Travelling from Tokyo during Japan’s Edo period would often involve a journey along one of Japan’s five main old highways, called kaido. Japan’s five kaido connected Tokyo (then called Edo) to a handful of major cities elsewhere in Japan. I recently spent four days travelling from Tokyo to Aizu (会津) along one of those old highways, the Nikko Kaido (日光街道) on three train lines, the Tobu Railway, the Yagan Railway, and the Aizu Railway.
On my four-day journey, I stopped to visit some of the historic sites that symbolise the beginning and the end of Japan’s Edo period. After exploring Tokyo and Nikko (日光), I travelled through Aizu, following one of the Edo period’s smaller highways, the Aizu Nishi Kaido. Ending my trip in Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松), I saw where the Edo period came to a very bloody end.
- Day 1: Explore Tokyo’s Ueno Park and Asakusa
- Day 2: On the Nikko Kaido to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Final Resting Place
- A Spot of Nikko’s Kaiseki Lunch at Yotaro
- Nikko Futarasan Shrine: One of the First of Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Site
- Visit Nikko Toshogu Shrine and the Tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu
- Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple: Nikko’s Most Important Temple
- Walk Through the Cedar Avenue of Nikko
- Traditional Japanese Umbrella Display at the Tsukiakari Moonlight Flower Gallery
- Day 3: Heading North on the Aizu Nishi Kaido
- Day 4: Aizu-Wakamatsu and the End of the Edo Period
- How to Get From Tokyo to Aizu
Day 1: Explore Tokyo’s Ueno Park and Asakusa
I began my journey in Ueno Park (上野公園) in Tokyo’s Taito ward. Today one of Tokyo’s most famous green spaces, Ueno Park was originally the grounds of Kan’ei-ji Temple.
Ueno Toshogu Shrine: Dedicated to the Founder of Edo Japan
Amongst the many shrines dotted around Ueno Park, the most spectacular is Ueno Toshogu Shrine (上野東照宮). Built in 1627, Ueno Toshogu shrine honours Tokugawa Ieyasu, the daimyo who unified Japan in 1603 after almost two centuries of civil war. The Tokugawa Shogunate ruled Japan for the next 256 years in the era known as the Edo period.
Ueno Toshogu Shrine was remodelled in 1651 and has miraculously survived the many fires, earthquakes, and wars that have hit Tokyo since. Ueno Toshogu shrine is a sight to behold, approached by a long pathway lined with historic stone and bronze lanterns. On reaching Ueno Toshogu, I was met by the shrine’s stunning main karamon gate, decorated in rich gold and beautifully detailed carvings, including protective dragons and the crest of the Tokugawa clan.
Beyond the karamon gate lies the shrine’s jaw-dropping main hall. Toshogu shrine’s dazzling golden exterior absolutely shines, adorned with countless expertly carved detailed figures of mythical beasts and auspicious animals.
Ueno Park and the Boshin War
That Toshogu shrine still survives is even more surprising given that Ueno Park was the scene of the Battle of Ueno, one of a series of brutal battles between pro and anti-shogun forces that make up the Boshin War, which took place at the end of the Edo period in 1868. It was a spectacularly unfair fight — the new Imperial government forces were equipped with modern military hardware, including cannons and rifles, while samurai warriors, called Shogitai, were still fighting with swords. The samurai resistance was over in a single day, with the Battle of Ueno starting and ending on July 4, 1868.
A memorial to the samurai fighters who lost their lives in the Battle of Ueno sits at the southern end of Ueno Park. Erected in 1874, the monument to the Shogitai is a stark reminder of Ueno Park’s grizzly history. A few feet away stands another memorial, a statue of Saigo Takamori (西鄕 隆盛), dressed in a yukata and with his faithful dog. It was Takamori who led the government forces to victory in the Battle of Ueno.
Enjoy A Traditional Japanese Lunch in Historic Yanaka
From Ueno Park, I went north to Yanaka (谷中), looking for a spot of lunch. After walking along Yanaka Ginza, the narrow street that is the area’s beating heart, I stopped for a heavenly lunch of shabu-shabu at Kiri Yanaka.
Tucked away in an old converted house on a quiet street close to Yanaka’s main sights, Kiri Yanaka served a meal for a shogun. Traditional Japanese appetisers were served before the shabu-shabu, including small dishes of sashimi and tofu.
Visit a Historic Taiko Drum Workshop in Asakusa
That afternoon I made my way to nearby Asakusa (浅草) just 15-minutes by train from Ueno and Yanaka and visited the historic workshop at Miyamoto Unosuke (宮本卯之助商店). Miyamoto Unosuke crafts beautiful traditional Japanese musical instruments, including taiko drums and elaborate mikoshi, the portable shrines used during traditional festivals.
