An off-the-beaten-path adventure through the Japanese countryside, ideal for those seeking an authentic experience in the heart of rural Japan.

Our Rural Japan Explorer vacation has been curated specifically for those explorers seeking an authentic Japanese adventure and the flip side of futuristic, modern Japan.

This suggested itinerary, which can be personalized to suit you, covers the best rural places to visit in Japan. Its two-week journey takes you well off-the-beaten-path, to uncover another layer of Japan rarely seen by tourists, and experience rural life in Japan.

Start in the ancient capital of Kyoto with a private local tour guide, stopping for a Zazen meditation at Gesshin-In Temple.

Venture south to Hiroshima to contemplate the city’s tragic past before taking the ferry over to Miyajima Island, home of the iconic “floating” Torii Gate.

Next, you’ll move to Shikoku Island, home to Matsuyama, the oldest hot spring onsen site in Japan, before heading to the stunning garden city of Takamatsu.

You’ll take a ferry to the eclectic art community of Naoshima Island, returning to Takamatsu for a self-drive tour of the dramatic Iya Valley region.

Once you arrive back in Takamatsu, your next destination will be the picture-perfect Himeji Castle, followed by a spiritual stay with monks on the plateau of Mount Koya and, finally, an exploration of the culinary capital Osaka by bike.

What's Included:

  • Meals and drinks mentioned in the full itinerary
  • Accommodations as stated in the itinerary
  • Private airport transfers
  • Professional local staff with fair salaries
  • 2-Day Kansai Thru Pass and other train tickets between destinations
  • 3-Day car rental for a drive around Iya Valley
  • Private guided tours of Kyoto and Hiroshima
  • Zazen mediation experience.
  • A cycling tour of Osaka.

Trip Itinerary

A palatial building overlooks the water in Kyoto.

Days 1-3: Kyoto

Day 1 – Arrival, Osaka and Kyoto

Arriving at Osaka Kansai Airport, you’ll take a private vehicle transfer to the city of Kyoto, which takes around 90 minutes. A former ancient capital and certainly the cultural capital of Japan, Kyoto is a must-see for any Japan tour and a great place to start your Japan adventure.

You’ll be staying at the Villa Sanjo Muromachi Kyoto (breakfast included), tucked away in the backstreets of one of the city’s quieter districts, just behind Karasuma Dori Street’s many bars and restaurants.

The hotel features traditional details, such as handmade karakami paper local to Kyoto, artisan fabrics and furnishings, organic toiletries, as well as local tea and coffee. The property is run by a city guide publisher, so the staff are always full of useful travel tips and recommendations. 


Day 2 – Private Tour of Kyoto

After breakfast at your hotel, a professional English-speaking guide will meet you to take you on a private tour around the city.

With 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, it can be difficult to know what to see first in Kyoto, so our friendly guide will help introduce the ancient capital, and Japanese culture, to you from a local perspective.

Today, Kyoto is a modern city, but its traditions and charm can be found just underneath the surface, with tranquil walks through the cherry blossoms, the sacred shrines nestled between office buildings and the teahouse district of Gion, where you may be lucky enough to spot a mysterious geisha.

Day 3 – Zazen Meditation at Gesshin-In Temple

From Kyoto, you’ll take a trip east to the foot of the Higashiyama Mountains to visit the Gesshin-in temple. This spiritual place is where you will take part in a traditional Zazen meditation.

Teramae Join, the head priest at the temple complex, will guide you through positioning, breathing and focus before you embark on a 10-minute journey through meditation.

When the bell rings and time is up, you’ll also have the chance to learn more about Zen and ask any questions you may have.

The ruins of Hiroshima stand tall in the sunlight.

Days 4-5: Hiroshima

Day 4 – Kyoto to Hiroshima

The next leg of your Japan tour takes you down the coast to Hiroshima, via a thrilling ride on the Shinkansen bullet train. You’ll be provided with Nozomi Super Express Ordinary tickets, which turn the 236-mile route into a journey of just over an hour and a half.

