Our tour starts in Tokyo then pauses at a traditional hot springs ryokan. Next is Kyoto, with its abundance of temples and gardens. We will visit an art museum built into a hillside and the ancient capital of Nara. We conclude with an exciting stay at the world-renowned Benesse Art Site on Naoshima Island and a night in Osaka. Following the tour, we offer extensions to the Zen monasteries of Koya-san and to Hiroshima to see both the solemn Peace Park and beautiful Miyajima, famous for the massive red Shinto gate soaring over a bay.
Let us show you authentic corners of Japan that reflect the diversity of that proud and ancient land, both ancient and modern. From colorful kimonos to delicate calligraphy, glorious temples to perfectly prim gardens, indelible images of Japan will remain imprinted in your memory once you experience the real Japan. We’ll explore lively Tokyo, wander the streets of a centuries-old mountain village, enjoy Kyoto’s abundance of history, and relax on Naoshima Island surrounded by sublime art.
Passengers from North America will cross the International Dateline and arrive in Japan one day (or two, depending on flight schedules) after departure from home. We will give instructions about the most convenient way to get from the Tokyo airports to our hotel by limousine bus or train. Our HE Travel tour director will be at the hotel to greet you and offer suggestions for your first day in Tokyo. After the long flight, the rest of the day is at leisure to relax or begin to adjust your internal clock by taking a walk or getting some rest. The upcoming days will be very exciting.
Tokyo is one of the most interesting and most complicated cities in the world. Over two days we will enjoy guided tours to help you get acclimated to this unique city, visiting museums, ancient shrines, and one of the most modern capital cities in the world. We will have our Welcome Dinner in a restaurant that highlights traditional Japanese cuisine that may be quite different from the Japanese restaurant back home.
Today we board a train in one of Tokyo’s largest train stations and travel away from the vast urban sprawl around Tokyo into the countryside of central Japan. Our destination is the mountain village of Takayama, which is known for its well-preserved ancient streets with traditional architecture.
This stems from this being a particularly poor region agriculturally, but one with rich timber resources and skilled craftsmen. As far back as the 8th century, Takayama residents paid taxes by using their carpentry skills, since they did not produce enough rice for their taxes.
We will take a brief tour of the town to see the several blocks of ancient merchant shops that sell the unique handicrafts of this region. We will spend two nights at a Japanese ryokan in Takayama, where the bedding is a comfortable futon laid out on the floor of a tatami mat room. You can relax this evening in the hot springs pools of our hotel.
The following day will be free to explore the town, shop for authentic arts and crafts, or take a hike on nearby mountain trails. There are also bike rental shops for anyone who would enjoy cycling to explore the area surrounding Takayama.
This morning we take local and bullet trains from Takayama to the city of Okayama in the western part of the main Japanese island of Honshu. Then we take a local train to Uno port and a ferry to Naoshima Island and the Benesse Art Site. We will spend two nights in the Park rooms of the Benesse House complex, a unique museum/hotel that is part of the larger Art Site. The Benesse Art Site is an extraordinary mecca of traditional and contemporary Japanese art. It combines actual living space and art in a marriage attempting to achieve a feeling of “wellness.”
According to the President of Benesse Art Site, “Because contemporary society is overflowing with products and information, I wanted to create a site removed from the noise of the city; a place where people could truly reflect on the meaning of living well…..I want individuals to have a direct connection with art while forming their own notions and appreciation.”
For the next two days, we will contemplate the success of his vision, while enjoying an extraordinary undertaking. Part museum, part park, part experiment, part hotel, Benesse offers everything from the unusual to the sublime. Charming gardens, giant sculptures, special architecture and quiet spaces make this site a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Since there are few options for independent dining on Naoshima, we’ll have our dinners together in two unique restaurants. Read more about Benesse in a 2011 The New York Times travel article.
While at Benesse, we will also visit the neighboring Chichu Art Museum which was established in 2004 as a site to rethink the relationship between nature and people. There are only 8 works of art on display, but these are works by Claude Monet, Walter De Maria and James Turrell, which are installed permanently within the building that Tadao Ando designed. These range from Monet Water Lilies in a stunning setting to an art installation in a room where the viewer walks through the room, getting a unique perspective of light and texture with each step.
After two days on the placid island of Naoshima, we take a bus, a ferry, a local train and a bullet train through modern Japanese cities until we reach Kyoto, Japan’s classic capital city. Upon arrival, we’ll check into our hotel for the next four nights, and our guide will give an orientation to the city and to what we will see during our time in Kyoto.
After breakfast, (you might want to try a traditional Japanese breakfast, perhaps with miso soup!) we will begin a full day of sightseeing. Kyoto has so much to see, so we will explore the highlights together the first day, then allow free time on another day to follow your own interests.