Here I got to peek inside the workshop where the taiko drums are made by expert craftsmen. The drums are still tuned by ear, a skill that takes two years to perfect. Whilst honouring the traditional techniques that are still used to create each taiko drum, the highly-skilled craftspeople at Miyamoto Unosuke also take care to reduce their impact on the environment. Today the taiko drums are made from wood taken from specially planted afforested trees. In 2022, Miyamoto Unosuke even held a special ceremony featuring a performance of their taiko drums in the forests that supplied the trees from which they were made.
After seeing the workshop, I had the pleasure of experiencing an incredibly powerful performance by one of Miyamoto Unosuke’s phenomenal drummers. It was a hugely rewarding experience to hear the beautifully made drums played with such perfect rhythm. After his performance, the drummer led a group lesson for all of the visitors in my group, giving us a crash course on how to bring out the wonderfully rich sound of the taiko drums.
Go on a Night Walk Around the Illuminated Sensoji Temple
Sensoji Temple (浅草寺), the oldest temple in Tokyo, is located in the historic heart of Asakusa. With night drawing in, the shops of Nakamise-dori were beginning to close for the day, and the crowds were already gone. Yet Sensoji is spellbinding after dark, with its enormous gates, pagoda and main hall all dramatically illuminated against the night sky.
Asakusa is blessed with great places to eat, and from Sensoji, I wound up on Sushiya Street. After tucking into okonomiyaki at Matsuri Bayashi, one of Asakusa’s countless cosy izakaya, I checked in for the night at Henn na Hotel, famous for its animatronic check-in staff as well as the view of the Tokyo Skytree from the roof terrace.
Read More: 250 Years of Peace in Tokyo
Day 2: On the Nikko Kaido to Tokugawa Ieyasu’s Final Resting Place
The next morning I began my journey from Tokyo to Aizu via the Nikko Kaido. I started by taking the Limited Express Revaty train on the Tobu Nikko Line from Asakusa Station to Nikko, arriving in a little under two hours.
A Spot of Nikko’s Kaiseki Lunch at Yotaro
Yotaro specialises in yuba, a local delicacy. Known as tofu skin, yuba is actually formed by boiling soy milk. When boiling soy milk, a thin film forms on the surface, which is then dried and set into sheets. Yuba is similar in taste and texture to tofu, hence the name. The yuba at Yotaro was a delicious introduction to the dish and followed by several rounds of sumptuous tempura.
Nikko Futarasan Shrine: One of the First of Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Site
Sufficiently fed, I hopped on to a local bus past the Shinkyo Bridge (神橋), the final station of the old Nikko Kaido, to Nikko Futarasan Shrine (日光二荒山神社). Nikko Futarasan Shrine is the first of three shrines and temples that form Nikko’s UNESCO World Heritage Site, all located side by side amongst a heavenly thick forest of cedar trees. The full Nikko Futarasan complex is vast, with shrines as far away as Lake Chuzenji and even at the summit of nearby Mount Nantai.
Here at Nikko Futarasan Shrine’s main site, there are numerous buildings reached by passing through the shrine’s copper torii gate, enshrining the deities associated with Nikko’s three mountains, including Mount Nantai. This part of the Nikko Futarasan Shrine complex was founded in the 8th century though many of the present buildings date from the 17th century.
Visit Nikko Toshogu Shrine and the Tomb of Tokugawa Ieyasu
From Futarasan Shrine, it’s a short walk to the entrance of Nikko Toshogu Shrine (日光東照宮). Numerous Toshogu shrines in Japan, including in Ueno Park, are all dedicated to Tokugawa Ieyasu. Nikko’s Toshogu shrine is where Tokugawa Ieyasu is buried and is possibly the most beautifully decorated shrine in Japan.
Originally built in 1617, Nikko’s Toshogu Shrine was extensively remodelled in 1636. Beside the entrance to Toshogu shrine stands a towering red five-storey pagoda. Inside the shrine’s grounds, I was instantly struck by the incredible grandeur of the site. Near the entrance is the stable for the shrine’s horses featuring the three famous carved monkeys who hear, speak and see no evil.
Nearby a steep staircase leads to Yomeimon Gate, covered in gold leaf and crammed with detail, including numerous scenes from daily life and countless dragon heads. The rooftops of Toshogu’s main shrine building are also embellished with glistening gold leaf and another stunning gate at its entrance.
I passed underneath Nemuri-neko, the famous carving of a sleeping cat, to climb the steep staircase to Ieyasu Tokugawa’s shrine. In marked contrast to the rest of the complex, Tokugawa Ieyasu’s tomb is solemn and respectful, free of bold colours or extravagance.
Read More: The Shogun Legacy of Nikko
Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple: Nikko’s Most Important Temple
A short walk from Nikko Toshogu Shrine, I just had time to visit Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple (輪王寺). Established in the 8th century by the venerated Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin, Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple is considered to be the most important temple in Nikko.
