The Golden Route (17 Days & 16 Nights)

In Brief

Two and a half weeks of everything Japan. Visit all of Japan’s most famous cities and sites including Tokyo and Kyoto. Spend a fun afternoon picking fruit in the countryside of Okayama. Try out a traditional Japanese Ryokan in the historical village of Hida-Takayama. Marvel at the engineering feats of Tokyo’s skycrapers and especially the Sky Tree, Japan’s tallest structure.

Day 1   Arrival Osakaosaka-castle

Arrive today at Kansai International Airport. After clearing customs, meet your guide and transfer to Osaka City.

Welcome to Japan’s “second city”, the inimitable Osaka. Founded more than 1400 years ago, Osaka has continuously served in its role as Japan’s most active trading hub. But more than just a place of business, Osaka is a center of culture that can only be described as “Kansai”. Tokyo may be the capital of Japan, but Osaka is capital of modern Japanese culture and nowhere is that more apparent than in the city’s Chuo Ward. This all special area encompasses every aspect of Japanese culture, from ancient shrines and temples, regional foods, drinks, alcohols, and a never ending list of bars and clubs—each with its own particular appeal.

Begin this morning at Osaka-jo Koen, quite literally Osaka Castle Park. Not unlike New York’s Central Park, this area serves as the main playground for the local people. During the weekends and festivals expect to see many Osakans out enjoying a picnic or a stroll. At the park’s center lies the main event: Osaka-jo. Though it is a reconstruction, this iconic landmark tells the story of Japan’s unification under Toyotomi Hideyoshi.

Check into the hotel this afternoon and enjoy the rest of the evening at leisure.

 

Overnight in Osaka

Day 2  Osaka

This morning take a private coach tour of Osaka. Begin with Tempozan, home to the Osaka Aquarium. Popular among Japanese and foreigners alike, the aquarium collects the many different marine species of the Pacific rim and shows them off in fifteen grand displays. The central tank—several stories tall—has some spectacular specimens, including a massive whale shark.

After visiting here, transfer to Abeno Harukas. This sky scraper rules over the southern district of Osaka, Tennoji, at an impressive 300 meters above street level. It offers a great view of Osaka and at its base, more shops than could be visited in an entire week in the Kintetsu Department Store (Japan’s largest)

Finish the day at Nanba, which lies in Osaka’s center. This lively area is home to Dotonbori, a neon lit street filled with restaurants, shops, and all kinds of interests and oddities.

 

Overnight in Osaka

Day 3  Osaka (Nara)

nara-park-3Meet in the hotel lobby this morning and transfer by private coach to the ancient city of Nara. Though compared to its cousin, Kyoto, Nara’s tenure as capital was short-lived, it was nonetheless influential in shaping Japan’s history. It was here that Buddhism not only gained a foothold in the country, but grew in power to rival even that of the Emperor. Beyond temples and emperors, Nara also has something else to set it apart from most other cities: a thriving population of deer. Considered sacred here, the deer are protected. The animals are quite calm and relaxed around people and can be hand fed special deer crackers sold on the streets. Be careful though, as some animals are not so polite when taking, and they may not only be interested in crackers (so keep all food sealed and out of sight!).

Our visit begins with a very special temple, Todaiji. Built in 752, Todaiji once served as the head temple of Buddhism in Japan. So influential was the temple, that the Imperial court relocated from Nara to Nagaoka to reduce the temple’s influence. Among the many treasures at Todaiji is the Daibutsuen “Big Buddha Hall”, not a misnomer at all. The Daibutsuen is the largest wooden structure in the world, and the Buddha around which it was built stands (or rather sits) at a whopping 15 meters.

Later visit an important Shinto shrine at Kasuga Taisha. Lanterns are to Kasuga Taisha what torii gates are to Fushimi-Inari. That is to say, there are thousands of them donated by devotees to the shrine. The shrine was founded at the same time Nara became Japan’s first permanent capital, and has existed ever since.

Return to Osaka this afternoon by bus. This evening take dinner nearby to the hotel.

 

Overnight in Osaka.

Day 4  Kobe to Hiroshima via Himeji and Okayama

This morning take a private coach bound for Hiroshima. The first stop along the way will be the city of Himeji. The second largest city in Hyogo prefecture after Kobe, Himeji claims its fame through the world heritage site of Himeji Castle. One of the few original castles from the feudal age of Japan, Himeji is a remarkable sight. Nicknamed Shirasagijo (White Heron Castle) for its brilliant white exterior, the castle is immensely popular with Japanese and foreign tourists alike.

