President’s Pick Japan Cityscapes & Sacred Trails

President's Picks | Big Five Tours“When most people think of Japan, what comes to mind the most are images of shrines and the Geisha. Yet, there is much undiscovered unique culture, dramatic natural landscapes and mythic places you can find on the hidden trails in the remote regions beyond Nagoya and Osaka. Here you walk in the very footsteps of emperors. I love the phrase ‘Walk a mile in their shoes.’ Well now you can.” 

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President’s Picks

COUNTRIES VISITED

Japan

STARTING AT..

Price starts at $950 Land per person, per day, double occupancy.

TOUR LENGTH

14

Tour Highlights/Full Description

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  • Explore the many facets of Tokyo from the frenetic modern shopping neighborhoods, to serene bonsai gardens, to the Buddhist temple Sensoji, and the fashion Mecca of Harajuku
  • Follow in the footsteps of travelers, who, due to restrictions by the shogunate, were almost always forced to make the trip on foot along the 500-km-long Nakasendo, “path through mountains“, used for centuries as one of two routes between Edo and Kyoto
  • Discover one of the best-preserved cities in Japan, Kyoto, with some 1,600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, as well as palaces, gardens and 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites
  • Hike the historic Kumano Kodo, a UNESCO World Heritage Pilgrimage, a sacred route that runs from mountains through dense forests to rivers and waterfalls
  • Ride the famous bullet train to Osaka for a final evening in the food capital of Japan and one of its most vibrant cities

Day 1: Tokyo, Japan
Welcome to Japan! On your arrival at Haneda Airport, you will be met by a representative in the arrivals hall who will escort you to your waiting vehicle. You will then travel by private car to your hotel. After check-in, you will have the rest of the day to spend at your leisure to being exploring this city of contrasts. This front-line capital famous for its pioneering modernity, iconic neon landscapes and soaring skyscrapers is also dotted with peaceful parklands, shrines, temples and lush gardens. Despite its mania for anime pop culture, fashion, digital trends and discernable consumption, the city embraces an ancient heritage evident in the temples and shrines scattered among skyscapers. The Imperial Palace provides a palpable link to the city’s incredible heritage even with the explosion of commercial emporia. Free from the shopping and entertainment districts, the historic wooden house, its private bonsai gardens and the calming Zen atmosphere of the Hamarikyu Gardens allow visitors an escape from the hyperactivity of the lively streets. Even with the city’s costly reputation visitors can take advantage of the inexpensive izakaya bars and neighborhood cafes serving delectable noodle and rice dishes. In fact, many of Tokyo’s charms can be enjoyed free of charge – Asakusa and the Buddhist temple Sensoji, the fashion Mecca of Harajuku, the world’s largest fish market at Tsukiji, and the neon-imbued atmosphere of Shinjuku. Mandarin Oriental Tokyo

Day 2: Tokyo
This morning you learn about the art and importance of flower arrangement from flower master Mr. Tsurubayashi in his private home. You learn how to arrange flowers but also how the Japanese have viewed this as part of their culture for centuries. Mr. Tsurubayashi has extensive knowledge about Japanese culture. He lives in old residential district (Shitamachi) and today he will introduce Japanese residental culture to you. You will learn about what Mr. Tsurubayashi calls the five Fs of shitamachi culture– Flower Art, Folk Art, Fine Art, Four Seasons and Food. Once you have experienced these concepts, you will soon see how they exist in other traditions such as the tea ceremony, Bonsai, Gardens and so on. Perhaps this will allow you to see Japanese culture in a new way. Visit Shitaya Shrine, the oldest Inari Shrine in Tokyo, where you will receive a personal blessing from the priest for safe travels. You may have chance to talk with priest about Shinto, Japan’s native religion, and take a peek at the special dragon painting in the ceremony hall. Discover the shitamachi by bicycle! You’ll first head to a street famous for Buddhist altar decorations, and Mr. Tsurubayashi will teach you about the relationship of Buddhism with the origin of flower design. Finally, head to the bustling Kappabashi area, a unique shopping street where lots of shops sell all manner of kitchen utensils. The final stop today is lunch at a nearby Shitamachi restaurant that only the locals know! The remainder of the day at your leisure. Mandarin Oriental Tokyo (B,L)