NOTE: the following are the temples that we hope to visit. However, we may substitute others of a large number of fascinating temples based on which are open to visitors on the day of our tour. This sometimes changes at the last minute.
Our tour will include a visit to Kinkakuji Temple, a sacred site originally built in 1393 as a retirement home for the Shogun Ashikaga. Although it has been burned down several times, it has been restored to its former beauty, a three-story, gold-covered pavilion. Situated partly over a tranquil lake, this celebrated and widely-recognized sight is one of the most splendid views in all of Japan. A great photo opportunity from the shoreline is the image of the classic architecture of the Golden Pavilion reflected in the tranquil waters of the lake. In addition to its worldly treasure, Kinkakuji is also highly valuable because it is a shariden, a place that houses relics of the Buddha.
We will also visit the Ryoanji Temple with its famous Zen rock garden. Covering 120 acres, the Ryoanji site is also known for its pond which attracts large populations of waterfowl. Our next temple stop is the Tenryuji Temple. Tenryuji, a UNESCO World Heritage site, is famous for its gardens, thought to be the oldest in all of Kyoto, dating back to the 14th century. It is also one of the most important Zen temples in existence.
Today we take a train and bus into the countryside north of Kyoto to visit the exquisite Miho Museum. The building was commissioned by a Japanese religious group and designed by I.M. Pei. The museum blends into its forest preserve surroundings by being built mostly inside a mountain. One approaches the museum through a graceful pedestrian tunnel and an extraordinary suspension bridge.
The museum displays a permanent collection of statues and artifacts from China, Japan, Korea, Persia, Rome and other ancient civilizations, along with seasonal exhibits of Japanese art. Following our visit and lunch at the Miho Museum, we return to Kyoto in mid-afternoon.
After two days of savoring a great variety of sights and experiences together, we offer the next day free to explore Kyoto at your leisure. Wander the streets and sample everything, from quaint shops to ultramodern department stores, to see how tradition and progress intermingle in this fascinating city.
Today, most travelers will catch flights from Osaka’s Kansai International Airport to begin the journey home. For those with a little more time, see the Extensions tab for more information about spending two nights in a Zen monastery or two nights at Hiroshima.
This extension immediately follows the Main Tour. To begin our visit to the sacred Buddhist mountain of Koyasan, we will take a train from Osaka to the base of the mountain settlement, then a cableway and bus to the village. Once there we will drop our bags at the monastery where we will stay in comfortable private Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats. In the afternoon, we will take a local bus to the Okunoin Cemetery, and pay our respects at the mausoleum dedicated to the founder of the Shingon Buddhist sect, who died in 835 AD.
We’ll return to our monastery for dinner, and in the morning, have the option to observe or participate in ceremonies led by the monks of our temple. After breakfast, we will visit two of the most picturesque temple complexes of this sacred mountain setting Danjo Garan (where the autumn leaves should be at their peak!) and Kongo Sanmai-in, which dates to the 1200s.
After lunch at a Koyasan restaurant, we will take the cableway and train back to our Osaka hotel for one night before flights home, or the start of our Hiroshima Extension.
This extension follows the Koyosan Monastery tour. This morning, depart our Osaka hotel in the morning then take a bullet train from Shin-Osaka Station to Hiroshima. Once there, transfer to our centrally-located hotel for a 2-night stay.
In the afternoon, we will meet our local guide for a reflective tour of the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park. We will walk along a tranquil path adorned with hanging “1000-crane” origami displays which have long symbolized hope and healing to Japanese people. Along the river, we’ll see the Atomic Bomb Dome, which was a domed exhibition hall until the bomb fell, and which is retained as a memorial to those who lost their lives on that fateful day. We will also have time to visit the Park’s Museum at our own pace, then return to our nearby hotel for the evening.
The next day offers the contrast of some of the region’s natural beauty and religious heritage on nearby Miyajima Island. The island is most famous for the massive “torii” gate of the Itsukushima Shinto Shrine. At low tide, the gate is part of the island, connected by mudflats, but at high tide, the gate rises majestically out of the sea.
During our stay on the island, we will visit the Daisho-in Buddhist Temple, and wander the lanes of the small village with its many shops and cafes. Time and weather permitting, we will walk to Maple Valley Park to board the Miyajima Ropeway up to Mount Misen, from which we can get panoramic views of the many islands of the Inland Sea. Mount Misen is still honored by devout Buddhists, since Kobo Daishi, founder of Koyasan, established a monastic training center there in 806 AD.
We will take the ferry and train back to our hotel, and the evening is on our own. The following day is at leisure until time to transfer to Hiroshima Airport or the train station to start home or continue to your next destination.
