* Explore the old canal district of lovely Kurashiki
* Stay in a Buddhist temple lodging at Nagano's Zenko-ji Temple
* Enjoy the diversity of cities and sights, from Matsumoto Castle to Hiroshima Peace Memorial park
* Visit the traditional samurai & geisha districts of Kanazawa
* Observe the famous "snow monkeys" up close in Yudanaka
* Ride the famous Shinkansen bullet train
* Explore the traditional craft town of Takayama in the Japanese Alps
* If all this sounds great and makes you want to see even more, why not extend your stay in Japan!
Japan Unmasked is a tour with modest accommodation and minimal inclusions, giving you the freedom to choose where you spend your time and money. Whether you see yourself slurping on a quick bowl of noodles or splurging on sushi, this tour gives you the scope to create your perfect holiday.
The tour begins in Tokyo: the beating, neon heart of Japan. The first of many rides on the Shinkansen bullet train then whisks you into mountainous central Japan, where you'll spend the night at a shukubo temple lodgings, try vegetarian Buddhist cuisine and search for the key to paradise in the pitch-dark tunnels underneath Zenko-ji - one of Japan's most important temples.
A chance for you to see the mischievous snow monkeys soaking in the natural hot spring pools of Yudanaka will be followed by a visit to the "Black Crow", Matsumoto's magnificent original samurai castle.
Delving deeper in the mountains you'll experience warm Japanese hospitality at a traditional ryokan inn in Takayama, where the old-town streets hide sake breweries, craft shops and morning markets loaded with fresh produce.
Kyoto and Kanazawa offer a glimpse of traditional Japan - one a magnificent former capital with an astounding 17 World Heritage Sites, the other a small but beautifully preserved city with lamp-lit streets and one of the best gardens in Japan. When walking around the Gion district in Kyoto, you might be lucky enough to spot a geisha in full regalia.
Further west you'll visit Hiroshima, where the Peace Memorial Park offers a sobering reminder of Japan's darkest hour. Though haunted by its past, Hiroshima today is a city teeming with life and optimism. Be sure to try the region's favourite savoury pancake: okonomiyaki.
Finally, you'll visit Kurashiki - a real gem of a town that often goes unseen by foreign visitors but whose beautiful merchant canal district, wealth of excellent museums and beautiful surrounding countryside - through which you'll have the chance to take a bike ride - make it well worth the trip.
If this sounds good and makes you want to see even more,
Important Practical InformationMaximum Group Size: 14
Single Supplement: There is no single supplement for this tour. Single travellers will have a single room free of charge at all of the western style hotels (at least 8 nights). They will be asked to share with another single traveller of the same sex at the Japanese style stays (maximum 5 nights).
Transport: Please note that all transfers are by public transport making use of Japan's first-rate transport network.
Luggage: We highly recommend that to make your stay more enjoyable you pack reasonably light. Large suitcases will be an inconvenience to you. A small case or bag with wheels or a rucksack are most appropriate for this tour as you will have to carry your bags for short distances and some stations do not have escalators or elevators/lifts. You will also need a small overnight back-pack (for up to two nights) for use when we forward our main bags to the next location.
Accommodation: All western style hotels have private ensuite. The ryokan accommodation in Takayama, as well as the shukubo temple lodging in Nagano have shared bathroom and toilet facilities. At the ryokan in Kyoto we can usually get rooms with ensuite facilities but this cannot be guaranteed.
International Flights: This tour starts and finishes in Tokyo for arrivals and departures at Tokyo Narita or Tokyo Haneda Airport.
Check-in: Please note that rooms at the Tokyo hotel are only available from 12noon. (You can, however, securely leave your luggage at the front desk at any time).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.
➕ Day 1-2
Discover the many faces of Tokyo, one of the world's greatest cities.
