Explore the northern reaches of the main Japanese island of Honshu on a trip off the well-worn Honshu path. This eleven day itinerary takes you up and over the Japanese Alps, past traditional towns and hot-spring-swimming monkeys, to the beautiful coastal city of Kanazawa, and finally the ancient capital, Kyoto.
Your flight arrives into Tokyo Narita and you will be met after baggage reclaim for your private transfer into Tokyo city centre. The journey takes about an hour and a half and you will be staying in one of outstanding city hotels in the Japanese capital. Every one of the hotels we work with is located on the upper floors of some of Tokyo's tallest tower blocks, so you can expect world class views of the city and - sometimes - Mount Fuji in the distance.
This afternoon we would recommend hitting the ground running to combat the effects of jet lag, so you will be met at your hotel after lunch by your guide for an afternoon and evening orientation of this fascinating city. The tour starts with a scenic river cruise along the Sumida River to the district of Asakusa, part of Tokyo's shitamachi or old town. Asakusa was once home to Tokyo's geisha culture and also home to the city's oldest Buddhist temple, Senso-ji, which is surrounded by charming old streets that are perfect for stretching your legs. The tour ends with a visit to Tokyo's most famous shrine, Meiji Jingu, which is a haven of calm surrounded by thousands of trees in the heart of the city.
Return to your hotel and we will have provided you with a detailed Dossier on the best places to eat, drink and shop in the city, which will come in very useful this evening. One word of advice - Tokyo's best restaurants (of which there are many) are often very small and serve only a handful of covers, so it's always advisable to ask us to book well in advance for you.
After breakfast in the capital it's time to head into the hills - or more precisely the Japanese Alps - using Japan's famously efficient and speedy rail system. You will be met at the hotel and transferred to Shinjuku Station, in Tokyo, for the roughly three hour train ride to Matsumoto, where another transfer will be waiting to meet you.
After settling into your new hotel and some lunch you have the afternoon at leisure to explore this charming town. Matsumoto is famed for its castle - one of only twelve original castles in the country - which is in a beautiful setting, surrounded by rice paddies, wasabi farms, vineyards and the Japanese Alps. It is also known as a hirajiro castle, because it is built on a plain rather than on a hillside, and has a distinctive black exterior and red arched bridge entrance. Once you have explored this hugely authentic fortress, you can wander around neighbouring Nakamachi, the city's longstanding merchant district which is full of traditional whitewashed buildings
If you're travelling between December and April (and in an ideal world you would be, because mid-March to mid-April is blossom season for much of Honshu Island - the most magical time to be there) we will have arranged for you to visit Jigokudani Park and its iconic snow monkeys today.
We will provide you with tickets for the two and a half hour train from Matsumoto via Nagano (host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics) to Yudanaka, from where you can take a bus to the entrance of the park. It is then a half hour walk to the onsen hot springs where large groups of pink-faced snow monkeys (actually Japanese macaques) bathe in warm water to stay toasty in the snowy surroundings. It's one of the most famous sights in Japan, and well worth the round trip.
After breakfast this morning you will be met at your hotel for the two hour drive to Takayama, a mountain town famed for its beautifully preserved shitamachi or old town. On arrival in to the town you will check in to your ryokan or traditional inn. This is a great additional way to gain an insight into Japanese culture because ryokans offer a glimpse into Japanese home life; you'll be staying in rooms with tatami floors, rice paper walls and futon beds, and wearing yakata dressing gowns and slippers.
For lunch, queue for the famous Hida beef sushi in one of the town's special food stalls, before spending the afternoon wandering the streets of the old town, which are lined with ancient merchants' homes and sake breweries. We definitely recommend a stop at one of the breweries for a taste of the local drop. Later this evening, in keeping with the half board traditions of a ryokan stay, you will enjoy a multi-course kaiseki dinner of delicious and beautifully prepared cuisine, served in your room.
After breakfast in your ryokan we've provided you with bus tickets for the 50 minute drive to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of Shirakawago. This beautiful village is home to several farmhouses, all which have a distinctive gassho-zukuri (literally: 'made like praying hands') style of steep thatched roof - not just a pretty picture, the rooves are cleverly designed to counter the significant snowfall in the region in winter. Explore the village and marvel at the beautifully constructed houses, some of which are well over two hundred years old, and which were constructed without nails.
Later, return to Takayama and enjoy the rest of the day leisurely exploring. This is fine walking country and we can provide suggestions for lots of good local walks, but one obvious one is the two mile Higashiyama Trail. The scenic path takes in Takayama's shrine-lined Temple Town, before climbing up through Shiroyama Park woods, the site of the ruins of the old Takayama Castle.
This morning you will be transferred two hours by car from your ryokan to the beautiful coastal city of Kanazawa. Thanks to its location on the northern coast of Honshu island, the city was spared the fate of others in Japan during the Second World War, and as a result Kanazawa retains a wonderfully traditional air.
This afternoon you can explore the city at your leisure, including wandering around the well-preserved Higashi District, which is full of wooden buildings, chaya teahouses (where geishas would dance and sing for clients) and small artisanal shops.
After breakfast this morning you will be met at your hotel by your guide for a more formal tour of Kanazawa, a noted cultural and artistic hub in the 17th century.
The tour starts at the once private Kenrokuen Garden, which is considered one of the three most beautiful gardens in the country. Spread across some 25 acres and made up of fountains, carp ponds and seasonal plants and trees, this really is a fabulous place to visit almost all year round.
This morning you will be transferred to the train station for the three hour train to Kyoto, where you will be met for the transfer to your hotel. Since Tokyo you have been staying in smaller, more traditional hotels and ryokans, so for a change of pace in Kyoto we have booked you into a state of the art new hotel.
After lunch you will be met at your hotel by your guide for an afternoon tour of this fascinating city - another of Japan's many ancient capitals and home to some 2,000 shrines and temples, a staggering 17 of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Your tour of Japan's cultural capital begins at the Heian Shrine, complete with Japan's tallest torii gates - the vermillion coloured arches that mark the entrance to hallowed places.
You have this morning to explore Kyoto at your leisure, and of the many, many options of things to see and do, we would recommend three sites in particular. The first is Fushimi Inari Taisha, where thousands of torii gates line pathways winding through a forest, creating an extraordinary vermilion tunnel effect. Next we suggest you see the Zen Garden and beautiful pagoda of Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion. Finally, wander along the Philosophers' Walk, a stone pathway beside a stream lined with cherry trees. It can get busy in sakura (cherry blossom) season, which runs from mid-March to mid-April, but it's still magical.
After stopping somewhere for lunch you will be met by a guide in central Kyoto for an in-depth introduction to the city's geisha culture this afternoon. First of all your guide will explain about geikos (the local term for geishas) and their maikos (apprentices) before you explore the atmospheric teashop-lined alleyways and shrines of Gion district, the one-time haunt of the geishas. Visit a theatre where geisha and maiko once performed traditional dances, before you cross Kyoto's most famous bridge, Tatsumi Bashi, and then wander along cherry tree-lined Shirakawa Canal.
Enjoy a last morning at leisure in Kyoto before your transfer to the train station for the three hour something (depending on the type) bullet train to Tokyo Central Station. From here you will be transferred to your hotel for a final night in Japan's capital.
After breakfast at the hotel you will be transferred to the metro station for the train to Narita Airport and your onwards flight.