Private tours and luxurious accommodations will give you unparalleled insight into tradition, culture, and spirit during your 15-day Japan highlights tour. Your expert guides will lead you through modern cities, hidden towns, and traditional villages. Buddhist monkeys and serene gardens showcase custom while tranquility will emerge from the marvelous landscapes. Authentic ryokan, soothing hot springs, performing geishas, and high-speed bullet trains will reveal the depth and complexity...
Tokyo – Yokoso to Japan!
Your flight lands in Tokyo in mid-afternoon. After clearing customs and immigration, a representative meets you at the arrivals lobby. He or she purchases you a limousine bus ticket for your two-hour ride to Tokyo. The seats on the bus are quite comfortable, and the time flies by as you watch the rice fields of Chiba Prefecture slowly transform into Tokyo’s sprawling metropolis.
After checking into your hotel, the rest of the evening is free time. Dinner is on your own.
Tokyo – Tokyo’s Past, Present, and Future
After breakfast at the hotel, your day begins with an orientation meeting with our Tokyo staff. Afterward, your guide escorts you to Tsukiji Fish Market. Though this may be your first visit to this iconic market, it is likely that you have eaten the market’s fish, as 20% of the world’s daily catch passes through Tsukiji. There, watch the fishmongers practice their craft, from filleting massive tuna to wrangling octopi. Before leaving, have a fresh sushi snack.
The Ginza District is only a short ride away from Tsukiji. Arguably the most famous shopping district in the world, the Ginza is home to the flagship stores of many luxury brands. While there, see the latest in consumer electronics at the Sony Showroom. In the Nissan Showroom, see (and sit in) Nissan’s latest models, including those not sold outside of Japan.
For lunch, dine on Kushiage, a Japanese shish kabob featuring different kinds of meat and vegetables. After lunch, travel 350 meters into the air to the Tembo Deck of the Tokyo Skytree. If the weather is cooperative, gain an impressive view of Tokyo’s seemingly infinite skyline. On the clearest days, it is possible to see Mt. Fuji to the west, as well.
In the afternoon, you visit the Asakusa area, home to Senso-ji, the oldest Buddhist temple in Tokyo. Founded by two fishermen over 1,200 years ago, the temple is now a sprawling complex full of shops and various shrines. While here, your guide teaches you about Shinto and Buddhism, and how both religions affect modern Japanese life.
This evening dinner is on your own. Your guide is happy to provide recommendations based on your tastes.
Tokyo – The City at Your Fingertips
After breakfast at the hotel, you are in the driver’s seat as you head out on the town for a day of adventure. Take part in the morning commute and feel the togetherness, as nearly 100 people board a train car at once. It is a surreal experience, but one that you truly need to see to believe.
For a more laid-back morning, there is no better place than Meiji Park at dawn. Acres of preserved forests and dirt paths take you right out of Tokyo’s hustle and bustle. In the park’s center is Meiji Shrine, a shrine dedicated to the spirit of Japan’s first modern emperor. Arrive at the right time and you may see Shinto priests performing morning rituals along with young couples taking their wedding photographs.
The afternoon is a perfect time to explore one of Tokyo’s world-renowned museums. The Tokyo National Museum in Ueno Park has some of the finest examples of Japanese art on display anywhere in the world. For a more hands-on experience, the Tokyo-Edo Museum gives visitors an immersive look into the city’s history and culture.
Even though your metro pass (SUICA or PASMO) does not work today, it is easy to reload money onto the card. If you add extra yen beyond your travel needs, you can use this money in nearly every train station in Tokyo. A variety of station convenience stores and restaurants also allow you to pay with these passes.
For an extra fee, you can take advantage of two exciting opportunities in the Tokyo area. First, take a self-guided tour to Japan’s famous Snow Monkey Park, where you can see macaques relaxing in the steaming mineral water. Or if you want to immerse yourself in Japan’s past, go to Nikko, the burial site of Japan’s shoguns. Walking under incredibly tall cedar trees, witness some of the finest examples of Japanese architecture and design as your guide shows you around. This optional tour also includes lunch at a local restaurant.
