Why book this trip?
Travel from super-modern Tokyo to villages, castles and temples that remain unchanged from the times of the Shogun and Samurai. Stay in a Buddhist temple and a family-run ryokan, meet snow monkeys and tame deer, and experience the modern and the ancient in this invigorating country.
- Tokyo– Explore modern and ancient Tokyo, with the option to visit nearby Mount Fuji
- Kyoto– Experience traditional Japan with temples, Zen gardens and geishas
- Kanazawa– Explore the Samurai district and discover the secrets of the Ninja Temple
- DAY 1– Join trip in Tokyo
Arrive in Tokyo, the ultra-modern capital of Japan.
For those arriving on time our Leader plans to meet you in the hotel reception at 6.30pm for the welcome meeting and for those that wish, there is the chance to go out for dinner. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to arrive in Tokyo at any time. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you’ll need to arrive into Haneda Airport (HND) or Narita Airport (NRT). The city centre is around an hour away from Haneda Airport and an hour and a half from Narita. Should you miss the welcome meeting, your Leader will inform you of any essential information as soon as you catch up
If your flight arrives earlier in the day, we recommend taking the train to Ryogoku Station to see the Edo Tokyo Museum (the museum is just outside the station, look for the massive building on stilts). This fascinating architectural structure gives a great insight in to the history of Japan’s capital and it is next to the sumo stadium so there is the chance to spot a sumo wrestler in the area. Also nearby is the Hokusai Museum which displays woodblock prints of Japan’s most famous artist.
Alternatively you can explore the area around Asakusa station. Aside from Senso-ji Temple, it is a joy to wander around the back streets where you will find sword shops, street food, traditional goldfish scooping stalls and rickshaws.
- DAY 2– Experience the spectacular Fire Ceremony and discover Tokyos temples and frenetic city streets
We explore Tokyo on foot and using the super-efficient metro system along with the locals. Beginning in dramatic fashion, we attend the morning fire service at Fudo-do Temple. Here the esoteric Shingon sect perform a ceremony involving leaping flames and the chanting of sacred texts, accompanied by the deafening beat of huge taiko drums. The result is a truly atmospheric experience and an authentic insight into Japanese Buddhist culture. Next we discover the famed Senso-ji at Asakusa which deserves to be high on any explorer’s list. The oldest temple in the city, it was originally built around a golden image of the Bodhisattva of Infinite Compassion and Mercy, and is entered through the imposing Thunder Gate, flanked on either side by massive fierce statues of the gods of wind and rain.
We end the morning at Tokyo’s Akihabara electronic district where brightly coloured shop-fronts flashing with neon invite us to join in a frenzy of electronic entertainment, or to relax in quirky themed cafes where you can be served by vampires, butlers, maids or fantasy characters!
After lunch the afternoon is free to seek out other areas of this fascinating city such as the trendy back streets of Harajuku, the busiest crossing in the world at Shibuya, or the skyscraper district of Shinjuku and its incredible robot restaurant.
- DAY 3– Explore Tokyo with the option to visit Hakone National Park for views of Mount Fuji
Today you are free to seek out the parts of Tokyo that you’d most like to experience, and there are plenty of exciting options to choose from in and around the city. Visiting beautiful Hakone National Park is a great way to spend the day, discovering the park’s numerous hot springs, lakes, woodlands, and stunning views of towering Mount Fuji dominating the horizon. You can join the locals by eating an egg boiled in Owakudani hot sulphur pools, reputed to increase life expectancy by 7 years! The park is easy to get to and takes just over two hours by train.
Alternatively you can travel north to Nikko, again around two hours by train, and discover the park’s great temples hidden among forests of giant cedar trees. Japan’s most lavishly decorated shrine, Toshogu, is located here and is well worth a visit. The park’s landscape of lakes, waterfalls and hot springs is inhabited by wild monkeys and deer, and has a number of easy-to-follow hiking paths through the delightful scenery.
The beachside town of Kamakura is just over an hour’s train ride away from Tokyo. One of Japan’s ancient capitals, there are many temples and shrines, and a massive bronze ‘Great Buddha’ statue which is almost 800 years old. The statue has outlived several buildings that were erected to house it and now stands out in the open with a serene gaze seemingly appraising the surrounding countryside. The town also has several long sandy beaches which are very popular with Tokyoites taking a day away from the city.
If you prefer to spend the day in Tokyo there is plenty to keep you occupied: The Tokyo Skytree offers views over the whole city, a cruise along the Sumida River or a walk through Hamarikyu Gardens provides respite from the frenetic pace, and the busy streets have plenty to see and do, discovering any number of quirky restaurants, shops and bars.
Whatever you decide to do today your Tour Leader will help you out with first hand advice and the finer details of where to go, what to do and how to get around.
