Japanese affection is not uttered in words; it scarcely appears even in the tone of voice; it is chiefly shown in acts of exquisite courtesy and kindness.
Showcasing the entire breadth of Japan in one trip means making some tricky choices. There’s a temptation to try and do everything, or alternatively to take a completely different route, away from all the headline highlights. However, neither option really hits the mark. This itinerary mixes a selection of high-profile moments with hidden gems, allowing you real insight and making you hungry for a return trip.
Having 3 weeks to play with allows for a lot of content without rushing. The great cities of Kobe, Kyoto and Osaka all sit next to each other, under the umbrella of Keihanshin, each with a totally different flavour; stay in one and dip into the others to diversify your experience. For a well rounded itinerary, take time away from the major cities to explore Japan’s mountains, forests, and rural landscapes. Go off the beaten track with a relaxing ryokan experience in the mountain town of Takayama, in Kanazawa itself or in nearby Kaga onsen, before allowing Japan’s fabulously enhanced logistics to bring you quickly back to Tokyo for the finale.
This less urban side to Japan feels familiar, as we see it so often through screen and page, and it’s so special to experience the real thing. The beautiful Tsumago, in Kiso Valley, is an Edo-era preserved town linked through stunning countryside walks to even less well-known hamlets. Kamikochi, meanwhile, is one of Earth’s great monuments to nature: majestic and epic with an unvoiced suggestion of Shangri La. A great way to finish your time in Japan’s wild regions before returning to its urban glory.
Tokyo is the world's most populous metropolis, and it feels it. It is absolutely huge, dizzying and almost impossible to navigate without online maps! Nothing is too unusual to occur somewhere within its streets. Through all of its trials and tribulations, Tokyo still stands strong as the quintessential modern capital city. Choose whichever restaurant takes your eye and head out for your first night of Tokyo adventures. Your guide will open up the city and help you get your bearings as you delve deep into its historical sights, including the austerely beautiful Meiji Shrine and colourful Asakusa Temple, which display the contrasting approaches to Japan’s two main religions. Tsukiji fish market (the old outer market) is still a crowd pleaser and the place to enjoy the freshest sushi and sashimi.
Beyond the very obvious glitz, and high rise glassiness, it can be nice to enter Shitamachi, the city’s low-key suburbs. Although a little mixed-up in modern times, this part of Tokyo still echoes the way things were before the big money rolled in. It’s a great place to eat cheaply, wander slowly, and enjoy a leisurely beer amidst daily city life.
Set to satisfy anyone looking for a rural idyll, the Kiso Valley is truly lovely and the subject of many effusive travel articles. Up in the Central Alps, it feels a long way from Tokyo. In places, the scenery is very reminiscent of the English countryside, yet feels so distinctive in its own right. Pretty towns are dotted along the way, providing characterful accommodation options for a welcoming 2-night stay complete with plenty of home-cooked food. A rich, multi-sensory introduction to the beauty of Japan’s rural side.
We’d highly recommend using your second day here to undertake the Nakasendo trail, a delightful 8km walk that covers cedar woods, waterfalls, village life and a little bit of winding, local road. Part of a wider historical trail, this scenic walk between the Edo-era post towns of Tsumago and Magome can be attempted in either direction, though we feel that Magome to Tsumago is the best option. Halfway through the hike, make a memorable rest stop at an old farmhouse that doubles as a refreshment station, where you can take the weight off your feet for a while and take in your stunning surroundings.
It’s always exciting getting to Kyoto. There’s wonderful traditional accommodation here, as well as gloriously luxurious hotels; another treat to look forward to on top of the prodigious eateries, bars and entertainment. Kyoto is the home of kaiseki fine dining, but another must-try dining experience is ‘yudofu and yuba’, a delicate way of preparing tofu that is particular to Kyoto. Invest a few days here to allow time for the full breadth of experiences, including cooking classes, whisky tours, cycling and proper tea ceremony instruction, as well as discovering some beautiful hidden spots just outside the city.
Parts of Kyoto can seem rather generic, so seek out the more traditional pristine areas with the help of your guide. Get to the heart of the city’s culture and history at Nijo Castle, Ryoan-ji, or Kinkakuj. Gion is a magical place for an early evening walk, when the lanterns are lit and the teahouses busy. You may even see a geisha or maiko san on Shirakawa dori, the most beautiful street in Kyoto. Gaming fans will be delighted to come across the original 1920s Nintendo office in this area, from the years when they made traditional card games!
The exact time the bomb struck Hiroshima. Acknowledging that moment is a sign of respect to the city’s people and the growing knowledge of the horror they suffered and overcame. It feels important to come here and pay one’s respects to the sacrifices of those on all sides, and it’s humbling to spend time hearing the anecdotes and views of these world-altering events through Japanese eyes, celebrating peace at the Peace Park and furthering your own education on the event. There is no jingoism and the city is a resentment-free zone. The museum is more than stilling.
