The Golden Route

Highlights & Hidden Delights

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The itinerary below is an example of what we can and have put together. We can use this as a base for your own customized journey through Japan.

 

Pricing shows in an estimate. Prices will vary. Our tours are all private. Feel free to contact us with any questions you may have.

Check Out the Full Itinerary

Day 1 – Arrive in Tokyo

Airport transfer (45-90 minutes), Dinner

Welcome to Japan! After arriving at either of Tokyo’s two international airports — in Narita or Haneda — you’ll be picked up and driven in a private car to the capital’s vast downtown, where your journey begins. You’re likely drained from the long trip, so take it easy and settle in at your hotel. Ideal bases include the energetic hub of Shinjuku and the youth-culture mecca of Shibuya, both on the western side of town, or if you prefer something swanky, look to the posh, central districts of Marunouchi and Ginza. If you have the energy, go for an after-dinner stroll in your immediate surroundings. The nighttime glow alone will start to cast a subtle spell.

Day 2 Tokyo (old-school, east side of town)

Breakfast, Dinner

After breakfast at your hotel, begin your exploration of Tokyo in the eastern, old-school side of town. Start in Yanaka, a down-to-earth neighborhood left relatively unscathed by WWII firebombing raids. Its tangle of streets make for a pleasant walk: temples, mom-and-pop shops hawking tea, coffee, sweets and various traditional crafts, and contemporary galleries like SCAI the Bathhouse set in stylishly restored historic buildings. Continue on foot to neighboring Ueno, home to Ueno Park, where you’ll find a cluster of respected museums, including Tokyo National Museum, the world’s largest collection of Japanese antiquities. After exploring its treasures, you’ve likely worked up an appetite. Eat lunch in Ueno, then ride the subway to nearby Asakusa, set beside the banks of the historically important Sumida River. Here, visit the city’s most popular temple, Senso-ji, and do as the locals do by ‘bathing’ in the smoke that rises from the temple’s massive bronze incense burner. The rest of your afternoon is free. One option: ride the subway south to Ginza and proceed to Ginza Mitsukoshi, a posh emporium with a fantastic depachika. These food floors found in Japanese department store basements are a revelation. You’ll find all manner of edibles and beverages, from wine and green tea to rare chocolates and cheese. If seeing all that food makes you hungry, you’ll have plenty of options nearby for dinner. Tokyo’s culinary offerings are unparalleled, but here are a few suggestions. For something refined, stay in Ginza for sushi and sake. To rub shoulders with the ‘salarymen’ and ‘office ladies’ who run Japan Inc., try the tight maze of lanes beside Shimbashi Station, Ginza’s slightly disheveled (though charming) neighbor. Here, yakiniku (Korean BBQ), yakitori (skewers of chicken and veg) and more are washed down with frosty mugs of beer and lemon-sours (distilled spirit shochu, soda water and lemon juice) at numerous sit-down izakayas (gastro pubs), tachinomi (standing bars) and shops that open onto the street. If you have staying power, Ginza is home to some of the city’s top cocktail dens. Ask us for recommendations.

Day 3 – Tokyo (modern, west side of town)

Breakfast, Tour

After easing in a bit on the first day, now it’s time to really feel Tokyo’s pulse, most palpable in some of its busiest western hubs. Think: dystopian anime, Lost in Translation and Blade runner. But there’s tranquility here too. Start at the surprisingly calm Meiji Jingu, Tokyo’s most impressive shrine, set amid an inner-city forest and dedicated to the Emperor Meiji. After paying your respects, go headlong into the action. Amble down nearby Omotesando, ‘Tokyo’s Champs-Elysees’, and veer down the side streets that branch off of it. This is Harajuku, ground zero for Japan’s youth fashion scene. Continue on foot to Aoyama, where Japan’s ‘Big Three Fashion Designers’ (Rei Kawakubo, founder of Comme des Garçons; Yohji Yamamoto and Issey Miyake) all have their flagship stores, set amid architectural eye candy like the famous ‘bubble-wrapped’ Prada store. Be sure to stop at the nearby Nezu Museum, as much for its stellar garden as its collection of premodern Asian art. Have lunch in the area and consider a tea tasting course at Sakurai Japanese Tea Experience, then move on to Shibuya either on foot (20 minutes) or by subway. Shibuya is home to the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing, which you’ve no doubt seen photos and videos of. But nothing can prepare you for the sheer energy of being there. Soak it up, then spend the rest of the afternoon as you see fit. You can return to your hotel to rest a bit before the evening. Otherwise, meandering through Shibuya’s backstreets is a good bet. For dinner, join a food and drink tour through the smokey alleyways of neon-drenched Shinjuku, a key source of inspiration for direct Ridley Scott’s aesthetic vision for Blade Runner. Follow this with a stroll through Kabukicho, Japan’s largest red-light zone — politely, but firmly dismiss all touts – then proceed to Golden Gai, a dense agglomeration of more than 200 pint-sized bars, each with its own unique theme and characters. Whether you’re a cocktail enthusiast or whisky connoisseur, all of these western hubs boast impressive options. If you’re into music, we’d love to share a list of our favorite live houses and DJ bars. When it comes to nightlife, Tokyo delivers.