Next head to Okayama and visit a local fruit farm and try your hand at grape picking. It’s a great way to get outside and you get to eat what you pick! But save some room for lunch—we’re having barbecue at the farm. Afterward it’s back on the bus and Hiroshima bound.

A city such as Hiroshima needs no introduction—its name has been immortalized since 6 August 1945. Yet from the ruins of the atomic bomb, the city has reinvented itself and grown into a thriving metropolis. While perhaps quieter than its counterparts, the city is nonetheless lively. Not far to its south lies Miyajima, famous for its torii gate and exceptionally beautiful autumn leaves.

Stop at today at what was once the city center of Hiroshima, Hiroshima Peace Park, which was established to serve as a memory to the events surrounding the atomic bombing. The museum located within the park offers an unsettling reminder of human suffering inflicted by the use of atomic weapons. Of the park’s many poignant displays, the Atomic Bomb Dome, stands out. Designed by a Western architect, this building was one of the few left standing after the initial blast.

After visiting the memorial, take dinner tonight and enjoy Hiroshimamiyaki, a dish unique to the city.

 

Overnight in Hiroshima

Day 5  Hiroshima

itsukushimaEmbark via private coach to Miyajima, a small island to Hiroshima’s southwest. After a fifteen minute ferry ride across the water, disembark and begin exploring. Stop at one of the island’s great landmarks and one of the best views in Japan: the red torii gate of Itsuka Shrine. When the tide is in, the gate seems to float out on the water. As the tide goes out, the beach becomes evident. Stop and take a few photos here before moving on to the shrine itself.

For a great view of the ocean and town, take a ride up the Miyajima Ropeway, a set of cable cars that spirit travelers to the island’s top. For those with a more intrepid spirit, a trail ascends to the summit over one kilometer, which offers an incredible view of the city. The way is quite steep, however, and should only be attempted by those in good physical condition.

In the afternoon return to the city and meet again for dinner later this evening.

 

Overnight in Hiroshima

Day 6  Hiroshima – Himeji – Kyoto

Transfer this morning to the city of Kyoto by Shinkansen (Bullet Train). Not only are these machines some of the fastest trains in the world, traveling at a maximum of 285km on some sections of track, but they are also some of the most frequent—in some cases leaving the station once every two minutes. Arrive at Kyoto station and begin exploring Kyoto immediately.

The former seat of the Japanese Imperial Court, Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over a thousand years. As the center of power in Japan, it was from here that many Japanese customs and traditions emerged. Though Kyoto has changed and adapted to modern times the old ways persist.

Begin the tour of Kyoto at the Nishiki Market. The market, known colloquially as “Kyoto’s Kitchen”, has a history stretching back hundreds of years. Today it is a fine place to purchase fresh food and unique Kyoto foods.

Next head to Gion, a former and current entertainment district in Kyoto is known for its machiya (traditional Japanese house) lined streets and the Geiko and Maiko who are sometimes spotted on their way to engagements. Head through Gion and south toward another staple of Kyoto, Kiyomizudera. Translated literally Kiyomizudera means, Temple of the Pure Water—so named for the Otawa spring, in its center. It is thought that water here can offer special benefits to those who imbibe, such as long life, success in love, or to do well in school. Among the temple’s unique features is a large wooden stage that projects out from the hillside.

Enjoy dinner this evening at an izakaya, or Japanese style pub.

 

Overnight in Kyoto

Day 7  Kyoto

nijo-castle-4This morning, take part in a Zen Meditation class at the Shunkoin temple in Kyoto. Led by an English speaking monk, experience an hour of mindful meditation and instruction. Afterward transfer to the nearby temple of Kinkakuji. The bold centerpiece of this temple is the so-called “Golden Pavilion”. The three storied structure flashes brightly in the sunlight, as the top two tiers are covered entirely by gold. But beyond this opulent creation, the temple is also home to a beautiful garden and many interesting artefacts.

The tour moves to central Kyoto next, visiting Nijojo castle, a former residence of the Tokugawa Shoguns, who ruled Japan for nearly three hundred years. After the fall of the Shogunate in the 19th century, the Imperial family briefly occupied it before eventually opening it to the public. Many of the buildings are originals and exemplify period architecture.

Return the hotel later this afternoon and head out for dinner in the evening.