- DAY 4– Travel by train to Matsumoto and discover the impressive Crow Castle
A beautiful train journey of just under three hours takes us north from Tokyo to the pretty town of Matsumoto, flanked on each side by the Japanese Alps. The town’s 500 year-old castle is Japan’s oldest, and one of its most elegant. Known as ‘Crow Castle’ due to its black, sombre appearance, it retains its original wooden interior which offers a very authentic atmosphere as we walk through its hallways and rooms. The design is fascinating, with a moon viewing pavilion, a hidden floor for the Samurai and various booby traps to aid its defence. After exploring the interior of the castle and its grounds we have the option to pay a visit to the nearby Ukiyo-e woodblock printing museum. Typically representing famous geisha, sumo wrestlers and kabuki dance-drama actors, the art form means ‘paintings of the floating world’ referring to the subjects’ detachment from ordinary life.
- DAY 5– Meet the snow monkeys of Jigokudani and spend the night in Zenkoji Temple
Travelling by train and private bus, we make our way this morning to Jigokudani Onsen, home to Japan’s famous snow monkeys. Here the indigenous macaques descend from the hills to bathe and play in the hot springs, a unique behaviour not found anywhere else in the world. Despite their wintry moniker, the monkeys can be observed in and around the pool throughout the year. Our walk to the spring takes 30 minutes along a pretty forest trail which is mostly flat. Once at the spring we spend around an hour observing the monkeys before returning along the same path.
In the afternoon we make our way to Zenkoji Temple in Nagano. Founded in the 7th century, it is one of the earliest Buddhist temples in the country, and was established to house an image brought from India which was believed to lead all who saw it to a state of Nirvana. The image is said to have remained hidden somewhere in the temple since the year 654. After exploring the temple and meeting the monks we head over to the shukubo or temple lodgings. Originally created to accommodate pilgrims, they are furnished with tatami mats – a traditional floor coverings made from rice straw, futons and paper walls, giving us a very authentic Japanese experience for our overnight stay. The rooms are twins with shared toilet and bathing facilities.
- DAY 6– Join the monks for morning prayers and explore the samurai district of Kanazawa
We will wake at sunrise and make our way to the temple, wandering through the fragrant smoke of the temple’s giant incense burner to purify us before entering. In the main hall we’ll watch the monks performing their morning rituals, the mesmerising chanting of the ancient sutras echoing around us, before we receive a sacred blessing from the head monk of the temple.
Later, we travel by train to Kanazawa, a city that rivalled Kyoto and Tokyo in the 17th and 18th centuries when it was home to the powerful Maeda samurai clan. We wander around the atmospheric samurai district with its narrow lanes and earthen walls, learning about how the legendary warrior class lived. There is the option to discover the fabulous Kenrokuen Gardens, considered to be one of the most beautiful landscape gardens in Japan. The name means the ‘Garden of the Six Sublimities’ and was begun by the Maeda samurai clan in 1632, taking nearly 200 years to complete.
- DAY 7– Free time in Kanazawa to try sushi at the Omichi Fish Market or discover the ‘Ninja Temple’
Today is a free day to make the most of Kanazawa. As the town was not targeted during World War II, much of Kanazawa consists of old buildings and gives a sense of what Japan was like in the 19th century. There is plenty to do and see, and a great option is to spend some time wandering around the colourful stalls at the town’s Omicho market, where fresh fish and crab are brought daily from the Sea of Japan along with vegetables from the surrounding countryside. A great dish to try here, particular to the region, is chirashi-zushi, which consists of pieces of sushi piled on the top of rice and often garnished with shredded egg. You can also visit a ‘chaya’, or teahouse in the the Higashi Chaya or Kazuemachi Chaya areas. While Kanazawa’s surviving geisha establishments remain off limits to tourists, a number of elegant tea houses are open to the public – sadly without the presence of a geisha though! Another highlight is the Myoryuji Temple, commonly known as the ‘Ninja Temple’ due to its ingenious defensive devices which include secret rooms, hidden tunnels, traps, and a labyrinth of corridors and staircases.
- DAY 8– Try sake in the old town of Takayama and stay in a family-run ryokan
This morning we take the local train to Takayama, a city that retains an authentic, traditional feel like few others in Japan. During feudal times the city was a source of highly-skilled carpenters and therefore controlled directly by the shogun, leading to a thriving and prosperous trading community. The narrow streets of the Sanmachi Suji district are lined with dark wooden merchants’ houses, many of which are 300 to 400 years old. There are several traditional sake distilleries in the old town and we’ll try some of the city’s famous brew, considered to be among the best in Japan due to the region’s pure mountain water and cold winter months.
On the outskirts of the town is the fascinating Hida No Sato thatched roof village. This open air museum is made of original houses from the Edo period (1603 to 1867), and if you choose to visit you will gain an insight into the rural life of the region during this period. Alternatively you can spend the day exploring more of the town.
This evening is spent in a family run minshuku. A type of ryokan usually found in the countryside, they offer a very traditional Japanese experience, sleeping in twin rooms with tatami mats, futon beds, shared bathroom facilities and meals cooked and served by the host family. If you are travelling on QJS 26OCT22, this departure will stay in a hotel instead of the minshuku.
