Culture and Cuisine in Japan
From graceful geishas to savory sushi, discover the culinary and cultural icons of Japan. Follow a food trail through Osaka, prepare noodles in Tokyo and sip sake in Takayama. Then get a dose of culture in UNESCO-filled Kyoto, delve into Japanese Buddhism in Koyasan and witness age-old traditions at every turn.
DAY 1, 2 & 3: TOKYO
Upon arrival to Tokyo’s airport, one of our representatives will be waiting to assist with transport to the hotel (either boarding the correct train or finding the appropriate shuttle bus to the hotel). The rest of the day is at leisure.
Begin the next morning early alongside a local guide for a visit to Tokyo’s iconic Tsukiji, the world-famous fish market filled with traditional shops and top-quality sushi restaurants. After exploring the market (but before leaving), enjoy a super-fresh sushi breakfast in a local restaurant – the best way to start a trip in Japan! From Tsukiji, walk to Hamarikyu, a Japanese garden that once served as a private villa of a powerful feudal lord during the Edo period. Its wide collection of seasonal flowers make it one of the most visited gardens in Tokyo, however it's best known for its attractive is a teahouse, Nakajima-no-Ochaya. Have a break in the teahouse and a cup of freshly made green tea while the guide shares interesting facts about chado (tea ceremony). From the park, take the scenic river cruise to Asakusa, a part of Tokyo’s shitamachi or old town. Asakusa is the city’s oldest Geisha district and also home to Senso-ji, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple. The streets around Senso-ji feature many traditional shops and are a delight to wander through. Around noon, stop by one of the local restaurants for lunch. Although there’s a variety of food to choose from, Asakusa is known for its tempura. From Asakusa, continue a short walk to Kappabashi, the so-called Kitchenware Town lined with dozens of specialized stores for knives, Japanese tableware, and even food replicas. Last stop is in Ueno’s Ameyoko-cho, a former black market that sprang up after WWII. It is now a bustling shopping alley filled with food stalls that make it a great place to try some local snacks.
Begin your third day with a hands-on culinary adventure. Head towards the cooking studio in Tokyo’s Tsukiji area to begin the morning’s soba-making workshop. The class will be held by either Akila Inouye, founder and Master Chef of the Tsukiji Soba Academy, or one of the academy’s graduates. The activity will begin with a short demonstration by a sobatician, followed by a lesson on how to prepare the wheat mixture, the proper way to work on the dough and, last but definitely not the least, the precise way of cutting it into 1.6 mm thick noodles. At the end of the lesson, cook the soba and dine with the teacher and the rest of the class in tachigui style, which means eating while standing. The rest of the afternoon is free at leisure. Enjoy relaxing in the hotel or independently discover the busy streets of Shibuya (scramble crossing), visit the fashion mecca of Harajuku or to explore another shitamachi in Yanaka.
Make fresh noodles with one of Tokyo’s master soba maker and learn to make sushi, miso and more in Kyoto.
Gain a deeper understanding of Japanese Buddhism at Koyasan, see Shirakawago’s unique farmhouses and explore Kyoto’s shrines.
In Takayama, stay in a ryokan, dine on traditional meals and soak in an onsen just like a local.
WHEN TO GO: Each season has its unique highlights in terms of weather and events. The best times of year are March to May and September to November.
LENGTH: 12 Days
COST: From $4,025 per person
DAY 4 & 5: TAKAYAMA
Today marks the journey to Takayama, a small town nestled high in the Hida Alpine region of Gifu Prefecture. The first leg of the trip will be on a bullet train that can reach speeds of up to 160 mph. We recommend strolling in Takayama’s shitamachi, where the streets are lined with century-old merchants’ homes and sake breweries. Stop by one of the breweries for a taste of the local drop or queue for the famous Hida beef sushi in one of the special food stalls. In Takayama, experience a stay in a ryokan, the traditional Japanese-style inn furnished with low tables and chairs, sliding shoji doors, and tatami flooring.
The next day, explore some of the food shops in Takayama with a knowledgeable guide, learning about the town’s colorful history and familiarizing the taste buds with some of the local delicacies. The walking tour includes visits to a tofu seller, a rakugan shop (traditional Japanese candies), and even a sake brewery (some stores may close in certain days). Food and sake tastings are also included. Around noon, take the bus to Shirakawago, a UNESCO World Heritage Site famous for its gassho-zukuri farmhouses. Gassho-zukuri means “constructed like hands in prayer,” which is represented through the farmhouses' steep thatched roofs. This architectural style developed over many generations – the roofs were constructed without any nails and are intricately designed to withstand large amounts of snow. These houses are private homes of the locals but some are open to the public, such as Wada House, a legacy left behind by the Wada Family who used to be the richest family and village leader in Ogimachi. Return to Takayama for another night in the ryokan.
