Arrive Japan and transfer to Kyoto, an atmospheric city set amidst beautiful hills.
With over 2000 temples, shrines and gardens, Kyoto is a treasure house of Japan's cultural heritage and remains undoubtedly one of the most fascinating cities in Asia. Unlike many other Japanese towns it escaped the ravages of both the Second World War and modern urban development thereby keeping intact much of the spirit and architecture of traditional Japan. Today we have an introductory half day tour of the city, visiting the impressive Nijo castle, built in 1603 as a residence for the Tokugawa shoguns, and the famous Golden Temple of Kinkakuji, built in 1397 as a summer villa for the shogun Yoshimitsu Ashikaga and immortalised in Mishima Yukio's novel, 'The Golden Pavilion'. There will be time in the afternoon/evening for further individual sightseeing or resting back at the hotel.
Today we make a day trip to the ancient capital of Nara, visiting among other things the Todaiji Great Buddha temple. Built in 752 by the Emperor Shomu this enormous bronze Buddha is housed in what is reputed to be the largest wooden building in the world. We also spend time in the Nara Koen Park, famous for its large numbers of overfed and slightly unruly deer, and visit the attractive Kasuga Shinto shrine, before returning to Kyoto in the late afternoon.
A free day. With so much to see and do in Kyoto it can be difficult to know where to begin. The city however lends itself very well to walking and there are several well established and easy-to-follow walking tours that take in many of the more interesting sights. The eastern part of Kyoto is particularly rich in temples and gardens, and one can spend the day in this area, perhaps strolling along the tree-lined canal known as the Philosophers' Path and taking time out for contemplation in one of the many intriguing Zen gardens that dot the hillsides. This area is also home to the famous Gion entertainment district where it is still possible to catch sight of geisha girls scurrying along the cobbled streets to and from their appointments with the city's wealthy businessmen. There is also the option of visiting a cultural show to see some of Japan's ancient traditions such as the tea ceremony, flower arranging, Japanese theatre and puppetry.
Our first experience of Japan's 'bullet trains' as we speed our way to Hiroshima for the day. In the morning we make a short excursion by ferry to the beautiful island of Miyajima famous for the 'floating' tori (Shinto gate) of the Itsukushima-jinja Shrine. At high tide, when set against the backdrop of Mt Misen, this tori makes for one of the most beautiful and photogenic sights in Japan. In the afternoon we spend time at the A-Bomb museum and the Peace Memorial Park in Hiroshima, both monuments to the fateful day in August 1945 when the city was selected as the target for the world's first wartime use of the atomic bomb. In the park burns a symbolic flame that will only be extinguished when the last nuclear weapon on earth has been destroyed. We return to Kyoto arriving in the evening.
Travelling by train through forested valleys we make our way this morning to the peaceful and attractive old town of Takayama nestling sleepily in the centre of the majestic Hida Mountains. We spend two nights here and have plenty of time to appreciate the charm and ambience of this delightful place. In the afternoon we have the option of a visit to the Hida Folk Village, an interesting outdoor museum of traditional rural architecture set in pleasant landscaped gardens a short bus journey from the town centre. With the opportunity for short walks in the area, there is the chance to catch a glimpse of real Japanese rural life.
With over a dozen museums and galleries to suit all interests and several well-kept temples and parks, there are plenty of ways to spend a relaxing day in Takayama. A good way to start is to visit the morning market held daily along the banks of the Miyagawa River in the centre of town. Here amidst the friendly farmers with their familiar and not so familiar agricultural produce it is also possible to find some interesting souvenirs. Not so far away and of particular interest is the well-preserved collection of streets known as Sannomachi, where the many wooden built shops, restaurants and sake breweries give the area a medieval feel. For an insight into the life of medieval Japanese officials and the way they dealt, often not so compassionately, with those in their charge, a visit to the old Government House of Takayama-jinya is recommended. There is also an enjoyable walking tour of the town that takes in many of the more interesting sights.
Today we travel by express and local trains to the historic castle town of Matsumoto. Enroute, we visit the medieval village of Tsumago that has changed little from its heyday as a post town in the Edo period. This is the best preserved of the many staging posts along the old Nakasendo Way, which fulfils the same role it did in centuries past - offering food and refuge to travellers. Those who wish can visit the impressive Matsumoto castle (optional). Founded in 1504, this castle, otherwise known as Crow Castle due to its black colour, is one of the two best preserved in Japan, most others having been destroyed following the Meiji Restoration. Its imposing six story donjon has been designated a national treasure.
In Matsumoto we stay in a ryokan, an authentic Japanese style hotel, situated on a hill just outside of town. As well as providing fine views of the Japanese Alps, this ryokan is also home to a therapeutic hot spring whose waters when bathed in are believed efficacious against various ailments!
This morning, we return to Matsumoto train station for our afternoon journey to Nagano, stopping off on our way at the nearby town of Obuse where there is a small museum (optional) devoted to perhaps Japan's best-known artist, Hokusai Katsushika. Hokusai is particularly famous for his many woodblock pictures of Mt Fuji as well as some more risqué cartoons! We continue by minibus to the relaxing spa town of Yudanaka, where we spend a night in a ryokan. Here, as well as enjoying a soak in a hot spring bath made of Japanese cypress, we may also be given a demonstration in the art of kyudo, Japanese archery by the ryokan owner.
As well as being home to some of Japan's best hot springs, the small spa-town of Yudanaka is a great place from which to do some hiking in the hills. Of particular interest is the Jigokudani Onsen or 'Snow Monkey Park' (optional). Here, the indigenous macaque monkeys have discovered the benefits of descending from the hills to soak and play in hot baths - observing their behaviour up close is fascinating! This is the only tribe of monkeys anywhere in the world to bath in hot springs for warmth. Also worth a visit are the Shigu Heights, and the Heavy Snow Mansion. No visit to Japan would be complete without a trip to Tokyo. This afternoon, we travel from Yudanaka to the capital by mini-bus and bullet train, arriving in the early evening. On arrival in Tokyo we'll transfer to our hotel, where we can start exploring the bright lights of the big city
For those wishing to see still more of this wonderful country today is the last day of your Japanese Rail Pass, entitling you to free train journeys to many destinations. Nikko National Park and Mt Fuji are very accessible excursion areas. Nikko, approximately an hour and a half away, with its shrines and temples in a wonderful natural setting, has for centuries been a sacred site known for its architectural and decorative masterpieces. The UNESCO World Heritage Site of Toshogu Shrine is closely associated with the history of the Tokugawa Shogunate, and serves as a display of wealth and grandeur by the most powerful historic family in Japan. Mt Fuji is one of the world's most photographed mountains. A dormant volcano, it is also Japan's highest and most famous peak. Shrines and temples cover the slopes and the mountain itself is prolific in Japanese art and literature. By train it is approximately two and a half hours from Tokyo. For those not wishing to leave Tokyo, this day is free to soak up the atmosphere of this truly astounding city. Whilst being perhaps the most exciting, energetic and futuristic city in the world, for a capital, Tokyo still remains a remarkably friendly, safe, manageable and fascinating place to visit.
Today we have a full day tour of Tokyo. Making use of the city's highly efficient tube system we can visit Tokyo's high-rise area of Shinjuku and the mammoth Tokyo Metropolitan Government Building, as well as the lively Senso-ji Temple in the old entertainment district of Asakusa. The possibilities for evening entertainment are almost limitless with Tokyo's nightlife as exciting as anywhere in Asia.
A free day in Tokyo for further individual exploration or shopping.
We transfer to the airport (about 90 minutes) and board our flight back to the UK.