Day 3: Tokyo
This morning you are free to relax or explore on your own. For lunch, you will go to Suigan, a unique exclusive venue launched early in 2018 with a performance space offering diners traditional entertainment and exquisite Japanese food. It presents Noh and Kyogen drama, Nihonbuyo (dancing), and other traditional performance arts daily. Your meal is authentic sushi by Japan’s oldest existing Edo-style sushi restaurant Sushiei. There is the option to select a traditional tea and sweet after the meal. Enjoy green tea produced by historic Kyoto store Fukujien, known for preserving Japanese tea culture for more than 200 years. After lunch you have free time before dinner this evening.

Discover one of Tokyo’s most famous neighborhoods in the heart of the city for an evening stroll with food and drinks. Boasting the busiest railway station in the entire world, Shinjuku is known for its busy nightlife, history, food and great views. With your guide, you stroll around Shinjuku Station, enjoying drinks and food at a few locations. Begin with an izakaya to enjoy a Japanese-style bar and its culture populated by “Kaisha-in” or the salarymen of Japan, the backbone of the Japanese workforce. Then, try a local speakeasy for an expertly made nightcap. 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.

Note: it is recommended packing a small bag for your two-night stay in Kiso-Fukushima and arranging with your concierge to have the rest of your luggage sent ahead to your Kyoto hotel. Mandarin Oriental Tokyo (B,L,D)

Day 4: Tokyo / Kiso-Fukushima
This morning a private transfer takes you to Tokyo train station, where you use your JR Pass for your journey to Kiso-Fukushima. You take the Shinkansen to Nagano, where you will change to a limited express train for Kiso-Fukushima. Journey time takes about 3.5 hours. The Kiso Valley is located in Nagano Prefecture, and runs alongside the mountains of the Central Alps. An ancient 70-km/44-mile trade route called the Kisoji was developed along the valley and served as a very important means of commerce in the area.

The Kisoji became even more important from the beginning of the Edo Period when it was combined with other routes in the formation of the 500-km-long Nakasendo. The Nakasendo (“path through mountains”) was one of the two means of transportation between Edo and Kyoto. It contrasted with the other principal transportation route of the time, the Tokaido, which ran along the sea shore. Because of restrictions by the shogunate, travelers were almost always forced to make their trips on foot. As a result, “post towns” developed every few kilometers to provide travelers with places to rest, eat, and find nightly accommodation during their arduous journey. Along the Kiso Valley, a few post towns, particularly Magome, Tsumago and Narai, have been preserved to look as they did when they served travelers of the Nakasendo. Visitors are able to enjoy the stone paths and wooden buildings of a long-past era. Upon arrival at Kiso-Fukushima, make your own way to your hotel (a five-minute taxi ride or an easy 15-minute walk). The rest of the afternoon is at leisure. Dinner at your hotel is included tonight. Onyado Tsutaya (B,D)

Day 5: Kiso-Fukushima & Nakasendo Way
This morning, you are presented with combined entry tickets for three of Kiso-Fukushima’s popular attractions. You’ll first visit the Yamamura Residence, former home of the Owari clan’s leader, Yamamura, and overseer of the Kiso-Fukushima area. Today his house is an interesting museum chronicling upper class life in Kiso-Fukushima. Then see the lovely Kozenji Temple, home to Asia’s largest dry rock garden. Its beauty rivals even that of some of the dry rock gardens found across Kyoto. Finally, you head to the Fukushima Sekisho-Ato, a 270-year-old immigration office before you head to Kiso-Fukushima station and take a short limited express train to the town of Nakatsugawa. From here, you pick up the bus to Magome, a former post town with buildings faithfully reconstructed in traditional style. You have a little time to explore the town and enjoy some lunch here before the main event—the walking the Nakasendo Way. You walk an 8 km/5 mi stretch from Magome to Tsumago. The trail is a little steep at first, but it evens out quickly and then slopes away gently down to Tsumago. There are plenty of rest stops and toilets along the way. As you make your way through the forest, you’ll be treated to cascading waterfalls and beautiful mountain vistas peeking through the trees. At the end of the walk, your reward is the picture-perfect town of Tsumago. Unlike Magome, the houses here are all more than 200 years old and still house many residents to this day. Enjoy the feeling of stepping back in time as you explore this pretty town. Later this afternoon, your private transfer drive you directly back to Kiso-Fukushima, less than an hour’s drive to your ryokan. Onyado Tsutaya (B,D)