DAY 6, 7 & 8: KYOTO
Take one last soak in the onsen before starting the journey to Japan’s cultural capital, Kyoto. Kyoto is home to around 2,000 shrines and temples, including 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
The following day, explore the former imperial capital with a knowledgeable local guide, utilizing Kyoto’s comprehensive bus system to visit some of Kyoto’s World Heritage Sites. Start with a visit to Nijo Castle, an ornamental castle that was originally built to serve as the private villa of a powerful feudal lord. The main building was completed in early 1600s and has since then been known for its Momoyama-style architecture, decorated sliding doors, and “chirping nightingale” floors. Next in the list is the serene Ryoan-ji Temple, which is famous for its well-maintained rock garden and known to be the Myoshinji School of the Rinzai Buddhist sect. Within walking distance from Ryoan-ji is the stunning golden pavilion collectively known as Kinkaku-ji Temple. The temple ground is relatively smaller than those in most temples and shrines in Kyoto but what is undoubtedly impressive is the pavilion that is completely covered in handmade gold leaves. Travel to Kiyomizu-dera, a Buddhist temple situated near Mt. Otowa famous for its wooden veranda standing 13 meters tall and was built without the use of any nails. It offers breathtaking views, especially when the cherry blossoms are in bloom or when the leaves change color in fall. End the tour with a stroll along the busy streets of Higashiyama District, a collection of narrow alleyways lined with local stores, souvenir shops, small eateries, and even pottery centers.
The next afternoon, meet with a local guide at a designated meeting spot in Nishiki Market and embark on a tour that will truly delight the senses. The mile-long covered food market of Nishiki is lined with small shops and food stalls that sell fresh produce and local dishes. The guide will introduce a few of these unique ingredients and delicacies before heading to the venue of the cooking class. The instructor will teach the proper way to make rolled sushi, miso soup, and salad with seasonal fruit for dessert. After the class, share a simple yet hearty meal with the teacher and the rest of the group.
DAY 9: KOYASAN
Home to over 100 temples, Koyasan has been the center of Shingon Buddhism, an important Buddhist sect, for over 1,200 years. Koyasan, and its vicinity, is a designated UNESCO World Heritage site. The journey to Koyasan is one of the highlights of the visit, with the final ascent being on a cable car, which offers one of the most scenic journeys in Japan, as it winds its way up to the mountains.
Meet the guide at Koyasan Station and spend the afternoon exploring a couple of popular sites that give an insight to Japanese Buddhism. Visit Kongobuji, the head temple of Shingon Buddhism and home to Japan’s largest rock garden. On rare occasions, guests might witness a small group of worshippers led by a monk chanting some scripts in front of the temple. Continue on to Okuno-in, Japan’s largest cemetery that holds the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi. The classic approach starts from Ichino Hashi Bridge and stretches up to 2km, filled with more than 200,000 tombstones that belong to feudal lords, prominent monks, and even well-known Japanese companies. Gokusho Offering Hall, Torodo Hall of Lanterns, and Kobo Daishi’s Mausoleum are located at the end of the trail. Afterwards, the guide will provide an escort to the shukubo (temple lodge), where famous Buddhist cuisine is served.
DAY 10 & 11: OSAKA
To have a complete experience of Koyasan, we recommend joining the Morning Prayer, which usually starts at 06:00. Be immersed in the calming chants of the monks inside the prayer hall (prayers are only in Japanese but some priests provide a simple explanation in English at the end of the ceremony). Afterwards, proceed to the dining room for a shojin ryori breakfast. The rest of the morning is free to further explore Koyasan before departing for Osaka, Japan’s Kitchen Capital. Osaka’s flamboyance, fun-loving people and amazing food are the highlights of the city.
The following day, together with the guide, walk through Osaka’s liveliest and most colorful shopping and dining streets, starting from Doguyasuji, a unique market that sells anything related to food, from pots and other kitchenware to the lifelike plastic food models widely used by restaurants. Continue towards Sennichimae, a lane filled with small eateries that serve popular Osakan delicacies such as takoyaki, okonomiyaki, and the famed fugu (blowfish). Aside from the local restaurants, Sennichimae also hosts a few game centers and the vibrant Namba Grand Kagetsu Theater, the headquarters of a nationwide Japanese comedy brand. Before reaching the end of Sennichimae, make a quick left turn in one of the narrow alleys to see Hozen-ji, a small village temple dedicated to one of the Five Wisdom Buddhas. After offering coins, worshippers splash water on the statue of the deity before they pray. Right outside the temple grounds and just across the humble yet historical Kamigata Ukiyoe Museum is Hozenji Yokocho, a short, narrow lane lined with expensive restaurants. From here, emerge to the very busy Dotonbori, a restaurant mecca which has long-been referred to as Osaka’s former entertainment and pleasure district. A short walk from this street leads to the touristy Ebisubashi with the famous billboard of the Glico Running Man and a view of Dotonbori River.
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