Day 1: Arrive Tokyo, Japan
One of the World’s most cutting-edge capitals, Tokyo is a city of contrasts. Famous for its ultra-modern, neon-lit cityscapes and towering skyscrapers, it is also home to sprawling parks, peaceful shrines and temples and well-tended gardens. Despite its love affair with manga (Japanese comics) pop culture, fashion, high-tech trends and conspicuous consumption, the city has its roots in an ancient heritage. Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples stand elbow to elbow with skyscrapers. At the heart of the hyperactive center lies the serene Imperial Palace, the home of the ruling emperor that provides a tangible link to the city’s historic past. Behind the shopping, entertainment and commercial emporia remain quaint wooden houses, private gardens with meticulously clipped bonsai trees and the Zen-like calm of the Hamarikyu Gardens. The city is an expensive metropolis, but you can advantage of bargains such as inexpensive izakaya bars and neighborhood cafes that serve delicious noodles and rice dishes.
Upon landing at Narita Airport, an English-speaking assistant will be waiting to meet you in the arrival lobby, and the will get you to your private transfer who takes you to your hotel in Tokyo for an afternoon check in (after 3:00pm). (Driver only, English cannot be guaranteed). Enjoy the rest of the day at leisure. Keio Plaza Tokyo
Note: You will receive an IC Pasmo transit card per person (not required for youngest traveler) with 2,500-yen credit included. You can use it to board trains and buses without having to purchase tickets each time -- perfect for getting around on your days at leisure. Once the included credit has been used up, you can charge the card again at tickets vending machines with the preferred amount (paid on the spot).
Day 2: Tokyo
For a unique exploration of the city, set out on a full day tour with your private local guide using public transport, including the city’s noted subway and local trains! Your first stop is Asakusa, Tokyo’s old town where you can soak up the atmosphere of old Tokyo. Take in Sensoji, Tokyo’s oldest temple, and wander down Nakamise, a shopping street that has been providing temple visitors with a variety of traditional, local snacks and souvenirs for centuries. Next, travel down the Sumidagawa River on Tokyo's Water Bus, a unique means of transportation. You'll arrive directly at Hamarikyu Garden, an Edo Period (1603-1868) Japanese garden surrounded by the Shiodome District’s futuristic skyscrapers, another example of how Japan blends the old world with the new. You can stop for a cup of steaming matcha and Japanese sweets in a tea house on a small island in the park’s lake.
After lunch, enjoy a visit to Meiji Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the deified spirit of Emperor Meiji and a popular place for traditional Japanese weddings. Finally, as the sun sets take a walk down the sparkly Omotesando shopping street, a broad tree-lined avenue home to the flagship stores of the world’s top fashion brands and some fantastic modern architecture. Its main street, Omotesando dori, is often compared to the Champs-Élysées in Paris. There is a mall, Omotesando Hills, and Kiddyland, a five-floor toy store. Omotesando is close to Harajuku, filled with inexpensive shops and eateries that target young teenagers. Later afternoon, you return to your hotel with the remainder of the day at leisure. Or you may want to arrange a visit to Akihabara Denki Gai, Akihabara Electric Town, just a short walk from the subway station. The main street is lined with tall buildings covered in colorful ads depicting sales and anime characters. You can likely find just about any electric gadget you might want, especially on the side streets with smaller stores selling more specialized wares. You’ll find fuses, cables, random parts you've never seen before as well as a lot of anime. Keio Plaza Tokyo (B, Tea and Sweets)
Day 3: Tokyo
Today you experience both new and ancient aspects of Japan. Begin by boarding the Shinkansen (bullet train) for a ride to neighboring Saitama prefecture. You will be accompanied by your guide to the workshop of a respected Japanese swordsmith master. The master will show you the basics of the labor-intensive, sword-making process and help you explore the importance of swords in Japan’s classic culture. Enjoy a barbecue in his garden (or sake tasting in event of rain). Return to Tokyo this evening by 8pm. Keio Plaza Tokyo (B)
Day 4: Tokyo
Today you visit a typical Japanese home. Your guide shares information about Japanese culture and everyday life in Tokyo as you make your way to your destination. Enjoy exploring Japanese cuisine and learn to prepare maki sushi (rolled sushi), gunkan maki (sushi rice wrapped with a strip of seaweed and topped with soft ingredients), and nigiri sushi (sushi rice topped with a slice of raw fish). Then savor your homemade sushi for lunch.
