Day - 1
Location: Kyoto - Konnichiwa. Welcome to Japan. Your adventure begins with a welcome meeting tonight at 6pm. Your group leader will leave a notice for you at the hotel detailing the exact time and place. We'll be collecting your insurance details and next of kin information during this meeting, so please bring these with you. As travellers are arriving from all over the world, there are no activities planned for today. If you have some time, step out onto the streets for your first taste of this beautiful city. 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. Tonight after the group meeting, you’ll head out with your leader to sample some of Kyoto’s renowned Kyo-ryori (“Kyoto cuisine”).
Day - 2
Location: Kyoto - Begin your day with a city tour around some of Kyoto’s sights. Visit the extravagantly decorated Kinkakuji Temple, immortalised in Yukio Mishima’s novel “The Golden Pavilion”. Afterwards we visit Daitokuji Temple, the head temple of the Daitokuji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism, built about 800 years ago. Hear more about the philosophy of Zen Buddhism and enjoy the peace and spirituality while sipping on green tea.
Join your leader and walk around Gion and its old wooden teahouses and exclusive restaurants. This area is the heartland of geisha culture, and it's a great idea to return here in the evening when it really springs to life. You might spot geikos (geishas) or maikos (apprentice geishas) with their elaborate dress and make up on their way out to events.
Day - 3
Location: Kyoto - Today head to Kyoto’s famed Fushimi Inari Shrine – known throughout the world as the ‘Path of the Red Gates.’ Take time to appreciate the quieter corners of the shrine, and if you are feeling fit a walk to the half way point provides stunning city views.
Then a short train ride and walk takes us to the famous Gekkei-kan Sake Brewery. With centuries of local history built into its beautiful wooden halls, Gekkei-kan is considered Japan’s industry leader in both the tradition and innovation of sake creation. A visit to the brewery and museum cover every aspect of sake creation – with full-scale historical artefacts in abundance and a chance to taste different types of sake at the end of your visit. The shop is also fully stocked with some of Japan’s finest sake should you wish to bring some back home with you!
Day - 4
Location: Nara - Kyoto - Today you will take a day trip to the city of Nara (approximately 1 hour from Kyoto). With eight World Heritage sites, Nara is second only to Kyoto as a fountain of Japan's cultural legacy. While here you’ll visit Todaiji Temple, with friendly wild deer roaming freely in the park around it. You’ll also visit the Kasuga Taisha (Kasuga Grand Shrine), Nara's most celebrated shrine. Kasuga Taisha is famous for its lanterns, which have been donated by worshipers. They symbolise a guiding light for 3,000 Kasuga shrines throughout the country. Hundreds of bronze lanterns can be found hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches. The lanterns are only lit twice a year during two Lantern Festivals, one in early February and one in mid August. Return to Kyoto for the evening, which is free for your own rest or exploration. Perhaps find a theatre putting on shows of Noh or enjoy some traditional maiko dancing, kabuki or bunraku puppetry.
Day - 5
Location: Himeji - Hiroshima - As you speed south to Hiroshima on Japan’s impressive bullet train, you’ll stop en route at Japan’s most impressive samurai castle at Himeji. 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 to Hiroshima, the city indelibly connected with World War II and the atomic bomb.
Day - 6
Location: Miyajima Island - Hiroshima - This morning you’ll visit the Genbaku (A-Bomb) Dome and the Peace Memorial Park and Museum, both of which 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.
Afterwards head for the serene 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 (torii) 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 Momiji Park (known as Maple Valley), from where it is possible to walk or take a cable car up to the top of Mt. Misen. Return to Hiroshima for the night. 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.
Day - 7
Location: Takayama - You will then travel to Takayama, a charming Edo-period town located in the Japanese alps. Renowned for its traditional inns, sake breweries and tranquil atmosphere, this riverside jewel of central Honshu may well be one of the most enjoyable stops on your trip. Later, enjoy free time to make your own discoveries - we highly recommend finding a good restaurant that specialises in Hida beef, as it's famous in this region of Japan.
Day - 8
Location: Takayama - Today you will visit the local Takayama farmers’ market where you can try some Japanese treats and peruse the stalls. Afterwards you will visit Hida Folk Village, an open-air museum of traditional architecture that gives a sense of centuries past. Cross your fingers for clear skies, as the alps are stunning from this vantage on a clear day.
Day - 9
Location: Tokyo - In the morning you will make your way by train to Japan’s amazing capital, Tokyo, and your centrally-located hotel where you’ll be based for the next three nights. Bursting with contemporary urban culture, there are many sides of Tokyo to explore: fascinating museums, world-class shopping, bustling energy and futuristic architecture, as well as a gentler side of neighbourhood backstreets where citizens often reveal themselves – particularly outside of working hours – to be some of the friendliest of any capital city in the world. There are many vestiges of the past, with historic temples and shrines still to be found in some of the most unexpected places, as well as an abundance of parks and gardens – particularly exquisite in spring when the cherry trees and azaleas are in bloom. After you arrive, your leader will take you for a short late afternoon/night tour of the area – you will then have some free time to explore. For dinner, explore Tokyo’s exciting food scene – both upmarket and more casual, Japanese as well as international.
Day - 10
Location: Tokyo - Today you’ll undertake a varied, full-day tour of the city, beginning in the historic Asakusa area. This is one of the older and more traditional parts of Tokyo, and is often called the temple district. Here you’ll stop by Senso-ji, the city’s oldest temple – founded almost 1,400 years ago when Tokyo was nothing more than a fishing village. Browse the many interesting stalls – filled with tasty treats, crafts and souvenirs – that line the shopping street of Nakamise dori. After lunch you’ll enjoy an alternative view of Tokyo as you relax on a short cruise down the Sumida River. You’ll pass significant buildings like the Sky Tree Tower, the Sumo Stadium and the former Tsukiji Fish Market complex, gliding under bridges that bisect the river before alighting at the delightful urban oasis of the Hama Rikyu gardens. Here you’ll have time to stroll along paths that were once the sole preserve of the shogun, who would hunt ducks here in the feudal era.
Day - 11
Location: Tokyo - Enjoy a free day to explore this pulsating city. Perhaps head to the eastern districts which are magnets for the city’s fascinating youth subcultures. See the crowds at Shibuya Crossing, cos-play tribes of Harajuku, as well as the important Meiji Jingu Shrine, dedicated to the 19th-century Emperor. Take in history by visiting the outer moat and park surrounding the Imperial Palace in central Toky, or see ancient treasures at the National Museum in Ueno. Another great museum, which gives insight into old time Tokyo, is the Edo-Tokyo Museum in Ryogoku. Spend some time in the city’s green spaces like Yoyogi Park and Shinjuku Gyoen National Garden, browse high-end shops in Ginza, experience the theatre of a sumo bout (only in Jan, May and Sep) or one act of a kabuki play, or create your own entertainment with some karaoke. This evening, join your group for a farewell dinner as you say sayonara to Japan.
Day - 12
Location: Tokyo - With no further activities planned, you're free to check out any time before 12 pm. If you are departing later, you can arrange luggage storage at the hotel.