Day 6: Kiso-Fukushima / Kyoto
This morning you use your JR Pass again to make the journey. You take a limited express train from Kiso-Fukushima to Nagoya and then the Shinkansen from Nagoya to Kyoto. A must-see destination, 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 associated architecture, it is one of the best-preserved cities in Japan. It boasts 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites. Beyond the city’s high-rise skyscrapers, Kyoto represents the “Japan of old,” the real monument to Japan’s historical and cultural past can be found in the city’s narrow alleyways where tea houses abound and kimono-clad geisha hurry from elegant function to function.

When you arrive in Kyoto, a private care transfers you to your accommodation. After you’ve settled in, make your own way over to the famous district known as ‘Kyoto’s Kitchen.’ With a local guide you will walk the mile-long Nishiki covered food market, where there are interesting food stores to explore as you help your guide buy the ingredients for your Japanese cooking class. This is a great opportunity to learn about local Japanese produce. After visiting the markets, you’ll travel through the back streets and lanes of Kyoto. Along the way, visit a traditional townhouse for a sake tasting. Finish the walk at a traditional wooden townhouse for your Japanese cooking class. Learn how to make rolled sushi. Miso soup and cooked salad with seasonal fruit for dessert are also served during the meal. Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto (B)

Day 7: Kyoto
This morning learn more about the legendary samurai warriors in this exciting program that takes place kenbu dojo (training hall). You learn about the lifestyle and etiquette of the samurai classes. You have the opportunity to try using the sword and learn the basics of kenbu, a highly stylized sword dance that samurai used to perform as training and to gain concentration. This is a unique experience to learn in-depth about one of the key elements of cultural heritage of Japan. The instructors are skilled Kenbu masters and also fluent in English.

Enjoy lunch at your leisure with time on your own until late afternoon. This evening, discover the back streets of Kyoto`s geisha districts with a leading foreign geisha culture expert, Peter MacIntosh who has spent half his life living in Kyoto. He was married to an ex-geisha, studies Japanese arts and is a lecturer on Geisha Studies at Kansai University. On a private walk through the geisha districts he will discuss the history as well as the current world of the geisha in Kyoto. Stop at a private, members only ochaya (geisha teahouse) where you savor matcha green tea and Japanese sweets in the company of a maiko or geiko, and enjoy a traditional song, dance and games. Please note this is not a traditional tea ceremony. Then you are free to continue explore Kyoto and enjoy dinner this evening.

Note: Pack a small bag this evening to prepare for a rigorous trek through the holy mountain of Kumano. Speak to your concierge to have the rest of your luggage sent ahead to your ryokan in Kurashiki. Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto (B)

Day 8: Kyoto / Osaka / Hongu Onsen
Today a private car takes you to the train station, using your JR Pass to catch the limited express train to Kii-Tanabe station, where you will start the journey to the Kumano Kodo, a world heritage pilgrimage route. The term kodo means “old ways,” and Kumano Kodo refers to a network of hiking trails laced throughout the southern reaches of the Kansai region on the Kii Peninsula. The trails have been used for more than a thousand years by the emperor. The combined trails are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The Kumano Kodo has been mythical holy ground for thousands of years where people believe the gods live. Kumano is the ancient name for the southern region of the Kii Peninisula. You see old paved roads and stone steps still today. The Kumano Kodo encompasses six routes, but the most picturesque and excellent walking area is the Nakahechi Route. The sacred route runs from mountains through dense forests to rivers and waterfalls.

Upon arrival at Kii-Tanabe station, your local assistant welcomes you can show you some of the local restaurants for lunch. After lunch, you have an orientation talk on the Kumano Kodo and the hike, helping you to understand the route in advance. Staff provide maps and information for your journey.

