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Immerse yourself into Japan’s rich culture and history on a memorable, self-guided Essential Japan Tour. Join local worshippers at Tokyo’s Meiji Shrine and spot geishas gracefully strolling through Kyoto’s cobbled streets. Soak in an onsen while gazing at Mount Fuji and wander through Nara’s 8th-century temples.
Spend the morning exploring Tokyo, utilising its efficient metro system. We recommend starting the day with an early morning visit to Meiji Shrine to avoid the crowds. The shrine is Tokyo’s most famous shrine is dedicated to the spirit of the late Emperor Meiji. The park sits in the midst of some 120,000 trees of 365 different species, making it easy to forget that the world’s largest city surrounds.
Outside of Meiji Shrine sits Harajuku, a shopping haven and popular meeting place for teenagers who are usually donning eccentric clothing. The landmark of Harajuku is Takeshita Street, a 400-meter long alley filled with boutiques, shops and cafes. Neighboring Harajuku is Omotesando, commonly referred to as Tokyo’s Champs-Elysées. This broad, tree-lined avenue features a number of fashion flagship stores designed by internationally renowned architects like TOD’s Omotesando, designed by Toyo Ito.
From Omotesando, take the metro to Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most famous upscale shopping, dining and entertainment districts. From Ginza, head to the Imperial Palace near Otemachi Station. Whilst the Palace itself is not open to the public, the Palace East Gardens are readily accessible to all visitors. It is here that one can find the ruins of the former Edo Castle and a lovely Japanese garden.
The final stop can be in Asakusa, Tokyo’s oldest Geisha district and home to Senso-ji Temple which is the city’s oldest Buddhist temple. The streets around Senso-ji feature many traditional shops that sell Japanese crafts and souvenirs and are a delight to wander through.
NOTE: The order of this itinerary may change according to the location of your hotel.
Enjoy the entire day exploring Tokyo or its outlying areas. Make an early morning stop to visit the electronics district of Akihabara or discover Tokyo’s world-class museums and art galleries. Alternatively, take an excursion outside of Tokyo to one of the following places:
KAMAKURA One of Japan’s former capitals, Kamakura is a delightful seaside town home to many ancient shrines, temples, and other structures like the Daibutsu, a giant bronze Buddha that stands at 13-meter tall.
NIKKO Located north of Tokyo, Nikko is a city that lies in the mountainous area of Tochigi Prefecture well-known for its national park. Some of the popular places in the park include the Toshogu Shrine complex and the Tamozawa Imperial Villa.
Travel to HAKONE today. Start the morning by boarding the limited express train to Hakone-Yumoto station, the gateway to Mount Fuji and its surrounding national park. This small town is famous for its onsen, or natural hot springs, and has natural beauty in abundance. Accommodation in Hakone will be at a ryokan, a traditional Japanese-style inn complete with tatami mats, shoji rice paper sliding doors, and onsen baths.
In the evening, relax in a yukata (lightweight kimono) while enjoying a dinner of kaiseki ryori, a Japanese multi-course meal. After the meal, take a dip in the onsen before turning in on the traditional futon.
Spend the whole day exploring Hakone with the included transport pass, which serves as a ticket to the numerous forms of transportation in the area. Take the Hakone Tozan switchback train that zigzags through the mountains and offers views of the surrounding valleys. Afterwards, ride the Guinness World Record-holder ropeway all the way up to Mount Owakudani, passing over sulfurous fumes and hot springs.
From the mountain, take the ropeway bound for Togendai, where it’s possible to ride a replica of a pirate ship that cruises along Ashinoko, a body of water that was formed after a volcanic eruption that occurred more than 3,000 years ago. Aside from the diverse transportation system and a number of natural tourist spots, Hakone is also home to many museums and parks. One of the most notable is the Hakone Open Air Museum, known for its harmonic balance between nature and art, featuring a sizeable Picasso Collection. If the weather fully cooperates, there may be sightings of Mount Fuji off in the distance.
NOTE: The ropeway that goes to Mount Owakudani has resumed operations but for safety reasons, hiking on the mountain is still prohibited.
Suggested Alternative Itinerary: Head to the aforementioned pirate ship for the cruise across Ashinoko, a lake that was formed after a volcanic eruption that took place more than 3,000 years ago. After the cruise, get off at Hakone-machi port and walk towards Hakone Shrine, passing by Hakone checkpoint and the cedar avenue. This shrine is one of the most photographed places in the area with its iconic “floating” torii gate. Visit the main shrine, sub temples and the training hall for kyudo, traditional Japanese archery.
From the shrine, continue along the Preserved Old Tokaido Walking Trail, of which the most popular track stretches around 8km long. The next 40 minutes or so will run to Amazake Chaya, a traditional house serving Japanese style snacks accompanied by sweet rice wine (amazake).
Take one last soak in the onsen before traveling via the world-famous shinkansen (bullet train) to Japan’s cultural capital, KYOTO. Kyoto is home to around 2,000 shrines and temples, including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Spend some time exploring Kyoto independently or take part in one of the many cultural experiences on offer in Kyoto, such as cooking classes, tea ceremonies and visits to a sake brewery. To finish the night in style, we can arrange a performance by a Maiko or a Geiko in a traditional theatre. Witness the arts and music that the Geisha have been passing on through generations.
NOTE: The cultural experiences and the Maiko performance need to be arranged in advance at an additional cost.
Explore the former imperial capital and visit some of Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites utilising Kyoto’s comprehensive bus and subway systems. Start the day with a visit to Nijo Castle. This ornamental castle was built by the founder of the Edo Shogunate in 1603 and is famous for its Momoyama architecture, decorated sliding doors, and ‘chirping nightingale floors’.
Head north of the city and visit Kinkaku-ji Temple, the Golden Pavilion. Originally built as a retirement villa for the Shogun, after his death, it became a Buddhist Temple at his request and is now one of Kyoto’s most famous temples. The final stop of the morning can be Ryoan-ji Temple, the site of Japan's most famous rock garden. Originally served as an aristocrat's villa during the Heian Period, the site was later on converted into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1450. Now it belongs to the Myoshinji School of the Rinzai sect of Zen Buddhism.
In the afternoon, visit Kiyomizu-dera or ‘pure water temple’. From the 13-meter high veranda jutting out from the main hall, enjoy amazing views of the whole of Kyoto whilst pondering the fact that both the main hall and the veranda were built without the use of nails. Finish off the day with a stroll through the atmospheric Higashiyama district, where busy lanes lead up to Kiyomizu and are filled with quaint shops selling souvenirs such as Kiyomizu-yaki pottery, sweets, and pickles.
NOTE: Kiyomizu-dera is currently undergoing renovations, with proposed completion in 2019.
Head out of town this morning and travel to NARA with the included train tickets. For 74 years during the 8th century, Nara was Japan’s first capital and many of the temples and shrines built at that time still remain.
Visit Todai-ji Temple, the world’s largest wooden building. This temple complex also a UNESCO World Heritage Site contains the largest bronze Buddha statue in Japan. Proceed to Nara Park, home to hundreds of tame deer, venerated here as divine spirits, which you have the opportunity feed by hand. Complete your Nara excursion with a visit to celebrated Kasuga Taisha, Nara’s most celebrated shrine and experience a Shinto ceremony firsthand.
Pause for lunch at a local restaurant before proceeding to the Kehaya-za Sumo Pavilion, where you observe a demonstration of this fabled Japanese sport by two sumo wrestlers. Return to Kyoto.