Konnichiwa! Welcome to Japan. Bursting with contemporary urban culture, there are many sides of Tokyo to explore, from fascinating museums and world-class shopping, to neighbourhood backstreets lined with restaurants and karaoke bars. Your adventure begins with a Welcome Meeting at 6pm tonight. You can arrive at any time during the day, as there are no activities planned until this important meeting. Please check with hotel reception or look on the reception noticeboard for where and when the meeting will take place. If you're going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. Have your insurance and next of kin details on hand as we'll be collecting them at this meeting. Afterwards, you’ll have some free time to explore Tokyo’s exhilarating nightlife. Perhaps take a walk down Shinjuku’s Memory Lane. This crowded alley of busy restaurants and bar stalls started in the 1940s and quickly gained infamy as a black market drinking quarter. Today, it is still one of the best spots to try some of Tokyo’s famed ‘fast food’ dishes.
Enjoy a couple of free hours this morning. Perhaps see the historic Asakusa area. This is one of the older and more traditional parts of Tokyo, and is often called the temple district. Here you can stop by Senso-ji, the city’s oldest temple – founded almost 1,400 years ago when Tokyo was nothing more than a fishing village. Next, catch an express train (approximately 1 hour) and then a local train (approximately 1 hour) out of Tokyo towards Nikko. You’ll enjoy a pleasant ride, with beautiful views of the countryside. Japanese trains also have trolley carts with snacks such as bento boxes (Japanese lunch boxes), green tea and beer. Once you arrive in Nikko you’ll have free time to spend as you wish.
Nikko has been a sacred city since the middle of the 8th century, and is overflowing with beautiful shrines and temples. Perhaps visit the Toshu-gu Shrine, a resting place of a Tokugawa shogun who was one of the most powerful rulers of the country. The shrine contrasts with the traditional minimalist style commonly used throughout Japan. Instead, every corner of this monument is covered in intricate gold leaf, lacquer work, paintings and patterns. Here you can also visit the Museum of Art at the back of the temple complex. This 1920s mansion has one of the country’s most beautiful collections of sliding doors and screens decorated by the best Japanese painters of the day. You can also pay a visit to the red-lacquered Shin-kyo bridge, one of the town’s most famous landmarks, and the Buddhist temple of Rinno-ji, home to fearsome statues and an elegant garden.
Leaving Nikko, you’ll board a local train followed by two bullet trains and finally a bus on your way to Hakone. Total travel time can vary depending on the connections, but we will usually arrive by mid afternoon. Once in Hakone, take a boat across Ashinoko Lake and then ride a cable car over the surrounding mountains. The area around the lake offers plenty of stunning views, and you may even catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji in the distance if weather conditions are clear. Depending on arrival time and weather, you may do these activities today or on Day 5. You’ll be staying at a family run guesthouse with shared facilities and a lovely outdoor onsen. Men and women always enter separate baths and no clothing or swimming costumes are allowed.
Today is a free day in the lake, mountain and onsen area of Hakone. Perhaps visit the boiling sulphur springs, or the Hakone Jinja – the red-gated Shinto shrine. There’s hiking trails in the national park, such as from Togendai to Owakudani, and from there to Mt Komagatake, passing the peaks of Mt Kanmurigatake and Mt Kami. There’s also the great collection of art at the Hakone Open-Air Museum and the Pola Museum of Art, an eclectic mix that includes work by the likes of Renoir, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh, Cézanne and Gallé. Ask your leader for some suggestions and tips about what to do in this famous onsen region.
Travel by shinkansen (bullet train) towards Takayama. You’ll reach speeds of 270 kilometres per hour and it will take around 4 hours to get there. Takayama is a charming Edo period town located in the Japan alps, famous for its traditional inns, sake breweries and the museum of Hida Folk Village. The latter is your first stop, an outdoor museum where the traditional thatched-roof architecture unique to the area has been recreated in a delightful mountain setting. Discover the techniques used to build farmhouses that could withstand fierce winters and long periods of isolation due to snow-closed roads. The thick thatching kept in warmth and the roofs were angled so as to minimise snow build-up. Each house is like it’s own self-contained museum, with displays of personal items and traditional tools. You’ll then have free time to explore the many art galleries, local markets and museums, or simply wander the streets of this delightful little town. For the next couple of nights you’ll be staying in a stunning ryokan (traditional Japanese inn) within walking distance of the town. The inn includes a lovely irori hearth and traditional meals.
Notes: During the Takayama Festival (14-15 April and 9-10 October), accommodation will be harder to get and may be multishare. Depending on rooming configurations, couples may sometimes have to split up for these nights.
