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Following Ancient Trails

Weaving through southern Kansai are the Kumano Kodo, a number of ancient pilgrimage trails that converge on the three Kumano Sanzan Shinto shrines. These routes are 1000s of years old and were contrived to be challenging, even dangerous, to better enhance the spiritual experience. Many of the paths are now gone forever, lost to development or neglect, but there are still several original trails to follow. There is a tendency to see Japan through Tokyo’s slick, sophisticated and ever-forward-looking lens, but there are many other facets to this enriching country that come to life when you explore these truly rural regions.

Kumano Kodo
Takayama
Takayama
Takayama
Kyoto Cherry blossom
Kyoto lanterns
geisha in Kyoto
Tokyo restaurant
Tokyo festival

Wander along the ancient trails, bathing in the cool, dappled forest light; enjoy the hospitality of local families along the way, welcoming you with genuine warmth; experience random acts of thoughtfulness from strangers; and stop at unique, characterful hotels: it’s all part of what makes these trips away from the bright lights so memorable. A serene and meditative walking tour can be part of a larger itinerary, forming an effective contrast to the nearby Kansai cities, or can be the centre of a trip in its own right. We’ve finely tuned this experience over the years and know how to balance moments of urban excitement with long stretches of immersion in the beauty of rural Japan.

Finding nature in Megalopolis

Though you’re headed for rural solitude, starting your walking-themed itinerary in one of the world’s largest cities is sort of unavoidable. Unless you touch down in Osaka, your arrival point will be Tokyo. It’s dense, compact and efficient, and in places feels like there’s no space or level that has been left unutilised. But amongst the glass, steel, asphalt and concrete are hidden green breathing spaces, sometimes quite large ones, often several levels above the ground. Things have calmed down somewhat from the relentless development of decades gone by and Tokyo is now peppered with pockets of sprouting green.

You might choose to see the city through a contemporary historic focus, delving into the lively Shitamachi District with its subtle domestic delights (including lots of balconies, flower pots and cats!) Walk among the temples or grand museums of Ueno Park, or the subculture hubs of Harajuku or Akihabara. One of our favourite ways to end the day is with a quality evening food tour, discovering the different flavours of Japanese cuisine and filling up on delicious dishes as you wander.

Something beautiful

Leave behind the constant rush of Tokyo for Nagano Prefecture. Kamikochi, meaning ‘the place where gods descended’ is a travel highlight for any that revel in the majesty of mountains, gin-clear rivers, and natural spirituality. When the mist ascends, you can make out the written kanji on the trail signs and see the cluster of restaurants serving soba noodles and traditional alpine food. 

It is pristine, spiritual, and perfect for a 2-night stay. Walk the numerous trails and enjoy the serenity of your accommodation, whether you choose a traditional ryokan or a contemporary summer villa. The iconic Kappabashi Bridge, spanning the Azusa River, is named after the mythical, mischievous Kappa: the frog-like water spirits of local legend. When the crowds have left, and you sit down to dinner by the waterside, the light descends and the scene becomes magical. There is a strong argument for preceding your stay here with a night in nearby Matsumoto, should you have the time. Soak up the delights of this interesting city with its scenic old merchants’ district and, arguably, the most satisfying castle in Japan.

Post to post

Nagano’s stunning landscape is sometimes compared to that of Colorado or the Peak District. It’s home to Japan’s Central Alps and there are some breathtaking mountain panoramas to discover. Make your way to Kiso Valley, the scene of a lovely, longish walk between two immaculately preserved Edo-era towns. You can do the walk in either direction, and the accommodation is a real highlight. 

You’ll typically be staying in a minshuku, which is similar to a ryokan but with more of a family-run B&B feel. Enjoy warm hospitality and either a delicately prepared feast or a hearty, country-style dinner. The walk itself is a glorious journey between two traditional, dark-wood-latticed towns nestled in the mountains. Hike through forests and past waterfalls, fields and farmhouses, glimpsing daily village life. It is a lovely, slightly softer trek than Kamikochi, with more rolling countryside than steep mountains to tackle.

