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Itinerary

Secret Japan

Hiroshima & Miyajiima – Shikoku Island – Kurashiki – Kinosaki Onsen – Ine – Kyoto - Tokyo
17 days

You know that self-satisfaction you get when you sit back, admire you own work and take pleasure in being bloody brilliant at your job? Well, when we created this itinerary for some guests who wanted to travel off-the-beaten track, to really get under the skin of Japan and to experience a rural idyll beyond the big cities (yet still include Tokyo & Kyoto) – that’s how we felt. And that’s how it transpired for the guests when they travelled…a success so enjoyable that we’ve used this route as the template for many an itinerary since.

Highlights include Shikoku Island - the smallest of Japan’s major islands, boasting a feudal castle, Dogo Onsen, one of the earliest known hot-spring spas in the country as well as and spectacular scenery unlike anywhere else. You then head to Naoshima, a picturesque island dotted with impressive contemporary art museums and installations and on to both Kurashiki and Kinosaki Onsen – our two favourite towns (villages?) in all Japan in one itinerary.  Then add in wonderfully scenic ferry rides in the Seto Inland Sea, stays in some of Japan's best ryokans, a bullet-train ride under the shadow of Mount Fuji, reflecting in the poignancy of Hiroshima and – best of all – a stay in a funaya (boat house) in the oh-so-beautiful village of Ine on Honshu’s remote northern coast.

Secret Japan

WHERE WILL YOU STAY & WHAT WILL YOU BE DOING?

accommodation & experiences

As soon as you arrive in Japan, you are immediately immersed in to the Japanese experience with a stay in a ryokan on Miyajima Island. You stay on Miyajima Island, but then your guide will take you back to the mainland for the day in Hiroshima - all perfectly possible to do self-guided (and we can provide comprehensive notes), but it is a poignant experience better delivered by a local. 

 

Shikoku, Japan's fourth major island, is a rural delight. Less visited, and all the better for it, Shikoku boasts a wealth of traditional rural sights where you are likely to be the only Western face around.  The scenery is dramatic and most of the activities we like to organise and include involve getting 'in amongst' it: mountains tower above winding roads that lead you deep into hidden valleys of waterfalls and vine bridges. In sleepy isolated villages life goes on as it has for centuries, as locals fish the untamed rivers. The island also offers original castles, and unique arts and crafts such as Bunraku puppet theatre and paper making.There are a range of accommodation options - both hotels and some very fine ryokans - staying in Dogo Onsen (near Matsumata), Kotohira (near Takamatsu) and the amazing Iya Valley.

 

Naoshima is an island in the Seto Inland Sea, dotted with sculptures, art museums and golden beaches, a rural and relaxing place to walk, cycle and unwind, regardless of your opinion of modern art.

 

Kurashiki offers a 'small town' counter-point to everywhere else on the itinerary and it is possible to stay in either a hotel or ryokan here, the best being canal-side. It is wonderful exploring the preserved and quaint shops, cafés and art museums of this old town, a compact but picturesque maze of streets around a central canal that is lined with willow trees. And then Okayama, the city nearby, has its own treasures to boast. Korakuen, one of Japan’s three famous landscape gardens, and the reconstructed Okayama Castle peers over the greenery to improve everyone’s snapshots of the spacious lawns.

 

A stay in Ine is all about the sea - this charming village is home to distinctive boathouses that line the bay, offering you a historical perspective along with superb accommodation. Around 230 of these funaya (boathouses) remain today, and a few have been tastefully converted in to small guest houses, providing an authentic peek into a life of the fisherman today. A stay usually include two meals and we'll also get you out on a private boat in the Bay.

 

In Kinoski Onsen, a charming onsen town near the Sea of Japan, you will stay in a ryokan - that's the whole point. If your budget allows, the ryokan of choice would be Nishimuraya Honkan, a newly-designated Relais & Châteaux property founded in 1854. Built in the style of Japanese tea houses, which prioritises simplicity, natural light, warm wood and seamless harmony with nature, the ryokan's room are tucked along a labyrinth of hallways and open onto the ryokan’s lush garden filled with Japanese pines, moss covered rocks and tiny bridges crossing carp-filled ponds. Your Japanese Inn will be situated beside the scenic willow-lined Otani-gawa River and in the evening join the locals roaming quaint streets in traditional yukata robes, hopping from one onsen to the next.

 

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.