Price includes: All land transportation within Japan as described in itinerary; Train transfers for included travel; Deluxe hotel room (ryokan room with futon on tatami mat in Takayama) for each night of tour, in double occupancy; A limited number of single rooms are available upon request; Breakfast each day and other meals as shown in itinerary; Full day guided tour of Kyoto; Visit to Miho Museum outside of Kyoto; Shipment of one piece of luggage between hotels (when available) (NOTE: this will be picked up one day before each travel day); Services of a knowledgeable HE Travel tour host (with a minimum number of participants); All hotel services charges, government taxes, porterage, and meal gratuities. HE Travel provides complimentary Medical & Evacuation Insurance for every US Resident on our group tours who does not have other coverage.
Not included: Airfare; Transfers between airports and hotels at start and end of the tour (but with recommendations for efficient and inexpensive transfers); Meals not described as being included in the itinerary; Personal items including alcoholic beverages, snacks, laundry, and telephone calls. Gratuities to the local guides and HE host.
Optional 2020 Tour Choices:
$1950 Single Supplement (for solo travelers who wish to enjoy a private bedroom and bathroom)
Price includes: train and cableway or bus transportation between Osaka and Koyasan; bus pass for two days on Koyasan; one night in private Japanese-style room at Koyasan monastery including dinner and breakfast; two lunches on Koyasan; one night at a hotel in Central Osaka; guide and admission fees for the tour of Koyasan.
Price does not include: one dinner in Osaka; gratuities to guides; personal expenses such as souvenirs and beverages.
Optional 2020 Tour Choices:
$1490 per person in a shared room
$1790 in a single room (for solo travelers who wish to enjoy a private bedroom and bathroom)
Price includes: one-way bullet train ticket from Osaka to Hiroshima; local transportation in Hiroshima and Miyajima as described in the itinerary; two nights in a western-style hotel in central Hiroshima, including breakfast; one lunch on Miyajima; guide and admission fees for tours of Peach Memorial Park and Miyajima.
Price does not include: one lunch and two dinners; gratuities to guides; personal expenses such as souvenirs and beverages.
Optional 2020 Tour Choices:
$1690 per person in a shared room
$2140 in a single room (for solo travelers who wish to enjoy a private bedroom and bathroom)
“This was a spectacular trip to a fascinating and beautiful country. The tour leader was extremely knowledgeable and sensitive to group interests and needs.” – William F., Los Angeles, CA
“I really enjoyed the balance that this trip achieved–between contemporary & traditional Japanese culture, and between the country’s art & history & spiritual traditions. As always, I also appreciated HE’s attention to details–such as providing a hot spot for train travel, the availability of a local phone if needed, the flexible & nearly spontaneous adjustment of the itinerary when it rained or when the group was tired, etc.” – Howard C., Chicago, IL
“Very well thought out itinerary where I can leave all the planning to HE Travel and all I have to do is go along and have a great time.” – Jim H., San Francisco, CA
Most of our trips draw more single travelers than couples. When couples do join us, it’s usually because they’re looking forward to interacting with a gay group; if they wanted a holiday by themselves, they wouldn’t have signed up to travel with us. Furthermore, the activities included with our trips serve as natural ice-breakers. Within a day, you’ll be traveling with friends. You don’t need to pay the single supplement if you’re traveling alone. We’ll be happy to match you with a roommate. Pay the single supplement only if you want a bedroom to yourself.
For selected trips, including cruises, we will charge half the single supplement if you request a roommate but we can’t match you with someone.
This tour starts in Tokyo and ends in Osaka, Japan.
Traveling in Japan requires some stamina for walking on uneven surfaces and occasionally up and down hills. Gardens, pathways, and temple steps are usually well maintained.
We stay in deluxe lodgings throughout this tour. In Tokyo we stay in a modern centrally located hotel next to a traditional Shinto shrine, offering greenery right outside the breakfast room windows. In Takayama we stay in a traditional Japanese inn called a ryokan, where we sleep on futons laid out on tatami straw mats (please advise if you have mobility issues such that sleeping on a futon will be a problem). Our Kyoto hotel is in a great location for our group touring, and also perfect for any walking or subway exploration on your own. In Naoshima our hotel doubles as an art museum, surrounded by amazing outdoor sculptures and views of the Inland Sea. On our Koya-san extension, we spend a night in a rustic room in a monastery of Koya-san, a mountain of monasteries, and finish with a night in a central Osaka hotel. Our Hiroshima extension hotel is a modern hotel near the center city.
HE Travel owner Phil Sheldon designed this tour, in conjunction with his tour mentor, a professional tour director who specializes in Japanese tours. Phil was an AFS high school exchange student in Japan, and majored in East Asian Studies at Harvard. He later worked for IBM Japan and has led multiple tours to various corners of the country. Phil is excited to introduce more travelers to this beautiful land that holds a very dear place in his heart.
For answers to your additional questions, please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 305-294-8174