Rinnoji’s Three Buddha Hall houses three giant gold leaf statues of Buddha. The three statues are said to represent the three mythical mountain deities that are enshrined in Futarasan Temple.
Walk Through the Cedar Avenue of Nikko
Before leaving Nikko, I took the train one stop on the Tobu Nikko Line to Kami-Imachi Station to catch a glimpse of the Cedar Avenue of Nikko. The Cedar Avenue of Nikko lines some of the old Nikko Kaido and the Aizu Nishi Kaido and the Reiheishi Kaido (会津西街道・例幣使街道) routes.
Over 200,000 cedar trees were planted on the road to Nikko, with around 12,000 still standing today. The total road is 35 kilometers long and has been declared the longest tree-lined road in the world by the Guinness Book of Records. Many of the cedar trees are over 400 years old, creating a wonderful atmosphere. I felt it easy to imagine this as a busy highway full of pilgrims making their way to Nikko’s temples and shrines during the Edo period.
Traditional Japanese Umbrella Display at the Tsukiakari Moonlight Flower Gallery
From Kami-Imachi station, I took a Tobu Kinugawa Line train to Kinugawaonsen (鬼怒川温泉), a popular onsen town a short distance north of Nikko where I stayed overnight. Another reason for stopping here was to see the Tsukiakari Moonlight Flower Gallery. Held in Kinugawa Park every year for several consecutive days from late September, the Tsukiakari Moonlight Flower Gallery features several art displays that are illuminated at night beneath a big glowing moon.
Alongside huge ikebana displays that float in the park’s pond, this year’s display includes a wonderful arrangement of traditional Japanese umbrellas, called wagasa, stylishly arranged and lit up to create a beautiful array of colours.
Day 3: Heading North on the Aizu Nishi Kaido
The next morning I continued my way north towards Aizu by rail, taking a regional train that travelled along the Yagan Tetsudo Line and then the Aizu Tetsudo Line.
Blend Your Own Japanese Essential Oil Fragrance at Jyuhachinichi
My first stop was at the town of Minamiaizu (南会津町) for a unique aroma experience at Jyuhachinichi (18日). As well as learning all about Jyuhachinichi’s impressive range of Japanese essential oils, I also had the chance to make my own blended fragrance, combining several scents, including hinoki, yuzu, Japanese mint, and camphor. The blended oils can be used in diffusers or humidifiers for their calming aroma, or a few diluted drops can even be added to a relaxing and restorative bath.
Yunokami Onsen: Japan’s Most Unique Train Station?
Next, I took the Aizu Tetsudo Line train further north to Yunokami Onsen (湯野上温泉), home to one of the most unique train stations in Japan. As the gateway to the picturesque thatched-roof township of Ouchi-juku, Yunokami Onsen Station resembles an old kominka-style Japanese house and is one of only two train stations in Japan with a thatched roof.
Inside, an old-fashioned irori, or hearth, is a common sight in Edo period Japan’s homes. Fittingly for an onsen town, there’s also a small public hot spring foot bath just outside the station.
Ouchi-juku: Life in an Old Edo Period Post Town
From Yunokami Onsen station, it’s a short bus ride to the historic town that was once an important stop on the Aizu Nishi Kaido. Ouchi-juku (大内宿) still looks as it would have done during the height of the Edo period. The town’s wide street is flanked by dozens of traditional houses topped with thick thatched roofs.
Ouchi-juku was one of many post towns that sprang up along Japan’s kaido, where travellers could get something to eat or find a place to stay overnight. Today, many of Ouchi-juku’s historic houses are shops where you can pick up regional produce and cute souvenirs.
Several other restaurants include Misawaya Soba, where I tucked into negi soba, a local dish of soba noodles served with a giant leek. You’re supposed to eat the soba using the leek rather than chopsticks, which is even harder than it sounds.
After my fill of soba, I walked along Ouchi-juku’s main street, heading for the famous view from the trail at the top of the town. There’s a perfect picture postcard view of Ouchi-juku from the viewpoint, the rows of thatched roofs are undoubtedly impressive, even on a grey and rainy day like today.
Before leaving Ouchi-juku, I took a detour from the main street to visit Ouchichinjutakakura Shrine (大内鎮守高倉神社). A huge torii gate on the town’s main street signals the direction of the shrine, which is hidden amongst a thicket of trees a few minutes’ walk away. Beautifully secluded amongst tall cedar trees, the shrine has a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere that perfectly makes the short trek in the rain worthwhile.
Returning to Yunokami Onsen station, I took the train north for the final leg of the journey along the Aizu Nishi Kaido to Aizu-Wakamatsu. I stayed the night in Higashiyama Onsen (東山温泉), another popular onsen town just to the east of the city where you can find numerous ryokans with both public and private onsen.
