I may be biased since I lived in Tochigi and Nikko is definitely the best to see in the entire prefecture, but Nikko is kind of a year-round place. I’ve ben there every season, and it’s good in every season. Despite that, the association is probably strongest for the fall. Being at a high elevation, the leaves turn more quickly than in other areas and the landscape lends itself to an autumnal feel.
For simplicity’s sake, let’s categorize the trip into three choices: near the station, up the mountain, and the greater area.
For the past near the station we have Toshogu shrine. Toshogu shrine is one of the largest shrines in Kanto, and is a possible walk from the station if you think you can handle it. I’ve covered I. Pretty extensively in a previous post and there are many good food places nearby and on the road that leads there.
The real draw of the season would definitely be what lies beyond the shrine. Nikko does generally refer to a cluster of mountains that were mostly created from volcanic explosions well before humanity from where Chuzenji lake now stands. Following the main road would bring up to the lake area where the leaves will change first and there’s much more nature to see. While a hike is entirely possible I’d recommend taking the bus which will likely leave you off at a terminal near Kegon Falls.
I had a boss who said Kegon Falls is nothing compared to Niagara Falls (he was Japanese). This is true comparing size but I’d much prefer the beauty surrounding Kegon, it also gives a feeling of being enclosed in a secret place that I very much enjoy.
From there, Chuzenji lake is easily walkable and the road has many shops and restaurants to stop by, if it happens to be a bit warm you can always take a paddle boat out onto the lake which is much larger than it looks.
Don’t feel bad if you didn’t drive or don’t have the time or will to take another bus, but I would say that missing the further area due to disinterest or laziness would be a huge mistake. If you continue in the direction of the road you would take to get to Chuzenji Lake you can reach Okunikko, the true hot spring area of Nikko.
On the way to Okunikko there are two other noteworthy spots, which will make a car feel more useful, in order you will come up to Ryuzu no Taki (Ryuzu Rapids) (竜頭の滝) which boasts some beautiful nature and a cafe to enjoy it from.
Past that is Kotoku farm which would be a 20min walk off the main road if you happen to be taking a bus where you can eat some quality food and even has their own onsen (though I haven’t been). You can get Jingisukan which is a term for Japanese style Mongolian BBQ.
Finally there is Okunikko with many hotels, skiing (if it happens to be that cold), their own lake, and a public onsen. The whole place reeks of sulfur which to me is a general rule for hot springs, it just doesn’t feel right otherwise. Even further beyond there are endless hiking paths with nature that ranges from forest to wasteland. But I think if you were able to make it this far, you can be proud of yourself and say you definitely saw Nikko.