Japan is a year round destination and winter is one of the best times of the year to to experience it. The streets are lit up at night and blanketed in snow, the markets are bustling a piping hot bowl of ramen tastes especially good when it is below zero outside!. This trip is a great balance of included activities in each destination and free time for your own choice of options, all backed by a helpful leader to steer you in the right direction of the best experiences.. There’s no better way to get around Japan than the country’s famous railway system. Be impressed by the efficiency and ultra-modernity as you zip from place to place with your included Japan Rail Pass. Your leader will organise all the logistics so all you need to worry about is whether to choose ramen or yakitori for dinner.. A visit to the Hiroshima Peace Park is a sobering but important experience for understanding the tragedies of Japan’s not so distant past.
A journey that captures both Japan’s cultural heart and shimmering wintertime charms. From the sublime gardens and spectacular shrines of Kyoto to Hiroshima’s wartime history to Tokyo’s futurisitic metropolis, you will experience firsthand Japan’s mythical traditions and modern wonders. Then it’s off to Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island, for picturesque landscapes and a mesmerising celebration of natural, cultural and artistic delights. Watch Japanese macaques (snow monkeys) warming themselves in steaming onsen before following their lead and dipping into one of your own. Step back in time along the charming streets of Otaru and sample sake at an atmospheric stone brewery. Marvel at the balletic dancing of endangered red-crowned cranes at snow-covered Lake Akan. Be awestruck by a multitude of snow and ice sculptures at Sapporo’s world-renowned Snow Festival before trying a few local brews at Sapporo’s beer museum.
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’s meeting will be followed by an optional dinner with the group. As the millennium-long home of the imperial kitchen, Kyoto is known as the centre of Japanese culinary tradition, so you’re sure to begin this trip with a delicious meal.
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”, and the tranquil Ryoanii zen garden, one of the finest surviving example of dry landscape in Japanese style of gardening. In the afternoon, enjoy a memorable moment with a tea ceremony with a 'Maiko', an apprentice Geisha, followed by a 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.
Enjoy a dinner with your fellow travellers and tour leader at somewhere local in this mesmerizing city.
With a full free day, there is much to experience, from historical landmarks to traditional arts and literature. Kyoto is a city that lends itself to walking, and there are a number of walks available. Recommended is a gentle stroll through the nearby eastern hills along the ‘Path of Philosophy’ that links Ginkaku-ji, the Temple of the Silver Pavilion, with Nanzen-ji Temple. This walk can be extended south through well-preserved ‘old town’ areas to Kiyamizu-dera (Temple of Clear Water) from where there is a justifiably famous view across a wooded gorge toward Kyoto. Close to your hotel the architecturally impressive Higashi Honganji temple and the almost surreal Sanjusangendo, home to 1,001 statues of Kannon (whose name was appropriated by a renowned camera company. Visit the most photographed Fushimi Inari Shrine or enjoy a peaceful stroll in the bamboo groves and Tenryū-ji in Arashiyama. Another great optional activity is a cooking class that introduces you to Japanese cooking methods, from the aristocratic kaiseki ryori (Japan's haute cuisine), to the simple yet refined dishes of obanzai ryori (home-cooked cuisine).
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 and the 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 – music, traditional dancing, kabuki and banraku puppetry.
Himeji - Hiroshima
As you speed south to Hiroshima, you’ll stop en route for a stop 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.
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 (tori) 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 Momaji 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.
Before we depart Hiroshima the leader will try and organise something special for the group during your time here. Due to the sensitivity around the subject of Hiroshima and the availability of our guest speakers, you may just be lucky enough to sit down and talk to a survivor of Hiroshima. This may take place on Day 5, 6 or 7 depending upon circumstances, however we cannot guarantee this will take place.
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 its famous in this region of Japan.
Today you will visit the local Takayama farmers market, 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. You will also visit a sake brewery this afternoon. The alpine climate and crystal clear mountain waters are perfect for creating this signature drop. Enjoy a walk around the brewery, followed by a sake tasting.
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 your for a short late afternoon/night tour of the area – you will then have some free time to explore. Perhaps see the Imperial Palace and its gardens, then enjoy the myriad food options for dinner.
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 and Tsukiji Fish Market, under the bridges that bisect the river, and then alight at the delightful urban oasis of 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.
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, the costumes in Harajuku, as well as the important Meiji Jingu Shrine, dedicated to the 19th-century Emperor. Take in history at the Imperial Palace in Chiyoda, 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 Yoyogu 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 create your own entertainment with some karaoke. This evening, join your group for a farewell dinner as you say sayonara to Japan.
Today, you'll have another day exploring Tokyo until 6pm for the group briefing for the second part of your journey. As this is a combination trip, your group leader and group composition may change today.