Day 4 – Tokyo (free)

Breakfast

After the last few action-packed days, spend your last day in Tokyo however you like: shop for souvenirs, catch a few acts of a Kabuki play, or dive into the the otaku (“geek”) mecca of Akihabara (video games, anime, manga, cosplay, maid cafes and more — knowledgable guide, optional). Another option: get to know the city’s local side. One area worth exploring is the stylish western suburb of Kichijoji, home to the wonderfully leafy Inokashira Park, Ghibli Museum, a quirky ode to anime director Hayao Miyazaki’s fictional universe, and the atmospheric culinary alleyway of Harmonica Yokocho, thronged by friendly locals. For something with a bit more edge, hipster zones Shimokitazawa and Koenji are awash in vintage clothing shops and casual, lively cafes, restaurants, bars, and live music venues. The sophisticated districts of Daikanyama and Nakameguro, which sit beside each other, are home to a glut of trendsetting boutiques, one of the world’s coolest bookstores (Daikanyama T-Site), and places to eat and drink alongside some of Tokyo’s coolest residents.

Day 5 – Hakone

Transport (2 hours), Breakfast, Dinner

Eat breakfast and hit the rails, heading south to the onsen (hot-spring) resort of Hakone, a place of respite for weary Tokyoites. Settle in for the day and night at a ryokan (traditional inn) where the impeccably Japanese art of service known as omotenashi is practiced. Depending on your energy level, consider venturing out for a few hours in the afternoon. If the weather is clear, you might catch a glimpse of Mt. Fuji in the distance. A few of the area’s better attractions include The Hakone Open-Air Museum, which boasts works by Rodin, Miró and Noguchi, and Hakone Ropeway, which floats over the barren volcanic landscape of Sounzan. You can’t go wrong just soaking in an onsen bath, donning a yukata (lightweight kimono), and enjoying a haute kaiseki feast, made with top-notch, seasonal ingredients, for dinner at your ryokan.

Day 6 – Tsumago

Transport (3.5 hours), Breakfast, Dinner

Eat breakfast at your ryokan and take a final dip in the onsen bath. Then, leave Hakone via Odawara, where you’ll hop on the bullet train, then speed west to the Kiso Valley, reached via Nakatsugawa Station. Through this bucolic valley runs a medieval highway known as the Nakasendo, once traversed by lords and their samurai retainers as they moved between Kyoto and Edo (now Tokyo). Make your way to your remote accommodation just outside the village of Tsumago, treasured for its well-preserved Edo Period (1603-1867) townscape. Relax for the evening, availing yourself of your inn’s onsen bath. Before bed, take advantage of the area’s minimal artificial light to look up and see the stars.

Day 7 – Nakasendo Trail (Magome to Tsumago)

Transport (20 minutes), Breakfast, Dinner

In the morning, take a bath and eat breakfast at your inn, then hop in a taxi to Magome. Like Tsumago, this former post town also has its Edo Period ambiance firmly intact. From this starting point, hike 5 mi (8 km), for an average of four hours, along one of the best preserved sections of the Nakasendo Trail. Gently descend along the well-preserved path from Magome to Tsumago, taking in the lovely juxtaposition of medieval townscapes and distant mountains. Back in Tsumago, linger at some of its inviting shops behind historic facades. Return to your inn, a short ride away by taxi or shuttle bus, and enjoy a nourishing dinner made with simple seasonal ingredients. Recuperate from today’s hike with a bit more onsen time, then get a good night’s sleep.