Kamakura to Hakone – Immersion in the Past
Tokyo was not always Japan’s capital. During the 13th century, the coastal city of Kamakura held this honor. This morning, you leave Tokyo behind as you take an express train to Kamakura. Keeping an overnight bag with you, the majority of your luggage is sent on ahead to Takayama for your arrival the following day.
Your first stop is Hase-dera Temple. Dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of mercy, your breath is taken away as you first behold the nearly 30-foot-statue. Covered in gold leaf, it is a stunning sight to behold. Next to the Kannon is the Kannon Museum, home to a variety of artifacts from when Kamakura was the center of Japan’s government and religious life.
From Hase-dera, you walk to Kamakura’s most famous Buddha, aptly named the Kamakura Daibutsu, or Great Buddha. Dating back to the 13th-century, it has survived multiple earthquakes, tidal waves, and fires, which destroyed surrounding temples and shrines. Looking out over Kamakura and Sagami Bay, it is a near-immortal reminder of the influence of Buddhism in Japanese life.
Your last stop in Kamakura is also one of the city’s most serene: Hokoku-ji Temple. Rebuilt after the Great Kanto Earthquake in 1923, the temple is surrounded by more than 2,000 bamboo stalks. The atmosphere is nothing less than magical as you sit in the temple, enjoying a hot cup of fragrant green tea. Look closely through the bamboo and you may notice the small caves carved into the rocky hillsides. These tombs once contained the ashes of Kamakura’s most powerful nobility.
In the afternoon, your guide takes you to Hakone by train. For centuries, Hakone has been a destination where the Japanese have come for rest and relaxation. Its naturally occurring hot springs, idyllic lakes, and Mt. Fuji views make for a splendid time. After arriving, check into your hotel, the Hakone Yumoto Hotel and Onsen. In your authentically Japanese room, expect tatami mat floors and futons. The hotel’s onsen baths make for a perfect end to your day.
Though dinner is not included on this day, we recommend that you take advantage of the hotel’s multi-course dinner which incorporates meat and fresh vegetables from the Hakone and Fuji Five Lakes Region.
Hakone to Takayama – Splendid Views and Hidden Gems
After checking out of your hotel, your guide meets you to begin your day touring Hakone. Depending on the weather, your guide provides you with many splendid experiences as possible, ranging from a Lake Ashi cruise to a ropeway ride. The view, the most spectacular in the fall, puts you at ease and leaves you without a care in the world.
Around lunchtime, you begin your journey to Takayama, one of the most well-preserved cities in Japan. Traveling by train, time seems to flow in reverse as you see fewer and fewer buildings, telephone lines, and other signs of the 21st-century. During your train ride, indulge in a bento box lunch bought either on board or at the train station. Though pre-packaged, you discover the food is as fresh as anything else you have dined on so far in Japan.
In Takayama, you will enjoy your accommodations and the included kaiseki dinner featuring Hida beef, one of the finest cuts of beef in the world. You also discover that your meal is a feast for the senses. Each item is meticulously placed to entice you. Much of the food is new to you, but you find yourself savoring every bite.
In the evening, take a relaxing soak in one of the ryokan’s many onsen baths before turning in for the night.
Takayama – Exploring the Edo Period
After breakfast, your guide picks you up at your ryokan for a day of enlightenment and adventure. Your first stop is the morning market, where farmers and artisans from around the city and valley come each morning to sell their wares. It is an ideal place to buy a souvenir or a few culinary ingredients for a meal you make back home.
Only a few minutes’ walk away from the market is Takayama-jinya, the city’s government office during the Edo Period. A far cry from your local DMV, the office has the aura of a palatial mansion with its ornate art and gardens. Walking barefoot on the wooden floors, there are many places to simply stop and enjoy your surroundings.
