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.
2 Tokyo / Yamagata
Venture out with your leader on the metro to the buzzing Shibuya area and explore both the well-known and secret gems of Tokyo. Look down on the one of the busiest intersections in the world then visit the statute of Hachiko, the famously loyal dog, then head to a depachika for a mouth-watering array of tempting Japanese treats. Depachika are food halls lurking beneath major departhment stores, where vendors sell everything from bento boxes to formal gifts. Head to Yoyogi Park, home to many events from the first Japan Olympics, then visit Meiji Shrine. Enter via a massive Torii (gate) and the sights and sounds of the busy city are replaced by a tranquil forest. Approximately 100,000 trees were planted during the shrine's construction and were donated from regions across the entire country. Finish with a visit to Harajuku, the home of quirky pop culture, then jump on a train that'll take the group to the mountain city of Yamagata.
Take some free time to explore Yamagata this morning. Perhaps you'd like to visit Yamadera, a scenic temple in the mountains north-east of the city, and take in the spectacular views of the valley from the temple grounds. The temple was founded in AD860 and the 1000 steps up the mountainside are lined with stone lanterns and small statues. In the afternoon, a 40-minute bus journey will take you to the town of Zao Onsen. If the weather is behaving, the group'll take the Zao Ropeway (cable car) to the top of Mount Zao. The views of the snow-coated landscape are incredible, and the area is famous for its spectacular 'Ice Monsters' (Juhyo), which are heavily snow-covered trees that have become misshapen under the weight of the snow.
Depart Yamagata for Yudanaka in search of Japan's famous snow monkeys (approximately five hours). Stop en route at Zenkohi Temple, a 7th-century temple in Nagano that stores the first Buddhist statue brought to Japan. Spend the night in a traditional Japanese ryoken, where the host will prepare a Japanese dinner with local ingredients. Kick back in your yukata (Japanese gown) or call it a night and get some sleep on the cosy futon beds laid out on tatami mats on the floor. (D)
Take a thirty to forty-minute walk through the forest to the aptly named Jigokudani (Hell Valley), named for its steep cliffs from which fountains of hot water and steam emit. The Jigokudani Monkey Park offers visitor the unique experience of seeing monkeys in the wild, bathing in natural hot springs. The park is inhabited by Japanese Macaques, known as snow monkeys, which live in large social groups and are highly entertaining to watch. Though the park is open throughout the year, the monkeys are particularly photogenic when the area is covered in snow from December to March. Afterwards, warm up in a steaming-hot onsen (hot spring bath) in your ryokan. This is a highlight for many. Generally, onsens are communal bathing areas and you are not permitted to wear bathing suits. While this can seem somewhat intimidating at first, it's a quintessential Japanese experience that most visitors quickly become accustomed to. (B)
Travel to Takayama by bullet and local trains (approximately five hours), reaching speeds of 270 kilometres per hour. Takayama, a charming town from the Edo period, is located in the Japanese Alps and famous for its traditional inns, sake breweries and the museum of Hida Folk Village, which is your first stop. It's an outdoor museum where the traditional thatched-roof architecture unique to this area has been crecreated in a mountain setting. Learn the techniques used to build farmhouses designed to withstand the winters, then enjoy free time to explore the art galleries, local markets and museums, or simply wander the delightful streets. (B)
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 6 am every day. While browsing the food markets, look out for the unique local-style 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. (B)
Take a train for approximately 5 hours to Hiroshima. Visit the Genbaku (A-Bomb) Dome and the Peace Memorial Park, 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. (B)
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. (B)
Leave Hiroshima today and head to Japan's most impressive samurai castle at Himeji by train (approx. one 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 1000 years, but the emperor and government are now located in Tokyo. With over 2000 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. (B)
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 is 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 1001 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.
Make the most of your last day in Kyoto. If you haven't done so already, you may like to see Japan's largest pagoda at Toji. You could visit the imposing and opulent Nijo Castle, home to the Tokugawa Shoguns who had power over the country during the Edo period. Check out the ‘nightingale floors' of Ninomaru Palace, which squeak to warn of intruders (like otherwise-silent ninjas). From the Castle it's a short bus ride to Ryoan-ji, perhaps Japan's most famous Zen garden, where carefully placed rocks sit in an immaculately raked sea of gravel.
For some last minute shopping there's Kyoto's handicraft centre, a perfect place to pick up some souvenirs with a fine selection of woodblock prints, yukata (light cotton robes), jewellery and pottery. For our final evening you might like to celebrate your journey with a Japanese feast or maybe discover Kyoto's exuberant nightlife. Alternatively, you could hit up the city's izakayas (traditional Japanese pubs), live music venues, theatres or nightclubs.
Your trip come to an end this morning and you're able to depart at any time