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Itinerary

An Active Autumn

Kyoto – Mount Koya - Kumano Kodo –Takayama – Tokyo (& Nikko)
15 days

Spectacular colourful leaves are to the Japanese autumn what cherry blossoms are to spring,  painting mountains, parks and forests with a vibrant palette of reds, brown, oranges, golds and yellows. This itinerary has been created to bear witness to this spectacular show, by getting up close and personal - trekking through the dense woodlands of the Kumano Kodo, overnighting in a mountain-top Buddhist retreat and exploring Takayama, deep in the Japanese Alps. 

Dove-tailed by stays in Kyoto and Tokyo, our aim here is get you out in to the countryside. The highlight of the trip? Well, trekking along one of the most ancient pilgrim routes in Japan you’ll discover a world a million miles away from the famous tourist sights and sightseeing hoardes elsewhere on Honshu Island.  The trails will take you deep into the countryside, providing a strong connection with past and present pilgrims hiking these historic routes. Along the way, stop by peaceful temples and tranquil monasteries, soak in a traditional onsen and experience two of the main religions in Japan: Buddhism and Shinto. Another highlight is joining in on the morning prayers and sharing a traditional shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian) meal during an overnight temple stay in Koya-san, deep in mountainous Wakayama prefecture.

 

Content

WHERE WILL YOU STAY & WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING?

accommodation & experiences

The layout of Kyoto is most unusual for Japan, because in this instance the main railway station is not the hub around which everything revolves. Instead, a couple of miles further north are the districts of Gion, Shijo, Higashiyama, Karasuma and this is where we prefer to base our clients - neighbourhoods in which you can walk out the door and soak up the atmosphere of old Japan, close to the temples, shrines, geisha districts and markets. However, there are many hotels down by the station, indeed most, and tour operators without a clue would have you stay here. In Kyoto - not a high-rise city - you can stay in either in a ryokan, and Kyoto is home to Japan's most historic and finest, or in a stylish hotel, often with its own landscaped gardens. Or both. All that we insist on is that where you stay has a relationship with its surroundings - in style, in decor, in its sense of hospitality. This is Kyoto after all and every hotel or ryokan ought to have its essential character running through its veins.

 

However many days we have allocated to Kyoto in your itinerary, it won't be enough. There is simply so much to see and do in Kyoto and the more time to have to linger, the more will be revealed. And because there are so many 'must-see' temples, shrines and gardens we strongly suggest that we throw away the rule book and instead commit to explore at your own pace, not worrying unduly about missing any one 'big ticket' sight. Consider turning left when everyone else turns right and our local guides know where, when and why you should do this. In Kyoto, they add so much. Here more than anywhere else in Japan does local insight, knowledge and personal relationships pay more dividend.  And your sightseeing should not be limited to only Kyoto - use the city as a base from which to explore the region. Arashiyama, Nara, Hikone and even Osaka itself and all with day-tripable distance.

 

On the Kumano Kodo you will be trekking the ancient pilgrimage trails, through some amazing and immense woodland, with our local guide. The accommodation may be a little more basic, though we tend to base you in one river-side ryokan-style hotel (with amazing onsen waters open to the river), and then head out on days treks unencumbered by luggage other than what you need in day packs. The trekking can be as strenuous or easy-going as your prefer.

 

When in Koya-san you will stay in a shukubo temple lodging, a fantastic way to understand the simple, traditional lifestyle of Japan's Buddhist monks. You'll stay in a private room with sliding fusuma doors and sleep on futon mattresses on tatami-matted floors. Some rooms may have en suite bathrooms, although at most shukubo, communal baths (separated into male and female facilities) are common. The included breakfast and dinner are shojin ryori - that's strict vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. Ingredients are fresh and simply dressed, making the most of the subtle, natural flavours of the tofu and vegetables. In the early morning guests are invited to join the monks in a morning meditation service, which typically lasts around 30 minutes. You may also view the temple's cultural treasures, halls and gardens.

