Arrive at Kansai International Airport and transfer to your hotel
Depending on your arrival time we will visit the Fushimi Inari Shrine. This shrine is an important Shinto shrine in southern Kyoto. It is famous for its thousands of vermillion torii gates, which straddle a network of trails behind its main buildings. These trails lead into the wooded forest of the sacred Mount Inari, which stands at 233 m and belongs to the shrine grounds.
No visit to Japan would be complete without participating in a traditional tea ceremony. The ancient rituals surrounding the preparation and presentation of macha powdered green tea date back to the 12th century when Buddhist monks began using tea in religious ceremonies. Later the practice spread to samurai warriors with the aim of bringing awareness of everyday activities. There is certainly a controlled meditative element to the tea ceremony and the carefully prescribed movements are based on 4 principles: harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity.
The Women’s Association of Kyoto arrange the ceremony. This association runs a range of experiences aimed at giving overseas visitors a fully explained insight into Japanese culture and traditions. We will be taught all about the tea ceremony - from choice of tea to the careful and deliberate movements in the different stages of preparing and serving it.
THE PHILOSOPHERS' PATH
The Philosophers’ Path is a pleasant stone path through the northern part of Kyoto's Higashiyama district. The path follows a canal which is lined by hundreds of cherry trees. Approximately two kilometres long, the path begins around Ginkakuji (the Silver Pavilion) and ends in the neighbourhood of Nanzenji. The path gets its name due to Nishida Kitaro, one of Japan's most famous philosophers, who was said to practice meditation while walking this route on his daily commute to Kyoto University.
GINKAKUJI is a Zen temple along Kyoto's eastern mountains (Higashiyama). In 1482, Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa built his retirement villa on the grounds of today's temple, modelling it after Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), his grandfather's retirement villa at the base of Kyoto's northern mountains (Kitayama). The villa was converted into a Zen temple after Yoshimasa's death in 1490.
RYOAN-JI While there are many Zen dry-landscape gardens across Japan, the most famous is at Kyoto's Ryoan-ji temple in the north-west corner of the city. Originally an aristocrat’s villa during the Heian Period (794 – 1185 CE) the site was converted into a Zen Buddhist temple in 1450.
ARASHIYAMA BAMBOO GROVE
The Arashiyama Bamboo Grove is one of Kyoto’s top sights and for good reason: standing amid these soaring stalks of bamboo is like being in another world. No picture can capture the feeling of standing in the midst of this sprawling bamboo grove – the whole thing has a palpable sense of otherness that is quite unlike that of any normal forest we know of.
TOGETSUKYO BRIDGE is a classic symbol of the Arashiyama area and spans the Katsura River. The bridge offers splendid views up and down the river – different views for every season. With Mount Arashi (358m) serving as a backdrop, it is a stunning view, especially in autumn. The bridge name means “Moon Crossing Bridge “, which was taken from the romantic notions of Emperor Kameyama in the 14th century, who noted that throughout the night it seemed like the moon was making its way across the bridge.
IWATAYAMA MONKEY PARK . The monkeys are Japanese macaques but are also known as snow monkeys since they live in the coldest climate of any primates (except humans) on the slopes of Mount Arashi.
ZAZEN MEDITATION AT GESSHIN-IN TEMPLE
Gesshin-in Zen Buddhist Temple is located at the foot of the beautiful Higashiyama Mountains in the east of the city. It is a beautifully tranquil spot and a great place to take part in a traditional Zazen meditation. The temple was founded in 1617 and the building, having escaped fire, is the original. The garden includes the famous Yasaka Pagoda, built 450 years ago.
The Zen priest will instruct you in how to sit, breath and focus before initiating a short 10-minute session of meditation. After sounding a bell to break you from your trance, he will give a further explanation of the ways of Zen before beginning another short period of contemplation. He is then able to answer any questions you have about this form of meditation, Buddhism or life in general!
NISHIKI MARKET, in a long, narrow arcade, known informally as Kyoto's Kitchen, offers all sorts of exotic fish, vegetables, pickles and sweets heaped in large barrels and labelled in intricate kanji script. Dating to the 14th century, many of the 200 or so shops have been in the same families for generations and most specialise in a certain type of food. Today as Kyotoites and visitors shuffle down the arcade, sellers readily give out samples of dried squid on skewers or sushi tasters.
