Nikko or Matsumoto – How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations

Choosing between Matsumoto’s charming mountain town and Nikko’s shrine-filled beauty can be tricky when you have limited time. Both make for convenient day trips from Tokyo, offering distinct experiences. 

Having explored the hidden gems of each, I’ll share insights to guide your adventure. Whether you crave history, nature, or a blend of both, these destinations promise awe and inspiration. 

Disclosure : Some of the links below are affiliate links, meaning at no additional cost, I will earn a commission if you click through and make a purchase. As an Amazon Associate, I earn from qualifying purchases.

So, are you Team Nikko or Team Matsumoto? The journey awaits!

Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 1

Introducing Nikko and Matsumoto: Two Top Destinations in Japan

Japan has many unique places to explore. My favorites are Nikko and Matsumoto. 

These two must-see destinations combine stunning scenery, cultural attractions, and historical architecture. 

The choice between them depends on what experience you’re after.

Nikko is renowned for its temple precinct. It has many Buddhist shrines and temples in a picturesque mountain setting. 

The show’s star is Tōshō-gū. It’s an ornate shrine complex and mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate. 

Visiting this place is like stepping into an Edo-period painting. The beautiful wooden buildings, colorful decorations, and natural surroundings are awe-inspiring.

Meanwhile, Matsumoto is most famous for Matsumoto Castle, one of the most complete and beautiful original castles in Japan. 

Although not a museum, you can see a few samurai armor on display during your tour.

It is nicknamed the “Crow Castle” because of its black exterior. The castle is a striking example of 16th-century architecture. 

The castle grounds also house a museum, armory, and several picturesque gates. 

Beyond the castle, Matsumoto has a charming historic district. It also has art museums and hot spring resorts in the Japanese Alps.

Both places offer an enticing blend of culture, scenery, and outdoor activities. They both depict a traditional Japanese setting. 

For stunning mountain vistas and Edo-period grandeur, head to Nikko. 

Matsumoto is your best bet to explore an original Japanese castle. You can also experience life in a historic samurai town. 

Either way, you can go right! 

These hidden gems will give you a taste of old Japan and leave you longing to discover more.

Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 2

Comparing the Sights and Attractions

Both destinations offer amazing natural scenery, historic shrines, and temples. They also provide a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. 

But, after visiting both places, Nikko came out ahead. This was due to its various attractions and natural beauty.

In Nikko, you can spend an entire day exploring the scenic Lake Chuzenji and Kegon Falls. 

The winding road to Lake Chuzenji is stunning. It’s stunning in autumn when the leaves change color. 

At the top, the lake is serene and surrounded by mountains. And the 97-meter-high Kegon Falls is a thundering spectacle.

This place also has the lavish Toshogu Shrine complex. It is a UNESCO World Heritage Site that houses the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu. 

The shrine’s intricate wood carvings and gold leaf decorations are a sight. 

In contrast, Matsumoto’s main attraction is Matsumoto Castle. It’s a fine example of a Japanese castle with its black and white facade. 

But after seeing the castle, I had experienced most of what central Matsumoto had to offer within a half day.

Matsumoto can be a day trip from Tokyo, especially if you have a JR Rail Pass. Nikko warrants at least an overnight stay to experience its natural scenery and shrines without feeling rushed. 

Nikko’s various attractions are set among breathtaking natural surroundings. I recommend exploring the Japanese Alps and its cultural heritage.

Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 3

Experiencing the Culture and History in Each City

As I considered which unique Japanese destination to visit, Nikko or Matsumoto, I had to weigh each offered’s cultural and historical experiences.

Nikko

Nikko is a place of deep cultural and religious significance. It features centuries-old temples and shrines recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 

When I visited Nikko, I was in awe of the intricate details of Toshogu Shrine, with its lavish decorations and vivid colors. 

Seeing the mausoleum of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, gave me insight into this pivotal point in Japanese history.

The natural scenery surrounding Nikko creates a tranquil setting. It includes lakes, waterfalls, and mountains. This setting is an ideal backdrop for the historic attractions. 