After lunch on your own, the rest of the day is a self-guided tour of Takayama’s old town, where many of the buildings date back to the 16th-century. It is possible to tour a sake brewery, where brew masters still use traditional methods to make this fragrant, complex beverage.
You can continue your guided tour of Takayama, which includes some lesser known sights and a side trip to the nearby Hida-no-Sato open air museum. In this museum, wander through over 30 Edo Period homes, gaining a deep appreciation for the generations of men and women who walked these same floors centuries ago.
If you gained a taste for Hida beef the night before, try one of the city’s many Hida beef restaurants for dinner. Depending on the restaurant, you can have the beef as part of a stir-fry, stew, or even as sushi. The later is particularly flavorful, akin to the finest Bluefin Tuna.
Mt. Koya – Mingling with Monks
This morning you depart only with an overnight bag, the majority of your luggage sent ahead to Osaka. You board a local train to Mt. Koya, one of the most sacred sites in Japanese Buddhism. In 805, the monk Kobo Dashi selected Mt. Koya for the site of his temple after many years of wandering. For him, the location was perfect as the mountain’s eight peaks resembled a blooming lotus flower. Over the centuries, over 120 temples were constructed along the mountain ridges.
Over their long history, Mt. Koya’s temples have offered to lodge pilgrims and travelers alike. Tonight you join in this tradition as you check into your hotel, a working Buddhist temple. After setting into your room and meeting the monks, take the time to wander the stone pathways that link the temples together. Along the path are stone lanterns lit each evening after dusk, and graveyards containing the remains of thousands of monks who have called Mt. Koya home over the centuries.
This evening, you dine on the same vegetarian cuisine as the monks. The meal may look simple, but the food represents the monks’ dedication to their religious beliefs.
Mt. Koya to Osaka – Big City Life
This morning, you rise with the monks to attend morning prayer services. Afterward, eat with the monks before venturing to the Okuno-in temple, the final resting place of Kobo Dashi. According to the beliefs held by many of the monks, Kobo Dashi is not dead, but meditating so deeply that he has transcended life and death. The temple is a fitting memorial to the man who gave life to Shingon Buddhism.
After lunch at Mt. Koya, your guide joins you for the three-hour train ride to Osaka. Known internationally as ‘Japan’s kitchen,’ Osaka is a sprawling city of millions centered around the bustling Dotonbori District. In the afternoon and evening, take a self-guided tour of this bustling area. You feel as if you are in Times Square as you walk under the bright neon advertisements.
Your guide is happy to show you some of the best sights in downtown Osaka. Besides the Dotonbori District, you see the some of the city’s best Shinto Shrines and Buddhist Temples. In the evening, you dine at a popular kaiten, or conveyer belt sushi restaurant. Watch plates of delectable sushi rotate at eye level. You may ‘eat yourself to ruin,’ as the Osaka saying goes, but don’t worry. It’s an Osaka tradition not to be missed.
Your hotel this evening is western-style. If you do not elect for an extra tour, dinner this evening is on your own.
Himeji to Miyajima – Ancient Castles and Splendid Shrines
Today you send your main luggage ahead to Kyoto as you prepare a small bag for two nights in Miyajima. After breakfast at your hotel, you board the shinkansen for Himeji. Himeji is home to Himeji Castle, which many consider to be Japan’s most magnificent. A UNESCO World Heritage Site, it is original to the early 17th-century. As you wander through the gates and winding paths, you are transported back into the past, a time when the castle was used as a military fortification. The grounds are most beautiful in mid-spring when blooming cherry blossoms turn Himeji Castle into a paradise.
After lunch near Himeji Castle, you once again board the Shinkansen for Miyajima. Arriving at Miyajima requires more than the Shinkansen, you discover, stepping onto a ferry just outside Hiroshima Station. The 10-minute cruise to Miyajima reveals Itsukushima Shrine, its bright red torii gate ‘floating’ in the water at high tide. As you disembark, friendly deer native to the island come to greet you.
