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Japan’s reputation for technology and towering skyscrapers is only half the story.
The land of the rising sun is overflowing with culture and tradition, from colorful kimono dresses to the local hospitality of a ryokan, the exquisite flavors of Japanese cuisine, to the creative horticulture of tranquil Japanese gardens.
This cultural tour of Japan provides a packed itinerary full of educational and enlightening experiences that stimulate the senses and offer a glimpse into another world.
You’ll start in electric Tokyo, combining a tour of the capital’s cultural sights with a visit to the renowned digital art installation, teamLab Borderless. Then, you’ll swap contemporary art for natural beauty with a trip through the Japanese Alps to Matsumoto, where you’ll slurp soba noodles and sip saké.
Next, explore the cultural wonders of Japan’s ancient capital, Kyoto, home to an astonishing 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites and the last remaining geisha. From Kyoto, it’s on to the artist's haven of Naoshima island and a cultural fusion of modern art museums, architecture and sculptures.
After the high-brow artistry of Naoshima, take on a street food safari in Osaka, Japan’s second city, where you’ll try octopus dumplings and other local delicacies. Finally, wind down with a trip to the monasteries of Mount Koya, staying in a temple complex and living how the monks do.
You’ll have the opportunity to see, do and try it all, whether it’s a luxurious one-night stay at an art gallery or a humble dish of vegetarian fare at a mountain monastery.
This cultural holiday in Japan is a two-week melting pot of authentic cultural experiences we promise you will never forget.
You’ll arrive at Haneda Airport, Tokyo, to be greeted by a private driver holding a sign with your name on it. The driver will transfer you to your Tokyo hotel, located only 30 minutes away. Watch the towering architecture of Tokyo get closer, as you embark on your cultural tour of Japan.
Upon arrival, you’ll be given a Manaca Card, a tap-in, tap-out, travel card used nationwide on Japan’s super-clean and efficient public transport. The card, also known as an “IC Card,” can be used on buses, subways and over-ground trains, as well as by vending machines, taxis and some shops too.
We’ll start you off with 2,500 yen of credit, then you’ll be able to top up with any additional credit needed at a local machine. This simple system makes public transport easy to use and is a must-have for any visitor in Japan.
For your first three nights, you will be staying at the Park Hotel Tokyo (breakfast included), located on the ten highest floors of the Shidome Media Tower. The core of the building is hollow, which creates a sun-lit atrium and ensures all rooms face out, with views of the sparkling cityscapes.
On a clear day, the views extend from Tokyo’s skylines all the way to Mount Fuji.
You’ll stay in one of the 16 exclusive Standard Queen rooms; each one has been designed by a different Japanese artist. For your first taste of local food, spend the evening in one of the hotel’s seven restaurants and bars, which serve everything from French to Japanese cuisine.
For your first full day in Tokyo, you’ll be joined by a local guide for a cultural tour of one of the world’s most fast-paced and exciting cities. Your English-speaking guide will meet you at 9 am, and the tour will last until 5 pm.
Together, you’ll navigate the city via public transport, just as the locals do, taking in the capital’s different districts, each with their unique sights and personalities.
Hit the multi-way zebra stripes of the famed Shibuya crossing, contemplate ancient Japan in old downtown Asakusa, sample counter sushi with Tokyoites on a business lunch and climb the Tokyo Skytree (the world’s tallest tower) for limitless views of the neon lights below.
Visit the world’s first digital art museum on the man-made island of Odaiba. Designed by art group teamLab, “Borderless” is an exhibition of 50 digital artworks across five different sections, which all combine the themes of the natural world and interactivity.
The Athletic Forest will have you bouncing and swinging your way through art, while the Forest of Lamps changes color as you move through the glowing lights. This creative experience is a feast for the senses, putting the visitor right at the center of the artistic experience.
The amount of time spent here is up to you, though we believe you may need more time than you think. If you need a break for a moment, order a green tea at the En teahouse and watch as a digital flower blooms as you take a sip!
The next stop on your cultural Japan tour is Matsumoto. The journey starts at the world’s busiest train station, Tokyo’s Shinjuku, from which you’ll take a two-and-a-half-hour ride out of the city’s suburbs and into rural Japan.
Your Limited Express (Ordinary Class) train ticket is covered in your Japan tour, so simply recline and watch the paddy fields, rivers, lakes, and epic views of the Japanese Alps pass by your train window. If the weather is clear, keep an eye out for a glimpse of the elusive Mount Fuji.
You’ll arrive in Matsumoto with plenty of time for sightseeing, so make your way to one of the best-preserved original feudal castles in Japan with a visit to the “Black Crow” castle. The Matsumoto City Museum of Art can also be found on the castle’s grounds.
The “alpine” city of Matsumoto, hidden deep in the valley, is renowned for producing incredible art and artists. Judging by the magnificent mountain surroundings, it’s not difficult to see where the inspiration comes from.
Famous violin teacher Suzuki started out here, as did ukiyo-e woodblock prints and delicious soba noodles. Try “Shinshu soba” noodles, either hot or cold, or if you’re feeling particularly adventurous – raw horse, another of the city’s delicacies!