If you want to understand Japan’s cultural heritage and history better, Nikko may be the perfect choice. The area is peaceful and surrounded by nature.

Matsumoto

This place provides a glimpse into traditional Japanese culture. 

When I traveled there, I felt transported back in time. I walked through Matsumoto Castle, one of Japan’s premier historic castles, and saw kimono-clad women strolling down Nakamachi-dori.

The Japan Ukiyo-e Museum displays woodblock prints, providing artistic insight into life in the Edo period. 

I discovered centuries-old crafts at the Folk Village, such as indigo dyeing and paper making.

The snow-capped Japan Alps surrounding Matsumoto create a stunning backdrop. 

If an authentic Japanese experience and insight into traditional culture are what you’re after, consider the historic city of Matsumoto.

Nikko and Matsumoto offer fantastic opportunities to experience Japan’s rich history and culture. 

Nikko may have a slight edge for historical religious attractions. But, Matsumoto provides more insight into traditional Japanese culture and crafts. 

Either destination would be a perfect choice for any trip to Japan.

Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 4

Outdoor Activities and Nature in Nikko and Matsumoto

After visiting Nikko and Matsumoto, your choice depends on your preferred outdoor activities and natural scenery.

In Nikko, you have the spectacular mountain scenery of Okunikko. It has lakes, waterfalls, and hiking trails among cedar forests and volcanic peaks. 

Some highlights are Lake Chuzenji, Kegon Falls, and Mount Nantai. 

I enjoyed walking the hiking trails around the lake and taking in the autumn foliage. For a more strenuous hike, you can climb Mount Nantai, which offers panoramic views from its summit. 

If you want to see Nikko’s mountain grandeur and experience the great outdoors, this is the place to go.

Matsumoto is an excellent base for exploring the Japanese Alps. It’s especially great for visiting the Kiso Valley and Kamikochi. Kamikochi is a picturesque mountain resort town with hiking trails along the Azusa River. 

Some recommended hikes are to Mount Yarigatake. It provides stunning vistas of the Hotaka Mountains.

Another recommendation is Shin-Hotaka Ropeway, one of the country’s longest gondola rides, up to 2,156 meters. 

The mountains surrounding Matsumoto are less volcanic and more alpine. They have rivers, waterfalls, and wildflowers in the summer.

Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 5

Tips for Planning Your Trip to Nikko or Matsumoto

When planning a trip to Nikko or Matsumoto, I’d recommend a few tips to help you choose between these two unique destinations.

Do your research

Learn as much as you can about what each place has to offer. 

Nikko is a mountain town known for its beautiful shrines and hiking trails. Matsumoto has one of Japan’s most stunning original castles. 

See which interests you more.

Consider the season

If you want to see the fall foliage, Nikko would be perfect in October or November. For snowcapped mountains, head to Matsumoto in the winter. 

Spring brings cherry blossoms to both places, and summer means escaping the heat in the mountains.

Factor in accessibility

Getting to Nikko from Tokyo takes about 2 hours by train, while Matsumoto is 3 to 4 hours away. 

So think about how much travel time you want and your budget for transportation. 

Renting a car could also be an option if you want flexibility.

Modes of Transportation

Nikko

  1. Locals use the efficient rail network. For example, they use the Tobu Nikko Line to connect Nikko with Tokyo. Buying a Japan Rail Pass or JR Pass can help foreign tourists save money and travel flexibly.
  1. If you’re traveling by Shinkansen from Tokyo to Nikko, try to sit on the right side of the train when facing the front. On clear days, Mount Fuji might be visible in the distance. But, visibility is not guaranteed, and it depends on weather conditions.

    Meanwhile, a Shinkansen ride provides a seamless connection to Nikko for those using Kyoto or Osaka as base.
  2. People from Japan often rely on the extensive bus network to navigate Nikko’s attractions. The Nikko All Area Pass makes it convenient to access them. Foreigners can also enjoy this pass. It simplifies transportation and provides discounted entry to significant sites.