Hiroshima is infamous for the devastating atomic bombs which fell on the city at the end of World War II. However, today Hiroshima is a thriving city with much to offer visitors. You’ll be joined by a private guide, who will give you an insight into Hiroshima’s rebirth into a culture and business hub.

There are poignant reminders of the past at The Peace Park and Museum, the lively Baseball Stadium (home to the Hiroshima Carp), the majestic Hiroshima Castle, stunning pieces at The Hiroshima Prefectural Museum of Art, as well as the charming gardens and teahouses of Shukkei-en.

Be sure to try the local delicacy of okonomiyaki (or, as it translates directly from Japanese, “what you like”). Choose the ingredients you want to include, then cook up the cabbage pancake yourself, on a hot plate at your table.

*Please note that transport between sights, lunch and entrance fees are not included in the private tour.

Later in the afternoon, you’ll take a 45-minute ferry from Hiroshima Peace Park to Miyajima Island (tickets are included in your Rural Japan Tour). This World Heritage Route includes the UNESCO sites of the A-Bomb Dome, as well as the iconic red torii (gate) of the “floating” Itsukushima Shrine.

You’ll spend two nights at the Iwaso Ryokan (breakfast and dinner included), a traditional guesthouse that first opened its doors in 1893. Previous guests include famous authors, artists and the Japanese royal family. The maple trees in the grounds offer stunning fall colors in the autumn.

*As noted above, the journey from Kyoto to Miyajima involves several changes, including a stop for sightseeing in Hiroshima. Therefore, we recommend forwarding some of your luggage from Kyoto to Matsuyama, so that you can travel light to and from Miyajima. More details of our reliable luggage forwarding system and the small additional costs involved can be found in your info pack.


Day 5 – Exploring Miyajima

Miyajima Island is home to the UNESCO World Heritage Site of the Itsukushima Shrine, which is one of Japan’s Top Three Sights. However, this magical island is also one of the most charming rural areas of Japan to visit, with deer roaming free in the island fauna.

One must-do activity on Miyajima is a hike or cable car ride up to the peak of Mount Misen for fantastic views of the Seto Inland Sea and Hiroshima Bay. It takes two hours to climb the 500-meter summit by foot, but you’ll be rewarded with scenic vistas and possibly a monkey encounter.

Another great thing to do on the island is to hire a bike from the JR ferry pier (1,050 for the day) and cycle around Miyajima’s many bike paths, which wind along the coast. Pedal to Tsutsumigaura Beach: a quiet stretch of white sand that attracts windsurfers and swimmers in the summer.


Days 6-11: Shikoku & Naoshima

Day 6 - Miyajima to Matsuyama

The next stop on your Rural Japan adventure is Matsuyama.

First, you’ll take a 22-minute jetfoil ferry from Miyajima to Hiroshima’s Ujina Port. From the port, you’ll take a longer ferry to Matsuyama, which is a pleasant crossing of two hours and 40 minutes across the island-dotted Seto Inland Sea National Park. Then, it’s a Limousine Bus into town.

The quiet castle town of Matsuyama, located in the Ehime Prefecture, is most well known as the home of the Dogo Onsen hot springs, the oldest in Japan. Visit Matsuyama’s impressive samurai castle for gorgeous views of the landscape, then soak in the invigorating waters of the hot springs.

First mentioned in Nihon Shoki, the oldest book in Japanese classical history, a dip in the baths of the Dogo Onsen is a quintessentially Japanese experience. Look for the white heron decoration and listen for the 6:30 a.m. drum announcing the bath’s opening.

You’ll stay one night at ANA Hotel Matsuyama (breakfast included), a four-star hotel close to Matsuyama Castle. The property features a range of restaurants, serving up cuisine from all around the world, as well as its own three-story shopping mall.


Day 7 – Matsuyama to Takamatsu

From Matsuyama, you’ll take a direct train to Shikoku Island and the city of Takamatsu, which takes around two hours and 40 minutes to get to. This garden city is the largest in the Kagawa Prefecture and was once an important port, linking Shikoku to nearby Honshu.

The highlight of Takamatsu is the exquisite gardens of Ritsurin Koen, considered to be one of the most beautiful landscape gardens in the whole of Japan. Other attractions include Yashima Mountain and Shikoku-Mura’s traditional houses and local architecture.