You’ll be staying for one night at the Buena Vista Hotel in Matsumoto (breakfast included). The property is a short, convenient walk from the train station, and the rooms are designed in a contemporary style, with amazing views of the mountain scenery.
The best vistas can be found on the top floor at the hotel’s stylish bar and restaurant.
Now that you’ve had a chance to sample soba, you can try your hand at making these buckwheat noodles for yourself. You’ll visit Takagi, a soba shop with an impressive 130-year history, where you’ll be taking a one-hour class in mostly Japanese!
Don’t worry, the class is very easy to understand, and you’ll soon be an expert in making, serving and (most importantly) eating soba.
Later in the day, you’ll leave Matsumoto for Takayama via highway bus (ticket provided in the Japan Cultural Tour). The route offers incredible views as you climb the immense peaks of the mountains and feel your ears pop at an altitude of 1500 meters, before descending through lush valleys.
The trio of mountain ranges that make up the Japanese Alps – Hida, Kiso and Akaishi – were once thought to be home to mountain spirits. Certainly, the divine landscapes and enchanting villages tucked away in the hillside look as if they’re the product of spiritual intervention.
Takayama is a 16th-century castle town in the Hida Mountains with architecture characteristic of Edo period, when the town was originally founded. The collection of long, sloping roofs and latticed windows will make you feel like you’ve stepped back in time.
Your cultural experience of Japan will step up a notch with a stay at a traditional Japanese ryokan guesthouse (breakfast and dinner included). The Tanabe Ryokan, run by hosts Mr and Mrs Tanabe, is located close to Takayama Station in the old town area.
A stay in a ryokan is a must for a cultural tour of Japan. You’ll sleep on thick futons, rolled out onto tatami mats on the floor, and although your room will be fully en-suite, there are also communal baths to soak in at the end of a long day of walking around town.
Visit the morning markets on the banks of the Miyagawa River, discover local shrines and temples dotted around town, and marvel at the quality of crafts that come from this region. You won’t believe that this place and way of life coexist in the same country as frenetic Tokyo.
One of Takayama’s most famous products is sake, and micro-breweries can be found everywhere (look out for large sugidama balls of cedar branches in the entranceways of buildings). Therefore, in the evening, you’ll be taking part in a private sake-tasting session at a local Takayama eatery.
Your guide will explain the history and cultural significance of sake before you try six different sakes for yourself and discuss the similarities and differences between them. The drinks are also served with local bites to demonstrate how small dishes should be paired with the beverages.
You best be paying attention because this one-and-a-half-hour sake-tasting experience closes with a blind-tasting contest, and the winner is awarded a prize!
Next, you’ll leave rural Japan behind and head to the ancient city of Kyoto, the cultural capital of Japan and arguably the whole of Asia. You’ll use your 7-Day Japan Rail Pass (included in your Cultural Japan Tour) to take a three-hour Shinkansen bullet train from Nagoya to Kyoto.
You’ll be staying at the Celestine Kyoto Gion Hotel, located in the “geisha district” of Kyoto. The rooms are furnished in a contemporary Western style, though the hotel is in keeping with the traditional surroundings with features such as communal baths.
If you’re hungry after your journey, be sure to visit the hotel’s restaurant. Run by Endo Yasaka, this tempura institution has been going for over a century and is well known in Kyoto. There is also a separate sushi counter if you’d rather get a light bite.
Kyoto is the soul of Japan and home to an extraordinary 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, as well as delicious cuisine and breathtaking gardens. Although the modern buildings of the city may fool you, Kyoto’s enduring charm lies in the details and the well-preserved historic districts.
You’ll be met at your hotel from 9 am, traveling by public transport or taxi, sightseeing with your English-speaking private tour guide until 5 pm.
Don’t miss iconic spots such as the geisha-famed streets of Gion, the tunnels of red gates at Fushimi Inari and the serene green shade of the Arashiyama Bamboo Grove.
*Please note that lunch, transport costs, and entrance fees are not included in the private tour.
Learn about Japanese cuisine at Cooking Sun, a small food school run by professional chef Yasuhiro Nakai, set in a traditional machiya (townhouse). The class runs from 9.30 am to 1 pm, and dietary requirements can be accommodated if requested in advance.
You’ll be greeted with a welcome drink before you start working on your bento lunchbox; guided through the class by English-speaking chefs, you’ll create five or six seasonal Japanese dishes. Try your hand at teriyaki chicken, tempura, sushi and miso before sitting down to eat your creation.
You’ll leave Kyoto for Naoshima, first via the Shinkansen bullet train to Okayama (90 minutes) before changing to a coastal train to the end of the line and the port of Uno (45 minutes). The transfer is easy to follow, and both journeys are included in your 7-Day Japan Rail Pass.
From Uno, you’ll step aboard a Shikoku Kisen Ferry bound for Miyanoura Port on the island of Naoshima (20 minutes). The price of tickets for the ferry is 290 yen and can only be bought on the day. From Miyanoura Port, take the free shuttle bus service to your hotel.
If you’re apprehensive about making the transfers via public transport, be assured that full instructions will be provided to you in your info pack before departure and that locals are incredibly friendly and helpful if you feel lost (even if they don’t speak English!).
