One of the world's main economic centres, Tokyo is a city that presents a different view of itself at every turn. Starkly modern, it becomes a jewel box at night with a glittering display of neon and fluorescent lights. But you can retreat to quiet residential back streets or sculptured gardens and still find harmony, scale and simplicity the Japanese have prized for centuries. Our day begins with a visit to the scenic and spacious Imperial Palace East Garden, which provides a calm oasis amid the bustle of Tokyo. The garden is the former site of Edo Castle's innermost circle of defence. As none of the castle's main buildings remain today, the garden has been created in their place.
Special Experience: Watch a sumo wrestling demonstration before enjoying a traditional Chanko Nabe (sumo stew) lunch at a local restaurant. This afternoon we'll stroll through the shopping district of Ginza on our way to dinner. We'll also experience the hustle and bustle of Shibuya, one of Tokyo's busiest districts, and home to the famous Shibuya crossing. Approximately 3,000 people can make their way across the intersection at any one time! We take to Tokyo Bay and admire the city lights on a dinner cruise this evening in a typical Japanese-style houseboat from the Heian period, known as a Yakatabune. (B/L/D)
Hakone, part of the Fuji-Hakone-Izu National Park, is less than 100 kilometers from Tokyo and one of the most popular destinations among Japanese and international tourists looking for a break from the big city. It is famous for its hot springs, outdoor activities, natural beauty and the view of nearby Mt Fuji. This morning we'll visit a former farming village, Iyashi-no-Sato Nenba. After being destroyed by a typhoon in 1966, the village was reconstructed and reopened forty years later as an open-air museum and traditional craft village, complete with restaurants, shops and galleries.
We'll then arrive in the mountainous town of Hakone, where we'll enjoy a cable car ride on the Hakone Ropeway and see incredible views of the iconic Mt Fuji (weather permitting). We will stop along the Hakone Ropeway and see the magnificent Owakudani Valley, created about 3,000 years ago when the Hakone Volcano last erupted. Tonight, we'll be staying in an authentic ryokan guesthouse, where we'll sleep on traditional Japanese-style bedding made up of a futon bed on tatami mats on the floor. We will also have the chance to bathe in a natural onsen (hot springs) and enjoy a traditional Japanese dinner. (B/D)
Surrounded by lush mountains, Nagano is a quaint city with temples that have played an important role in the lives of pilgrims for almost 1,000 years. The city also hosted the 1998 Winter Olympic Games with some of the former Olympic facilities still dotted throughout the city. We'll make our way to Nagano today via the mountain city of Matsumoto. Situated in a valley with the northern Japan Alps as a backdrop, the city is home to one of Japan's premier historic castles, Matsumoto Castle. We'll visit the castle which was built in the 16th century, admiring its architecture and learning about its rich history.
Special Experience: Immerse yourself in Japanese culture during a soba noodle class on our way to Nagano. These delicious noodles are used in a variety of Japanese dishes. Learn about these delicious buckwheat noodles that are used in a variety of Japanese dishes and take away a new cooking skill you can bring home with you.
This afternoon, we'll visit the historic Old Battlefield of Kawanakajima, where the famous provincial battle took place in 1561. Now part of Japanese lore, the battles fought here have become tales of chivalry and romance, and have also been mentioned in epic literature and movies! (B)
One of the biggest morning markets in Japan, the Miyagawa Open Air Market is a feast for the senses. Located on the banks of the Miyagawa River, we'll wander the many stalls, and check out the range of fresh fruit, vegetables, spices and local souvenirs on offer this morning. Next, we'll visit the UNESCO World Heritage-listed site of Shirakawa-go, famous for its gasshō-zukuri thatched-roof farmhouses characterised by their extremely steep roofs, some of which are more than 250 years old. Gasshō-zukuri means ‘constructed like hands in prayer', as the farmhouses' roofs resemble the hands of Buddhist monks in prayer. This architectural style, developed over many generations, was designed to withstand the large amounts of heavy snow that fall during winter.
