Small Groups: Never more than 10-16 travelers—guaranteed!
Travel Japan with OAT and discover the country you’ve always dreamed of, an Asian land both modern and ancient ... where a colorful Shinto festival winds its way past neon lights and Tokyo skyscrapers … a modern bullet train speeds past a farmer tending his rice paddy … a well-dressed businessman stops in a Buddhist temple to light incense ... majestic Mount Fuji provides a beautiful backdrop for Hakone, where locals and travelers alike relax in volcanic onsen.
Join us as we explore more than 2,000 years of Japanese history and culture, from ultra-modern Tokyo through the former imperial capital of Kyoto, and all the way back to Kanazawa’s unique samurai architecture. Along the way, we’ll stay in a Japanese-style ryokan inn, visit local markets and craft workshops, partake in a traditional tea ceremony, and travel by rail just as the Japanese do. Welcome to Japan—OAT style.
Depart the U.S. today on your overnight flight to Tokyo, Japan.
Arrive at the Tokyo airport in the late afternoon or early evening today. An OAT representative will greet us at the airport and assist with the transfer to our hotel in Tokyo, where we'll meet our OAT Trip Leader and fellow travelers, including those who arrived early for the optional Tokyo pre-trip extension.
We have breakfast at our hotel, followed by a briefing about our upcoming days in Japan, then we set out to explore fascinating and frenetic Tokyo on a tour that takes us to some of its most famous sites. We'll enter the seventh-century Asakusa Kannon Temple, which—according to legend—was founded after two brothers fished the Kannon statue out of the Sumida River. They threw the statue back in the river over and over, but it always returned to them, so they built the temple to house it forever.
We'll pass by the Imperial Palace—which still serves as the home to the Emperor of Japan—on our way to the Ginza district, famous for its high-class shops and glitzy galleries. Following our explorations here, we’ll have time for lunch on our own before we return to our hotel mid-afternoon. The balance of the day is free for you to explore independently. Perhaps you’ll get an overview of Tokyo’s history at the massive Edo Tokyo Museum, or stroll the streets of Old Tokyo. We'll regroup this evening as we gather for a Welcome Dinner at a local restaurant.
We start our day with breakfast at the hotel, then board a motorcoach for the trip to Hakone, located about 50 miles west of Tokyo. As we drive, our Trip Leader will also lead a discussion on language, giving us a lesson on practical Japanese that will help us in our explorations. We'll stop for lunch at a local restaurant, then ascend halfway up the slopes of Mount Fuji by bus (weather permitting), enjoying a scenic drive around this iconic, snowcapped mountain.
Afterward, we resume our journey to Hakone, arriving in late afternoon. After checking into our hotel, the rest of the day is at leisure. If you wish, you can try bathing in a Japanese onsen (hot spring) before we enjoy a Japanese banquet-style dinner at our hotel.
We start our day in Hakone with breakfast at our hotel, then embark on a tour of this scenic city. Blessed with a beautiful volcanic setting, Hakone is beloved by the Japanese for its hot-spring resorts, mountains, lakes, and historical sites.
We begin with a drive around Hakone, and then drive to Mount Soun high above the surrounding hills. Here, we ride in an aerial gondola to the thermal springs in the Owakudani Valley (the Japanese consider eggs boiled in Owakudani’s bubbling lava pools a treat). Then, we cruise Lake Asahi from Kojiri to Hakone-machi and have lunch at a local restaurant. Here, weather permitting, you will have tremendous views of majestic Mount Fuji.
After lunch, we set out on our return trip to our hotel. On the way we will visit the Hamamatsuya, a workshop specializing in wooden handcrafts. Here you can see the creation of the elaborate woodwork of Hakone Yosegi Zaiku, a special product of Hakone featuring complex inlaid designs. We arrive at our hotel in mid-afternoon for some free time, and enjoy dinner at our hotel this evening.
Please note: Alternative activities may be substituted for some of the visits described above depending on weather conditions.
We have breakfast at our hotel and then transfer to the train station, where we board our first bullet train—the legendary high-speed train service pioneered by the Japanese.
The Japanese call this train the shinkansen. It is one of the world's finest quick-transit trains, and still amongst the fastest trains in the world, traveling at speeds of more than 160 mph. For boarding, be prepared to stand at a precise location indicated by your coach and seat accommodations. The train stops exactly where indicated and sure enough, your coach is right in front of you. Our trip on the bullet train takes us from Odawara to Nagoya. Lunch is on your own today and we suggest doing as the Japanese do—buy a packed lunch (called eki-ben) in the station and enjoy it on the train. Eki-ben lunches are one of the attractions of train travel in Japan.
We'll then board the Limited Express train for our ride to Kanazawa, enjoying a view of Japan's rolling countryside and modern cityscapes along our route. We arrive in the afternoon and check into our hotel. Dinner tonight is at a local restaurant.
We have breakfast at our hotel and then begin our exploration of Kanazawa with a guided tour of this historic city.
