Carefully designed for travellers who love their independence, this trip is a real adventure through the centre of Japan, from super-modern Tokyo to scenes that remain unchanged from the times of the Shogun and the Samurai. With the reassurance that you'll be staying in well-located accommodation, and with clear and concise information about which train to take and how to navigate the Japanese metro, your experience will be one of complete freedom punctuated with expert guiding at Hiroshima, Tokyo and Kyoto. You'll discover Japan's excellent rail network, meet snow monkeys and tame deer, stay in a family-run ryokan, and experience the modern and the ancient in this invigorating country. Tokyo - Explore modern and ancient Tokyo, and take the chance to visit nearby Mount Fuji Kyoto - Experience the beating heart of traditional Japan with temples, Zen gardens and geishas Kanazawa - Visit the Samurai district and discover the secrets of the Ninja Temple
Arrive in Tokyo, the ultra-modern capital of Japan today, and catch an airport shuttle bus from either Haneda Airport (HND) or Narita Airport (NRT) depending on your flight details. You can arrive into Tokyo at any time, and for those of you booking your own flights, you will need to send us your flight details no later than three weeks prior to departure in order for us to send you your voucher for the airport shuttle bus. Further information on catching the shuttle will be in your final documentation. If your flight arrives early 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.
You will have the benefit of local guides at three distinct places along this private journey, and your first day in Tokyo is one of them. Meeting you at the hotel, you'll head out for a morning exploration both on foot and using the super-efficient metro system along with the locals. Beginning in dramatic fashion, 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 (however, please note that this doesn't happen during Japanese public holidays). Next, 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. End the morning at Tokyo's Akihabara electronic district where brightly coloured shop-fronts flashing with neon invite you 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 you have the afternoon 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.
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, the finer details of where to go, what to do and how to get around will be covered in an information pack that you will receive before you travel. Trains in Japan are convenient and incredibly easy to use, while the population is very welcoming, kind and helpful to travellers. The perfect combination for some self-guided exploration!
You'll have an IC transport card given to you, which works throughout Japan on intercity transport networks, along with train tickets for your travel to Matsumoto. Catch the metro to the train station and travel just under three hours from Tokyo to the pretty town of Matsumoto, flanked on each side by the Japanese Alps. Take the afternoon free to wander at your leisure. The town's 500 year-old castle is Japan's oldest, and worth a visit. Known as 'Crow Castle' due to its black, sombre appearance, it retains its original wooden interior which offers a very authentic atmosphere throughout 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. You may also wish 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.
Your one week rail pass starts today, with the express train to Nagano, home to Japan's famous snow monkeys at Jigokudani Onsen. 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. Take the bus from the train station and walk up to the spring via a 45 minute pretty forest trail. Tickets cannot be booked in advance here, so you'll pay approximately £20 on the day. As always, full instructions for getting around will be given to you in your pre-travel information pack.
Jump on the bullet train (your first experience of Japan's iconic high-speed 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. There is a lot to do and see in Kanazawa, and the rest of the day is free for you to explore as you like. Wander around the atmospheric samurai distric with its narrow lanes and earthen walls, seeing how the legendary warrior class lived, or 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.
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 good 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. Advance booking is required for this (one day in advance is fine), which is easily done at the tourist information office located in Kanazawa station.
This morning, take two local trains 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 highly recommend trying 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 a ryokan, a type of accommodation that offers a very traditional Japanese experience, sleeping in twin rooms with tatami mats, futon beds and ensuite bathroom facililties. This is one of the most beautiful and historic ryokans in the city, with its own traditional 'onsen', or hot spring baths, and massages available. This evening, we have arranged for a traditional 'kaiseki' dinner to be served at your ryokan. The food focuses on seasonal specialities and is the pinnacle of Japanese cuisine. We recommend that you have a dip in the baths and then enjoy dinner in your 'yukata' (light cotton kimono provided to you at the ryokan).
Travel to Hiroshima via two wonderful train journeys. 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, 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 highly recommend visiting 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, 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.
You'll have a local guide today taking you across to Miyajima, just off the coast of Hiroshima, by a small ferry. This tiny island has a very relaxed feel which is enhanced by the deer that roam freely through the streets. As you arrive you'll have 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. If you 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. Otherwise, a cable car will whisk you to the top. The name of the island translates as 'shrine island' and you will visit one of the most important, the Buddhist Daisho-in Temple where you 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, take the ferry back to Hiroshima.
Make your way back to the train station for the journey by bullet train 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. This afternoon we recommend 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.
You'll have a local guide today for a full day in Kyoto, and there is so much to see. We've left the day flexible so that the guide can tailor the day around your interests. A good place to start is with 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, followed by a walk along the Philosopher's Path, taking in the Silver Pavillion, and the Eikando and Nanzenji temples. You could try your hand at a tea ceremony, go searching for geisha and enjoy fantastic food in Gion. Alternatively, if you're really into Japanese food you may wish to take lunch at 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 There is also the possibility to get out of the city to Arashiyama, walk along the Oi River, visit the UNESCO World Heritage designated Zen Tenryuji Temple famous for its Zen garden and nearby bamboo groves, and finish the day with a short hike up to a mountainside Monkey Park to see wild monkeys. Whatever you wish to do, you'll have an expert local guide with you to pass on his knowledge about Japan's cultural heartland and ancient capital.
You have a train journey to Osaka today, which takes about 30 minutes. Kyoto is often such a highlight for customers that we recommend taking the morning to relax and explore further before travelling onwards. 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. Arrive into Osaka in the afternoon. Head to 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, get to towering Osaka Castle, or the impressive Umeda Sky Building for unobstructed 360 degree views of the whole city. During your last night out in Japan, try Osaka's most-loved snack, octopus balls.
Your trip ends today, and you will be taken to the airport to meet your international flight. There are no activities planned today, so you are free to depart from Osaka at anytime. You can fly out of either Kansai International Airport (KIX), approximately 2 hours away, or Osaka International Airport (ITM), which takes around an hour. This departure will be by private car, and we just need confirmation of your flight details no later than three weeks prior to your trip in order to arrange this for you. If your flight is departing later in the day, luggage storage facilities are available at the hotel.
13 Break Fast(s) 1 Dinner(s)
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