Sansai and wasakana

Takayama is known locally for its fresh mountain vegetables and river fish. There is a simplicity to this kind of Japanese cuisine that you’ll get to know the more you travel around, but is exhibited at its best in the town’s speciality of grilled, salted fish. However, Takayama is also known globally as the home of some of the best wagyu beef in the country, including the particularly delectable hidagyu for those that want the very best, so make sure you try the full breadth of the town’s culinary delights.

This attractive mountain town is a popular stop on the travellers trail and is peppered with high quality ryokan and several good modern hotels too, should you prefer. We definitely recommend a ryokan stay to get the full experience, and this is one of the best places for it as the standards are very high. Originally home to the carpenters and artisans who worked on the feudal lord’s castles, Takayama is now a largish settlement with some districts of real beauty that will bring you straight into the Edo period. Our resident guide will be keen to show you around and give you a proper introduction to the well-preserved, historical buildings, traditional street food and sake brewers. If you’re keen, bicycles and e-bikes can be hired to explore further around the local area.

The one you may have been waiting for...

Kyoto provides a wonderful counterpoint to Tokyo, and a different take on a large Japanese city. It’s a hub for traditional dining, particularly multi-course kaiseki banquets and exquisite tea ceremonies, but also for high-quality, modern cuisine from around the world. This sought after destination is a cache of priceless wonders that always attracts large numbers of visitors, and the centre is rather compact and very walkable. Our guide will take you to see some of the stand-out sites, but it’s worth taking time to research which ones catch your interest the most, as it’s not ideal to try and get round all of them in one visit. 

Kyoto rewards slow immersion. It's worth spending a few days here and taking the chance to do some outer-area exploration as well. Take a cycle tour around Gion to wander among the traditional geisha and maiko san, and along the surprisingly rural Kamo River, collecting your thoughts with the wind in your hair. Perhaps head to Japan’s largest lake, Biwako, stopping by with a local family for lunch? Take evening walks in Gion or Pontocho, and enjoy excellent riverside dining.

Ancient trails

Heading south from Osaka brings you to the start of your next adventure, and it is really special. You might be after a bit of solitude again after the crush of Kyoto, and Yunomine Onsen delivers just that. Relax a little at your ryokan, soak in the onsen, and enjoy delicious traditional dinners. Walk around the delightful town and, if you are feeling a little peckish, buy a pre-dinner egg to dip in the community cooking onsen.

Rest and relax in preparation for the next few days’ hiking. We recommend a 3-night stay so that you can experience a full day of trekking, and even longer hikes if you’re keen. Again, these trails aren’t too challenging, so open to walkers of varying experience, and offer more delightful wanders through the Japanese countryside where traditional accommodation is a key ingredient. Stay in a ryokan or traditional hotels, making the most of the onsite onsen, so that by the time you finish you might feel as if you’re returning from a spa break rather than a walking trip! Finish up in the fishing town of Katsuura, and get up early to see the catch come in on the quayside.

‘Doki doki suru’

The above phrase means ‘to approach something with nervous but thrilling excitement’, like a bungee jump, literally with your heart pounding. This is how we feel every time we arrive in Osaka. It’s very much a party town, and can feel like arriving in another country when coming back from the calmness of the Kumano Kodo. At this point, when your trip is winding down, is the time to let loose a little. Focus on eating and drinking in this foodie haven and soak up the viscerally relaxed attitude that pervades this legendary city. 

In terms of food, you can get more or less anything you want, but the city’s speciality is fried, casual snacks, the most famous of which is takoyaki (fried octopus dough balls). Laced with delectable sauce, sprinkled with nori and finished with a dollop of mayonnaise, they are utterly delicious, served fiercely hot straight from the fryer, and ready to be eaten on the go. Go out and celebrate your trip in this, Japan’s friendliest city.

A note on cost…

The guide price of £5,190US$6,190 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying a total of 3 nights in Tokyo, 2 nights in Kamikochi, 2 nights on the Nakesendo Way, 2 nights in Takayama, 3 nights in Kyoto, 3 nights walking the Kumano Kodo and 1 night in Osaka; all in our favourite mid-range hotels & traditional inns.
How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey.

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