- DAY 9– Travel by train to Hiroshima and experience the poignant Peace Park and Peace Museum
Two wonderful train journeys will take us to Hiroshima this morning. The first is a picturesque route that follows an icy blue Hida River past shrines, bamboo groves and traditional fishermen before arriving in Nagoya. Here we change to the famous Shinkansen bullet train, covering the 400 kms to Hiroshima in around two and a half hours, travelling at speeds of up to 320 kmh and arriving early afternoon.
Largely destroyed on 6th August 1945, when it was the target of the first atomic bomb to be used in wartime, Hiroshima has literally risen from the ashes, and is now a thriving, friendly city. We visit the moving Peace Memorial Park and museum on the site of the 1945 A-bomb hypocentre. Whilst serving as poignant reminders of the nuclear holocaust, their over-whelming message that such horrors should never occur again.
In the evening we can try an okonomiyaki meal, a type of savoury pancake which is stuffed and cooked on a hot plate in front of the diner. The dish is particularly famous in Hiroshima where a local variation sees the ingredients layered rather than mixed.
- DAY 10– Take the ferry to Miyajima Island, meet the tame deer and see the floating torii gate
After breakfast this morning we take a small ferry to Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima. This tiny island has a very relaxed feel which is enhanced by the deer that roam freely through the streets. As we arrive we get a great view of the floating torii gate. Considered to be one of the most beautiful sights in Japan, the red gate appears to float on the water at high tide with the hills of the island forming a spectacular backdrop.
For those who are keen, there is a 1.5 to 2 hour hike to the top of Mt. Misen for views out across the Inland Sea and a chance of seeing the monkeys that live on the mountain. For those not wanting to walk, a cable car will whisk you to the top. The name of the island translates as ‘shrine island’ and we will visit one of the most important, the Buddhist Daisho-in Temple where we can climb the steps to the temple and spin the prayer wheels, believed to bestow the same blessing as actually reading the texts. There is also the opportunity to take in the 16th century Shinto Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site which is built over the sea and has a stage where key events in Shinto mythology are enacted. After exploring the island we take the ferry back to Hiroshima.
- DAY 11– Take the Bullet train to Kyoto and explore Nijo Castle
After breakfast we make our way back to the train station for the journey to Kyoto, which takes around two hours. The imperial capital for more than 1000 years has more than 2000 temples and shrines, many set in perfectly manicured landscaped, tranquil gardens.
We will start exploring this fabulous city this afternoon with a visit to Nijo Castle. Built in 1603 as a Shogun palace, it is a great example of the sumptuous setting in which the Shogun would have held audiences with his samurai warriors. The extensive gardens and gates are impressive, but the real ingenuity of the castle are the nightingale floors, so called because they are designed to make a chirping noise when walked upon, thus making it impossible to sneak up on the castle’s inhabitants.
- DAY 12– Free time to explore the Zen gardens, temples and geisha district of Kyoto
Getting around Kyoto is easy and there is a lot you can explore today. A good option is an early morning visit to Fushimi Inari Shrine, beating the crowds to walk the path through the thousands of red torii gates that snake up the hillside.
A great place for lunch is the Nishiki Food Market where you can see, and try, an array of exotic and delicious foods such as octopus stuffed with quail eggs, green tea popcorn, cooked eel and matcha tea ice cream. You may also like to walk the Philosopher’s Path, taking in the Silver Pavillion, and the Eikando and Nanzenji temples. Your Explore Leader will help you to make the most of the day, and whatever you choose to do, you’ll find the city’s public transport typically efficient and easy to navigate.
- DAY 13– Continue discovering Kyoto before travelling to Osaka for a final night amongst the neon lights
We have another morning to explore Kyoto before travelling to Osaka. An early morning visit to Kiyomizu Temple (Pure Water Temple) is a great idea, especially when followed by the pleasant walk along the cobblestone streets to Kodaiji. Here you can see a perfectly groomed towering bamboo grove, a Zen rock garden, and a pair of historic tea houses. Another option is to take the train to Arashiyama and walk along the Oi River to visit the UNESCO World Heritage designated Zen Tenryuji Temple.
Leaving Kyoto, we take the local train to Osaka, arriving in the late afternoon. We’ll take a walk around the Namba area, one of Osaka’s most vibrant and interesting districts. Miles of covered arcades criss-crossed by canals and rivers open up to back streets filled with history and small shops. For those wanting something different your Explore Leader can show you how to get to towering Osaka Castle, or the impressive Umeda Sky Building for unobstructed 360 degree views of the whole city.
During our last night out in Japan we can try Osaka’s most-loved snack, octopus balls.
- DAY 14– Trip ends in Osaka
The trip ends after breakfast at our hotel in Osaka.There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Osaka at any time. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at our hotel, so you can head out for some last minute shopping or sightseeing.
Transfers to the airport will be by train, your leader will provide tickets locally and advise on the best train time to meet your flight. If you would like to receive a complimentary airport transfer today, you need to depart from Kansai International Airport (KIX) which is approximately 2 hours away, or Osaka International Airport (ITM) which takes around an hour.