After lunch, your privately guided tour will take you to the family-run Kakinuma Tea Shop close to Sensoji Temple in Asakusa. You take part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. Here, a member of the Kakinuma family will instruct you on the classic art of the ceremony and will prepare for you a thick tea made of powdered green tea leaves. A Japanese confection will also be served. You observe the graceful movements of tea preparation up close and learn the ceremonial way of drinking tea. With the skilled guidance of the tea master, you have the opportunity to participate in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony. You can taste a variety of Matcha green tea, ranging from ordinary green tea purchasable at the supermarket right up to the finest green tea used by tea masters. During your tasting, the shop owners will be happy to share with you the stories of some of their favorite items in the tea shop. Every single detail in the tea room is considered by the ceremony master. Keio Plaza Tokyo (B,L)
Day 5: Tokyo
This morning is at leisure. This afternoon, you will continue your exploration by public transportation as you visit Harajuku. This is the center for the trendy and contemporary, and it is from here that many worldwide trends originate. You and your guide stroll through Takeshita-Dori, the most eccentric district of Tokyo’s young people. Discover the backstreets of Harajuku, also known as Urahara, where you find indie boutique shops, cafés as well as designer brands. This area is known as the starting point for quite a few fashion trends as many renowned fashion designers have set up shop. If you would like to shop at any of the stores in the area, your guide can take you to them. Take a break for lunch at a local cafe in the heart of Urahara. Afterwards, you and your guide will continue strolling through Harajuku.
Visit Omotesando, which features nearly 100 specialty shops in architecturally significant surroundings. At the end of the tour, your guide will take you back to your hotel, or can give you further ideas if you would like to continue exploring on your own. Return to your hotel and enjoy some time at leisure before meeting up with your guide later for your evening activity.
Note: The following tour description is based on the default route which includes a bar. The highly knowledgeable guide will be happy to prepare alternative activities for a more family-oriented tour.
This evening, visit Tsukishima, a man-made island created in the late 1800’s to allow extra space for ports. Tsukishima is now known for Nishi-Naka Dori, also known as Monja Town with over 200 small shops that serve a Tokyo specific culinary wonder: monja. It is a delicious pancake that mixes vegetables and meats cooked on a hot table. Monja is a widely loved soul food - crispy on the outside, fluffy inside.
Tsukishima has also managed to preserve the old atmosphere and culture – an untouched section of Tokyo. Alongside the Olympic Village, you can see the distinction between old and new. In preparation for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, the area is changing rapidly. You and your guide will eat monja and okonomiyaki to try out the different styles while experiencing the history of Tsukishima. (Note: Most monja restaurants cannot cater to gluten free restrictions.) End the night at a local bar for a quick drink before your guide takes you back to your hotel or offers you further ideas if you would like to continue exploring on your own. Keio Plaza Tokyo (B,L)
Day 6: Tokyo / Hakone & Mt. Fuji National Park
The day begins with checking out of your hotel in Tokyo. Your guide for the day will meet you at your hotel. Board the train for the 90-minute journey to Hakone, the gateway to Mt Fuji and the surrounding national park. Check into your ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn that features natural hot spring baths.