The Gifu prefecture is known to produce many fine altitude vegetables, and today you’ll visit morning markets that date back over 600 years. Browse the stalls of seasonal vegetables brought in from the surrounding countryside, set up by local farm women from 6am every morning. While browsing the food markets look out for the unique local style of pickles, the bags of miso wrapped in leaves, Genkotsu ame (soy bean candy), preserved fish, spices, and the delicious marshmallow treat of owara tamaten. The rest of the day will be free to spend as you wish. The alpine climate and crystal clear mountain waters are perfect for creating sake, so why not visit a local brewery for a taste of the region's prized signature drop.
Take a train for approximately 5 hours to Hiroshima. Visit the Genbaku (A-Bomb) Dome and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, both of which emotionally stand testament to the fateful day in August 1945 when Hiroshima was chosen as target for the first ever wartime use of the atomic bomb. The dome was just metres from where the bomb detonated so it was able to retain its shape; the fact that it looks almost exactly as it did after the bombing means it serves as a reminder and symbol of peace. The memorial park serves the same purpose, and has museums, memorials and monuments dedicated to the memory of victims, education on what lead to the bomb’s use, as well as advocating world peace.
Enjoy a free day in the city of Hiroshima. You may choose to see more of the extensive exhibitions at the Peace Memorial Park and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Alternatively head for the serene, enchanting island of Miyajima, reached after a short ferry ride (30 kilometres) across the Inland Sea. The island is home to the venerable Shinto shrine of Itsukushima, famous for its huge bright orange gate (tori) that rises majestically out of the sea. At high tide it is considered to be one of the most beautiful sights in Japan. The size and physical landscape of Miyajima makes it an ideal place for walking. There is the lovely Momaji Park (known as Maple Valley), from where it is possible to walk or take a cable car up to the top of Mt. Misen. Keep your eyes out for inquisitive and hungry deer that roam the streets. In the evening, maybe try one of the city’s signature dishes for dinner – okonomiyaki, a kind savoury pancake of egg, cabbage, soba noodles, and meat or seafood.
You’ll have another free day in Hiroshima. With so much to do in the area, you’ll be spoilt for choice. Why not visit the sprawling city-centre green space of Chuo Park, or the serene Shukkeien Gardens. You could stop by the magnificent Hiroshima Castle, which originally dates from the 1590s. It was destroyed by the bomb but reconstructed in all its glory in the 1950s, and now holds an informative museum in its five stories. There are numerous other musuems scattered about the city, and the wonderful Shukkeien garden is the perfect place to decompress on a break from sightseeing. Winding across the stone bridges past graceful teahouses and waterfalls can make you feel like you’re in another world. For something a bit louder, there’s the local baseball and soccer teams (if the day is right), or endless shopping choices. Ask your leader for tips, suggestions and directions.
Leave Hiroshima today and head to Japan’s most impressive samurai castle at Himeji by train (approximately 1 hour). The building, which has survived earthquakes and war since the mid-16th century, was restored to its full glory in 2015. The moats, baileys, towers and walled alleyways were ingeniously designed to trick attackers – perhaps so intimidatingly that they were never in fact tested. Explore the castle that was once home to over 10,000 samurai families and look out over the castle grounds and the city below from the seventh floor. Continue on a 1 hour train ride to Kyoto. Originally founded as Heian-kyo (literally “tranquillity and peace capital”) by Emperor Kammu in 794, Kyoto had its golden age during the imperial court's heyday from 794 to 1185. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years (the name means “Capital City”) but the emperor and government are now located in Tokyo. With over 2,000 temples, shrines and gardens, Kyoto is a great place to get lost in. Spend some free time getting acquainted with Kyoto and walking through the historical streets. In the evening, maybe discover Kyoto’s exuberant nightlife. Hit up the city’s izakayas (traditional Japanese pubs), live music venues, theatres or nightclubs.
With its many cultural landmarks and historical sites, and the abundance of traditional arts and literature, Kyoto is regarded as the cultural heart of Japan. Kyoto is a city that lends itself to walking, and there are a number of walks available. Visit some of the best temples in the town suggested by our leader in the morning. Then enjoy a free afternoon for more exploration.