  

Again, Takayama is a perfect place in which to stay in a ryokan - some of the best are just out of town in the countryside. This is where you'll be based in the Japanese Alps, though you do head out to Shirakawa-go on an excursion with your local guide using private transport.

 

Tokyo is not the place for traditional ryokans or even boutique hotels - we'll tick these boxes elsewhere on your travels in Japan. This is a high-rise city and many of the luxury hotels occupy the top floors of imposing skyscrapers,  with amazing views across the urban sprawl. Therefore, the most important decision we need to consider is 'where?' - which district of Tokyo you choose to base yourself in making all the difference. We often prefer to base our guests over in the west of the city, Shinjuku or Shibuya, because these are the main entertainment districts, full of restaurants, bars and the neon-drenched nightlife synonymous with the capital. Alternatively, the hotels closer to Tokyo Station and the Imperial Palace in east Tokyo  - Nihombashi - are well-located in an upmarket district, with some amazing shopping streets and many of the city's major sights close by. There are many luxury hotels in Shinagawa and Shiodome - several of them very nice - be we do tend to avoid these properties because...well, they are 'nothing' neighbourhoods, very business-orientated and lacking in character. 

 

It is perfectly possible to explore Tokyo by yourself - most of the signs are now in English, the overground and subway rail system is second-to-none and a decent guide book will tell you much of what you need to know. We also publish our own pragmatic self-touring notes, which also include many personal recommendations. But to have a local guide accompany you undoubtedly elevates the experience, at the very least getting you between the 'must-see' sights more efficiently or - more importantly -  explaining, adding context and showing you lesser-visited neighbourhoods which will no doubt form your most cherished memories of the capital. We can hire commuter bikes to explore the backstreets or perhaps you'd prefer that we weight the itinerary with 'experiences' as opposed to 'sights', such as cookery classes, sunset helicopter rides or visiting a sumo stable? In the evenings, head out with your guide to a buzzing 'locals' izakaya or yakitori stand, or to see show in the kabuki theatre...or robot café. It's Tokyo - the world's most exciting city and the possibilities are limitless!

 

On the final day you head out north of the capital, to the small mountain town of Nikko feels like another world. Here, beneath the cool cedars, stands the fabulous Toshogu Shrine, mausoleum to the first and greatest Tokugawa Shogun on whom James Clavell based his famous novel. The superb carvings of the shrine, including the original ‘see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil’ monkey carvings, complement the beautiful mountain setting. After a thorough exploration of the shrine precinct you then head up the hairpin road to enjoy the fine scenery, and autumn colours, surrounding Lake Chuzenji.

 

 

 