Hakone serves as the gateway to Mt Fuji and the surrounding national park. To explore the national park, take advantage of the numerous forms of transport available. Ride the world’s second longest cable car up Mt Owakudani, passing over sulfurous fumes, hot springs and hot rivers in this volcanic area, where you can eat an egg hard boiled in the sulfuric hot springs that make Hakone famous. Legend says that the eating the egg will add seven years to your life! A majestic replica pirate ship will sweep you across the Lake Ashinoko, a lake formed by a volcanic eruption 3,000 years ago, and the Hakone Tozan ‘switchback train’ zig zags through the mountains, providing amazing views of the surrounding valleys. Throughout the day you will have the chance to glimpse Mt Fuji on clear days, however, please keep in mind that she is a notoriously shy mountain and it needs to be a clear day. Susukinohara Ichinoyu (B,D)
Day 7: Hakone
Enjoy a day at leisure in Hakone. You can use the 2-day Hakone Free Pass included with yesterday’s tour to enjoy free access to local transportation for sightseeing, or you can stay in and relax at the ryokan’s hot spring baths. Susukinohara Ichinoyu (B,D)
Day 8: Hakone / Hiroshima
Today you travel into history at Hiroshima, globally known for its tragic history as the target of the first atomic bomb exploded during the end of World War II. A driver will meet you at your hotel and escort you to Odawara station by private car. From here, you ride the bullet train to Hiroshima, with a short stop along the way to change trains at Nagoya (total transfer roughly 4 hours). Upon arrival, an English-speaking guide will meet you at the platform and escort you on an afternoon tour of the city. Despite the wide-ranging effects of the bomb dropped more than 70 years ago, Hiroshima has recovered as a thriving city and is viewed as a beacon of hope and peace throughout the world. Destroyed monuments of the city’s historical heritage, such as the Shukkeien Garden and the Hiroshima Castle, have been rebuilt. Head to Peace Memorial Park, the area was ground zero for the Atomic Bomb on 6th August 1945. After the bombing, the Memorial Park was created and dedicated to those who lost their lives. Stroll through the park and discover the many memorials, monuments and statues in the park before heading into the museum. (Please note that the Peace Memorial Museum is currently undergoing renovations until Spring 2019, during which time one of the wings will be closed. The other is open but features a reduced exhibition.) Peace Memorial Park reflects the peaceful aspirations of this reborn city. It is now the principal city of the Chugoku region and is home to more than a million inhabitants and boasts wide tree-lined boulevards and quiet rivers. Besides excellent museums, Hiroshima is also the most popular gateway for trips to nearby Miyajima, an island historically ranked as one of Japan’s “three most scenic spots”.
Next, visit Shukkeien Garden, "shrunken-scenery garden", which is also a good description of the garden itself. Valleys, mountains, and forests are represented in miniature in the garden's landscapes. Through carefully cultivated land and vegetation, the garden mimics a variety of natural formations and scenic views. Shukkeien has a long history dating back to 1620, just after the completion of Hiroshima Castle.
The garden displays many features of the traditional aesthetics of Japanese gardens. Around the garden's main pond there are a number of tea houses which offer visitors ideal views of the surrounding scenery. The entire garden is connected by a path that winds around the pond at the center of the garden. Follow the path around as it passes through all of the gardens miniaturized scenery. Your guide will escort you back to your hotel. The luggage you forwarded from Tokyo will be waiting for you on arrival. Sheraton Grand Hotel (B)
Day 9: Hiroshima
Today is at leisure to discover the city on your own or relax. If you are in Hiroshima on August 6 you can witness the annual Hiroshima Lantern Ceremony, a moving memorial tribute to the lives lost. On this annual memorial day, known as Toro Nagashi, people release floating lanterns in Motoyasu River just upriver from the park.
Day 10: Hiroshima / Kyoto
Today, a driver will meet you at your hotel and escort you to Odawara station by private car. From here you travel via bullet train to Kyoto, about two hours away. Upon arrival, an English-speaking assistant will meet you at the platform and escort you to your hotel by private car. Kyoto is the nation’s former capital and was the residence of the emperor from 794 until 1868. With 2,000 religious buildings, including 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, as well as palaces, gardens and other distinctive architecture, this is one of the best-preserved cities in Japan. This is the “Japan of old”. Beyond the skyscrapers and boutique shops, Japan’s historical and cultural past can be found in the city’s narrow alleyways where tea houses abound, and kimono-clad geisha are seen hurrying along the streets.
Enjoy a few hours at leisure before your guide meets you for an evening excursion to nearby Osaka, one of the country’s most vibrant cities, known for its lively people and its food. Your guide will introduce you to the splendors of Osaka’s casual cuisine, venturing into the epicenter of street food culture in Osaka’s Dotonbori area.
Your guide will pick you up at your hotel and take you to Osaka by local train (30 min). Dotonbori is a famous pedestrian-only restaurant street in Osaka’s boisterous Namba district. Famous for its vast array of culinary options, Dotonbori is known as a food paradise throughout Japan. This is where Kansai people come to celebrate! Colorful eateries and bars line the neon-filled streets, hole-in-the-wall takoyaki stands and street-side ramen bars rub shoulders with upscale eateries serving the finest wagyu beef – and everywhere, people – young and old – out to enjoy the culinary pleasures of the nation’s most famous restaurant district.
