Are you looking for more depth of cultural insight to Japan, with experiences that take you away from the tourist trail? This tour gives you both, liberating you from the pressure of ticking off destinations or visiting “must-see” locations and steering you instead towards the road less travelled.
Skipping Tokyo allows you more time to discover Japan's intriguing south-central regions, which is why this tour begins and ends in Kyoto: Japan's alternative capital. Here you'll get to know your group and meet a trainee geisha before exploring the temples and gardens that lurk behind every sliding screen and around every corner in this incredible city.
Your full-time tour leader is worth their weight in gold - they’ll help you navigate Koya's immense Okunoin graveyard, walk you through the history of the biggest dance festival in Japan in Tokushima, and generally explain the finer points of local custom in these fascinating and thoroughly worthwhile locations.
Read below for an itinerary summary or come into our branch to discuss the tour in more detail.
Day 1: Arrive in Kyoto and enjoy your welcome dinner
Upon arrival at Kansai International Airport you will be met by our representative and take a shared taxi transfer to your hotel in Kyoto. Your tour leader will be waiting to greet you in the lobby, and this evening you’ll convene with your group at a welcome meeting before you all head out for a delicious included meal at one of the area’s fantastic restaurants.
Day 2: Explore Kyoto and enjoy an afternoon tea ceremony with a Geisha
Refreshed after a relaxing arrival day, your tour leader will take the group on an extensive tour of Kyoto using public transport. Aptly known as the “City of Ten Thousand Temples” - Kyoto is bursting with history, culture and incredible sights. Your tour leader will introduce you to his favourite locations and a number of entrance fees will be included today. Whether you stroll the Philosophers’ Path, gaze on Kinkakuji’s resplendent Golden Pavillion or take in the hustle & bustle of Nishiki Food Market you are sure of a fascinating day. In the afternoon you will enjoy afternoon tea with a trainee geisha (maiko) in the traditional Gion geisha district.
Day 3: Travel deep into the countryside of Mount Koya and stay at a Buddhist temple
Today you will leave the beaten track and travel by private coach, heading south to Mount Koya, a remote mountaintop temple community and the spiritual home of Shingon Buddhism. Mount Koya is located deep in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture and is home to a collection of ancient temples, shrines and pagodas – not to mention Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. Located within a towering Japanese cedar forest, this atmospheric graveyard is a real wonder, seemingly extending interminably through the early morning mist. This evening, you will be staying at a traditional Buddhist temple lodging, where you will be served shojin ryori - vegetarian Buddhist cuisine.
Day 4: Begin with a Buddhist ceremony before travelling to Tokushima for great views and some festival fun
Today, it’s early to rise for optional (but highly recommended!) morning prayers at the worship hall of your temple lodging. This is a unique opportunity to witness ancient rituals being played out as the new day breaks. After a healthy breakfast, we head by private coach to Wakayama port, from where we board the ferry to Tokushima city on Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s four main islands. Tokushima is most famous as the location of the largest dance festival in Japan, the Awa Odori. You will visit the Awa Odori Kaikan Museum to learn about the nationally revered festival, watch a dance performance and then have the opportunity to show off your festival dance moves, under the friendly guidance of the professionals. Then it’s a cable car to the top of nearby Mount Bizan for fantastic views across the city and coast.
Day 5: Take local trains to Takamatsu and enjoy one of Japan’s top gardens
We will spend the morning at the Awa Jurobe Yashiki puppet theatre, where you’ll have the rare opportunity to see traditional Bunraku puppet theatre in an authentic setting, and then meet the master puppeteers. Afterwards, we make our way to Takamatsu, where you’ll have plenty of time to wander the beautiful Risturin Gardens, some of the best landscape gardens in Japan. Your tour leader is sure to take you out in town for a fabulous optional meal tonight.
Day 6: Visit Naoshima island – internationally known for its world-class art and equally impressive coastal views
On day six you will be making a day trip from Takamatsu to the nearby island of Naoshima, internationally known for its world-class art, set in beautiful natural scenery. You’ll have the benefit of a local guide, who will explain the history of the island’s art projects and introduce you to some of its most impressive sights. For lunch you’ll stop at a local island café. You will also visit both Benesse House and Chichu Art museums, home to works by famous artists such as Yayoi Kusama and Claude Monet. A late afternoon ferry will bring you back to Takamatsu, where you will spend a second night.
Day 7: Travel to the home of Shikoku’s largest shrine complex and take a soak in an onsen – Japan’s hot spring baths
Today you’ll be making the scenic train ride from Takamatsu to Kotohira, a town best known as the location of Shikoku’s largest shrine complex – Konpira-san. After lunch you’ll have the chance to visit a small sake brewery and museum, then scale the 1,368 steps to Konpira-san’s inner shrine, a climb that’s well worth the effort, as you’ll be rewarded with spectacular views across the area. Tonight, you’ll be staying at a beautiful ryokan inn with its own hot spring baths and fabulous Japanese style evening meal, served by kimono-wearing waitresses.
Day 8: Step deep into rural Shikoku and enjoy stunning views and centuries-old vine bridges
Today, you take a private bus bound for the Iya Valley, a lush and undeveloped area of natural beauty, particularly famous for its imposing gorges, clear rivers and vine bridges. We’ll take a boat ride, have a delicious included lunch perched on a precipice above, and cross the centuries-old Kazurabashi vine bridges. We will also have time to visit a charming rural samurai residence before making our way back to Kotohira.