Day 8 – Kyoto (northwest side of town, Gion)

Transport (2.5 hours), Breakfast, Dinner, Tour

After breakfast, leave the Kiso Valley and ride the local train to Nagoya, where you’ll transfer to the bullet train, then continue to the ancient capital of Kyoto. Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, some 1,400 temples and shrines, geisha, the tea ceremony and more, Kyoto is inarguably one of the world’s culturally and historically richest cities. Upon arriving, grab lunch downtown, then head to the northwest of town. For a first glimpse of this enigmatic place, stop by Ryoan-ji, known for its meditative rock garden, and the gold-leaf-covered Kinkaku-ji (“Golden Pavilion”). If time allows, also visit Daitoku-ji, a sprawling, walled temple complex nearby with stunning Zen gardens of rock, moss and sand. From here, check into your hotel, ideally located downtown (for convenience), or in Gion or Higashiyama (for ambiance). Rest and freshen up before stepping out for the evening. Join a walking tour of Gion, Kyoto’s prime geisha zone, to learn more about this enigmatic profession, which revolves around mastery of a range of traditional arts. If you feel inspired to indulge in a once-in-a-lifetime splurge, you can even consider booking private geisha accompaniment for the evening.

Day 9 – Kyoto (Northern Higashiyama, downtown)

Breakfast, Dinner, Tour (optional)

On your first full day in the ancient capital, focus on the idyllic eastern district of Higashiyama. Start in the north at Ginkaku-ji (“Silver Pavilion”), a Zen temple renowned for its garden at the northern edge of the contemplation-inducing Philosopher’s Path. Amble southward along this route, visiting the moss-drenched temple of Honen-in, famed autumn leaves hotspot Eikan-do, and mighty Zen temple Nanzen-ji — see if you can find the secret grotto in the hills behind it. Head downtown for lunch, then stroll through Nishiki Market. This bustling, covered thoroughfare is lined with shops run by shokunin (master artisans), selling everything from fresh fish and crafts to traditional sweets. Spend the rest of the afternoon as you see fit. If you’d like to visit one more sight, check out Nijo Castle, which served as the Kyoto home of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first shogun who launched Japan’s long feudal period. Alternatively, if the weather cooperates, consider renting an e-bike and setting out to explore Kyoto on your own terms. From its tame traffic — at least on side streets — to its largely flat topography, it’s not hard
to see why it’s routinely voted as being one of Asia’s best cities for cycling. Swing by your hotel to clean up before dinner downtown. Opt for something classic — perhaps kaiseki or high-end tempura? After dinner, take a nighttime stroll down the dreamy, lantern-lit alleyway of Pontocho and along the banks of the Kamo River.

Day 10 – Kyoto (Southern Higashiyama, Fushimi)

Breakfast, Dinner

Today, eat breakfast at your hotel, then head to Higashiyama’s southern side. Start at Shoren-in, a temple set amid towering camphor trees with a garden you can gaze upon as you drink a tea and nibble on a sweet. Continue to mighty Chion-in (“The Vatican of Pure Land Buddhism”), moving on to Maruyama Park, a riot of cherry blossoms in spring that backs onto a network of cobblestone streets that are quintessential Kyoto: Ninnen-zaka and Sannen-zaka. Follow them uphill to the thronged, though quintessential temple of Kiyomizu-dera where you’ll be rewarded with panoramic views of Kyoto. Be sure to descend to the temple’s oft-missed subterranean lair known as the Tainai Meguri, which you’ll navigate in inky darkness by holding a rope that indicates the way. This pitch-dark space is meant to represent a female Bodhisattva’s womb and contains a sacred stone that appears in dim light as you push on toward the end of the tunnel. Eat lunch near Kiyomizu-dera, then make your way to the southeastern district of Fushimi. Here, you’ll find Fushimi Inari Taisha, one of Japan’s most bewitching shrines. Venture as far up the path, lined with countless vermillion gates and watched by an army of stone fox guardians, as you feel inspired to go, but be aware that most take 2-3 hours to reach the top, which offers stellar views of the city. With Fushimi’s magic lingering, go for dinner and drinks at a lively izakaya or yakitori spot in Gion or downtown. If you’ve got energy after dinner, check out some of Kyoto’s best cocktail bars. We’ll gladly make recommendations.