You’ll then take part in two sacred ceremonies before your pilgrimage begins. First is Shiogori, which people once performed to purify themselves before their pilgrimage. Next, you will be blessed at Tokei Shrine by a Shinto priest for a safe trip. These ancient rituals allow you to imagine what the pilgrims of old felt before setting out on these trails. In the late afternoon, take a public bus to Yunomine Onsen (please pay the bus fare on the day) where you will stay at a typical Japanese accommodation. While exploring the small town before dinner, we recommend that you try a local public bath called Tsuboyu in Kawayu Onsen nearby.

Note: Even though the course is intended for beginners, most of the trail is unpaved and hiking shoes covering the ankle are recommended. The trail is open rain or shine. Please prepare rain gear as well as hats and sunscreen in summer. Be advised that the temperature up here is a few degrees cooler than the rest of Japan, especially at night, so be sure to pack extra layers in Spring and Autumn. Kawayu Midoriya (B,D)

Day 9: Kumano Kodo – Nakahechi Pilgrimage Route
In early morning, pick up your boxed lunch, which is delivered to your accommodation. On your own, take a local bus to Kumano Hongu (10-15 minutes, pay fare directly), and transfer to another bus to your starting point at Hosshinmon-oji (10 minutes, pay fare directly). Begin walking the Nakahechi pilgrimage trail to Kumano Hongu-taisha, about 7.5 km/4.7 mi. This is the most enjoyable half day route, passing Minuzunomi-oji, Fushiogami-oji, and Haraido-oji. Oji is a shrine found along the Kumano trail to protect and guide pilgrims. There are also a few places where you can break for a rest and take in the beautiful views. As you descend through the forest toward Kumano Hongu-taisha, you can stop at a lookout with astonishing views. After lunch in the Hongu area, you can visit the Kumano Hongu Heritage Center that features a good exhibition of the pilgrimage to understand its history and cultural background. Also, this afternoon, you can experience making Japanese traditional paper at a local workshop. You can take your handmade paper to Kumano Hongu-Taisha to get it stamped. It is a tradition in Japan to pay fees and receive a sacred stamp at each shrine and temple. Those stamps serve as proof that you have taken part in the pilgrimage and traditionally people collect them to fulfill themselves spiritually.

Once you are finished exploring the shrine area, you can take a public bus back to Yunomine Onsen (pay fare directly). You can soak in the hot springs tonight and enjoy another delicious Japanese dinner. Kawayu Midoriya (B,L,D)

Day 10: Hongu Onsen / Kii-Katsuura
This morning, you take a bus to the Kunamo River station, where your boat tour departs. In the meantime, your luggage will be shuttled to Kii-Katsuura, the final stop tonight. The Kumano River is also a part of the pilgrimage route between two main shrines, Kumano Hongu-taisha and Kumano Hayatama-taisha in Shingu city. You will enjoy the journey on a traditional wooden flat boat – the same boats that pilgrims have used for centuries. The boat trip lasts about 90 minutes. Explore Hatayama Taisha Temple before lunch in Shingu. Take a train to Nachi station and then a local bus to Daimonzaka (pay both fares). The last leg on your journey takes you to Kumano Nachi-Taisha, the main shrine of the area. Enjoy the most picturesque trail, about 1.3 km/less than one mile, on the route called Daimonzaka, with a cobblestone staircase slope. Beautiful ancient Japanese cedars line both sides of stone staircase, making the trail very special. When you are close to the top you will begin to hear the sound of Nachi Falls, the highest waterfall in Japan at 133 meters /436 feet. It is worshipped as a sacred site. From Kumano Nachi-Taisha, you have breathtaking views of Nachi Falls with a three-story pagoda. The Buddhist temple Seigantoji is the oldest temple in the Kumano area. After your visit, take a local bus (pay fee) back to Kii-Katsuura, a coastal town of the Kii peninsula well known for its fishing industry. Hotel Nakanoshima (B,D)

Day 11: Kii-Katsuura / Kurashiki
Today you can rise early to experience the local tuna auction. Katsuura fish market boasts the highest volume of fresh tuna fish in Japan. Later, you set out on a ride on the Limited Express Kuroshio, a four-hour, scenic ride through the coast of Wakayama to Shin-Osaka Station. From there, it is a short Shinkansen journey to Okayama followed by a train to Kurashiki, where a world-class ryokan will be ready for you to relax. Ryokan Kurashiki (B,D)