NIJO CASTLE AND KYOTO IMPERIAL PALACE
Nijo Castle was built in 1603 as the Kyoto residence of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of the Ido Period (1603-1867). His grandson, Iemitsu, completed the castle’s palace buildings 23 years later and further expanded the castle by adding a five-storey keep. After the Tokugawa Shogunate fell in 1867, Nijo Castle was used as an imperial palace for a time before being donated to the city and opened up as a historic site. Its palace buildings are arguably the best surviving examples of castle palace architecture of Japan’s feudal era and the castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1994.
The Miho Museum stands deep in the forested hill west of central Koka. It was designed by the renowned architect, I. M. Pei (The Louvre pyramid), and is named after Koyama Mihoko, one of the richest women in Japan and the founder of the museum.
Perhaps the most interesting aspect of the museum is the design of its structures and how they are integrated into their natural surroundings. This is highlighted in the museum's approach which leads through a mixture of man-made and natural environments. The inside of the museum continues this theme by contrasting steel and glass with warm stone and panoramic views of the surrounding valleys.
The museum's exhibits consist of works from ancient civilizations including the Egyptians, Romans, and various Asian cultures, with the pieces largely coming from Koyama's private collection. The main exhibit changes every year or so, and special exhibits change every few months
UJI BRIDGE is one of the oldest bridge sites in Japan. A bridge was first constructed here in 646 and has been reconstructed many times since then. Along with many other Uji sites, the bridge is mentioned in Murasaki Shikibu’s novel, The Tale of Genji. A statue of Shikibu has been placed at one end of the bridge to celebrate her contribution to Japan by being one of several women who were instrumental in developing Japanese into a written language.
ISE JINGU INNER SHRINE
The grand shrines of Ise are the most sacred sites in Shintoism. In accordance with an ancient Shinto tradition the outer and inner shrines are rebuilt every 20 years, the most recent rebuild being in 2013.
Ise Jingu is a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines cantered on two main shrines, Naiku and Geku. The Inner Shrine, Naiku, is dedicated to the worship of the deity Amaterasu, goddess of the sun and the universe. The shrine buildings are made of solid cypress wood and use no nails but rather joined wood. The Outer Shrine, Geku, is dedicated to Toyouke-Omikami, the god of agriculture and the rice harvest.
Access to these two sites is strictly limited and we may not go further than the thatched roofs of the central structures, hidden behind four tall wooden fences. However, we may roam the forest and ornamental walkways.
NACHI TAISHA SHRINE AND NACHI NO TAKI WATERFALL
From the bus park at Daimonzaka Chushajo, the walk to Nachi Taisha Shrine takes about an hour along an impressive cobblestone staircase lined with ancient Japanese cedar trees and, on the far side of the shrine, we will see the largest waterfall in Japan – the 133 m high and 13 m wide Nachi-no-Otaki.
Nachi Taisha is part of a large complex of neighbouring religious sites which exemplify the fusion of Buddhist and Shinto influences that is particular to the Kumano region. The veneration of the shrines as holy sites of Shontoism predates Buddhism’s introduction to Japan in the mid 6th century. Once Buddhism arrived it took root quickly and rather than competing with the indigenous religion for authority, it began a long process of harmonious mixing.
This temple is registered as a UNESCO World Heritage Site as part of “Sacred Sites and Pilgriameg Routes in the Kii Mountains”. Though the year of its establishment is not recorded, there are signs that nature worship has been carried out in the area since ancient times. Legend says that the temple was founded in the 4th century CE and we know that from at least medieval times the temple, along with adjacent Nachi Taisha Shrine, flourished as Shugenjo or “place for ascetic training”
The main highlight is the three-storey pagoda reconstructed in 1972, which soars before the Nachi Waterfall, creating a beautiful contrast. The main hall, built in 1590, houses a waniguchi drum which is the largest of its kind in Japan. The enshrined image is Nyoirin Kannon – the Bodhisatva (form of Buddha) of Compassion – who is said to grant any wish, including wishes for wealth, wisdom and power.
KUMANO KODO PILGRIMAGE TRAILS
The Kumano Kodo is a network of ancient pathways criss-crossing the Kii Mountains at the southern tip of Wakayama Prefecture. For other a thousand years these trails have been used by pilgrims from across Japan as they made the arduous journey to pray at the sacred shrines in the heart of the Kumano Kodo region. The walk itself was an important part of the pilgrimage as people undertook religious rites of worship and purification rituals in the hot springs.
Today’s walk through the Kumano Kodo is a fantastic way to experience rural Japan and connect with the country's spiritual heritage. Historically people from all levels of Japanese society from aristocrats, to samurai warriors, priests and commoners undertook pilgrimages to the three shrines of the Kumano Kodo, and today you'll see people of all ages and nationalities reliving the ancestors' footsteps.
