Highlights of Japan
It would be possible to spend a month and more in Japan and barely touch the sides of this fascinating destination but alas most of us don't have that long to spare, so this action-packed suggested itinerary concentrates on the must-sees on the main island of Honshu, namely Tokyo, Hakone, Kyoto and Miyajima. Your trip will guide you through impressive architecture, local delicacies, hot springs, mountain treks, beautiful scenery and a large dose of history and culture.
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Day 1: Tokyo
Your adventure begins in Tokyo, where you will be met at the airport by your driver, who will privately transfer you to your hotel, your sanctuary amidst the hustle and bustle of this vibrant city.
You can spend the afternoon relaxing at the hotel, using the swimming pool or enjoying a spa treatment after the long flight, or we can recommend a couple sites local to your hotel if you want to stretch your legs.
Day 2: A local's tour of Tokyo
Today you will immerse yourself in a full day private tour of the city with a local guide, travelling - in true Tokyo style - by public transport. This will give you a real feel for Japan's capital city and also an insight into some more unusual and unique features of the city.
With a guide at your disposal you are free to set the pace of the day to be as busy or relaxed as you choose. The guide can help you discover aspects of Tokyo that you would not find by yourself and can also help you get to grips with the city's excellent transport network. Your guide will meet you at your hotel at a time convenient for you and your day will proceed from there.
This evening we will make some reccomendations for dinner in one of Tokyo's many, many famous restaurants. Lots of the very best Michelin-starred eateries have only a handful of covers, so we would strongly recommend booking a table at the time of confirming the holiday, which we can do for you.
Day 3: Seafood, sushi and the Skytree
One of the best things to do during any stay in Tokyo is to make a visit to Tsukiji fish market. Nothing is quite like this hive of early morning activity and this is a great way to take advantage of any residual jet lag!
A visit to Tsukiji is one of the experiences to be had in Tokyo. One of the highlights is the early morning tuna auctions. Access to these is limited so this morning will be an early start, but it is certainly worth it. Use the voucher we will provide you with for breakfast at one of the most popular sushi restaurants in the area, Sushizanmai Bekkan. Open 24/7, the restaurant is located in the busy streets just to the north side of the market itself - the perfect place to tuck into a fantastic breakfast of some of the best sushi you will ever eat. We have exclusively arranged for three set courses to be available, a very traditional course made up of mainly raw fish and seafood sushi, a slightly more modern style with some cooked items and a for those who prefer their fish and seafood cooked, a sushi course featuring no raw food. Remember, sushi refers to the rice, not the fish so this is still an authentic sushi experience! Today we will also be providing you with tickets for Tokyo's newest iconic landmark: Tokyo Skytree. Head over to the impressive 2,050ft tall tower, which is the hottest destination in town and which welcomed an incredible 16.6 million visitors in the first 100 days following its opening in May 2012. This is the tallest tower in the world (and the second tallest structure in the world after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai) and the observation decks located at 1,150ft and 1,480ft offer unparalleled views over Tokyo, the world's largest metropolis, and hopefully Mount Fuji in the distance.
- Optional Day Trip to Kamakura, Nikko, Chichibu-Tama National Park or Ushiku.
Day 4: Tokyo to Hakone
After breakfast you will be transferred to the train station for your first experience of that most iconic of Japanese symbols - the bullet train.
The journey to Hakone takes between two and two and a half hours and on arrival into this beautiful region to the south of Tokyo you will be met and transferred to Gora Kadan, a luxurious ryokan or traditional inn in the grounds of a former imperial residence. The ryokan prides itself on its kaiseki - haute cuisine Japanese multi-course dinners, which you will enjoy in your room later. A ryokan stay is one of the highlights of any stay in Japan because it offers an insight in to home life for many Japanese, with tatami floors and futon beds. This afternoon you will enjoy a dip in Hakone's famous hot-spring baths like a local (we'll let you know the important etiquette) where you can soak in the relaxing waters for an hour or so (or even longer if you fancy). There are plenty of bath houses to choose from with Yumoto home to the most famous of the hot springs, with a historic past and high quality water. We will prebook an onsen visit should you wish.
Day 5: Hakone
After a traditional Japanese breakfast you will be met at your ryokan by your guide for a full day tour of the Hakone region.
Begin with a visit to Mount Owakudani, reached by Hakone Ropeway cable car. It's a thirty minute ride to the top, and the views of Lake Ashi and - on a clear day - Mount Fuji are superb. On the way up you will also see Hakone's most famous hot springs in this highly geothermal area. Next stop Togendai, where you board a huge replica pirate ship to sail across Ashinoko Lake, created by an eruption some 3,000 years ago. Once back on dry land you will be driven to Hakone Open Air Museum to see the sculptures dotted around the landscape with a beautiful backdrop of mountains. The indoor part to the museum has gallery spaces dedicated to paintings, prints, sculptures and ceramics by Pablo Picasso.
Day 6: Hakone to Kyoto
After breakfast at your ryokan this morning you will be met and transferred back to Odawara Station for the onward bullet train to Kyoto, which should take around two hours, depending on which type of high speed train you take.
