Day 1: Kyoto
We'll meet at our hotel in Kyoto and convene for a welcome dinner at a restaurant in the city center. With over 1,000 Buddhist temples, sublime gardens, and excellent cuisine it's easy to see why Kyoto has been voted Travel+Leisure's "Best Overall City" two years in a row!
Day 2: Kyoto
In the morning, we'll head to the extraordinary Kinkaku-ji, or Golden Pavilion—so named for its top two stories that are covered in gold leaf. The pavilion was built by Ashikaga Shogun in the late 14th century as a retirement villa, but was later converted by his son into a Zen Buddhist temple. While we're there, we'll have time to explore the temple's magnificent Japanese strolling garden and mirror pond. From here, we’ll walk to nearby Ryoan-ji to see its famous rock garden, which consists of 15 moss-covered boulders—only 14 of which are visible at any time. It is said that the 15th rock can only be seen by those who have attained enlightenment. We'll transfer to Arashiyama, an area in northwest Kyoto popular with the nobility since the Heian period (794–1185) because of its beautiful natural setting. Here you'll find cherry blossoms in April, dramatic foliage in fall, forested mountains and, the Katsura River with its Togetsukyo Bridge. We'll have lunch, then visit the Tenryu-ji temple and the famous bamboo groves, and there will be free time afterwards so you can explore the area further or shop for crafts.
Day 3: Nara
Enjoy a hearty breakfast before taking a short train ride from Kyoto to Nara. On a much smaller scale than Kyoto, Nara was established in 710 A.D. as Japan’s capital, and is home to the famous Nara Park, where over a thousand semi-tame Sika deer roam. We'll walk to Kasuga-Taisha, a bright vermillion Shinto shrine established in the 8th century. Stone lanterns line the path to the entrance, and hundreds of bronze lanterns hang inside. We'll continue to Mount Wakakusa for a short climb that that gives us a view of Nara City. After lunch, we'll visit the nearby Todai-ji temple, known for two superlatives: it's the world’s largest wooden building, and it houses one of Japan’s largest bronze of Buddha statues! We'll return to Kyoto in the late afternoon.
Day 4: Mount Koya
Today, we'll have the unique experience of traveling without our luggage, as it will be transferred by courier. Before we depart, you'll want to pack a small bag to carry your overnight items in. We'll travel by train along the scenic Nankai railway, which brings us to Mount Koya. At this UNESCO World Heritage Site, you'll find a high valley filled with stands of towering cedar trees surrounded by eight peaks. This has been a center of religious devotion and ceremony since the 9th century, when the monk Kukai (also known as Kobo Daishi) founded the first temple and the Shingon sect of Buddhism. Today, the valley is home to more than 100 monasteries, many of which host travelers in shukubo (temple lodgings). We'll visit Kongobu-ji Temple before arriving at one of the elegant shukubo, run by the monks, and dine on shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).
Day 5: Mount Koya - Kiso Valley
Early risers are welcome to join a Buddhist service at the temple this morning at 6am. After breakfast, we’ll tour the vast Okuno-in cemetery, with thousands of graves and memorials to feudal lords, shoguns, samurai, politicians, and other luminaries. We'll then say goodbye to Mount Koya and head by train to the Kiso Valley, where we'll join up with the ancient Nakasendo trail that links Kyoto and Edo (medieval Tokyo). During the Edo period, 69 post stations, or shukuba, were built along this route for travelers to rest during their journey. We'll be treated to the unique experience of taking four short trains and a bus to explore the quaint towns and valleys along the Nakasendo, many of which have been preserved through the effort of the local residents. Along the way, we’ll enjoy the hospitality of villagers who have converted their traditional machiya houses into inns. We'll arrive at the post town of Magome-juku in time for dinner.
Day 6: Magome
In the morning, we'll take time to explore the small post town of Magome before we walk over Magome Pass to the village of Tsumago-juku. The trail rises gently, passing through another small village before reaching Magome Pass and then descending on a mixed paved and dirt trail through forest to Tsumago. This small village has many restored machiya houses lining the main street and there are small shops selling local crafts as well as snacks such as gohei-mochi (rice paste covered in a miso sauce).
Day 7: Nakasendo
We'll continue our journey along the Kiso Valley and Nakasendo today, walking from Tsumago to Nojiri. There will be two options today, a shorter 2-mile walk with a train ride, or a longer 8-mile walk. The trail takes a lovely route along empty country lanes and paths that weave their way beside rice fields and the gardens of village houses.
Day 8: Narai-juku
We'll start with a short train ride to Yabuhara, another small post town. From here, we'll climb to Torii Pass, with good views over the Kiso Valley. In early spring, there may traces of snow on the mountaintops, but from mid-April onwards, the scenery is one of lush, green forest. We'll arrive mid-afternoon in the well-preserved village of Narai-juku and stay at the friendly Iseya Ryokan. The present building dates back over 200 years and is typical of the village merchant houses that line the main street of this village. The wooden walls and beams are burnished to a dark brown from the days when they were covered in soot from the irori (raised hearths) and polished by the young women of the household. There will be time to explore the village, and perhaps try one of the local specialties. Again, we'll travel without our luggage today as it will be transferred by courier to Tokyo. You will need to pack a bag or pack to carry your overnight items.
Day 9: Hirasawa
After breakfast in Narai, we’ll set out for a short walk to Hirasawa, renowned for its lacquer-ware artisans. We’ll stop in at one of their workshops and meet local artisans before transferring to Tokyo, where you'll have free time to explore before dinner.
Day 10: Tokyo
Today we will take a tour of Tokyo, including walks around Nihonbashi, the elegant Ginza shopping district, and the spacious park around the Imperial Palace. The present Imperial Palace is the residence of the Japanese Imperial Family and was previously the site of Edo Castle (Edo being the Shogun-era name for Tokyo) during the time of the Shoguns. The contrast of the large palace grounds, deep moat and palace buildings with the surrounding modern office buildings of downtown Tokyo is a reflection of Japan’s twin identities of modernity and tradition. Next, we'll take the subway to the Harajuku district to have lunch and visit the Grand Meiji Shrine, a beautiful place of quiet reflection located within an evergreen forest. We'll then walk along the fashionable, tree-lined Omotesando Street—called the Champs-Elysees of Tokyo—to the entertainment area of Shibuya, famous for the large and chaotic Shibuya Scramble Crossing, said to be the world's busiest. We'll then return to our hotel before our farewell dinner.
Day 11: Departure
Your guide will be on hand this morning to help you transfer to Narita Airport for homeward-bound flights.