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Bygone Japan

Tokyo - Yudanaka Onsen - Kanazawa – Takayama – Matsumoto – Kiso Valley – Kyoto
15 days

An itinerary to take you off the beaten track and deep in to traditional Japan, where very little has changed over the centuries. You’ll discover a world of former geisha establishments, stunning castles, teahouses which line roads lit by old-fashioned street lamps, tranquil Japanese gardens, ancient temples, beautifully preserved samurai neighbourhoods and you’ll stay in several of the very best traditional ryokan inns, featuring relaxing onsens and world-class kaiseki cuisine.

The itinerary includes an opportunity to walk a section of the Nakasendo Trail, the route that ran along the Kiso Valley and connected Tokyo with Kyoto during the Edo Period. This section between the beautiful post towns of Tsumago and Magome is gentle and easily navigated, either with or without a guide. But if you don’t fancy this exercise, then this can easily be adapted to navigate the region instead by road. Alternatively, if you want to get far more active and explore this ancient path in more depth then the possibilities are endless…and endlessly rewarding.


Where will you stay & what will you be doing?

accommodation & experiences

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 head out of the city for day trips to Nikko, Hakone, Mount Fuji or Kamakura. 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!


Yudanbaka Onsen (or Shibu Onsen) and Takayama are two places in which to stay in an upmarket ryokan - these historic places host many Japanese inns, many of which are quite wonderful. 


Kanazawa and Matsumoto both offer choice of ryokan or city hotel - we tend to prefer the Nikko Hotel in Kanazawa close to the station, for its convenience and comfort. It's a great hotel. But there are several ryokans we could use also, as well as some magnificent 'machiya' - traditional Japanese houses for rent. We work some amazing local guides in both places, though self-guiding is perfectly possible.


When trekking on the Nakasendo Highway your accommodation options are more limited and the inns we use are more basic, though clean, perfectly comfortable, welcoming and so-very characterful. And it is for only two nights. We are suggesting that you have a trekking guide with you for this section though, we stress, this is not essential - the trails are well-signposted in English and it is perfectly possible to head out on these walks self-guided. I've done it myself, thrice, so can provide all the notes you will need.


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.


Day 1
Depart from your local airport, and then fly direct to Japan from Heathrow or wherever is most convenient.
Day 2
Arrive in Tokyo Haneda, where you are met by our representative and have a private transfer to your hotel. Remainder of the day relaxing after your international flight.
Day 3
A full day in the city, where we can leave you free to explore by yourself, or organise a guide to get the most out of the time available, perhaps focussing on the rarely visited older neighbourhoods to discover Edo-era Tokyo.
Day 4
Bullet-train to Nagano City in the morning, from where you head on to Yudanaka Onsen. Check in to your traditional ryokan in Shibu Onsen for your first experience of traditional accommodation in this attractive, old-fashioned hot spring resort. If travelling during the winter months, head out to visit the nearby snow monkeys bathing at Jigokudani hot springs.
Day 5
Back to Nagano City, where you can visit Zenkoji Temple, before continuing in the bullet train north, heading directly to Kanazawa. Check in to your hotel (or ryokan) and enjoy the ancient quarters of the city in the evening.
Day 6
A full day in Kanazawa, either with a local guide or simply with a great guidebook (and our extensive notes which aid self-exploration). Visit Kenroku-en (the finest Japanese garden), many beautiful and historic villas, Nagamachi (the former samurai district), Higashi Chaya (the geisha district) and the many markets and shrines of this important Edo-period castle town.
Day 7
Road trip, with private guide and vehicle, from Takayama to Shirakawa-go - a UNESCO world heritage site famous for its traditional gassho-zukuri farmhouses, some of which are more than 250 years old – and then on to Takayama in the Japanese Alps. Check in to your ryokan, home for the next two nights.
Day 8
A full day in Takayama, which retains it’s traditional touch in its beautifully preserved old town. The spring and autumn festivals are the best in all Japan and the itinerary should certainly be built around this if the dates suit (and we are in good time to secure accommodation). However, Takayama’s ancient streets, folk village and many shrines and temples are worth visiting at any time of the year – beautiful in the snow and a welcome mountain retreat from the heat of the summer.
Day 9
A wonderful public coach journey (or private vehicle if you prefer) over the mountain pass to Matsumoto, home to one of Japan's most beautiful original castles. Nakamachi, the merchant district, and nearby ‘Frog Street’, are also worthy of exploration.
Day 10
Catch the train south to the Kiso Valley, where you head in to truly rural Japan. Overnight in a ryokan in the small post town of Tsumago – where you meet your guide, ready for tomorrows gentle walk.
Day 11
Spend a day with your guide on the Nakasendo Highway, walking to the next post town along the 332-mile route which once linked Nara and Kyoto in central Japan with the new capital of Edo, modern-day Tokyo. This is a remarkably pleasant five-mile, three-hour stroll through forests, past small villages and over (a very gentle) mountain pass. Don’t fancy the walk, then a very convenient local bus links Tsumago and Magome, though this has to travel around the long way. Spend a second night in a small, rural and oh-so-very-traditional ryokan in Magome.
Day 12
After a leisurely morning in Magome, you then take the train south to Nagoya, from which it is bullet-train directly in to Kyoto. Welcome to Japan’s ancient capital and cultural heartland.
Days 13 & 14
Two full days to get to grips with Kyoto. We can organise a guide? We can focus on the main sights? We can explore the countryside and leafy districts? We can leave you alone to explore at your own pace? We can visit nearby Nara (Japan’s first permanent capital)? We can organise rental bikes to explore the quieter neighbourhoods? We can organise a dinner with a maiko (trainee geisha)? Or, we can get active with traditional arts and crafts? Your holiday, so you decide how to best enjoy Japan’s centre-piece.
Day 15
Private transfer to Kansai Airport and fly directly home.

An indication of cost...

An indicative per person cost for this two week itinerary would be circa £6,000 to £7,800, which would include luxury accommodation, private transfers from and to airports, the activities and excursions (with private guide) as shown, bullet-train tickets in Green Car (first class), 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.

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.

David  ·  U.K.

Very happy honeymooners...

Wonderful experience from start to finish. The information 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.

Ashleigh  ·  United States

Begin your journey
How to book

It's pretty straight forward. You simply need to take the first step by getting in contact with us...


Give us a call, or fill in the enquiry form, or send us an email. We’ll listen, give advice and make suggestions.


We create a tailor-made itinerary proposal and email this to you. Together, we then refine it until it is just as you want.


A 20% deposit secures the booking. The balance payment is not due until 10 weeks before departure.


We post out your comprehensive travel pack, and then you travel in Japan under the care of our various local partners.