 

Overnight in Kyoto

Day 8  Kyoto

This morning head to the heart of Kyoto for a morning cooking class. Japanese food or “Nihon Ryori” is known around the world for being both delicious and healthy. At our cooking studio in Kyoto, take a half day to learn some of the basic foods of Japan from our English speaking instructors. For lunch, you can eat what you’ve cooked!

Next head to southern Kyoto to Fushimi Inari. Dedicated to the Shinto diety of agriculture and business, Fushimi Inari is famous for its “Senbontorii” the thousands of torii gates that line its mountain paths. Each gate is donated by a person, or sometimes a company. Indeed, many famous Japanese companies have their names written on a few of the gates. A hike through the gates takes about an hour and along the way there are many buildings of interest each with its own unique history.

Return to the hotel this afternoon and enjoy a relaxed dinner this evening.

 

Overnight in Kyoto

Day 9  Kyoto

sanjo-dori-bridgeIt’s a free morning today. Take some time at leisure, sleep in, or head out to explore the city on your own. Meet with the group again this afternoon at 13:00. We’ll transfer to a local sake brewery first and learn all about this special Japanese alcohol. Later, take an easy walk down the Kamogawa River, which runs through central Kyoto. Stop at a pleasant botanical garden before arriving at Shimogamo Shrine. Today is a special treat as we enjoy the once a year festival of Meigetsu to celebrate the harvest moon. This evening the shrine will be lit up and many locals will join in the ceremony. It’s a great chance to feel and see more authentic Japanese culture.

Have dinner on the way back to the hotel this evening.

 

Overnight in Kyoto

Day 10  Kyoto to Kanazawa

By private coach, transfer to the city of Kanzawa, on the northern coast of Japan. As one of the few cities in Japan that escaped the air raids of the Second World War, Kanazawa boasts a remarkably well preserved old quarter, making it a popular place to visit for those looking to see old style Japan.

Begin by visiting Nagamachi once served as a residential area for many Samurai families of Kanzawa. It retains the old atmosphere with many narrow lanes and walled properties of the old days. A former residence of the Nomura clan, high ranked samurai, is open to the public for viewing.

Our next point to visit is Myoryuji temple, less-formally known as Ninjadera, which earned its colloquial name for the many deceptive defenses built into the temple. The temple’s original intent was more as a military outpost rather than a place of worship. Due to restrictions by the shogun, however, it was disguised as a temple instead.

Dinner this evening will be nearby the hotel.

 

Overnight in Kanzawa

Day 11  Kanazawa

kenrokuen-garden-tea-houseEnjoy a leisurely breakfast today, then venture back into the city via bus to Kenrokuen. There are hundreds, if not thousands of gardens in Japan, each with their own unique appeal.  Kenrokuen is considered to be one of the top three. Well known for its beautiful landscaping this garden has something for every season and never fails to disappoint.

After finishing at the garden walk the short distance to Kanazawa Castle Park. Once ruled by the Maeda clan, only two storehouses and one of the old gates remain of their original buildings. Everything else, including the castle keep, was lost to various fires throughout the centuries. Reconstruction efforts, however, have returned a few of the old buildings to life, making for a pleasant visit.

Round out the day with a visit to Higashichaya. One of the old districts in Kanzawa, Higashichaya was once an entertainment area filled with teahouses and geisha to entertain the wealthy. This charming district is the largest of the three remaining in Kanazawa.

Return to the hotel this afternoon and enjoy dinner out this evening.

 

Overnight in Kanzawa

Day 12  Kanazawa to Takayama via Shirakawago

Transfer by private coach from the hotel this morning to Shirakawago. A world heritage site, Shirakawago comprises several villages built in the traditional Gassho-zukuri style (translated roughly to “constructed like hands in prayer”). These old style homes have steep sloping thatched rooves made to fend off the heavy snowfall the area receives each year. Of the three villages, Ogimachi contains the largest number of these traditional homes.

Next head to the town of Takayama. Actually, there are many towns in Japan known as Takayama, but only one Hida-Takayama. Once an important timber center, the town is now known for its well preserved old quarter.

While there, visit a truly unique temple, known as  Suza – The World Shrine, headquarters of a religious cult, the Sukyo Mahikari. This impressive building features golden roofs, Shinto architecture, minarets , the Star of David, the Wheel of Dharma, an enormous hall, and even an odd fish tank. It’s definitely worth a look and a departure from the norm.