Day 11 – Kyoto (Arashiyama, free)

Breakfast, Dinner

On your last full day in Kyoto, venture to the west side of town. The Arashiyama district is where you’ll discover not only Japan’s, but perhaps the world’s most recognizable bamboo grove. But before you visit this ethereal place, stop by the temple of Tenryu-ji. Not only are its gardens stunning, but you can enter the bamboo-lined path through the backside of its grounds, some distance from the grove’s most crowded part. As you reach the edge of the massive bamboo grove’s path, be sure to visit the much less-crowded Okochi-Sanso Villa, a traditional home surrounded by exquisite grounds – mossy gardens and views of distant mountain temples — that was once the home of a Japanese movie actor. If you’re interested, walk uphill to nearby Iwatayama Monkey Park, which teems with semi-wild Japanese macaques – yes, the famous “snow monkeys”, earth’s northernmost non-human primates. You’ll get great views over Kyoto from the lofty park, as well as the chance to feed the monkeys peanuts and slices of apple from inside a wire-mesh cage (for the humans). To feed yourself next, backtrack to the Katsura River to eat lunch at one of the many restaurants that line its banks. The rest of your afternoon is free. One option: rent an e-bike and pedal deeper into Arashiyama. A cluster of atmospheric temples – Jojakko-ji, Nison-in, Gio-ji and Adashino Nenbutsu-ji — are found beyond the bamboo grove, amid a bucolic scene of rice paddies and sparse residences. Otherwise, you could spend the afternoon exploring whatever interests you, from souvenir shopping, to attending a tea ceremony, to joining a sake tour in Fushimi’s famous brewery district. If you leave Arashiyama immediately after lunch, you could even make a half-day trip to Nara to see Todai-ji, the world’s largest wooden building, housing Japan’s largest bronze Buddha statue; or to Himeji, to visit “White Heron Castle”, the country’s best-preserved original keep bar none. Both jaunts are less than an hour away by train.

Day 12 – Hiroshima, Miyajima

Breakfast, Transport (2 hours 45 minutes), Tour, Dinner

After eating breakfast at your hotel in Kyoto, board the train and travel 2 hours west to Hiroshima. For lunch, fill up on the city’s noodle-stuffed spin on the savory pancake dish known as okonomiyaki. After you’ve eaten, meet an expert local guide who will elucidate the heavy past of this now vibrantly rebuilt city as you visit Peace Memorial Park and the sobering Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum. Feel free to linger in the downtown of this vibrantly rebuilt city for the next few hours, then travel to the sacred island of Miyajima, via train and ferry (45 minutes), arriving in time for dinner. Settle in at one of the island’s ryokans, where you’ll spend two nights. After eating at your inn, get a good night’s rest. You’ll have a big day of exploring tomorrow.

Day 13 – Miyajima

Breakfast, Dinner, Tour (optional)

Today you’ll explore the mountainous island of Miyajima, which is enjoyable with or without a guide, depending on how much context you want. The holy island is best known for its iconic Itsukushima Shrine, with its imposing gate that appears to ‘float’ at high tide. You can also walk right up to it at low tide. Also be sure to check out Daisho-in temple, a short walk inland from Itsukushima Shrine. After eating lunch at one of the island’s seaside cafes or in its quaint town center (oysters are a good bet), ride the cable car to the top of Mount Misen, visit a series of temples atop the mountain, and admire phenomenal views of the Inland Sea spreading in all directions. By late afternoon, make your way back to your inn for one more meal made with top-notch seasonal ingredients. After sunset, enjoy a stroll along the shore, parts of which are softly lit by stone lanterns.

Day 14 – Naoshima

Breakfast, Transport (6 hours), Dinner

Eat breakfast at your ryokan, enjoy one more glimpse of the ‘floating’ shrine gate, then return to Hiroshima by ferry and rail. Transfer to the bullet train and head east to Okayama, where you’ll board a local train and go to Uno Port. Ride the ferry to nearby Naoshima, the leading “art island” of the Inland Sea, home to a cluster of islands where ambitious art and architectural projects visually complement the island’s small fishing villages and the sparkling seascape. Settle in for the evening at one of the island’s tranquil accommodations, with the esteemed Benesse House, a boutique hotel designed by “starchitect” Tadao Ando that doubles as a modern art museum, atop the list. If you manage to snag one of Benesse House’s coveted rooms, you’ll have access to the private museum after hours too. Watch the sun dip below the placid sea, eat a hearty dinner, and rest up for the ambitious next day ahead.