Between the 16th and 18th centuries, Kanazawa was a prosperous castle town in the domain of Kaga ruled by the Maeda Family, and it has been one of the cultural centers of Japan ever since. Located on the coast of the Japan Sea, Kanazawa was spared much of the destruction that World War II brought to the country. It is famous today for its unique architecture, its exquisite Kaga-style handcrafts—including silk-dyeing and lacquerware—its delicate regional cuisine, and the Kenrokuen Garden, one of the most beautiful in Japan. We start our tour with a morning visit to this garden, which was opened to the public in 1875 and is one of the most visited garden spots in all of Japan.
After the garden, we’ll visit one of the many houses of Kanazawa where the samurai—Japan’s famed class of noble warriors—once lived. Several former samurai homes still stand on winding streets, and many are still in use as residences. We’ll enjoy a closer look at what constitutes samurai style when we explore the 18th-century Terashima House, home of a samurai who was also a painter. Later we tour the Higashi-Chaya district with its old wooden structures.
Then, following lunch at a local restaurant, we visit the Omicho Market (closed Sundays and public holidays). This 300-year-old market, known locally as Kanazawa’s Kitchen, is a very busy gathering place, and brims with exceptionally fresh vegetables, fruit, and fish offered for sale to households and to private restaurants. By browsing the many stalls here, we can get a good idea of what the local diet is like and see the range of foods that create the local cuisine. We might see some of the traditional specialties of the region, such as fish pickled in rice bran, fresh crab, Kaga lotus root, seaweed, and a variety of sweet treats.
After walking through the busy market, we'll uncover more local traditions by visiting a gold-leaf workshop. These thin sheets of gold have been produced in Kanazawa since the 16th century, and are used to decorate everything from handicrafts to Buddhist alters. In the workshop, we'll learn more about how gold leaf is made and what significance it still holds in Japanese culture before returning to our hotel. Dinner tonight is on your own.
Today you can spend a day at leisure in Kanazawa, making your own discoveries in this historic city.
Or you can join us for an optional full-day excursion to Shirakawa-go and Gokayama, mountain villages—and UNESCO World Heritage Sites—in the forested countryside outside of Kanazawa. Because of their relative isolation, these areas developed independently of Japanese society, resulting in a unique culture and lifestyle. In addition to creating their own dances, festivals, and traditions, residents developed a distinctive architectural style known as gassho-zukuri. Characterized by steeply pitched thatched roofs that are both striking and elegant, these dwellings are considered to be some of the most efficient farmhouses in Japan—and we'll discover why as we explore the houses of Ainokura this morning. Then we'll visit a workshop to see how washi—a thick, fibrous paper made from mulberry bark—is created. Afterward, we'll head to Murakami House, which was built in 1578 and is the oldest ghasso-style house in the area. During our visit here, we'll learn more about the history and culture of Gokayama, enjoy a traditional dance performance, and savor a traditional lunch of soba (buckwheat noodles) at a local restaurant. This afternoon, we transfer to Shirakawa-go, where we'll learn the art of mochitsuki, or rice-cake making, with members of the local community before returning to our hotel.
Dinner is on your own tonight.
After breakfast at your Kanazawa hotel, we set off to visit a local family for tea and to get a firsthand glimpse of Japanese life at home. This is a wonderful opportunity to talk with a family and experience a bit of their daily routine. After this unique opportunity, you'll have time for lunch on your own before we transfer to the train station and board a train bound for Kyoto.
Kyoto was Japan’s imperial capital through the eighth to the 19th centuries. It remains an important cultural center—and has been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site—and we’ll have five full days to explore its many wonders. We arrive at our hotel in the late afternoon, take a short orientation walk around the neighborhood, and enjoy dinner at a local restaurant tonight.
Among Kyoto's many wonders are some of Japan’s most impressive Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, and we'll have a chance to discover one after breakfast, as we visit Kinkakuji Temple, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. The striking architecture of Kinkakuji, also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion, dates from 1397, when it was built by the third shogun (military commander) of the Ashikaga Shogunate. The reflection of the pavilion on the water of the adjacent pond produces a breathtakingly beautiful and world-famous view.
Next, we visit Nijo Castle, which was constructed between 1601 and 1603. The castle, shrines, and 17 temples here are designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Although meant to represent power, it appears more a royal estate than a military post fortified with weapons. It was built by Tokugawa Ieyasu, founder of the Tokugawa shogunate, and became a meeting place for the shoguns. The largest building on the grounds is Ninomaru Palace, intentionally built with squeaky floors so an intruder would be heard advancing through the room.
After lunch at a local restaurant, we continue on to Sanjusangendo Hall, built in the twelfth century and containing an impressive 1,001 statues of the thousand-handed Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy. Finally, we explore Kiyomizu Temple, another UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its “leap of faith” veranda and wooden terraces once used for sacred dances. Resting at the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains, this temple—which dates back to 778—offers a sweeping view of Kyoto and a spring whose waters are believed by some to have a curative quality.
This evening, we return to our hotel and enjoy dinner on our own.
After breakfast, today is free for you to explore Kyoto on your own.