 

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!

 

Itinerary

Day 1
Depart from your local airport, and then fly direct to Japan from Heathrow or wherever is most convenient.
Day 2
Transfer through Haneda Airport and then fly west to Hiroshima. You are met at the airport and have a short transfer, by road and then short ferry ride, to Miyajima Island. Check in to your ryokan and enjoy your first afternoon / evening in Japan.
Day 3
Back over to the mainland for a visit to Hiroshima and the moving Peace Memorial Park. Lunch in the city, before heading back over to Miyajima Island for the afternoon, perhaps scaling Mount Misen (cable car up, walking paths down – that’s our suggestion!).
Day 4
It’s a short hop back to the mainland, but then you are straight back on a ferry across the Seto Inland Sea to Shikoku’s North Western corner. Check in to you hotel (or ryokan) in Dogo Onsen for two nights, a nationally famous ancient spa town, actually a suburb of Matsuyama city.
Day 5
Two options today – explore Matsuyama with its pretty castle and pleasant gardens. Alternatively, head to the Shimanami Kaido and cycle the 35-mile long toll road that connects Japan's main island of Honshu to the island of Shikoku, passing over six small islands in the Seto Inland Sea. We can organise transfers, a guide and a support vehicle (if required).
Day 6
Road transfer from Miyajima to Kotohira, with you guide. Travel via the Iya Valley - a remote, mountainous valley deep in the heart of Shikoku Island, characterised by steep mountain slopes and deep rocky gorges which were traditionally crossed by vine bridges. Check in to Kotohiro Kadan, one of the finest ryokans in all Japan, where you stay for two nights.
Day 7
Spend the day with your guide exploring Kotohira - a small town famous for Kompirasan, Shikoku's most popular shrine and the historical Kanamaruza kabuki theatre. In the afternoon head over to Takamatsu, a castle town and home to Ritsurin Koen, one of Japan's most beautiful gardens.
Day 8
Catch the ferry over to Nao Shima Island, where rental bikes (or e-bikes) are waiting for you at the port. Explore the small island and its many art installations (as well as beaches and characterful small villages) before heading on to the mainland and checking in to your ryokan in the canal-side town of Kurashiki.
Day 9
Full day to explore Kurashiki, with its museums, boutiques and cafes, and then also visit nearby Okayama and its famous gardens and castle.
Day 10
Take the train from Kurashiki to Kinosaki Onsen, on Honshu Islands north coast. You find yourself in a charmingly old-fashioned onsen town, where you check in to the ryokan early afternoon in good time for bathing, a walk along the riverside wearing your yukata and geta (wooden clogs) before a gorgeous kaiseki dinner back in your ryokan.
Day 11
After breakfast in your ryokan, you are met by your guide and vehicle and rive to Amanohashidate, where you find a pine covered sandbar that spans the mouth of Miyazu Bay and said to look like a pathway between heaven and earth. Then head 8-miles up the road to Ine, a tint fishing village from which you take a boat tour across the bay. Check in to your private funaya ‘boat house’ for the night.
Day 12
A leisurely morning in Ine, enjoying your views over the ocean, before a transfer back to the railway station in Amanohashidate and take the train to Kyoto, travelling in the historic Tango No Umi carriages for the first part of the journey. You are met at the station and taken to your central hotel.
Days 13 & 14
Two days to get to grips with Kyoto, with or without a guide to help you explore. We can arrange walking tours, bicycle tours around quieter neighbourhoods, excursions to nearby places such as Nara or Arashiyama, dinner dates with geisha and maiko and all kinds of cultural activities – as well as making dinner reservations for you in Kyoto’s finest restaurants.
Day 15
Morning bullet-train, passing under the shadow of Mount Fuji, all the way to Tokyo. Check in to your hotel, close to Tokyo Station in the Maranouchi district. Afternoon and evening in the capital.
Day 16
Your final day in Japan, in its most exhilarating city. With so much to do and see, then some pretty tough decisions need to be made – don’t try do it all in one day is our suggestion. We can tick off many of the main sights if you wish, but we’d suggest that you focus on one district and use this to get under the skin of Tokyo.
Day 17
Transfer from your hotel to either Haneda or Narita airport, in good time for your flight home.

An indication of cost

An indicative per person cost for this 17-day week itinerary would be circa £8,280 to £9,600, 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 best in each and every instance.

What our customers say

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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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