Nikko

Just two hours from Tokyo, Nikko is entirely another world: tucked into the folds of lush green mountains are some of Japan's most impressive shrines and temples, and, further into the hills lies the stunningly unspoilt lake Chuzenji amidst low and extinct volcanoes.

The Toshogu Shrine is Nikko's main attraction, and is dedicated to the first of the Tokugawa Shoguns, Tokugawa Ieyasu himself. Unlike more austere shrines elsewhere in Japan, the Toshogu Shrine is elaborately carved, decorated, and gilt. Most famous of the painted carvings are those of a sleeping cat, as well as the three wise monkeys of Asian folklore. The shrine complex was designated as a World Heritage Site in 1999, and the detail is said to be the best remaining example of Edo period workmanship in the country.

A short drive behind the town of Nikko begins the Nikko national park, at the heart of which is Lake Chuzenji. Formed when the now extinct Mount Nantai last erupted, the lake area is refreshingly cool in the summer, and once acted as a summer residence for foreign embassies to Tokyo. There are walking trails around the lake, which allow you to take in some of Nikko's more famous waterfalls, and hiking trails in the surrounding hills.

Apart from the temples, shrines, and breathtaking scenery, Nikko is famous for its biannual festival, held in May and November, during which an impressive samurai-clad procession carries a portable shrine throughout the town, and there are displays of yabusame, or mounted archery.