Today we will leave the beaten path and travel to Mount Koya, a remote mountaintop temple community and the spiritual home of Shingon Buddhism. Mount Koya is located deep in the mountains of Wakayama Prefecture and is home to a collection of ancient temples, shrines and pagodas – not to mention Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan. Located in a forest filled with towering cryptomeria trees, this atmospheric graveyard is a real wonder, seeming to go on interminably through the early morning mist.
MT KOYA – YOSHINOI – NARA - OSAKA
Early morning Buddhist teaching at Mt Koya. Guests are invited to join the monks in a morning meditation service, which typically lasts around 30 minutes. You may also view the temple's cultural treasures, halls and gardens.
Mount Yoshino is a beautiful, rural part of Nara Prefecture famous for its cherry trees, of which there are some 30,000. Yoshimizu was originally built in the late 7th century by Shugendo monk En-no-gyoja but due to the separation of Buddhism and Shintoism in the Meiji era (1868 – 1912) it became a Shinto shrine in 1875. The shrine has over one thousand cherry trees and is the oldest residential building in Japan to be registered as a World Heritage Site.
This afternoon we explore one of Japan's friendliest and greenest cities, Nara. Its most famous site is the Todai-ji Temple, the world's largest wooden building, which houses a mighty bronze daibutsu or giant Buddha statue. More than 2,600,000 people are believed to have helped build Todai-ji during Nara's brief 74 year reign as Japan's capital. The project nearly bankrupted Japan at the time, using most of the nation's bronze supply. The temple was constructed in 752 as the head temple of all provincial Buddhist temples of Japan and grew so powerful that the capital was moved from Nara to Nagaoka in 784 in order to weaken the temple’s influence on government affairs.
While the impressive Buddha casts a serene aura across the temple, a more amusing sight is just around the corner. One of the Great Hall's supporting posts has a hole through the base said to be the same size as one of the daibutsu's nostrils. According to legend, those who squeeze through the hole will be blessed with enlightenment in their next life.
Nara's most infamous inhabitants are the 1,200 shika or deer, believed to be messengers of the gods. Today the deer are protected by city law and wander freely around Nara Park happily feeding on deer biscuits bought by tourists or brazenly interrupting family picnics!
OSAKA - AWAJI ISLAND – TAKAMATSU - SHIKOKU
AWAJI ISLAND WATER TEMPLE (Shingonshu Honpukuji)
This morning you will be driven across the two-mile Akashi Kaikyo Suspension Bridge to reach Awaji Island where you will visit the architect Tadao Ando's iconic Water Temple - an excellent example of Ando's re-interpretation of the Japanese aesthetic. The Water Temple is located in the former city of Hompukuji, located in the northern part of the island of Awaji and is characterized by a landscape dominated by hills.
The Water Temple is the residence of Ninnaji Shingon, the oldest sect of Tantric Buddhism in Japan, founded in 815. Few projects of Tadao Ando are better than this work - the architect’s contribution to the culture of their country. More than just a building, it is a sensory experience that represents a radical change in the millenary tradition of building temples in Japan.
TAKAMATSU RITSURIN KOEN GARDEN
Takamatsu is home to the Ritsurin Gardens – some of the best landscape gardens in Japan. Built by local feudal lords during the early Edo period, the spacious park features ponds, hills, historic tress and beautiful pavilions divided into a Japanese-style garden in the south and a western-style garden in the north. The gardens are set in front of heavily wooded Mt Shiun which provides a wonderful backdrop to this fine example of borrowed scenery.
Time permitting, we may also visit one of the several interesting museums in Takamatsu, including the Sanuki Folkcraft Museum and a sculpture garden designed by Isamu Noguchi.
The Oboke Gorge in Tokushima prefecture is a deep ravine through which flows the Yoshino River. The gorge is exquisitely beautiful, with the river at times tranquil and at other times rough, flowing between steep sided ravines.
One of the other main attractions of this region is the Kazurabashi vine bridge, which counts as one of the very few remaining traditional vine bridges in Japan.
Just a stone’s throw from the Kazurabashi Bridge, the Ochiai village can be found, where a small community lives, which traces its roots to the Edo Period. Life in the small village, tucked away under Mount Kanpo, is bustling with activity and you could argue that this is probably one of the more authentic experiences you will get in Japan whilst venturing off the beaten track.
