments. Stroll the shady lakeside trail or rent a kayak and paddle the calm waters.

Guests may dine at the hotel's restaurant, where there's a choice of Japanese or French cuisine. Food is uniformly delectable. They take pride in serving fresh croissants each morning. Bento box breakfasts are also available.

Nikko's practical and precise shuttle bus drops off guests at the property's front door, so it's easy to reach this slice of paradise.

Starting rate for a double room is $83 per person, $185 with breakfast and dinner included.

Visit http://nikko-travel.jp/english.

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