Welcome to Japan! On arrival at one of Tokyo's airports you will use your included Manaca card to take the train into the centre of the city, where your hotel is located. This evening you will join your tour leader at a welcome meeting, then if you feel like it you can head out with your group to one of the excellent nearby restaurants for an introduction to Japan's outstanding cuisine and dining etiquette. On day two you will take an extensive walking tour of the city with your tour leader, making use of Tokyo's fantastic public transport system. From the wooded precincts of Meiji Shrine to the candy-coloured shops of Harajuku, from the bustling traditional quarter of Asakusa to the hubbub of Shinjuku's skyscraper district; today you'll discover what makes Tokyo one of the world's greatest cities. If you would prefer to break away from the group today, your tour leader will be happy to assist you with your plans.
Overnight: Shiba Park
➕ Day 3
Stay overnight at a Buddhist temple lodging at Zenko-ji, Japan's most important Zen temple.
Today you'll leave the big city behind and make your way to the city of Nagano in the mountains. Nagano is famous as the host city of the 1998 Winter Olympics and as the location of Zenko-ji ' one of Japan's most important temples. This afternoon will be yours to explore the city. We recommend joining your tour leader for a meal of freshly made soba noodles (a local speciality) before relaxing at the local hot spring baths. Tonight you will be spending the night at one of Zenko-ji's affiliated shukubo lodgings. Accommodation will be in simple, Japanese-style rooms with tatami mats, sliding screen doors and comfortable futon mattresses.
Overnight: Zenkoji Tokugyobou
➕ Day 4
Attend Buddhist morning prayers in Nagano, visit the snow monkeys of Yudanaka and scale Matsumoto's "Black Crow" castle.
On day four you will be rising early to attend morning prayers at Zenko-ji ' a unique and spiritual experience. After the ceremony you will return to your lodgings for an elaborate breakfast of shojin ryori, or traditional vegetarian Buddhist cuisine, before having the opportunity to make a visit to the famous hot spring-bathing snow monkeys of Yudanaka. After lunch you will make your way to Matsumoto, another alpine city famous for its impressive original samurai castle ' the "Black Crow". This afternoon we recommend paying a visit to the castle and its nearby museum, or heading out to the excellent ukiyo-e woodblock print museum in the city suburbs.
Overnight: Hotel Kagetsu
➕ Day 5-6
Explore the craft shops, sake breweries, morning markets and museums of Takayama, a lovely alpine town.
You will continue your journey through the Japanese Alps on day five as you make your way to Takayama, a town famed for the high quality of its traditional crafts. There are many options to keep you busy in the town today, from the festival float museum to the wood-panelled streets of the old town; from the world headquarters of the Sukyo Mahikari cult (an interesting experience indeed!) to the area's many craft shops. Tonight you'll be staying at a simple, family-run minshuku inn with Japanese-style rooms, onsen baths and a lovely kaiseki dinner included. With another day to explore Takayama we recommend making the excellent morning market your first port of call. Later you can join your tour leader on a visit to the Hida no Sato folk village, an open-air museum filled with traditional thatched-roof farmhouses, before heading back to the old town for a spot of sake-tasting at the local breweries to round off the day. Dinner is not included this evening so we highly recommend going out for a taste of the local delicacy, Hida beef, which is every bit as delicious as its Kobe cousin!
➕ Day 7
Enjoy the beautifully preserved traditional districts of Kanazawa, home to one of Japan's top three landscape gardens.
Located on the Japan Sea Coast, Kanazawa is one of Japan's best-preserved traditional cities. Like Kyoto, its historical monuments were considered sufficiently important by Allied forces to escape air raids, meaning that today you can still find something of the atmosphere of pre-war Japan in its old town districts. This afternoon we recommend strolling the Nagamachi samurai quarter, the Chaya geisha district, and getting some super-fresh sushi from the Omicho fish market. No visit to Kanazawa would be complete without a visit to the city's star attraction: Kenrokuen. Ranked as one of Japan's top three landscape gardens, Kenrokuen is truly stunning and well worth your time today.
Overnight: Garden Hotel Kanazawa
➕ Day 8-9
Visit Hiroshima's Peace Park and Museum and spend the day on the beautiful island of Miyajima.