OKAYAMA - KURASHIKI
Korakuen is one of Japan's designated top three gardens. This garden was first built in 1687 by a local daimyo (feudal lord) in order to entertain the ruling family and receive guests. Damaged by flooding in 1934 and heavily bombed in World War II, the garden has since been lovingly restored based on Edo Period wood block prints and paintings. Today the garden is a lovely place to spend a couple of hours' exploration, admiring the view from the pagoda atop a small hill, taking stepping stones across the pond and visiting the crane aviary.
Okayama Castle, also known as “crow castle” due to its black exterior, was built in 1597 in the style of the Azuchi-Momoyama period. The original castle was destroyed in the final year of WW2 but it was rebuilt in 1966. The main building of the castle is the six-storey keep. The keep’s interior is modern and displays exhibits on the history and development of the castle. Only one of Okayama castle’s original buildings escaped destruction – the Tsukimi Yagura (moon viewing turret) which dates back to 1620. There are also reconstructions and unearthed foundations of former buildings which illustrate the full extent of the complex history of the site.
IZUMO TAISHA GRAND SHRINE
Izumo Taisha is one of Japan’s most important shrines. There are no records of exactly when Izumo Taisha was built but it is often considered the oldest shrine in Japan, known to be in existence in the early 700s as revealed by the nation’s oldest chronicles. Izumo used to be rulked by a powerful clan in pre-historic times and the region plays a central role in Japan’s creation mythology. The main deity (kami) is enshrined at Izumo Taisha is Okuninushi no Okami. According to the myths, Okuninushi was the creator of the land of Japan and the ruler of Izumo. He also became known as the deity of good relationships and marriage.
Matsue Castle is one of only a dozen original castles in Japan, meaning that its main tower has survived to this day through fires, earthquakes and anti-feudal demolitions of the Meiji period. It is sometimes called the “black castle” after its darkly-coloured, austere exterior. Matsue Castle was completed in 1611, a few years after the last decisive battle of feudal Japan. In 1638 the fief and castle were re-assigned to a branch of the Matsudaira clan, relatives of the ruling Tokugawa. Perched atop a hill and surrounded by a moat and thick walls, the castle was built to withstand a war, though thanks to the timing of its construction, it never actually saw a battle. Major renovation works were undertaken in the 1950s to further preserve it and the interior of the main keep now houses a museum displaying period arms and artefacts.
SAMURAI DISTRICT OF MATSUE
We will also have the chance to explore this former castle town on foot, admiring the remarkably well-preserved samurai district, visiting some old samurai residences and strolling through the white-walled streets to get a taste of how life must have been for this world-famous warrior class.
ADACHI MUSEUM OF ART
The Adachi Museum of Art was founded by Adachi Zenko in 1980 as a way of combining his passion for Japanese art and garden design. He hoped that viewing gardens and artwork together would expand people’s appreciation for and interest in Japanese art. The Adachi Museum garden has been named best garden in Japan annually since 2003 by the Journal of Japanese Gardening and can be enjoyed at any time of year – each season offering a different character. In addition to the gardens, the Adachi Museum of Art also houses a collection of nearly 1300 twentieth century paintings and artworks which are rotated seasonally. There is also a permanent exhibition of paintings by Yokoyama Taikan plus a wonderful ceramics exhibition.
Today we send our luggage on while we take the train from Matsue to Tokyo
MEIJI SHRINE is a shrine dedicated to the deified spirits of the Emperor Meiji and his consort, Empress Shoken. Emperor Meiji was the first emperor of modern Japan. He was born in 1852 and came to the throne in 1867 at the peak of the Meiji Restoration when Japan’s feudal era came to an end and the emperor was restored to power. During the Meiji period, Japan modernised and westernised and by 1912, when the emperor died, had joined the world’s major powers.
Located just near busy Harajuku, Meiji Shrine and the adjacent Yoyogi Park make up a large forested area within the densely built-up city of Tokyo. The shrine was completed and dedicated in 1920, eight years after the passing of the Emperor and six years after the passing of the Empress and, though bombed during WW2 it has been meticulously rebuilt.
Buzzing Harajuku is renowned for its colourful street art and fashion scene, with quirky vintage clothing stores and cosplay shops along Takeshita Street as well as more traditional, upmarket boutiques. Small bars and trendy cafes fill the surrounding lanes while cultural hotspots include the Watari Museum of Contemporary Art, which hosts some cutting-edge temporary exhibitions.
TOKYO METROPOLITAN BUILDING
Another option is taking in the magnificent views of Tokyo from the top of the Tokyo Metropolitan Building before perhaps heading to the bright lights of Shinkjuku or the famous Shibuya crossing.
Today we take the 90 min drive to Narita Airport for your journey home.