After visiting, retire to the accommodation for the evening, a Japanese Ryokan or traditional inn.

 

Overnight in Takayama

Day 13  Takayama

Take the day off and enjoy a free day in Takayama. We recommend strolling through the old city and visiting some of the local museums. Or simply sit down at one of the many cafes in town and let the time slip by.

 

Overnight in Takayama

Day 14  Takayama to Tokyo via Mt. Fuji

fuji-view-sakuraTransfer from Takayama to Japan’s most famous natural landmark: Mt. Fuji. We’ll stop on the very mountain itself at the 5th station. Located halfway up the volcanic cone, the 5th station of Mount Fuji (Subaru Line) commands an excellent view over the five lakes region of Mt. Fuji. This area is the launching point for most hikers who are considering the trek to Fujisan’s top as well as a pleasant spot for snapping some great photos of Japan from its most famous monument. Later, visit Oshino Hakkai. Runoff from Mt. Fuji, which filters through the porous volcanic rocks, feeds the ponds. This process filters out many particulates from the water, making it incredibly clean and clear. At one of the ponds it’s even possible to have a drink straight from the source.

Transfer the rest of the way to Tokyo, about two hours away today and enjoy dinner there this evening.

 

Overnight in Tokyo

Day 15  Tokyo

Also known as “Asakusa Kannon” temple, Sensoji has been in continuous existence for nearly 1,400 years. Dedicated to the Bodhisattva Kannon, this temple has been a popular site for worship since its inception.  On the way into the temple, stroll through Nakamise Street, where various vendors peddle various foods, omiyage (the Japanese word for souvenir), and other trinkets.

Later head to the Sumida river and board a ferry bound for the Hamarikyu Garden, located on the edge of Tokyo Bay.

Beautiful in any season, Hamarikyu Garden offers a pleasant contrast to the urban skyline that surrounds it. It once served as a residence for feudal lords visiting Tokyo and later as palace for the Imperial family during the Meiji period. Some popular attractions within the garden include a pleasant teahouse (Nakajima no Ochaya), and a 300 year old pine, planted by the sixth Tokugawa shogun.

After visiting the garden, head to the EdoTokyo Museum. Before 1868, Tokyo went by a different name: Edo. Originally just a small town in a swamp, Edo’s stature elevated when Tokugawa Ieyasu declared it his capital in 1603. Since then, the small village has grown into one of the largest metropolitan areas in the world.  The EdoTokyo Museum explores the development of Edo from its humble beginnings to the present day and beyond.

After the Tokugawa shogunate fell and the Imperial family returned power, they chose to move their government from Kyoto to Tokyo. Over the top of the Tokugawa’s Edo castle, they built a new Imperial Palace. Though destroyed during WWII, the city rebuilt the palace and itnow serves as the primary residence of the Japanese Imperial Family.

Return to the hotel this evening and enjoy dinner nearby.

 

Overnight in Tokyo

Day 16  Tokyo

tokyo-sky-treeDepart the hotel by private bus and head for the first activity of the day, a Japanese Calligraphy class. Practice creating some of those daunting Chinese characters. Japanese Calligraphy, or Shodo, focuses on the art of writing from its most basic aspect, the character itself. An instructor will help select the word and then teach the basics of how to form each of your characters. After the class, keep your writing as a souvenir!

After lunch, head to the ward of Harajuku, which hosts several famous Tokyo landmarks including the Meiji Shrine and Yoyogi park. In true Tokyo fashion, the very old mixes freely with the very new. At Takeshita street, a mere stone’s throw away from Meiji Shrine, modern Japanese culture abounds. This area hosts various shops for the fashion-conscious Tokyo youth, and the latest fads are always on display. After a walk through here, take the next street, Omote Sando, Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees. This beautiful avenue is lined with all kinds of shops and cafes and makes for a relaxing walk.

In the evening take in an amazing sight from the Tokyo Skytree, the tallest structure in Japan at 634 meters. From the top observation deck, visitors can enjoy a truly magnificent view of the immense sprawl of Tokyo. But more than just a broadcasting tower, the Skytree sits atop a large shopping complex that includes a planetarium and even an aquarium!

Enjoy a farewell dinner nearby after visiting the tower. Return to the hotel later this evening.

 

Overnight in Tokyo

Day 17  Tokyo Departure

Wake this morning and say your final goodbyes to the Land of the Rising Sun. After breakfast transfer by private coach to Narita International Airport.