In Kyoto you will be met and transferred to your hotel in the city in time for lunch. While we love ryokan accommodation, we also believe that a couple of nights at a time is probably plenty, so in Kyoto we recommend you stay in one of the ultra-modern, ultra-comfortable 'western' style hotels. After lunch you will be met at your hotel by your guide for an afternoon tour of this fascinating city - one of Japan's many ancient capitals and home to a staggering 2,000 shrines and temples, some 17 of which are designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The tour of Japan's cultural capital starts at the Heian Shrine, home to Japan's tallest torii gates - the vermillion coloured arches that mark the entrance to hallowed places. The Shin-en gardens surrounding the shrine are particularly beautiful. Next, you will visit Kiyomizu-dera Temple on Mount Otawa. The vast veranda suspended above the ground is a highlight, with the entire structure so beautifully crafted that it required no nails. Our Dossier will come in use again this evening for restaurant recommendations, and Kyoto is renowned for its excellent tempura dishes, where supremely fresh ingredients are deep fried in a delicious and delicate batter.
Day 7: Kyoto
You have this morning to explore Kyoto at your leisure, and while you're certainly spoilt for choice we would recommend three sites in particular.
The first, Fushimi Inari Taisha, is a shrine that's home thousands of torii gates lining pathways winding through a forest, creating an extraordinary vermilion tunnel effect. Next, visit the Zen Garden and beautiful pagoda of Ginkakuji, the Silver Pavilion before wandering along the Philosophers' Walk pathway beside a stream that's particularly beautiful if you're here in sakura (cherry blossom) season, which runs from mid-March to mid-April. After stopping somewhere for lunch you will be met by your guide in central Kyoto for an in-depth introduction to the city's geisha culture this afternoon. First of all your guide will explain the difference between geikos (the local term for geishas) and their maikos (apprentices) before you explore Gion district and its atmospheric teashop-lined alleyways and shrines. This was the one-time haunt of the geishas where you will 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. After the walking tour, your guide will take you to a restaurant for dinner with a maiko. Enjoy a kaiseki dinner and learn about the complex etiquette and rules governing geisha culture. During dinner the maiko will perform traditional dances and may even get you to join in with some traditional Japanese drinking games!
Day 8: Kyoto – Hiroshima – Miyajima
A more sobering day today, as you leave Kyoto this morning for the roughly two and a half hour bullet train to Hiroshima.
You will arrive at the station at around lunchtime and now's the time to try okonomiyaki, a delicious savoury pancake stuffed with cabbage, pork, ginger, nori, and a secret sauce that's a speciality of Hiroshima. The food hall in the basement of the station is filled with stands where you can try it before you leave your bags with left luggage and jump in a taxi to the A-Bomb Dome. We can arrange for a guide, but everything you will see and read about this afternoon is self-explanatory and hugely moving so you can definitely go it alone. At the time of the first nuclear bomb, Hiroshima consisted almost entirely of wooden houses which were duly incinerated, so the twisted girders and blasted out dome of what was once the Industrial Promotion Hall of Hiroshima have been left exactly as they were on the fateful day. Then wander past the Cenotaph Memorial to the victims before visiting the Peace Memorial Museum to learn more about what happened, and the consequences of President Truman's decision. Sad as it undoubtedly is, we would always encourage people to see Hiroshima because you can then visit the perfect antidote in one Japan's most peaceful and charming places - the island of Miyajima. To get there you will take a local train to the ferry port and cross over the bay, before being met by a representative from the ryokan you are staying in.
Day 9: Miyajima
A change of pace today after an emphasis on cities for the last couple of days, and Miyajima's bewitching combination of wide open spaces, water and verdant greenery makes the perfect foil.
This morning your guide will meet you reasonably promptly at your ryokan for a half day tour of this sacred island in the Inland Sea; famed for its temples, roaming deers and floating torii gate - the most photographed place in Japan. First on the tour visit the marine torii gate and nearby the stunning Itsukushima Shrine, which dates from the 6th Century and sits on stilts over the waters of the same bay. You will then visit Daisho-in, a Buddhist temple at the foot of Mount Misen that dominates the island. On the wander along the coast to reach the temple, you must sample the simply sensational grilled oysters - a Miyajima speciality - served at the local food stalls. The final stop on the tour is Mount Misen itself; take the cable car to the summit for incredible views of the islands in the Inland Sea. You can then take the cable car back down, but we'd recommend stretching the legs and following one of the well-marked and winding trails back down through lush forests past small temples and spotting macaque monkeys and deer on route. When you hit the coast, follow your nose back to your ryokan. This evening we recommend another leisurely walk along the waterfront because the day trippers will have caught the last ferry home, before sampling another speciality of the island - unagi, or eel. Better than it sounds, we promise.
Day 10: Miyajima to Tokyo
Enjoy a last morning at leisure in Miyajima before your transfer by ferry and local train back to Hiroshima for the roughly five hour bullet train back to Tokyo Central Station.
From here you will be transferred to your hotel for a final night in Japan's capital. We can make another restaurant reservation, should you wish.
Day 11: Back Home
After breakfast at the hotel you will be transferred to the metro station for the train to the airport and your flight home.
Frances and Holly are our experts for this itinerary and as seasoned travellers they have the inside track on the most memorable adventures.