After returning to Japan, we immediately left Tokyo and headed north. Our first destination on this route was the city of Nikko. Comfortably small with a population less than a hundred thousand, the township is known for its natural elegance; nestled placidly among the Nikko Renzan mountains.

Though the region is famous for its scenery, it is known even more so for the elaborate temples that it boasts. Three large complexes can be found in the outlying area, containing a total of 103 temples and shrines, all protected as UNESCO World Heritage sites.

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The original structure (Shihonryuji Temple, which would later grow into the current Nikkosan Rinnoji Temple) was founded in 766 by the Buddhist monk Shodo Shonin. Naturally the city sprung up around it, as worshippers of both Buddhist and Shintoist faith flocked to the area.

Since its inception, the region has served many purposes. Primarily a site of great religious importance, the ornate construction of the shrines and temples have since caused Nikko to be regarded as a near-perfect example of Japanese architecture during the Edo period and its predecessors. The region has also served as a safehaven for retreating armies during periods of national unrest (namely in the 12th century). Most recently, Nikko has been home to large and profitable industrial projects such as hydroelectric facilities as well as Japan’s largest copper mine, having produced ore from the 16th century to 1973.

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With such a collection of history and culture condensed so tightly around the city, it’s hardly any wonder that Nikko stands steadfast at the top of my list for “must-see” locations. Of course, the city’s attractions are not solely limited to those mentioned above. The municipality itself is quite lovely and has many charming locations hidden amongst its narrow and winding streets.

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In spring, the cherry blossoms burst along the city’s lane-ways and across the hillsides, brightening the northwest corner of Tochigi Prefecture with splashes of pink. In summer, the green forests of the surrounding mountains provide wonderful hiking opportunities, and as the temperatures descend into autumn, the verdant canopy sheds its leaves in yet another brilliant display of colour. Even winter has something to offer. In a peculiar trading of places, humans flocks to the alpine ski resorts surrounding Nikko, while the mountain-dwelling monkeys wander down into the city in search of food.

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