Day 12: Kurashiki
Today your guide will meet you at your accommodation and together you will travel to the seaside town of Onomichi, which sits by the inland sea. From the station, walk along the town’s beautiful sea front, enjoying scenes of Japanese life. Explore the Hondori Covered Shopping Arcade. The town has attracted a young crowd from neighboring larger cities such as Fukuyama, Hiroshima and Okayama. That has lead to the development of a number of quirky start-up shops. Despite the young faces manning the shops,  however, the atmosphere is more reminiscent of Japan in the 50s or 60s. There are several little side streets and alleyways to be explored. You have time to duck into any shops that pique your curiosity. There’s also a booming cafe scene in Hondori so you have plenty of options for lunch.

Stroll through what is known as “Temple Walk,” a route through town that passes pretty Japanese temples and shrines until you reach the bottom of the Senkoji Ropeway. You’ll take the ropeway up to Senkoji Temple itself, a beautiful Buddhist structure with a striking pagoda founded in the 9th Century. The temple doubles as an observation point, offering stunning panoramas of the Seto Inland Sea. Make your way back down the mountain on foot through a beautifully well-preserved old town area. Don’t miss Cat Alley, famous for its population of friendly stray cats and cat-themed goods. Once at the bottom of the mountain, you and your guide will return to Kurashiki. Ryokan Kurashiki (B,D)

Day 13: Kurashiki / Osaka
Today you discover the lovely town of Kurashiki itself with your guide. The Kurashiki Bikan Area is a retro-modern cityscape having a mixture of Japanese and western flavors. In the Edo Period, Kurashiki prospered as “Tenryo”, a domain directly governed by the shogunate. You admire the nostalgic scenery of white-walled storehouses together with narrow stone-paved streets. The structures down the side streets have also been repaired and remodeled, and are used today for galleries, coffee shops, and souvenir shops. The blending of Japanese and western aspects as well as the contrast of antiquity with modernism create a unique, calming and original atmosphere one cannot experience elsewhere.

Take in Ohara Museum of Art, the oldest private collection of Western Art in Japan. In 1930, to commemorate Kojima Torajiro, a Western-style painter who died the previous year, Kurashiki entrepreneur, Ohara Magosaburo, founded the Ohara Museum of Art. The Ohara Museum of Art plays an active role in life of Kurashiki, with the collection including modern and contemporary art from the West and Japan, as well as pieces by artists who served Mingei Movement (Japanese Folk Art Movement). Now the museum is well known to the world as a private museum with its own character, reflecting Japanese culture. Please note that the Ohara Museum is closed on Mondays, in which case you will visit Ohashi House instead, an example of Japanese merchant housing.

This afternoon ride the famous bullet train to Osaka, where you will spend your final evening. Tonight, a guide takes you through the food capital of Japan. The historical commercial capital of Japan, Osaka is Japan’s third largest metropolis and it has been the economic powerhouse of the Kansai region for centuries. Osaka first gained prominence when a powerful warlord built the country’s most magnificent castle in the 16th century. To develop resources for his castle town, the ruler persuaded merchants from other parts of the nation to resettle in Osaka so it became an important distribution center. As the merchant class prospered, the town grew and traditional arts such as kabuki and bunraku flourished. With the legacy of the city’s commercial beginnings still intact, Osaka is renowned as a hub for international business. It is also famous for its local cuisine, large aquarium, underground shopping arcade and its popular Universal Studios amusement park.

Osaka is one of Japan’s most vibrant cities, and especially 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: Dotonbori, a famous pedestrian-only restaurant street in city’s boisterous Namba District. Famous for its vast array of culinary options, this is known as a food paradise throughout Japan. 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 takoyaki (commonly known as “octopus balls”) and kushikatsu (skewered meats and vegetables). The cost of these – and one drink each – is included. Your guide can also take you to a variety of other establishments, from ramen noodles to izakaya bars. The cost for your orders here is on you. Later your guide will take you back to your hotel or direct you elsewhere if you prefer. The Ritz-Carlton Osaka (B,D)

Day 14: Osaka / Depart
At the appropriate time, a private transfer picks you up to take you to the airport for your flight home. (B)

Land only, per person, double occupancy: US $950 per person, per day.

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