Or you can choose to join us on an optional excursion to Nara and Fushimi. This excursion takes us to the distinctive city of Nara, which was the capital of Japan before Kyoto. We will visit two UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Nara: Todaiji Temple and Kasuga Shinto Shrine. As we approach the Todaiji Temple, you will first be impressed by its massive size. It is said to be the largest wooden building in the world. It is also one of the major historic temples in Japan and contains valuable artifacts. Within this temple is the largest gilded bronze Buddha in existence. A charming feature of the park area is its free-roaming tame deer, which were traditionally regarded as the messengers of the Shinto god Kasuga. If you wish a close-up introduction to them, you can purchase biscuits to feed them, but be prepared to be very popular with these lovely creatures when you offer them food.
We also visit the Kasuga Shinto Shrine, dating back to AD 768. It is situated in the fields of the Mount Mikasa’s foothills. These hills and the mountain are considered sacred because it is believed that a deity descended to the top of Mount Mikasa. After lunch at a local restaurant, we’ll continue to the lovely town of Fushimi, one of Japan’s most famous sake-brewing districts.
This evening, you can seek out a local restaurant to have dinner on your own.
After breakfast at our hotel, we’ll depart for a Day in the Life of traditional Japan—a full day of activities that aim to give us a closer look into the lives of the Japanese people. First, we’ll take a boat to Senkoji Temple, which is supported in part by funds from Grand Circle Foundation. At this 400-year-old temple, we’ll have a chance to practice Zen meditation.
Zen is a branch of Buddhist thought that believes divine wisdom resides in each person; meditation techniques are used to reveal this inner divine nature. Typically meditation consists of simple sitting and breathing practices that are meant to calm the mind and allow the practitioner’s focus to shift away from the mundane. We’ll be in expert hands for our session, under the guidance of a Buddhist monk.
While at the temple, we’ll also explore another aspect of Zen influence by partaking in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony, called sado. To create the actual beverage, a ceremonial powdered tea is put in a teacup, covered with hot water, and whipped with a bamboo whisk until it foams slightly. But the significance of the tea goes far beyond the tea preparation; the ceremony is a traditional art form that exhibits the Zen ideals of the beauty of simplicity and mindfulness of movement. An integral part of the ceremony is the appreciation of the aesthetics of the place where the tea is prepared and enjoyed. The ceremony is given special meaning by the deep sincerity with which the host prepares the tea.
After our temple visit, we journey to Kameoka, a city in the countryside near Kyoto, where we’ll visit a farming community and meet the farmers who call it home. We’ll help pick some fresh vegetables from fields where organic farming is practiced and take them with us as we visit Heki-tei, a 300-year-old house where a famous samurai once lived. The house is now owned by the Heki family, whose ancestors were notable property owners in Kameoka. Here, we’ll use our fresh-picked produce to prepare and eat makizushi (rolled sushi) for lunch with the help of local women, who will give us insight into their daily lives as we eat.
After a satisfying homemade lunch, we’ll return to Kyoto, where you’ll have the rest of the afternoon to relax independently and enjoy dinner on your own.
Or round out today’s discoveries with an optional tour that celebrates traditional Japanese music and architecture. We’ll travel by taxi to a performer’s house to meet a musician couple who still practice on traditional instruments. Some of these, like the three-stringed shamisen, have histories dating back to the 16th century. We’ll learn about the history of this art form before being treated to a brief concert—perhaps you’ll try out an instrument yourself. Then we’ll depart by taxi for the Higashiyama district, in the heart of Kyoto's Gion Corner, where travelers can take an evening walk along charming cobblestone streets that evoke the romance of old Kyoto with their traditional wooden buildings. We’ll stroll past shops, merchants' houses, and ryokan (Japanese-style inns) before stopping for an included dinner at a local restaurant.
Today, continue exploring Kyoto on your own. This spiritual city is home to a tremendous number of religious sites—nearly 300 Shinto shrines and 1,700 Buddhist temples—for you to discover. Or, for a look at some of the artwork these ancient religions have inspired, you can view Shinto and Buddhist art at the Hosomi Art Museum. And if pottery is your interest, you can browse an enormous selection of bowls, vases, sake cups, and other items fired by local potters at the Kyoto Ceramics Center.
Or join our optional tour to Arashiyama. On this excursion, we'll take a walking tour of two of the most beautiful gardens in this region of Japan, renowned for its bamboo groves and Togetsukyo Bridge spanning the Oi River. We'll gather after breakfast for a walk down to the train station and arrive in the Arashiyama neighborhood, where our first stop is Tenryuji Temple. The primary temple of the Rinzai school of Zen, it was originally built in 1339 and has been destroyed by wars and fires and rebuilt many times. Most of the structures here now date from the late 19th century, but the exquisite Zen garden—which includes a large pond, elevated rock groupings, and delicate cherry trees—is many centuries old. Next we'll see Okochi-Sanso, a lovely garden located on top of a hill, providing a peaceful glimpse of the quiet Kyoto environs. Here you will be served Japanese tea and cake. We'll return to our hotel in the early afternoon.
Tonight enjoy a Farewell Dinner at a local restaurant.
We transfer by shuttle to the airport in Osaka. From here, our flight home will leave in the afternoon or early evening.
Or, if you're continuing on our optional post-trip extension to Hiroshima, you'll transfer to this coastal city by bullet train today.