- This expedition was inspired by travel writer Don George’s article “Japan’s Past Perfect,” published in the January/February 2012 issue of National Geographic Traveler.
- Stay at Benesse House, designed by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando and set within Naoshima’s island-wide art complex.
- Spend the night at a traditional Mount Koya monastery, and rise with the resident monks for a morning prayer ceremony.
- Immerse yourself in Shikoku’s timeless Iya Valley, dotted with thatched cottages, shrines, and vine bridges.
Discover Japan’s intriguing contrasts on a journey inspired by National Geographic Traveler’s January/February 2012 article "Japan’s Past Perfect." Explore Kyoto’s iconic temples and ascend to the sacred pilgrimage site of Mount Koya. Step back in time in the age-old villages of Shikoku, then encounter cutting-edge architecture on Naoshima and the bustle of a revitalized Hiroshima.
Arrive in Osaka at any time. Transfer to Kyoto and check in to our hotel.
Kyoto served as an imperial capital for more than a thousand years, and many of the wooden temples and gardens from that era have been collectively designated a World Heritage site by UNESCO. Visit the 14th-century Tenryuji temple, considered one of the city’s great Zen temples, and discover its beautiful grounds and gardens. Outside the temple’s north gate, wander through Arashiyama’s atmospheric bamboo grove. Then venture into the wooded hills southeast of the city to the famed Kiyomizudera temple, known for the expansive wooden terrace that extends from the main hall. Walk along the terrace, taking in panoramic views of maple and cherry trees below and Kyoto’s skyline in the distance. Below the temple, visit the sacred Otowa Waterfall, with three separate streams that are believed to have different benefits: longevity, love, and success. Cap off the afternoon at the lively Nishiki Market, perusing—and tasting—a variety of Japanese specialties. At tonight’s welcome dinner, meet a former geisha to learn about the geisha lifestyle and enjoy a short performance.
Stroll the elegant Zen rock garden at Ryoanji and iconic Kinkakuji, or “temple of the golden pavilion.” This afternoon, experience the tranquil garden at Sanzenin temple. Then step inside a local sake brewery to learn about the history and production process of one of Japan’s most iconic beverages. Enjoy an evening at leisure to explore Kyoto on your own.
Travel to Mount Koya, headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect. Meet a temple priest and wander through the evocative Okuno-in cemetery, where the tombs of more than 200,000 samurai warriors and other dignitaries fill a grove of age-old cedar trees. Venture into Kongobuji, the chief temple of the Mount Koya monastery, and see work by artists of the Kano school of painting. Settle into our simple lodgings and enjoy a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner.
After attending an optional morning prayer ceremony, descend to the shores of the Inland Sea and ferry across to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. In Tokushima, see costumes and floats from the city’s 400-year-old dance festival at the Awa Odori Kaikan museum. Our home for the next two nights in the Iya Valley is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, where inviting, on-site hot spring baths offer a chance to relax and rejuvenate.
Travel along the steep slopes of the Iya ravine to a 300-year-old thatched farmhouse, home to the Chiiori Trust, a unique project that seeks to preserve age-old rural traditions in the valley. Continue to the Okuiya Niju Kazurabashi, twin suspension bridges made of intertwined vines, and hear the legends of their creation. Witness timeless scenes of village life in Ochiai, a community of traditional dwellings, some of which date from the Edo period (circa 1600-1870).
Travel north to Zentsuji, revered as the birthplace of the Buddhist priest Kobo Daishi and as one of the important stops along Shikoku’s 750-mile and 88-temple pilgrimage route. In Takamatsu, stroll through the tranquil gardens of 17th-century Ritsurin Park. A ferry then brings us to the small island of Naoshima, which has recently emerged as a mecca of contemporary art and architecture. Get a new perspective on nature through inventive art installations at the Benesse House Museum this afternoon and stay in the adjacent hotel, designed by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando.
Wander past the works of Claude Monet and James Turrell at the innovative Chichu Art Museum, built underground but designed to capture natural light and shadow. Also visit homes that are part of the Art House Project, which has transformed some of the island’s older structures into imaginative works of art.
Ferry back to Honshu and take the high-speed train to Hiroshima. Pay a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and the Peace Memorial Museum, which documents the atomic explosion that ravaged the city. Spend the remainder of the afternoon visiting Shukkei-en garden or explore this thriving modern metropolis—a testament to Japanese resilience—on your own.
Set off by ferry for a full-day excursion on Itsukushima Island, popularly called Miyajima. Venture into the 12th-century Itsukushima Shinto Shrine, a World Heritage site built over the water, where a vermillion torii (wooden gateway) appears to float at high tide. Participate in a traditional tea ceremony, then take advantage of free time to go on a hike, visit temples, and stroll through the picturesque town. Back in Hiroshima this evening, gather for a farewell dinner.
Transfer to the airport in Osaka for your flight home.
- Tokyo Extension4 days from $3,490
Post-Trip, 4 Days
With its intriguing intersection of ultra-modernity and time-honored tradition, Tokyo is a fascinating place to explore. Experience the city’s contrasts as you discover celebrated museums, temples, and historic neighborhoods. Sample the local cuisine, and get immersed in the colorful bustle of one of the world’s largest fish markets.
Travel to Tokyo via the high-speed train from Hiroshima. Upon arrival, get acquainted with the city’s celebrated landmarks, including the Imperial Palace, and delve into its cultural heritage at the Edo-Tokyo Museum. The museum brings to life Tokyo’s 400-year history, with exhibits illustrating subjects ranging from Kabuki theater and traditional arts to politics and architecture. Settle into our hotel late this afternoon, and enjoy an evening at leisure.
Explore the Nezu Museum, which features over 7,000 works of calligraphy, painting, sculpture, and ceramics. Visit the museum’s collections and traditional gardens dotted with waterfalls, ponds, and teahouses. Then jump forward in time with a guided tour of the cutting-edge architecture of Tokyo’s Aoyama district, where unorthodox, creative style reigns supreme. After lunch, try your hand at the art of shodo, a form of Japanese calligraphy, during an interactive class.
Begin the day at the sprawling Tsukiji fish market, one of the world’s largest. Browse the stalls where over 2,000 tons of seafood is sold daily, and take in the lively bustle. Continue to Kappabashi-dori, also known as “Kitchen Town.” The shops here supply the city’s restaurants with many interesting items, including the plastic display food (sampuru, derived from the English word “sample”). Visit the Akihibara neighborhood, famous for electronics and neon signs, and a center for fans of anime and manga animation. Explore Asakusa, one of Tokyo’s oldest neighborhoods, and the Senso-ji temple, built in the seventh century and now a sizeable complex of shrines, temples, and a pagoda. This evening enjoy a festive farewell dinner.
After breakfast, transfer to the airport for your flight home.