- Delve into the history of the samurai and their feudal lords while visiting castles and samurai districts in Kanazawa, Matsue, and Uwajima.
- Explore the rich cultural legacy of Korea’s Silla Dynasty among the incredible ancient ruins of Gyeongju, a UNESCO World Heritage site.
- Get inspired on the art-filled island of Naoshima, and visit museums and studios dedicated to artists and traditional handicrafts in Matsue and Takamatsu
- Meander through Kenroku-en, Koraku-en, and Sengan-en, three unique Japanese gardens considered some of the most beautiful in the country.
Step back in time on a voyage into Japan’s riveting history, from the historic castle towns of the Edo period to the elegant shrines and merchant districts of the Meiji era, to the poignant sites of World War II. As we trace the shores of Honshu and the islands of the Seto Inland Sea aboard the National Geographic Orion (2021 departures) or the National Geographic Resolution (2022 departures), venture into the homes of samurai and feudal lords and discover exquisite centuries-old gardens and temples. Take a detour to South Korea to spend a day exploring the ancient city of Gyeongju; and explore Japanese artistic traditions of the past and present.
This trip is operated in collaboration with Lindblad Expeditions.
Depart on an overnight flight to Tokyo and transfer to our hotel, located steps from the lively Ginza district.
Enjoy a full day to get to know this vibrant city, the capital of Japan since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. Visit Meiji Jingu, a Shinto shrine dedicated to Emperor Meiji, who brought an end to Japan’s long feudal period. Visit the Edo-Tokyo Museum, then meander through the historic Asakusa neighborhood around Tokyo’s oldest temple, Senso-ji. Gather tonight for a welcome dinner.
Zip north on Japan’s famous bullet train to Niigata, a port city on Honshu’s northwestern coast where the National Geographic Orion (2021 departures) or the National Geographic Resolution (2022 departures) awaits. Settle into your cabin as we take to the Sea of Japan.
National Geographic Orion or National Geographic Resolution for the remainder of the trip
Step into Old Japan in Kanazawa, once a powerful city ruled by the Maeda clan. Stroll past the lovely wooden homes of the samurai in the Naga-machi district, where the streets are intentionally narrow and winding to confuse enemies. Then explore the geisha and teahouse district of Higashi Chaya Machi. Next, wander the pathways of Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s designated “three best landscape gardens,” established in 1676 by the Maeda family and developed over 150 years.
Follow the coast west to Matsue, situated between a lake, a lagoon, and the sea. Tour the 17th-century Matsue Castle built as a defensive fortress, and discover its clever design elements intended to foil the enemy. Continue to the Adachi Museum of Art, which blends an impressive collection of 20th-century Japanese art with a gem-like traditional garden.
In the castle town of Hagi, known for its fine ceramic arts, tour the historic district, once home to wealthy merchants and samurai. Stroll past serene rows of stone lanterns at the town’s two Zen Buddhist temples, where the feudal lords of the powerful Mori clan were laid to rest. This afternoon, we chart our course for the Korean Peninsula.
Dock in Ulsan, and travel to Gyeongju, the ancient capital of the Silla kingdom and the crown jewel of Korea’s cultural heritage. Packed with the ruins of temples, pagodas, and palaces dating back more than a thousand years, the historic areas of the city have been collectively designated a UNESCO World Heritage site. Visit Bulguksa Temple, a masterpiece of Silla architecture originally built in 528 A.D. At the Gyeongju National Museum, examine jewelry, weapons, and other Silla artifacts. See Cheomseongdae, a seventh-century observatory, and wander among towering royal burial mounds.
Long before World War II, Nagasaki was a cosmopolitan trading center, drawing merchants from Europe and China to its picturesque harbor as early as the 1500s. Visit Oura Cathedral, the oldest Christian church in Japan, and venture into Sofukuji, a 400-year-old Ming-style Zen Buddhist temple. Visit Nagasaki Peace Park, where a poignant exhibition illustrates the aftermath of the atomic bomb drop on the city, and see the somber monument erected at ground zero.
At the southern end of Kyushu, the city of Kagoshima sits just across the bay from the active volcano Sakurajima. Take a walk in Sengan-en Garden, designed by the city’s ruling Shimadzu clan in 1658 to incorporate the bay and its simmering volcano. After lunch, travel along the Satsuma Peninsula to the village of Chiran, where the samurai designed gardens inspired by their travels.
The diverse ecology of Yakushima Island, including a subtropical coast and temperate rainforest in the interior, has earned this island World Heritage status. On a hike, discover the island’s ancient Japanese cedar trees, many of which date back more than a thousand years. Our ship turns north toward the island of Shikoku this evening.
Rise early for a morning hike to Uwajima Castle, one of just 12 original Edo-period castles that remain intact. Continue to Uchiko, once a center of wax production. Take a walk in the town’s well-preserved Yokaichi district, where beautifully crafted wooden merchant homes recall the prosperity of the Meiji period.
Start the day on the island of Miyajima, home of Itsukushima Shrine, a UNESCO World Heritage Site known for its red torii gate that seems to float atop the water at high tide. In Hiroshima, visit the Peace Memorial Park. See the A-Bomb Dome, one of only a few buildings left standing after the attack, and learn about the city’s dedication to peace following World War II.
The small island of Naoshima was transformed from a dwindling community to a vibrant art center by Benesse Holdings, which began inviting artists and architects to create a hub for the arts in the early 1990s. Discover the island’s cutting-edge creations, from an underground museum designed by renowned architect Tadao Ando to the famous polka-dotted pumpkins of Yayoi Kusama. After lunch, cross to Takamatsu on Shikoku Island. Explore Shikoku Mur, an open-air museum that showcases traditional building styles. End the day at the Noguchi Garden Museum, which features the sculptures and workshop of Japanese-American artist Isamu Noguchi.
Dock in Okayama and head for our second of Japan’s “three best landscape gardens”: Korakuen. Wander paths that wind along forest streams and past traditional teahouses tucked amid maple and cherry trees. See the black-walled Okayama Castle, before continuing to the former shipping center of Kurashiki, where centuries-old rice granaries line a lovely canal. Browse local handicrafts, and visit the renowned Ohara Museum of Art and the 18th-century Ohashi House.
This morning disembark in Kobe. Pay a visit to 17th-century Himeji Castle, a UNESCO World Heritage known as the White Heron Castle. After lunch, transfer to the airport in Osaka for your flight home.