Itinerary

Day 1
Depart from your local airport, and then fly direct to Japan from Heathrow or wherever is most convenient.
Day 2
Arrive in Kansai Airport, where you are met and welcomed by our local representative. Direct transfer to your hotel in Kyoto and then....relax!
Days 3 & 4
Two full days in Kyoto. We can arrange guides, excursions and experiences – but it is also essential to build time in for self-exploration as well, as Kyoto is all about those little pockets which you discover for yourself.
Day 5
Train from Kyoto, via a scenic local branch line, to Gokurabashi Station. From here there is a short ride on a funicular railway up to Koya-san, a small, secluded temple town. Check in to your ‘shukubo’ and take an evening walk with a local monk through Okunoin cemetery, with over 200,000 tombstones lining the almost two kilometer long approach to Kobo Daishi's mausoleum.
Day 6
Morning prayers with the monks and enjoy some free time to further explore Koya-san. After lunch you have a private transfer from Kyoto to the small village of Kawayu Onsen on the Kii Peninsula. Enjoy the riverside onsens.
Day 7
Full day trek on the Kumano Kodo with your guide - rom Takijiri-oji to Tsugizakura-Oji. Back to your base in Kawayu Onsen by private transfer after the 10-mile walk.
Day 8
A second day on the Kumano Kodo – today you walk from Koguchi to Nachi Taisha over the Funami-toge Pass, where there are wonderful views of the Pacific Ocean, and along the ridgetop Nachi Kogen Park. This eight-mile trek ends at the awe-inspiring Nachi falls and the Nachi Taisha shrine. To celebrate the completion of two days trekking you then head to Hotel Nakanoshima for a night of absolute luxury on this private island in the Bay.
Day 9
Morning relaxing in the onsens of the Nakanoshima hotel, before afternoon train through Nagoya and then up in to the Japanese Alps. Alight in Takayama and check in to your central ryokan.
Day 10
A full day at leisure to enjoy the Autumn colours in Takayama – a large town which retains a traditional ambiance like few other places, especially in its beautifully preserved old town. We could time the visit to coincide with The Takayama Hachiman Festival, one of Japan’s finest celebrations.
Day 11
Afternoon private excursion to Shirakawa-go, famous for the traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old, all set within a beautiful valley resplendent in the Autumn.
Day 12
Morning at leisure in Takayama and then afternoon train on the scenic line back south to Nagoya. Shinkansen – bullet-train – under the shadow of Mount Fuji to Tokyo and check in to your central hotel.
Day 13
A full day in Tokyo. One great option during the Autumn is to take a lunch time private cruise on the Sunida River on board the Mizuha, a custom-made houseboat on which you can enjoy sake tasting.
Day 14
Full day excursion to Nikko, with your private guide and driver. The Autumn season in Nikko is long because of the wide range in elevation from the mountains of the Okunikko region to the Nikko town area down in the valley. Nikko had been a centre of Shinto and Buddhist mountain worship for many centuries before Toshogu was built in the 1600s, and the region is outstandingly scenic, with mountainous landscapes, lakes, waterfalls, hot springs, wild monkeys and hiking trails.
Day 15
Private transfer from your hotel to either Narita or Haneda Airport in good time for your direct flight home.

An indication of cost

An indicative price for this two week itinerary would be circa £8,000 to £10,000 per person, including luxury accommodation, private transfers from and to airports, the activities and excursions (with private guide) as shown in the itinerary, bullet-train tickets, private support vehicle and trekking guide on the Kumano Kodo and international flights from the UK in the World Traveller Plus cabin (Premium Economy).

 

Obviously, the price you pay depends on the accommodation you choose (and room category), for how many days you would prefer to book a private guide, which cabin you like to fly in (if you'd like for us to include the international flights)...etc. Because all of our holidays are tailor-made, by altering the itinerary, changing the accommodation selections and/or taking another look at the inclusions we can usually adjust the total price – either down to match your budget or enhancing it further with upgrades.

 

If you were to move the dates in to peak periods (Cherry Blossom Season, Golden Week, New Year and the such), then the cost could potentially rise. And, of course, if you wanting the absolute finest, most prestigious accommodation - the Aman in Tokyo, or the Tawaraya Ryokan in Kyoto by way of example - then costs will once again head north.

 

We don't have to include international flights. However, by keeping it all within one package, your arrangements are protected by our ATOL licence which offers financial peace-of-mind for you.

 

Different Japan strive to offer the most competitive prices in all instances - just because you may have a larger budget at your disposal, this does not then mean that 'value' assumes any lower priority. We will always keep a keen eye on cost by using any promotions available and seeking the best value with every airline, hotel and/or service provider we use. We explore all the available options and monitor our costs against what you would be able to buy direct, ensuring we are always the better option.

 

However, we pride ourselves first and foremost on quality - we are an independent specialist tour operator and, therefore, are not beholden to any supplier. We make our decisions based only on who's the best on-the-ground in each and every instance.

What our customers say

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I can’t rate Different Snow highly enough...

Different Snow put together a well thought out and carefully researched tailored three week trip. Their recommendations for hotels, sightseeing, entertainment and dining were spot on.

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Very happy honeymooners...

Wonderful experience from start to finish. The binder they send you is like your Bible when you are out there. It has everything in you will need, from hotel addresses to train times, to advice about what to do whilst you're there. Trust the binder! Definitely will be using them for my next Japan trip.

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