At Miyajima, late afternoon and evening are a magical time of day. Most of the tourists have left, and the island’s structures exude a small-town charm lost in so many other parts of Japan. Tonight you stay in a ryokan on Miyajima, and feast on a kaiseki dinner. After your meal, soak in the onsen baths, or walk through the town at night. With very few streetlights, the stars and moon guide your way.
Miyajima – Stunning Vistas and Comfort Food
Today is a free day to explore Miyajima’s many natural wonders. For a little exercise, a 10-minute walk up a gentle hill reveals the Mt. Misen ropeway. The ropeway takes you to Mt. Misen’s summit, offering panoramic views of the Seto Inland Sea, Hiroshima, and Miyajima’s mountainous terrain. From the summit is only a short walk to Reikado Hall. Here, Kobo Dashi received religious training before venturing to Mt. Koya. The same eternal flame he tended in the 9th century still burns here, and was the source of fire for Hiroshima’s “Flame of Peace.”
Back down the mountain, you discover the smell of sweet pastry. It is Momiji Manju, a local delicacy stuffed with different savory fillings. Sample one (or all of them) as you walk among the different confectionary shops. Just steps away are oyster restaurants. Oysters are Miyajima’s seafood specialty. From the shore, the oyster beds stretch out as far as the eye can see. Raw or barbecued, they pair excellently with local beer.
Dinner this evening is again provided at your ryokan.
Hiroshima to Kyoto – The Lessons of the Past
This morning you leave Miyajima for Hiroshima, a city that has thrived in the years since the atomic bombing. Hiroshima in the 21st-century is committed to the ideal of nuclear disarmament. In the Peace Memorial Park, you see moving sights such as the mound containing the ashes of over 70,000 people who were killed by the atomic bomb. In the museum, gaze upon artifacts such as watches forever stopped at 8:15 am. There are also items you can touch, including roof tiles that boiled when the bomb exposed them to temperatures exceeding 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit.
Leaving with many lessons of the past, you depart by shinkansen. Two hours later, you arrive in Kyoto, Japan’s ancient capital. The emperor’s residence for over 1,000 years, the city is steeped in history, which you explore over the next few days.
Your accommodations in Kyoto are at a ryokan. After checking in, you have the rest of the day to relax or take a self-guided tour. Dinner is on your own.
Kyoto – Temples and Tea
After breakfast, your guide picks you up at your hotel for a day of exploration. Your first stop is Ryoan-ji temple. Constructed over 500 years ago, the temple’s main attraction is its signature rock garden. Its design maintained daily by monks, the 15 large stones that make up the garden have a unique feature. No matter which way you look at them, you can only see 14 at one time. This curiosity represents a key tenant of Buddhism. Though the garden itself may be complete, our ability as human beings to perceive is limited. We cannot see (or comprehend) the entirety of existence.
Kinkaku-ji is a short bus or taxi ride away from Ryoan-ji. One of the most spectacular temples in Japan, Kinaku-ji’s gold-leaf exterior is nothing less than perfection. In the temple’s moat, a second temple forms in the rippling waters.
After a noodle lunch, you head to a Kyoto home to learn about the tea ceremony. When the tea ceremony was first developed over 400 years ago, it was a way to bring order to a chaotic and unpredictable world. Practiced by samurai in order to train their minds, the ceremony’s dozens of steps take months, if not years, to perfect. At the end of the ceremony, enjoy your tea along with a variety of Japanese sweets.
Your final stop is Nijo Castle. Though the shogun lived in Tokyo, then called Edo, he used Nijo Castle as his residence when he traveled to Kyoto. Impressive to visitors today as it was to those hundreds of years ago, the castle radiates authority and power from all sides. Touring the inner rooms, your guide points out secret passages and chambers where the shogun’s bodyguards would hide, ready in case anyone should try to bring harm to their master.