Day 15 – Naoshima

Breakfast, Dinner

Eat breakfast at your hotel, then set out to explore Naoshima’s numerous outdoor installations, galleries and museums, but most of all, the island itself. You can rent e-bikes if you like the idea of pedaling around the island. Or, make use of the regular public buses — or possibly your hotel bus, depending on where you stay — that make the rounds on its museum circuit. Standout artworks include Benesse House’s collection, the Chichu Art Museum, and the Art House Project, strewn across multiple points on the island. If you’re doing well on time, after lunch, consider heading to neighboring Teshima Island (20 minutes by ferry from Naoshima’s Honmura Port) to experience the stellar Teshima Art Museum. In the evening, have a leisurely dinner at one of Naoshima’s cozy haunts.

Day 16 Koya-san

Breakfast, Transport (5-6 hours), Dinner, Nighttime Walking Tour

Eat breakfast at your hotel, then backtrack by ferry to Uno, switch to the train and make your way east to Koya-san, where you’ll get a brief taste of a Buddhist monk’s life. It’s a fairly long journey, so aim to leave Naoshima early. Once you’ve reached Koya-san, unwind and relax at your shukubo (temple lodging) or step outside and explore the town, home to a cluster of temples that allow visitors to stay overnight. This mountaintop town is known for its atmospheric cemetery, Okuno-in, which is home to the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi (aka Kukai), arguably Japan’s most important religious historical figure. For dinner, you’ll dine on shojin ryori, as the vegetarian cuisine eaten by monks across Japan is known. Sated, join a walking tour of Okuno-in  at night, when the cemetery’s paths are softly lit by lanterns and a charge lingers in the air. After the tour, return to your temple lodging and get a peaceful night’s rest.

Day 17 Koya-san, Osaka (Minami)

Transport (2 hours), Food and Drinks Tour

Wake up early and see the monks perform their morning rituals before an alter, eat a vegetarian breakfast, and thank the monks for your stay. Before you leave Koya-san, pay one last morning visit to Okuno-in, which shows a different face in the light of day. Next, board the train and ride north to Osaka, a far more earthly place where you’ll stay for the last two nights of your journey. Eat lunch then check into your hotel in the lively Minami (South) side of town. Shinsaibashi and Namba make for good bases. The rest of the afternoon is free. Whatever you do, save your energy for a culinary adventure this evening with a local tour outfit that takes you on a street-food crawl through the south side of “Japan’s Kitchen”. If you’ve got staying power after dinner, bar hop through the backstreets of Ura-Namba.

Day 18 Osaka (free)

Breakfast

Eat breakfast at your hotel, then spend your last full day however you want, whether souvenir shopping, making a final day trip, perhaps to Kyoto, Nara or to Himeji’s soaring white castle, should you have missed something at any of these stops earlier in your journey and still want to go. You can also simply dive deeper into Osaka, Japan’s least predictable city. If you choose the last option, we recommend spending the morning wandering through the colorful collage of districts in the Minami side of town, from youth mecca Amerika-Mura and fashionable Minami-Horie to Doguya Suji (“Kitchenware Street”) and the rambling, open-air food market of Kuromon Ichiba. Eat lunch somewhere along the way, then use the rest of the afternoon as you see fit. A bit before dusk, head to Umeda Sky Building on the Kita (North) side of town. Ride the elevator up to the 360-degree viewing platform and behold the mammoth city below as the lights twinkle on. Stay in the north side of the city for dinner in the rambling yokocho of Tenma. Following your inspiration, go on your own food crawl in one of Japan’s most iconic yokocho settings – red lanterns, fragrant smoke wafting in the air – alongside the country’s friendliest locals.

Day 19 – Depart Japan

Transport (45 minutes)

Today, your Japan adventure comes to an end. Use whatever time you have until your flight back, from Kansai International Airport (KIX), southwest of downtown Osaka, to do any last-minute shopping, exploring or eating. To be safe, aim to allow yourself three hours at the airport to smoothly pass through customs. We hope you’ve had a fantastic journey that you’ll cherish for the rest of your life!

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