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 hole in the wall eateries and bars. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting at 6 pm tonight. You can arrive at any time during the day, as there are no activities planned until this important meeting. Afterwards, join your new travel companions for an optional dinner at a local restaurant.
2 Tokyo - Nikko
Catch the shinkansen bullet train today (approximately 1 hour) and then a local train (approximately 1 hour) to get from Tokyo to Nikko. Japanese trains are a quintessential experience and one of the best insights into culture (and efficiency!) of the country. Enjoy shopping for snacks or bento box at the train station or simple snacks are available for purchasing on board too. Arrive in Nikko late afternoon and you'll stay in a small inn tonight with shared facilities.
You have a full day to explore Nikko today, an ancient town overflowing with beautiful shrines and temples. A number of shrines here are World Heritage Sites and the town is surrounded with lush mountainous nature. You'll visit Toshugu Shrine, a resting place of a Tokugawa shogun who was one of the most powerful rulers of the country. The opulent shrine contrasts with the traditional minimalist style commonly used throughout Japan. Every corner of this monument is covered in intricate gold leaf, lacquer work, paintings and patterns. Here you can also visit the Nikko Toshogu Museum of Art at the back of the temple complex (extra entrance fee apply). This 1920s mansion has a beautiful collections of sliding doors and screens decorated by the best Japanese painters of the day. In your free time, you can pay a visit to the red-lacquered Shin-kyō bridge, one of the town’s most famous landmarks, and the Buddhist temple of Rinnō-ji, home to fearsome statues and an elegant garden. Or you may prefer time exploring Nikko’s beautiful natural setting with a visit to Chuzenji Lake and Kegon Falls. Kanmangafuchi Abyss is another highlight in Nikko that your leader will take you to visit, where you'll see about 70 Jizo Buddhas looking out to the river.
Leaving Nikko, you'll have a long travel day today to our next destination - Hakone. Travel by local train followed by two shikansen bullet trains and finally a bus. Phew! Total travel time can vary depending on the connections, but we will usually arrive by mid afternoon. The journey is certainly worth it as Hakone is a scenic hot-springs resort in the foothills of Mt Fuji. You’ll be staying at a family run ryokan tonight, with tatami-mat rooms, shared bathroom facilities and a lovely outdoor hot-spring onsen.
This morning, hop on a boat across Ashinoko Lake and then tride the Hakone ropeway cable car to the top of 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. The afternoon is free to further explore Hakone’s spectacular mountain scenery and volcanic sites. Perhaps visit the boiling sulphur springs of Owakudani, or Hakone Jinja Shrine with its red torii gate rising from the shore of Ashinoko Lake. Or go for a walk through the hills of the famed grassland ecosystem of Sengokuhara. There’s also a 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. Not what you would expect to find in a small Japanese town, right?
Travel by a local train first then a shikansen towards Takayama in alpine Gifu Prefecture today. You’ll reach speeds of 270 kilometres per hour and it will take around 4 hours to get there in total. Takayama is a charming Edo period town located in the Japanese alps, famous for its traditional inns, sake breweries and the Hida Folk Village. The latter is your first stop, an outdoor museum where the traditional thatched-roof architecture unique to the area has been relocated in a delightful mountain setting in an effort to preserve traditional Japanese culture. 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 its own self-contained museum, with displays of personal items and traditional tools. We stay in another delightful ryokan tonight where you can experience traditional Japanese hospitality, sleeping on futon in tatami-mat rooms. Your included dinner tonight will give you the chance to taste some of Takayama’s famous signature dishes. (D)
Enjoy a typical local breakfast this morning at the ryokan before our visit to the morning market. Gifu prefecture is known to produce many fine high-altitude vegetables, and these markets have been held for 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. 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 alpine climate and crystal clear mountain waters are perfect for creating sake, so you'll also visit a local brewery for a taste of the region's prized signature drop later today. The rest of the day is free for you to explore this delightful little town. Takayama is also very famous for Hida beef. Don't miss the opportunity to try some of the country’s best while you're in town for lunch or today. (B/D)
Time to leave Takayama and travel by express train and shinkansen (approximately 5 hours) to Hiroshima. Depending on arrival times, we will either visit Hiroshima’s Peace Park this afternoon or tomorrow morning. The Genbaku (A-Bomb) Dome and Peace Memorial Museum 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 and the fact that it looks almost exactly as it did after the bombing has made it an enduring symbol of peace. The memorial park serves the same purpose, and has museums, memorials and monuments dedicated to the memory of victims. This evening, maybe try one of the city’s signature dishes for dinner – okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake of egg, cabbage, soba noodles, and meat or seafood. Our accommodation tonight will either be a simple ryokan or hotel. (B)
9 Miyajima - Hiroshima
Today you'll make your way to the nearby island of Miyajima with its famous 'floating' torii gate. You might like to further explore the island by climbing to the top of Mt Miyajima (or hopping on the cable car instead) for 360-degree views of the Inland Sea. Keep your eyes out for inquisitive and hungry deer that roam the streets. You have the rest of the day free to enjoy some of the other sites in this very welcoming and pleasant city. You could stop by the magnificent five-storied 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. The wonderful Shukkeien Garden, with its graceful teahouses and waterfalls, is also a perfect place to decompress on a break from sightseeing. For something a bit louder, there are local baseball and soccer teams (if the day is right), or endless shopping choices. Ask your leader for other tips and suggestions as there is plenty to see and do.
Leave Hiroshima today and head to Japan’s most impressive samurai castle at Himeji by shinkansen (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. Hop back on the shinkansen for the 1 hour train trip 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. Your leader will take you on an orientation walk on arrival to get your bearings and you may like to spend some further time getting acquainted with Kyoto by wandering through its historical streets lined with traditional machiya houses. Stay in a ryokan or simple hotel during our time here.
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. Your tour leader will take you to visit two of the best temples this morning. Afterwards, it's your free time to explore this charming ancient capital. You will have almost one and half free days here to exploreand there is a lot to see and experience here. Your tour leader will be able to help you with making the most out of your time.
Fushimi Inari is definitely one of the most photographed shrines in Japan. For the more active, hiking up the mountain following the red torri gates is a great way to enjoy the expansive forest on the shrine’s grounds and views of the city below. Otherwise, maybe head off to Arashiyama to enjoy a wander through the Sagano bamboo forest, or cycle along the Kamo River. Another great stop is the architecturally impressive Higashi Honganji Temple and the almost surreal Sanjusangendo, home to 1,001 statues of Kannon, or the Nishiki food market.
A gentle stroll through Kyoto's eastern hills along the ‘Path of Philosophy’ that links Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, with Nanzen-ji Temple is also recommended. This walk can be extended south through the well-preserved ‘old town’ areas to Kiyamizu-dera (Temple of Clear Water) with its famous viewing platform. Also recommended, for those visiting in spring, is a visit to the theatre for a presentation of Miyako Odori (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”.
On one of the evenings, your leader will take you on a stroll through Gion, Kyoto's famous Geisha district. Even today you can observe the age-old tradition of geisha as they head out to perform dances and song for members of the wealthy elite in small teahouses tucked away in tiny back streets.
There are no activities planned for the day and you’re free to depart the hotel at any time after check out at 10 am. If you are departing later, you can arrange luggage storage at the hotel.