Kyoto – Temples and Tea
You’ll need your walking shoes today, as you’re off to see parts of Kyoto best discovered on foot. Your first stop is Fushimi Inari Shrine. In the Shinto religion, Inari is the god of rice. Though thousands of shrines across Japan honor Inari, Fushimi Inari Shrine is the country’s most important. You immediately realize this as you start walking up the gentle slope leading up Mt. Inari. Every two feet or so you pass under another bright red torii gate, signifying that you are entering a sacred space. With more than 2,000 lining the mountain path, you marvel at the reverence given to the god who controls Japan’s main source of nourishment.
At the summit, the shrine itself comes into view, along with splendid vistas of Kyoto and the surrounding mountains. Take the time to explore the shrine and its gardens, or simply sit on a park bench and enjoy the sights.
After descending Mt. Inari, rest your feet in a taxi or bus that takes you to Ginkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion. Modeled after Kinkaku-ji, the Silver Pavilion is not coated in precious metal. The name refers to the dark reflective paint, which gave the temple a shiny, silvery appearance. The temple and grounds are inspiring, to say the least. Even after spending just a few minutes there, you realize why Ginkaku-ji was an inspiration to traditional Japanese arts such as the tea ceremony and flower arrangement.
Right next to Ginkaku-ji is the Philosopher’s Walk. A stone path flanked by cherry trees and Kyoto’s medieval canals, it was the daily route of philosopher Nishida Kitaro. To Kitaro, the path was a perfect place to ponder the differences between Western and Japanese philosophy. As you enjoy the Philosopher’s Walk, you find yourself stopping periodically to enjoy the calm or one of the many temples that line the path.
After a relaxing lunch to regain your energy, you begin your tour of the Higashiyama District. A long street of preserved shops, they continue to sell a variety of Kyoto specialties from cuisine to handmade pottery. Surrounded by so much to explore, you could easily spend half a day on this one street. At the end of the Higashiyama District is Kyomizu-dera, arguably the most famous Buddhist temple in Japan. From the terrace, not only are you greeted by inspiring views, but also a sense of calm that has been felt by visitors for centuries.
Your final stop for the day is the Gion District, home to the geiko, more commonly known as geisha. Though much of Japan has changed, the geiko continues to practice traditions and rituals handed down through the generations. It is not uncommon to see geiko walking between appointments. Part hostess, part entertainer, the geiko are a sight to behold. By the end of your time in Gion, you can’t help but feel a deep respect for the women who keep alive the geiko way of life.
This evening, you are free to explore Kyoto by yourself. Dinner is on your own.
Kyoto – A Self-Guided Adventure
There are no planned activities this morning or afternoon. For an extra fee, it is possible to take a half-day trip to Nara, Japan first capital. Though only Japan’s capital for 84 years, the Nara Period (710-794) was defined by Japan’s embrace of Buddhism. Entering Nara Park, you are greeted by sacred deer. Freely living amongst people for over 1,200 years, they are quite tame and are known to bow to visitors in order to receive a treat.
Continuing through the park, you see the outline of Todai-ji in the distance. Todai-ji is the largest Buddhist temple in Japan, and one of the largest wooden structures in the world. Within is a greater sight, a 49-foot high bronze Buddha that has been overlooking Nara Park since 753. The scent of incense is heavy in the air as you stand at the base of this magnificent structure.
Afterward, explore the temple grounds along with the recently opened museum displaying artifacts and art from the Nara Period. There is also time to visit the Nara National Museum, which features one of the largest collections of calligraphy in Japan.
No matter how you choose to spend you last day in Japan, the country has one more surprise for you. Returning to the Gion District, sit down to a kaiseki dinner held in your honor. As you eat, you witness a geiko performance, a perfect complement to your meal.
Kyoto – A Lifetime of Memories
The last two weeks have been a glorious adventure. You have made a lifetime’s worth of precious memories, but you leave Japan with so much of the country unexplored. You might find yourself planning your next trip even before your plane’s departure.