We'll visit the largest gasshō-zukuri farmhouse in the town, where one of the town's wealthiest families once lived. Later we'll enjoy a traditional Japanese lunch at a local restaurant. We'll then observe the traditional art of Japanese Washi papermaking in Gokayama. Some artists enjoy working with rice paper because of its distinct texture and slight translucent appearance. Rice paper, or Washi as it is known, is commonly used in the traditional paper-folding art of Origami, practiced since the early 1600s. (B/L)
Kyoto, one of Japan's most beloved cities is our destination today. This ancient city was the imperial capital of Japan for 1,000 years with the Emperor residing in its elaborate palaces. Kyoto is considered the country's spiritual capital today and is graced with an abundance of temples, pavilions, gardens and museums. While there are many keen tourists looking to imbibe the serenity that Kyoto exudes, it is still possible to find a peaceful moment to personally connect with your surrounds. All aboard Japan's famous bullet train system for our journey to Kyoto. Upon arrival we'll delve into the unique craft of sake brewing.
Special Experience: Sample the famous Japanese beverage, sake, and learn about the brewing process. Later today we'll explore the incredible tunnel of orange Torii Gates that make up Kyoto's famous Fushimi Inari shrine, dedicated to the god of rice and sake in the 8th century. Its resplendent orange Torii Gates are a sight to behold, numbering more than 10,000 as they wrap themselves around the base of the Inari Mountain. (B)
We'll delve further into the Japanese culture today. A morning walk along Philosopher's Path is a tranquil start to our day of exploring Kyoto. Named after Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers who meditated along the path while walking to university every day, the path is an enchanting and peaceful place in the city. We'll learn about some of Japan's most popular art forms next.
Special Experience: Delve into the stunning art form of Japanese black ink calligraphy and try your hand at perfecting this ancient art. Next, we'll experience a Japanese tea ceremony. In Japan it can take years to master the art of the tea ceremony, the art form of cha-no-yu. With many distinct styles, the different configurations of tatami (straw floor mats), utensils and temae (the preparation), the hanging scrolls selected with attention to the season and theme, and the chabana (floral arrangement) are all purposefully chosen to infuse meaning into the ceremony.
The remainder of our day is free to enjoy at leisure. (B)
Hiroshima, a symbol of the utter devastation of war continues to build its reputation today as a symbol of peace. When the first atomic bomb exploded over Hiroshima on 6 August 1945, the city was obliterated. This moving city is our destination today. We spend our final time in Kyoto visiting some of the city's most incredible temples. Our first stop is the stunning Kinkaku-ji Temple (Golden Pavilion), an exemplar of traditional Japanese architecture. The temple's top two floors are completely covered in gold leaf and the pavilion is set amongst beautiful gardens. We'll then enjoy a typical Buddhist lunch before touring the beautiful UNESCO World Heritage-listed Tenryu-ji Temple, ranked top of Kyoto's five great Zen temples.
Later we'll walk through the otherworldly Arashiyama Bamboo Forest for a moment of peace and tranquillity as we stroll along the paths that meander through the endless stalks of towering bamboo, Our final stop is a visit to the Togetsukyo Bridge, or ‘Moon Crossing Bridge', originally built in the Hein Period for nobles who came to enjoy the natural surrounds. This afternoon, we travel to Hiroshima by bullet train. (B/L)
A kaleidoscope of vibrant colour, traditions and culture, Osaka is Japan's second largest city. Formerly known as Naniwa, the city was Japan's first recorded capital city. Our day begins with a bullet train ride to Himeji Castle. As Japan's largest and most-visited castle, it is regarded as the finest surviving example of Japanese castle architecture. UNESCO World Heritage-listed Himejijō, in its current form, dates back to 1617 and has remained intact despite extensive bombing during World War II and a great earthquake in 1995. We'll enjoy time at the castle and in the nearby beautiful Kokoen Gardens, a short walk from the castle's main gate.
Special Experience: Learn the way of the Samurai, the warriors of pre-modern Japan, during an interactive lesson. Samurai were elite soldiers and adept with the bow and sword. Many Samurai lived by the concepts of loyalty to one's master, self-discipline and ethical behaviour. They were also adept with the bow and sword. We'll learn about the art and try out the movements ourselves. Tonight, we'll enjoy a Japanese-style group farewell dinner. (B/D)