You’ll be staying at JR Hotel Clement Takamatsu (breakfast included), a 20-floor property with views of the harbor and the Seto Inland Sea on one side, and the town on the other. The hotel’s five restaurants serve Japanese, Chinese and Italian dishes, while the bakery produces delicious snacks.


Day 8 – Day Trip to Naoshima Island

The next leg of your Japan adventure takes you to Naoshima Island, a 50-minute ferry from Takamatsu Port to Miyanoura Port (tickets provided in your Rural Japan Tour).

This quirky oddity was once another fishing island, but now Naoshima is home to a creative art project with an impressive collection of art galleries, installations, and exhibits. The works on display are scattered all over the island, ranging from sculpture to architecture to painting.

The two largest galleries, Chichu Art Museum and Benesse House are the work of renowned architect Tadao Ando, while inside these museums, the big names include Andy Warhol, Bruce Nauman, Claude Monet, Walter de Maria, James Turrell, Richard Long and many more.

Explore this floating art space at your leisure, on foot or by rental bike, before taking the ferry back to Takamatsu. But, before you leave, we highly recommend a dip in the onsen bath at the kitschy I Love Yuu bath house in Miyanoura.

Day 9 – Drive from Takamatsu to Iya Valley

Today, you’ll pick up a rental car in Takamatsu for a three-day road trip around the incredible scenery of Iya Valley. Don’t worry, driving in Japan is easy as the roads are well maintained, local driving standards are excellent, and all major road signs are in English (Japan drives on the left).

You will be driving a Toyota with an English satnav, which is easy to programme. For backup, you will also have all details of your accommodation, maps, route instructions and addresses (in Japanese and English), as well as a list of recommended sightseeing spots along the way.

*Note that you will need to obtain an International Driving Permit (IDP) before you travel - we can help to arrange this for you. Your rental agreement includes fully comprehensive insurance, and non-operation and excess waiver fees are also covered.

The recommended route through the dramatic Iya Valley is two-hour Route 32, which involves spectacular views of some of Japan’s most scenic countryside. Be aware that the road is mostly one lane with winding twists around steep cliffs, as you would expect from mountainous terrain.

You’ll stay at the Iya Onsen Hotel, which has its own natural hot-spring baths that you can reach via a scenic ride in a private cable car. Breakfast and dinner are included in your stay, with meals lovingly created using local, seasonal ingredients.

Day 10 – Exploring Iya Valley by Car

Shikoku’s Iya Valley is one of the three “hidden regions” of Japan - a green expanse of river gorges and lush mountains, cut off from civilization by near-impossible terrain. The domineering cliffs of Iya Valley, once impassable, certainly put the skyscrapers of Japan’s big cities into perspective.

You have a full day to explore Iya Valley at your leisure: vine bridges, hot springs, villages of traditional thatched-roof houses and, of course, unlimited epic mountain vistas.

With this freedom, you’ll be able to go further than the well-known Kazurabashi vine bridge (though this is worth a look) to other, quieter bridges, as well as the undeveloped Iya Gorge, located at the lower end of the valley. We also recommend a visit to the charming and traditional Ochiai Hamlet.

Due to the inhospitable environment, the valley has played a significant role in Japan’s history by providing cover for political dissidents, defeated clans and fleeing armies looking for a secret hideaway. You can learn more about the region’s legacy at one of the museums here.


Day 11 – Iya Valley to Himeji

Head back to Takamatsu along Route 32 in a leisurely fashion. Potential stops along the way include the Peeing Boy statue, a ride in a cable car and the baths of Iya Onsen, down by the river. You can keep the rental car until late, so you can take advantage of this with a slower trip back to the city.

Then, it’s on to Okayama, which is a one-hour train ride via a JR Marine Liner. Depending on how you wish to divide your time, you may wish to stop off in this large city for a short excursion.

Okayama is well known for the Koraku-en Gardens, one of the “Big Three” landscape gardens in Japan. Visit Okayama Castle for beautiful views of the gardens, before strolling through the rock formations, water features, and cherry trees. Look out for the Japanese cranes that live here too.