- Stay at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn, featuring tatami-matted rooms, hot springs, and traditional yukata clothing
- Spend a night at a Buddhist temple at Mt. Koya, and become one with nature
- Enjoy the finest and freshest Japanese cuisine known as Kaiseki, featuring regional and seasonal specialties
- Be the honored guest at a geisha performance in Kyoto
- Ride the famous Shinkansen, the high-speed bullet train that runs up to speeds of 200 mph
Your tour begins in Tokyo, Japan’s capital and the largest metropolis in the world. In this dynamic city, you experience a blend of past, present, and future as your expert guide takes you to the city’s best attractions. Eat like a local and have ample time to explore the city on your own.
From Tokyo, you head to Kamakura and Hakone, home to some of Japan’s best views and most cherished cultural treasures. In Kamakura, feel transported into the past as you sip tea among the bamboo stalks. In Hakone, take in Mt. Fuji in all its glory from a ropeway ride or lake cruise. At the end of your day, soak in the first of many onsen baths you encounter during your time in Japan.
Takayama is a jewel hidden within the Japanese Alps. Spared from both modernization and destruction of war, the city is one of the most well preserved in Japan. Exploring the old town, you discover artisans still practicing traditional methods of making everything from fine sake to furniture. While there, indulge in Hida beef, some of the best in the world.
Mt. Koya is one of the most deeply spiritual places in Japan. The birthplace of Shingon Buddhism, generations of monks has called Mt. Koya home for nearly 12 centuries. Like pilgrims in centuries past, you spend a night at a Buddhist temple, meeting the monks and dining on their vegetarian cuisine. While there, witness morning prayer ceremonies, and wander through the early morning fog that falls over Mt. Koya’s cemeteries and stone paths.
Osaka is one of the liveliest cities in Japan, a place where great merchant families made their fortunes. Get caught up in the hustle and bustle as you wander through the Dotonbori district, where the neon lights are never extinguished. If you’re feeling brave, try fugu, pufferfish, at a local restaurant for dinner.
From the big city, you head to Himeji, home to one of Japan’s few remaining medieval castles. It is a magnificent sight to behold. Touring the inside, see how the castle acted as both fortification and a symbol of the shogun’s power. In the afternoon, have a pleasant lunch in the shadow of the castle.
Your journey continues to Miyajima, home to Japan’s iconic ‘floating’ torii gate. Here you spend two nights, exploring the island at your leisure. Miyajima offers visitors a plethora of enjoyable activities from ropeway rides, meditation at eternal flames, and oyster feasts. Don’t forget to try Momiji Manju, a local pastry baked fresh every day.
Just across the bay from Miyajima is Hiroshima. Though Hiroshima has fully recovered since the atomic bombing, the city has not forgotten its place in history. Here, learn the lessons of the past and the steps Hiroshima has taken to make itself a symbol of world peace and worldwide nuclear disarmament.
Leaving Hiroshima, you arrive in Kyoto, where you spend your last three days in Japan. Kyoto is Japan’s most dynamic city, a seamless blend of past and present. Around every corner is something unexpected. While here, take use of guides, but enjoy ample free time to explore the city at your own pace. Your time in Kyoto includes witnessing performances by Kyoto’s geisha, known locally as geiko. There is also the option to take a half-day trip to Nara, Japan’s first capital and home to some of the country’s most stunning architecture.
This 15-day tour is perfect for friends, couples, and even families. It is best taken in spring or fall when Japan’s weather is best for outdoor touring. Expert guides are available in all cities, and travelers can always contact their guide in case questions or concerns arise throughout the tour.
$5,995 per person (excluding international flights)
Your Zicasso trip is fully customizable, and this sample itinerary is a starting place for your travel plans. Actual costs are dynamic, and your selection of accommodations and activities, your season of travel, and other such variables will bring this budget guideline up or down. Throughout your planning experience with your Zicasso specialist, your itinerary is designed around your budget. You can book your trip when you are satisfied with every detail. Planning your trip with a Zicasso travel specialist is a free service.
- In-country transportation
- Some or all activities and tours
- Expert trip planning
- 24x7 support during your trip
Your final trip cost will vary based on your selected accommodations, activities, meals, and other trip elements that you opt to include.
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