Day 9: See one of Japan’s finest samurai-era castles and relax in Japan’s oldest hot spring baths
After breakfast we will transfer by train across Shikoku Island to Matsuyama, home to the oldest hot spring baths in Japan, and one of the country’s finest samurai-era castles. After lunch, we’ll visit the castle and its grounds, then you’ll have a free time to explore the city. Dogo Onsen, the town’s famous bathhouse, is conveniently located right next to your hotel. The bathhouse has a set of baths reserved exclusively for the use of the royal family. But don’t worry – there are separate baths for common folk, so you’ll also have a chance to bathe in the restorative waters this evening if you choose.
Day 10: Take a ferry over to Hiroshima and visit the Peace Park and museum
We will transfer to Matsuyama port and then take a ferry to Hiroshima, back on Japan’s main island. Hiroshima will always be remembered for the tragic events of 1945, and today you will visit the inspiring Peace Park and sobering museum for an insight into the dropping of the world’s first atomic bomb. Informative and even-handed, this museum is a must-see on any visit to Hiroshima. For our included meal, we’ll opt for okonomiyaki, Hiroshima’s best-known dish. This savoury noodle and cabbage-based pancake comes with a variety of fillings, and is cooked on a hot plate in front of you, offering a culinary show and damn fine food.
Day 11: A relaxing day on the beautiful island of Miyajima
A 25-minute local train ride, then a ten-minute ferry ride will offer a laid-back alternative to the bustle of Hiroshima. Miyajima, a tiny island known for its friendly resident population of deer and for the “floating” torii gate of Itsukushima Shrine, boasts one of Japan’s most iconic views. We recommend hiking (or catching the cable car!) to the top of Mount Misen for fabulous views across the Seto Inland Sea, a national park in its own right. Whilst the Omotesando shopping street is full of great local crafts and confectionary, the shrine will offer spirituality and the forest of Momijidani Park some peace amongst the foliage. If you wish to stay longer, your tour leader will be at hand to give you guidance and tips.
Day 12: Interact with the local community in Joge before taking the bullet train back to Kyoto
Today you will take a side trip to Joge, a small historic town which has proved a perfect match for our ‘Hidden Japan’ concept. Little known to foreign tourists, Joge is renowned for its wonderful examples of original Meiji & Taisho era architecture and taking a walk down Joge’s main street really does feel like you’ve stepped back in time. We’ve arranged a full day of cultural activities with local guides and you will have plenty of opportunities to meet and interact with members of the local community. Late in the afternoon you’ll be whisked back to Kyoto on a super-fast Nozomi Shinkansen bullet train, leaving you time to freshen up and head out to a local izakaya for an (optional) farewell evening meal with your tour leader and group. We suggest an evening of karaoke to really see out the tour with a bang!
Day 13: Depart Japan or extend your stay with a self-guided add-on
It’s time to say goodbye and make your way by shared taxi to Kansai Airport for your flight home. If you would prefer to extend your time in Japan we can arrange extra nights or self-guided add-ons.
If this sounds like the perfect introduction to Japan or a deeper look into the country on a return visit, come inside or give us a call to discuss this tour with our staff.
- Full-time services of your InsideJapan tour leader
- 12 nights' accommodation
- Breakfast every day, three lunches and five evening meals
- Full-day private guide in Mount Koya including lunch & entrance fees
- Selected entrance fees & local transport in Kyoto
- Afternoon tea with a maiko in Kyoto
- All transport between destinations
- Airport transfers by shared taxi
- Full-day private guide service in Naoshima including lunch at the Benesse House Museum
- Luggage forwarding from Kyoto to Tokushima and from Kotohira to Hiroshima
- Shared portable Wi-Fi access throughout trip
What’s not included?
- International flights
- Any extra local transport (taxis, buses, subway etc)
- Baggage handling and luggage forwarding unless otherwise specified
- Any entrances fees (including those for museums, temples & shrines) unless otherwise specified
Fitness: Even when not using public transport, sightseeing in Japan often involves walking between sights, climbing up steps in temples and being 'on the go' for much of the day. To enjoy any of our Small Group Tours you should be of moderate fitness, able to walk and climb stairs without difficulty and able to maintain a pace that is comfortable for the majority of the group.
Meals: There are a number of meals included on all our tours. Please let us know if you have any special dietary requirements and we will ensure that all included meals meet your specific needs.
Flexibility: Our tours aim to be as flexible as possible, so there is no set-in-stone itinerary for each day. Each morning the tour leader will outline what s/he is going to do that day, and if you would like to break away from the group and do something different, s/he will be available to give you advice, and help you plan your day.
Accommodation: All of the accommodation except for the stay in Mount Koya have full en suite facilities. In Mount Koya we are staying at a temple lodging and the facilities are a little more basic although still very clean and comfortable. Baths are shared (single sex) and toilets are not attached to the rooms.
International Flights: The tour starts and finishes in Kyoto: for Kansai International Airport (KIX) or Osaka International Airport (ITM). Please note that the included meet-and-greet and airport transfer to the first hotel is ONLY available for Kansai International Airport (KIX) or Osaka International Airport (ITM).
If you have any questions about this tour or would like to secure your places, please call us or visit our store.