Matsumoto

  1. Locals use JR Chuo Main Line for easy access to Matsumoto City. Foreign visitors may find the Japan Rail Pass helpful for a seamless journey. It offers a budget-friendly option for city-to-city travel.

    For travelers from Nagano prefecture, taking a short train or bus ride to Matsumoto is easy. This enhances the accessibility of this captivating city.
  2. Matsumoto’s residents often use buses or taxis for local travel. The Alpico Kotsu Bus Pass can be advantageous for foreigners. It provides unlimited bus rides within the city. This facilitates the exploration of key attractions.
Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 6

Mouth-watering Cuisine

Nikko

  1. Nikko’s locals frequent traditional ryokans for authentic cuisine. Foreigners can experience local flavors by exploring these establishments. They can enjoy specialties like Yuba (tofu skin) dishes and sample the diverse offerings in the local eateries.
  2. Locals often celebrate traditional festivals with local food stalls. Attending these events allows foreigners to immerse themselves in the local culture. They can savor Nikko’s unique culinary delights.

Matsumoto

  1. Matsumoto locals often gather at local izakayas to socialize over regional dishes. Foreigners can partake in this local custom. They can try popular dishes like Shinshu Soba and engage with the city’s culinary scene.
  2. Matsumoto has diverse dining options. Residents enjoy modern cafes and traditional restaurants. For foreigners, exploring both facets provides a comprehensive taste of Matsumoto’s food and the chance to mingle with locals.

Onsen and Ryokan Accommodation

The quality of onsen (hot springs) and ryokan (traditional inns) can vary based on personal preferences, specific establishments, and individual experiences. Both Nikko and Matsumoto offer unique onsen and ryokan experiences, each with its charm.

Nikko:

Nikko is known for its natural hot spring sources. They provide an authentic onsen experience amidst beautiful landscapes. The area around Lake Chuzenji and Yumoto Onsen offers onsen resorts with scenic views.

Nikko’s ryokans often embrace traditional Japanese aesthetics. They offer tatami-mat rooms, kaiseki (multi-course) meals, and a cultural ambiance. It also boasts various ryokans. They range from historic establishments with centuries of tradition to more modern interpretations of the traditional inn.

Matsumoto:

Matsumoto may not be as famous for onsen as other regions. However, nearby areas like Asama Onsen and Shirahone Onsen offer unique bathing experiences.

Matsumoto’s ryokans often blend traditional elements with a more contemporary setting. This provides a mix of comfort and cultural charm. Some even have historical significance, adding a layer of cultural richness to the stay.

Nikko or Matsumoto - How to Choose Between These Two Amazing Destinations 7

My Perspective

As someone invested in travel experiences, I’ve observed that Nikko and Matsumoto locals focus on historical sites. They select their outdoor activities based on their interests.

For foreigners like myself, tapping into these local insights has been invaluable. It allows us to shape our itineraries to resonate with our specific interests.

We can delve into the rich history or immerse in the breathtaking outdoor landscapes of Nikko and Matsumoto.

Also, having engaged in conversations with residents, I’ve come to appreciate their emphasis on the significance of personal preferences when choosing a destination.

As a traveler, tailoring my itinerary to align with my unique tastes has been transformative. I encourage fellow explorers to embrace this approach. It ensures a more fulfilling and enjoyable travel experience.

Whether it’s Nikko’s historical charm or Matsumoto’s scenic wonders, aligning your journey with your tastes creates memories that resonate personally.

You can’t go wrong!

Honestly, either Nikko or Matsumoto would make a fantastic trip. If you can’t decide, why not visit both? They’re different enough that you won’t feel like you’re seeing the same thing twice.

With the beauty of the Japanese Alps and the unique culture in each place, you’ll love whichever one you choose!

Ultimately, think about what interests you and the experience you want to have. Do some research on the seasons, sites, and atmosphere of Nikko and Matsumoto. And if you can swing it, I highly recommend visiting both – you won’t regret it! 

Where’s your next stop after visiting Nikko or Matsumoto? You may want to consider Fukuoka – it is assuredly worth your time.