Though we understand why some would rather not stop here, we urge you not to leave your impressions of Hiroshima in 1945. It’s a spirited city with some great experiences to enjoy. Try the local version of messy okonomiyaki, travel around by tram, and visit the excellent Mazda museum. The serene island of Miyajima is just offshore. Home to the Itsukushima Shrine, it is a wonderful place for a ryokan stay. Watch the tame resident deer as they wander and sleep on the walking paths, exacerbating the tranquility. Kayak over from the mainland for the full immersive castaway feel.
Japan is a nation rich with dialects and colloquialisms and by far the most animated, loudest and heartfelt is Kansai-ben: Osaka’s local dialect. Much has been written about Osaka having a very different feel to Tokyo and other large cities, and this is many people’s favourite stop on their Japan journey. It’s an energetic, direct, flamboyant, kitsch, fashionable, retro city. Some older residents are still famous for their love of leopard patterned wear (just so you know!)
If you’re seeking a high culture, antiquarian experience, then Osaka doesn’t deliver. Apart from the interesting castle, there are few major cultural sights to hold your attention. Instead, you can enjoy fantastic shopping, eating and drinking, and the culinary experience is by far the biggest reason to get here. Osaka weekends are fuelled by myriad foodie moments, and we encourage you to head out on a meticulously-sourced street food tour to try the very best (Tenma district is a particular favourite). Takoyaki, okonomiyaki, yakisoba, kushikatsu; all these iconic dishes make a debut here, in the city where they were first created, and they taste better in their hometown than anywhere else. Eat your way through Osaka’s streets, and come back for seconds...
Kanazawa is a sophisticated, delicate city full of history, boutique craft, and high quality restaurants, and just 2.5 hours by Thunderbird train from Kyoto. Kenrokuen, arguably the most famous formal Japanese garden in the whole country, is a huge draw. It is stunning, even for those who might not usually find gardens scintillating. Kanazawa is famous throughout Japan for its complicated, esoteric crafts that have helped define the classical period of Japanese art. Have a go at gold leafing some chopsticks, or slurp on a decadent cone of gold-leaf-wrapped ice cream, before marvelling at masterpieces in the world-famous modern art museum.
Spend time with your guide rummaging around the picturesque castle and the nearby preserved geisha and samurai districts. Wandering around these traditional neighbourhoods is so rewarding, and for those who find the crowds of Kyoto a turn off, the noble houses of Kanazawa offer some respite with a little crossover. Enter a few to see the original armour and weapons of the Maeda clan who ruled this part of Japan. The teahouse districts are equally stunning. Stone streets with dark wood-latticed, high-end restaurants and bars line your route, which is particularly atmospheric in the evening.
Takayama, translated as ‘tall mountain’, rises high in the mountains of Gifu Prefecture. It’s a stalwart destination for a memorable ryokan stay and a touch of the rural. Atmospheric, evocative and beautiful, it’s something of a gateway to the alps and home to some excellent traditional accommodation options which are often the highlight of a trip. Of particular note are the evening meals: full multi-course kaiseki feasts which will almost certainly feature hidagyu, one of the most famous types of wagyu beef. Your guide can take you to some of the best sights and museums and lead you on a proper, knowledgeable wander around the historical districts, redolent with an atmosphere of the Edo age, complete with snack-sampling opportunities. Use e-bikes to reach the nearby, picturesque nearby town of Hida Furukawa, and search for koi in the gin-clear stream that runs through the street, before sampling some of the region’s finest sake.
The castle in Matsumoto is a delight and has the nickname karasu-jo (crow castle) because of the black outer walls that lend it a certain imposing atmosphere. So many Japanese castles have been re-built with improvised concrete that somewhat detract from the experience, but Matsumoto is original and you can get a real sense of how it must have felt hundreds of years ago. Cramped and dark with narrow openings for archers, it’s a satisfying insight into the feudal period. Nearby, the attractive merchants’ district of old, white-walled buildings has been converted to stylish boutiques, ryokan, restaurants and cafes.
While you’re in the area, we thoroughly recommend popping over to nearby Kamikochi. This alpine valley is sensationally beautiful and 1 or 2 nights here is time well spent. There is a certain spirituality to Kamikochi that feels accessible to all, and some lovely accommodation options, particularly the summer villa of the Tokyo Imperial Hotel. Hikes of various lengths are on the cards, or you can just take a light stroll marvelling at the impossible aquamarine transparency of the Azusa river. Don’t spend too long on the Kappabashi bridge, however, lest you attract the attention of the frog-like kappa water deities who, legend tells, are said to tempt unwary travellers into the water...
The guide price of £5,090US$5,790 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying a total of 4 nights in Tokyo, 2 nights based in Tsumago, 3 nights in Kyoto, 2 nights in Hiroshima, 2 nights in Osaka, 2 nights in Kanazawa, 2 nights Takayama, 2 nights in Matsumoto; all in our favourite mid-range hotels.
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Well away from the bright lights and ultra modern cities, is the other Japan you crave, on the lesser visited island of Kyushu.