Day 4: Aizu-Wakamatsu and the End of the Edo Period
On the last day of my trip, I explored the historic city of Aizu-Wakamatsu (会津若松). During the Boshin War, the samurai of the Aizu domain fought fiercely against the new government in a battle that still shapes the city today.
Tsurugajo, Aizu-Wakamatsu’s historic castle, and the Battle of Aizu
During the Battle of Aizu, the local samurai domains fought the government’s army whilst ensconced inside Tsurugajo (鶴ヶ城), Aizu-Wakamatsu’s historic castle. Equipped with modern armoury, the government bombarded the castle with cannon fire. The samurai of Aizu held out for a month until finally conceding defeat. After the war, the destroyed castle was demolished.
A replica of the original castle was built in 1965, and today, Tsurugajo features a museum dedicated to the story of the Aizu samurai, including details and exhibitions about the various samurai clans that occupied the original castle during its near 600-year history. The observation room at the top of the castle also has stunning views of the city and the Aizu region.
Visit the Samurai Graves of Tenneiji Temple
From Tsurugajo, I made a trip to Tenneiji Temple (萬松山天寧寺), a grand, peaceful temple located on a hill at the end of a suburban road.
A short hike behind Tenneiji Temple leads to the graves of Hijikata Toshizo and Kondo Isami, two famous warriors who fought against the government at the end of the Edo period, and both died in the Boshin War. Both men live on as characters in many popular anime and manga series in Japan.
Sazaedo Temple, One of the Most Unusual Temples in Japan
From Tenneiji Temple, I hopped on the Aizu Loop Bus to Sazaedo Temple (会津さざえ堂), one of the most unusual temples in Japan. Perched above the city at the foot of Mount Iimori, Sazaedo Temple features an ingenious double helix tower. The tower’s two staircases pass beneath each other so those ascending to the top of the tower don’t pass those coming down.
Even more impressive is that Sazaedo Temple was built in 1796. A steep climb leads to the top of the tower, the interior plastered with stickers left by the many pilgrims who have visited the temple over the three centuries.
Visit the Graves of Byakkotai
A little further up from Sazaedo Temple, I visited the graves of nineteen Byakkotai soldiers. The Byakkotai were a unit of young fighters who fought in the Boshin War, mostly aged just 16 years old. During the Battle of Aizu, twenty Byakkotai fighters positioned here saw flames rising from the city in the distance. Assuming that the castle was on fire and the war had been lost, the entire unit committed ritual suicide.
Tragically, it wasn’t the castle that had caught fire but a different part of the town. One member of the Byakkotai was rescued and resuscitated before he died, which is how the story is known. Today, the nineteen graves of the Byakkotai soldiers are a reminder of that fateful day during the Boshin War.
Aizu Traditional Cuisine and Make Your Own Aizu-Wakamatsu Craft
I stopped for lunch at Takino (田季野) to try a delicious local Aizu delicacy called wappa meshi. Rice is steamed inside a wooden bowl called a wappa and served with various seasonal toppings, including mushrooms, salmon and slices of tamagoyaki.
I spent the afternoon trying my hand at making Aizu lacquerware at Suzuzen Lacquerware Shop (鈴善漆器店). Aizu is famous for its exquisite lacquerware, a craft practised in the region for more than 400 years. Suzuzen Lacquerware Shop was founded in 1832, and today visitors can learn the basics of maki-e, the process of intricately decorating lacquerware.
One of Suzuzen’s skilled artisans demonstrated a simplified technique for applying and decorating a lacquerware pattern. After painting a maple leaf with lacquer and pressing it firmly onto the surface of a plate, finely powdered colours are applied to the lacquer, and the excess brushed away. After seeing how it was done, it was my turn, and I left Aizu-Wakamatsu with my own souvenir of my trip from Tokyo to Aizu via the Nikko Kaido route.
How to Get From Tokyo to Aizu
I travelled from Tokyo to Aizu via Nikko on three train lines, the Tobu Railway, the Yagan Railway, and the Aizu Railway. The locations of each station I travelled through in Tokyo, Nikko and Aizu are marked on the map below.
There was so much to enjoy on my train trip through Edo period Japan travelling from Tokyo to Aizu along the old Nikko Kaido route. There is so much to explore, from some of the most important and spectacular temples and shrines in Japan to nostalgic post-towns and historic sites that mark the end of the samurai era. Plus, there’s an abundance of mouthwatering food, thriving local culture and a good number of onsen towns to discover.
Article sponsored by Kanto District Transport Bureau, with the support of Taito City, Nikko City, Minamiaizu Town, Shimogo Town, Aizuwakamatsu City, Tobu Railway, Yagan Railway, and Aizu Railway