From Okayama, you’ll take a Shinkansen bullet train to Himeji, which is just 20 minutes away. You’ll most likely recognize Himeji’s picturesque “White Heron” Castle and grounds from postcards or guidebooks, as it’s one of only 12 original feudal castles in Japan to have survived the centuries.

You’ll stay at the Nikko Hotel Himeji (breakfast included), located conveniently behind Himeji Station. This modern hotel features amenities such as a swimming pool and gym, as well as several high-quality restaurants.


Days 12-15: Osaka

Day 12 – Himeji to Mount Koya

Next, you’ll head to Mount Koya, starting with a 30-minute Shinkansen bullet train to Osaka. You’ll use your 2-Day Kansai Thru Pass (included in your Rural Japan Tour) to take a 15-minute subway from Shin-Osaka Station across the city to Nanba Station, where the trains to Mount Koya depart.

The Nankai Line express train from Nanba, Osaka, winds through the Wakayama countryside, and you’ll ride to the end of the line to Gokurakubashi Station. The last leg of your journey is an exciting funicular ride on the Koya Cable Car, which pulls you up to the top of Mount Koya.

The total travel time from Osaka to Mount Koya is around two and a half hours, including the transfer between Shin-Osaka and Nanba Stations. Once you reach the mountain’s plateau, you can use your Kansai Thru Pass to take a bus to your accommodation or take a seven-minute taxi.

Your night in Mount Koya will be a particularly memorable experience, as you’ll be staying at the Shojoshin-in temple, which was founded by the first religious settlers in this region. A shojin-ryori (vegetarian) feast of dinner and breakfast are included in your stay, featuring local tofu dishes.

Your room may not have a bathroom (you’re well off the beaten path now!), but you can immerse yourself in the waters of the Shukubo’s traditional bathhouse. Dinner is served at 5 pm and breakfast at 8 am, preceded by the morning sutra reciting at 7 am.


Day 13 – Mount Koya to Osaka

Koya-san is a sacred mountain with a religious history dating back to 816 AD. Today, the peak is home to over 100 different monasteries and temples, as well as the headquarters of the Shingon sect, which is an esoteric school of Buddhism with millions of followers across Japan.

The religious site was founded by Kukai, a monk who decided to set up a religious community here after studying away in China. The spiritual atmosphere is heightened by the enchanting natural surroundings, which include many beautiful walking routes.

After feeling the tensions drop in your shoulders after a relaxing retreat in the heart of rural Japan, you’ll head back into Osaka via the same route, which takes just over two hours.

Your final two nights will be spent at the Marriott Miyako Osaka (breakfast included). This hotel covers the 38th to the 57th floors of the Abeno Harukas building in the Tennoji District. All rooms feature floor-to-ceiling windows with breathtaking views of the city below.

The property also includes several restaurants serving a range of cuisine, as well as a bar and an open-air atrium on the 58th floor, while the lower floors of the building are home to a department store and an art gallery.


Day 14 – Cycling Tour of Osaka

Osaka is Japan’s second city, though a little more laid back than its big brother Tokyo and not as focused on tourism, which is part of what makes the city so interesting to visit. Osaka is a great representation of modern Japan.

You’ll take a three-hour cycling tour of the city with an English-speaking guide. The tour starts on the banks of Nakanoshima Island and follows the river, passing pre-war buildings that survived the firebombing of World War II, ending at the reconstructed Osaka Castle.

However, Osaka shows its true colors after dark, with its creative culinary scene and vibrant nightlife. Be sure to visit the restaurant and bar district of Dotonbori, down by the canals, where you’ll be able to try local delicacies such as takoyaki (octopus dumplings).

Day 15 – Departure from Osaka Kansai Airport

Your Rural Japan Tour comes to an end with a private car ride to Osaka’s Kansai Airport, only an hour away from your hotel.

We hope by the end of your action-packed two weeks, probing deep into Japan’s countryside oases, you feel equal parts exhausted and ready to go again! Hopefully, this trip off the beaten path has shown you a side of Japan that you truly didn’t expect.

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