Recommended is a gentle stroll through the nearby eastern hills along the ‘Path of Philosophy’ that links Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, with Nanzen-ji Temple. This walk can be extended south through well-preserved ‘old town’ areas to Kiyamizu-dera (Temple of Clear Water) from where there is a justifiably famous view across a wooded gorge toward Kyoto. Also recommended, for those visiting in spring, is a visit to the theatre for a presentation of Miyako Odori (the Cherry Blossom Dance) performed by elaborately dressed maiko (apprentice geisha), or a visit to the extravagantly decorated Kinkakuji temple, immortalised in Yukio Mishima’s novel “The Golden Pavilion”. Another great stop is the architecturally impressive Higashi Honganji temple and the almost surreal Sanjusangendo, home to 1,001 statues of Kannon. In the evening, perhaps head out to Gion, the famous Geisha district. Even today you can observe the age-old tradition of geisha girls visiting members of the wealthy elite. This unfolds in small teahouses tucked away in tiny back streets.
Today we will travel to Osaka for the second part of this combination trip. Please note that your tour leader and group composition may change today. Enjoy some free time in this unofficial culinary capital before the briefing at 6pm today.
Depart Osaka in the morning and begin the journey west. Take the train to Takamatsu. This may be the largest city on the island of Shikoku, but it's a beautifully unpretentious town full of history, top-notch food and interesting local arts. Here you may pay a visit to Ritsurin Garden, one of the most beautiful gardens in the country. Dating back to the Edo period, it comprises many ponds, pavillions and historic trees, with a western garden an addition to the Japanese one.
In the morning, take a ferry to Naoshima Island, which is famous for its modern art galleries, architecture and museum. Explore the island, using a public bus or bicycle to take you between the different galleries and installations. This is a totally unique and tranquil experience, in which you slip off your shoes to enter dreamlike exhibits. Wander between artworks, hear the sound of waves lapping at beaches, and stumble unexpectedly upon outdoor sculptures.
It's back on the train and off to the small town of Kotohira, which is famous for Kompirasan, Shikoku's most popular shrine. Popular with pilgrims, Kompirasan is dedicated to seafaring, and although the approach to the shrine is not particularly straightforward, it's well worth the effort. Climb the 785 steps to the main hall and take in views overlooking Kotohira Town (and check out a real submarine on display).
Take a day trip to the secluded Iya Valley. Explore its winding passes and head to the atmospheric Kazurabashi, which translates to ‘vine bridge’. When the Heike clan fled here some 800 years ago, they built these bridges as the only way to span the gorges and Iya river; if they were attacked then they could cut the vines at a moment’s notice. Only three of these bridges remain, and they look like something out of Indiana Jones. An optional activity is to visit the restored thatched-roof samurai house, which lies at the top of a steep valley slope by towering cedar. This was once the home of village leaders, and now offers displays of samurai armour and superb views over the valley.
Pack an overnight bag for your stop tonight at Matsuyama (your main luggage will be forwarded to Nagasaki). In your free time, perhaps visit the hill-top Matsuyama castle, one of Japan's finest castles. To get up up there, take the ropeway (chairlift). Alternatively, there's a nice pathway if you'd rather walk. Unlike most castles in Japan, this one has an interesting collection of artefacts inside, so take the chance to check them out and learn a little more about Matsuyama's history. Later maybe relax and unwind at the beautiful Dogo Onsen, one of the oldest bath houses in Japan.
Spend most of the day travelling to Nagasaki via Hiroshima. From Matsuyama, take slow ferry to Hiroshima port. From there, take a train to Nagasaki. Though the name has strong connotations of bombs and war – and the military history sites are important to visit – it's a delight to explore, with its hills, harbour, churches and temples. Maybe take a stroll around Peace Park, or read up on what happened here at the Atomic Bomb Museum, an essential visit for any visitor.
With a free day up your sleeve, consider heading over to Dejima. This fascinating artificial island, once a Dutch trading post (and the sole foreign presence in the whole country at one point) is well worth exploring. The deserted Gunkajima, or Battleship Island, is another interesting choice, with its eerie abandoned concrete buildings and sea wall.
Take the train to Kagoshima, then take the hydrofoil across the water to Yakushima. The forests of Yakushima are said to have inspired the forest setting in Hayao Miyazaki's film Princess Mononoke, and it's easy to see why. Its ancient cedar trees and shady green splendour are a delight to behold, and at times give the feeling of walking through another world. Your stay in Yakushima will most certainly be one full of magic.
Set off on a trek through the lush green forests of Yakushima (approximately 2.5 hours). Afterwards, kick back and relax. In the summer season, Nagata Inakahama Beach, the best beach on the island, is the place to be. Here, when it's the season, giant turtles lay their eggs in the sand at night. There's the option to see the turtles in the night (through authority–approved tours). Alternatively, spend free time soaking in the onsens by the sea.
Travel back to Osaka (approximately 7 hours). Arrive in the evening and join your leader for a final celebration of your time in Japan (optional).
The trip comes to an end, and you're free to depart at any time.