Your two nights in Naoshima will be unlike anywhere else you’ll stay in Japan. You’ll be staying in one of the four iconic buildings designed by famous architect Tadao Ando, at the art museum complex of Benesse House – one of the main attractions in Naoshima.
You’ll sleep amid natural beauty and world-class artworks, in a room with a terrace and views of the garden grounds. Each guest room is ocean-facing, with different art pieces decorating the interiors. This hotel is perfect for those who love artistic expression, architecture and culture.
Naoshima Island, floating in the Seto Inland Sea, was just another stop for fishermen until it became the focus of a creative art project. Today, Naoshima is packed with art galleries, indoor and outdoor exhibits, contemporary installations and thought-provoking architecture. It’s an art lover’s dream.
The Chichu Art Museum and your accommodation, Benesse House, are two of the most renowned galleries on the island, both designed by Tadao Ando. These galleries are home to iconic pieces by Andy Warhol, Claude Monet, Walter de Maria, Richard Long and other big names.
With so much to see and do in Naoshima, the best way to explore the island is with a local guide. Your private tour guide will meet you at your hotel from 9 am, and you’ll navigate the island’s many sights by foot, bus, rental bike (our recommendation) or taxi.
Your English-speaking guide will explain how the art phenomenon of Naoshima came to be and the concepts behind the most significant artworks on the island. The tour will finish at 1 pm so that you’re able to spend the afternoon exploring at your leisure.
*Please note that transport and entrance fees are not included in the private tour.
After checking out of your hotel, you’ll take the free shuttle back to Miyanoura Port and cross back over to Uno Port. From Uno, you’ll take a local train to Chayamachi, followed by a second local train to Okayama. From here, it’s the Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka – all covered by your JR Pass.
You’ll stay at the Osaka Marriott Miyako Hotel (breakfast included), located on the 38th and 57th floors of the Avena Harukas building. Your room will feature floor-to-ceiling windows with unparalleled views of Osaka.
In the evening, you’ll take part in a street food tour of Osaka’s neon-bright Dotonbori district, which will definitely put your taste buds to the test. This lively area, situated alongside a canal, is packed with competing restaurants and food stalls, as well as crowds of hungry foodies.
The tour takes around three hours, diverting away from the regular tourist hotspots to the backstreet izayaka bars and pubs. Here, you’ll sample takoyaki octopus dumplings and kushikatsu fried skewers, as well as other Osakan delicacies.
*Note that your food (both restaurant and street food), a drink and a dessert are included in this tour.
During your time in this region, you’ll be provided with a 2-Day Kansai Thru Pass, which covers non-JR transport in the Kansai area, including travel by bus, subway and private railway.
Using this pass, you’ll take a 15-minute subway to Nanba Station from Shin-Osaka, where you’ll depart for Mount Koya via the Nankai Line express train.
You’ll wind through the suburbs of Osaka and the rural landscapes of Wakayama until you reach the end of the line at Gokurakubashi Station. From here, you’ll take a thrilling funicular ride all the way to the top of Mount Koya’s plateau.
The total journey time from Shin-Osaka to Mount Koya is two hours and 30 minutes. Once you’ve arrived at Mount Koya, you can choose to use your Thru Pass to catch a bus or take a seven-minute taxi.
You’ll stay for one night at Shojoshin-in, one of the largest and oldest temples in Koya, which started out as the humble hut residence of Kukai – the monk who founded the monastery here. You’ll stay in a Japanese-style Hanare cottage room with bathroom facilities.
Morning sutra reciting takes place at 7 am, with breakfast served afterwards at 8 am. You’ll eat dinner at 5 pm in the shukubo, with speciality Shojin-ryori (vegetarian) dishes on offer, such as sesame tofu and koya-tofu prepared in the local style (both meals are included in your stay).
Koya-san is a sacred mountain, and the plateau at the top is the headquarters of the Shingon School of Buddhism. Mount Koya is home to many monasteries and temples, and there has been a religious presence in this region for centuries, with the earliest settlements dating back to 816 AD.
The atmosphere at this mountain escape is incredibly tranquil and contemplative, making it the perfect place to reflect on your action-packed cultural tour of Japan. Take a peaceful walk around the woodlands or simply relax with a deep breath of mountain-fresh air.
When you’re ready and revitalized, you’ll make the journey back to Osaka via the Nankai train line to Osaka Nanba station using your Kansai Thru Pass. The journey takes around two hours.
You’ll also be returning to the luxury of the Marriott Miyako Osaka for your final night in Japan.
Sadly, your Japanese cultural adventure comes to a close. Depending on your flight time, spend your last day exploring, picking up souvenirs or having a last mouthful of tasty Japanese cuisine before checking out of your hotel and taking a private car to Osaka’s airport, only an hour away.
We hope this cultural tour of Japan has opened a window into the true soul of the country and that all your senses have been stimulated by the riches Japanese culture has to offer.
We imagine you’ll leave with a camera full of photos and a heart full of memories, but – just as we feel when leaving the land of the rising sun – it won’t be long before you return.