With two days in Hiroshima you will have ample time to explore this exciting city and its beautiful neighbour ' the island of Miyajima. Though it will forever be remembered for the tragic events of 1945 ' and you should certainly reserve some time to visit the haunting Peace Park and museum whilst in the city ' modern Hiroshima has much more to offer than memorials to the atomic bomb. With world-class art galleries, an excellent manga library, a beautifully restored castle and the nearby Mazda Museum, you will be spoilt for choice as to how to spend the rest of the afternoon. On day two of your stay in Hiroshima you might like to make the ten-minute ferry ride across the bay to Miyajima, a beautiful island on the Seto Inland Sea. Miyajima is home to a tiny, traditional community, a friendly resident population of deer, and Itsukushima Shrine ' whose "floating" torii gate is one of the most iconic images of Japan. Before leaving Hiroshima you must be sure to try the local speciality: okonomiyaki. A type of cabbage- or noodle-based pancake cooked on a grill in the centre of your table, okonomiyaki is a delicious and very cheap option that never fails to go down well.
Overnight: Toyoko Inn Hiroshima Heiwa Odori
➕ Day 10
Admire the preserved canal district of Kurashiki and cycle through rice paddies and villages across the Kibi plains.
Kurashiki is rarely included on first-time itineraries to Japan, which we think is a real shame as it's a truly lovely town with a fascinating history. The preserved canal district forms the centre of the town, with streets lined with traditional shops, cafes and superb museums housed in white-walled, black-tiled storehouses from the Edo era. The Ohara Museum is the most impressive of all the local museums and houses the first permanent collection of Western art ever to be exhibited in Japan. Today you will also have the option of taking a cycling trip across the Kibi plains, one of the most beautiful and historical paved bike rides in Japan, taking you past rice fields, burial mounds, local temples and Buddhist cemeteries.
Overnight: Court Hotel
➕ Day 11-12
An ancient imperial capital and home to 17 World Heritage Sites, Kyoto is Japan's most important repository of culture and history.
A highlight of any journey to Japan, Kyoto was Japan's capital for over a millennium and is home to an incredible 17 World Heritage Sites, including temples, shrines and some beautiful gardens. Your tour leader will be sure to take you to one of these today ' perhaps the incredible structure of Kiyomizu Temple with its commanding city views ' before you enjoy a guided tour of the traditional Gion geisha district, where you might be fortunate enough to spot a geisha as dusk falls. On your second day in Kyoto you'll have the option of taking a tour of some of the city's famous sites ' as well as some lesser-known beauty spots that you might otherwise never have found! Alternatively you can opt to head out alone and discover them for yourself. Your tour leader will be happy to help you make plans if there is something specific you'd like to see. From the Golden Pavilion of Kinkaku-ji to the ten thousand red gates of Fushimi Inari; from Nishiki food market to Gion's traditional teahouses ' Kyoto has so much to offer that you'll be spoilt for choice.
Overnight: Heianbo Ryokan
➕ Day 13-14
Return to Tokyo for some sightseeing, last-minute shopping and a fabulous final night in the capital.
Today you will speed back to Tokyo on the Shinkansen bullet train, perhaps catching a glimpse of Mount Fuji on your way past ' if you're lucky! This is your chance to do a bit of last-minute souvenir shopping, and to visit any of the sights you may have missed the first time around. Today would be a great time to see Tokyo from the top of the Skytree, the tallest tower in the world at 634 m (2,080 ft), or to rent out a karaoke booth in Shinjuku and sing your heart out with your new friends. Though dinner is not included tonight, we highly recommend joining your group for a farewell meal at one of your tour leader's favourite restaurants in the city as a great way to toast the end of a fantastic trip. On the morning of day 14 it's time to say goodbye to Japan and hop on the train back to the airport for your departure flight. We hope you have a good journey home.
Overnight: Ibis Tokyo Shinjuku