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Saké and Seoul: Japan & South Korea

Japan and South Korea go together like ginger and chilli - two feisty neighbours running parallel to each other in so many ways.

Starting in South Korea, this route curves down towards Busan before crossing the sea and working its way up through some of Japan’s core cities. Seoul’s ever-busy streets plunge you instantly into the essence of Korean culture, from high-rise modernity to sacred temples, whilst Gyeongju wraps you in the country’s ancient history.

Immerse yourself in nature and contemporary media in Busan before heading to Japan to experience some of the country’s finest traditions in Kyoto. Take time for yourself in Hakone, gazing out towards Fuji-san, and finish with a bang exploring Tokyo’s heart-racing metropolis your way.

Street food Seoul

Japan and South Korea’s similarities run from technological innovation to mountainous landscapes, but with striking individualities that stand out. Like sound waves crossing and diverging, they create dynamic harmonies and dischords, and their histories are full of contrasting moments of tension and cultural exchange. Seeing both countries in one trip is like getting two perspectives on the same sunrise.

Seek out the heart of Seoul

With glass-monolith skyscrapers towering over winding streets of low-rise houses and temples, Seoul, like so many capitals, is a city of contrasts: traditional and contemporary; rushing and slower paced. 

Zip through the city by subway, like the locals do, going from the grandeur of Gyeongbokgung Palace to the simple wooden-housed heritage of Bukchon Hanok Village. Experience reverent tranquillity at a Confucian shrine, enjoy panoramic views across the city from N Seoul Tower, then perhaps experience South Korea’s take on iconic theme park ‘magic’; old meets new around every corner. Pause to sample as many delicious bites as you can from steaming street stalls in Gwangjang Market and beyond, trying bowlfuls of bibimbap and a dozen different kinds of kimchi.

Staying in the capital also allows you to experience South Korea’s sombre side with a visit to the stark borderlands separating the country from North Korea. The 160-mile strip of land that makes up the Demilitarized Zone, or DMZ, is still the most heavily militarised border in the world. Learn about its creation and significance before boarding a bus to be guided through this highly sensitive and historically significant area.

Travel through time in Gyeongju 

Take the express train to Gyeongju and explore South Korea’s ancient heritage. Gyeongju was the centre of the Silla dynasty for close to a thousand years and is home to a greater concentration of temples, tombs, pagodas and palaces than anywhere else in the country. The landscape is peppered with tumili (grass mounds that mark the burial sites of ancient kings), one of which, Cheonmachong, heralded an astonishing hoard when it was excavated in the ‘70s. See the treasures and cave paintings in situ, then step inside the nearby 7th-century observatory, believed to be the oldest in Asia, to turn your thoughts to the stars. Look back in time at the beautifully-preserved Yangdong Folk Village, or climb up to Seokguram Grotto and the 20-ft high Buddha statue seated peacefully within the cave. 

For a traditional outlook on what makes the city tick, stay the night somewhere unexpected. Bulguksa, like many of South Korea’s Buddhist temples, welcomes overnight visitors, allowing you a glimpse of the life of a Buddhist monk. Dine with the resident monks, sleep in the temple complex, join the chanting and meditation sessions, and get involved with their communal work.

Beach life & cutting-edge culture in Busan 

Busan, South Korea’s second largest city, is famed for its beaches and seafood, and sometimes referred to as ‘Seoul by the sea’. However, it’s the town’s contemporary cocktail of k-pop and cinema that’s behind its recent rise in popularity as much as its sandy coastline. 

Pause at BIFF Square, the original location for the prestigious Busan International Film Festival, and take a high-speed lift up the 390-feet high Busan Tower to enjoy panoramic views over the city. Fill your social media with picture-perfect snaps in the kaleidoscopic Gamcheon Culture Village, full of colourful houses, steep stairways and vibrant street art. Head to Haeundae beach and try some fresh seafood snacks, or marvel at the illuminated suspension bridge across the bay from Gwangalli sands, before finding peace amid the city’s temples. Stop for lunch at the Jagalchi Fishery Market - a noisy, frantic melee with a mind-blowing array of freshly-caught seafood - and finish the day on the rocky cliff tops at Taejongdae, gazing across the sea.

Cultural capital in Kyoto

Fly over to Japan, then sample the country’s famously efficient rail network by taking the train to Kyoto - the country’s cultural capital - enjoying the scenery en route. From the strikingly modern district around Kyoto station, head deeper into the city and watch the layers unfurl. This is a city steeped in tradition and history, the wooden-roofed buildings, stratified temples and richly-hued trees casting iconic silhouettes against the skyline. Over 2,000 Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines line the city's streets, centred around the ornamental edifice of Nijō Castle. Explore the castle’s serene gardens and walk on its legendary ‘nightingale’ floor, imagining the lives of the dignitaries in whose footsteps you’re following. 

Feel the beat at a Taiko drumming class, or discover more about Japan’s most famous martial art at the Iga-ryu Ninja Museum. Gaze across a calm lake towards the golden walls of Kinkaku-ji, and take an evening wander through Gion to see the immaculate, traditional dress of the geisha and maiko san. Learn the beautifully-choreographed customs of a traditional tea ceremony, discover Japanese haute cuisine with multi-course kaiseki dining, and immerse yourself in the country’s heritage.

Slow the pace in Hakone

Lean further into Japan’s tranquil side with a ryokan stay in Hakone. Whilst every ryokan has its own character, they all share key elements that are typical of Japan’s traditional guest houses. Expect minimalistic style and natural colours; futon beds and tatami floors; delicate shoji screens and a strong connection to nature. Make yourself at home by donning a yukata kimono and slippers, and enjoy long soaks in the blissful hot-spring onsen. 

Away from the warm welcome of the ryokan, take time to explore the town. Zigzag through the mountains on the Hakone Tozan ‘switchback train’, embark upon a sightseeing cruise on the lake, and sway all the way up Mount Owakudani on the record-setting ropeway, all with the unmistakable profile of the magnificent of Mount Fuji in the background. Slow down, breathe deep and submerge yourself in the region’s natural beauty.

Find your ideal Tokyo

Finish your trip in the 24/7 sensory excess that is Tokyo: one of the world’s most extraordinary cities. There are a thousand different ways to experience Japan’s multi-faceted capital. If your travels are led by your appetite (as ours usually are!), sample the freshest sushi you'll ever taste at the Tsukiji Fish Market, sip frothy matcha in an elegant tea house in a graceful Edo-era garden, take local recommendations on the best eats of the moment, and dine in vivid neon at a pop culture theme restaurant.

Learn Samurai sword-fighting skills in a dedicated masterclass, take a walking tour through the historic artisan shops of Ningyocho, or turn the colour saturation ‘up to 11’ at Tokyo Disney. Sing to your heart’s content at a karaoke parlour, discover more about the artistry of manga and anime in the Akihabara district, and press pause for a few moments at Meiji Shrine and the peaceful surrounding parkland. Tokyo is always too much and never enough; a mind-blowing, exhausting city that you’ll want to return to as soon as you leave. It’s the perfect place to book-end an adventure that began in Seoul: colourful, vibrant yet completely different.

A note on cost…

The guide price of £4,890US$6,090 is a per person price (not including international flights) staying a total of 2 nights in Seoul, 1 night in Gyeongju, 2 nights in Busan, 3 nights in Kyoto, 2 nights in Hakone, 3 nights in Tokyo; all in our favourite mid-range hotels. How yours looks is up to you, our tailor-made specialists work with you to create your perfect journey

What's included in your Selective Asia holiday

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