You’ll have the chance to sample a variety of local foods, including the famous and ubiquitous takoyaki (commonly known as “octopus dumplings”) and kushikatsu (skewered meats and vegetables). If you like, your guide can also take you to a huge variety of other establishments, from ramen noodles to izakaya bars, (additional cost). Afterwards your guide escorts you back to your hotel in Kyoto. Note: As this is street food, this tour cannot cater to people with food allergies or strict dietary requirements. Brighton Hotel (B)
Day 11: Kyoto
Explore the former imperial capital with your knowledgeable local guide, using Kyoto’s comprehensive bus system. Begin your day with at Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion), originally built as a retirement villa for the shogun. After his death it became a Zen Buddhist Temple and is one of the most popular buildings in Japan. It is designated as a National Special Historic Site, a National Special Landscape and is one of 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Nijo Castle is an ornamental castle built by the founder of the Edo Shogunate as his Kyoto residence and is surrounded by stunning gardens. The main building was completed in 1603, and is known for its architecture, decorated sliding doors and ‘chirping’ nightingale floors.
Take a walk down Nishiki Market, a narrow, five block long shopping street lined by more than 100 shops and restaurants. Known as "Kyoto's Kitchen", this lively retail market specializes in all thing’s food related, like fresh seafood, produce, knives and cookware. It is a great place to find seasonal foods and Kyoto specialties such as Japanese sweets, pickles, dried seafood and sushi.
Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves To end the day, you can choose what to visit, from the Kiyomizu (Pure Water) Temple. From the 13m high veranda jutting out from the Main Hall you can enjoy amazing views of the city. Both the Main Hall and veranda were built without the use of nails or any kind of joiners. Or, you may opt for to see Sanjusangendo Temple, Japan's longest wooden structure and famed for its 1,001 statues of Kannon, the goddess of mercy. In the center of the main hall sits a large, wooden statue of a 1,000-armed Kannon that is flanked on each side by 500 statues of human-sized 1,000-armed Kannons standing in ten rows. Together they make for an awesome sight. Brighton Hotel (B)
Day 12: Kyoto
Today is at leisure to use as you please. Brighton Hotel (B)
Day 13: Kyoto
Head to the Arashiyama district on the western outskirts of Kyoto. The area was popular with the nobles as far back as the Heian Period (794-1185). Okochi Mountain Villa is the former villa of the popular samurai film star Okochi Denjiro (1896-1962), and consists of several beautiful gardens and buildings, including living quarters, tea houses and a Zen meditation hall. Here, enjoy some matcha green tea with a snack.
Walk through Arashiyama’s famous bamboo groves, which are particularly attractive when there is a light wind and the tall bamboo stalks gently sway. For centuries, the bamboo has been used to manufacture various products including baskets, cups, boxes and mats at local workshops. The ancient Nonomiya is a Shinto shrine used by unmarried imperial princesses, who stayed here for a year or more to purify themselves. Ranked among Kyoto's five great Zen temples, Tenryuji is the largest and most impressive in Arashiyama. Founded in 1339 at the beginning of the Muromachi Period (1338-1573), the temple is one of Kyoto's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. In addition to its temple buildings, there are attractive gardens with walking paths. After a traditional Buddhist vegan lunch, you head to Arashiyama Monkey Park. After hiking uphill for about fifteen minutes, you come to an open area with over 100 monkeys roaming freely. There are also nice views down onto the city. End your day with a ride on the Sagano Scenic Railway, also known as the Romantic Train. It is a sightseeing train line that runs along the Hozugawa River between Arashiyama and Kameoka. Its charming, old fashioned trains wind their way through the mountains at a relatively slow pace, taking about 25 minutes to make the 7-km/4.5-mi journey, and giving passengers pleasant views of the scenery as they travel from rural Kameoka through the forested ravine and into Arashiyama. Return to Kyoto. Brighton Hotel (B,L)
Day 14: Kyoto / Osaka / Depart
Today a private transfer picks you up from your hotel in Kyoto to take you to the Osaka Kansai International Airport (driver only, English not guaranteed). Upon arrival, please make your way to the gate and check in for your onward flight. (B)
Land price, per person, double occupancy: From $550 per person, per day, land only. Minimum four people.