Our first day started with orientation and an introduction to the world’s biggest city. We hit the ground running, literally, with a trip to Chiba as we prepared to take on Japan’s largest obstacle course. We then hopped on a train to visit one of Yokohama’s more eccentric oddities, the Cup Noodle Museum, where we created our own custom cup ramen with all of the trimmings we desired. We also had time to peruse the noodle bazaar which boasts noodle dishes from all over the world, as well as ramen-flavored ice-cream.
On this day we made our way to two UNESCO world heritage sites, Toshogu shrine and Taiyuinbyo, which are some of the most ornate shrines in all of Japan. These two historically significant shrines also serve as mausoleums that deify the man who unified Japan, making them very sacred places for the Shinto religion. From there it was a short walk to the Tamozawa Imperial Villa, which was previously the residence for both the Tokugawa Shogunate and the Imperial family, and features over 100 rooms. We then slipped back into time and experienced life as it was in 17th century Japan with a visit to the Edo Wonderland theme park. While in Nikko, we also visited several other temples, and attractions.
We started our day by making our very own manju sweets. Fukushima is famous for its manju, and our teacher ran one of the best manju confectioneries in the area. After that we continued to let our creative juices flow by crafting our very own papier-mâché hariko figures. We were also treated to a show from the puppet-master himself. We finished our day with a trip to one of the few all-natural sake breweries in Japan. On our return to Tokyo, we had a free evening to explore the vastness of the city.
Leaving the 21st century behind, we entered into the world of the Yamabushi or mountain mystics. The Tsuruoka area is inhabited by many followers of the Shugendo faith. Cell phone usage was limited during this period of our travels, as we lived together with the mountain ascetics who have foregone material possession in favor of spiritual growth, and harmony with nature. Throughout this two-day period we will hiked the three sacred mountains that represent birth, death and rebirth. We also visited sacred temples that house Buddhist mummies. This leg of our trip helped us to reconnect with nature, and presented us with the opportunity to learn more about Japanese mysticism, as well as the sacredness that nature holds in the Shinto religion. Historically the Yamabushi were men who were famous for their astonishing physical strength and seemingly magical abilities. While there we trained with them, and learned about the spiritual attributes that the mountains possess, as well as the principles of Shugendo.
We bid farewell to our Yamabushi guides and returned to Tokyo where we learned the basics of kendo sword fighting before putting the newly-learned techniques to use in a private tournament. Less about pure strength, and more about technique and accuracy, this traditional samurai art tested our wits and saw who have what it took to be our kendo champion. There was little risk of injury as all members were equipped with full kendo ‘bogu’ armor. The winner received a gift to commemorate their success. After crowning our champion we had some free time to explore and get dinner before boarding the ferry to our first island destination.
Did you know that Tokyo has islands? It does, and we started our day by visiting one of the islands that also happens to be the smallest village in Japan. With a population of just over 100 people, the entire island is also a small, lush dormant volcano out in the Pacific Ocean. Getting there was accomplished by either helicopter or ferry, and once there it offered some of the best stargazing in Japan. We allowed the ocean waves to soothe us, as we let time slow down and experienced the island lifestyle, culture and a unique shochu that can only be tasted there. Our island experience continued as we moved onto Hachijojima. Here, we got to enjoy the hot springs of Miharashi onsen while taking in the pristine ocean views. The onsen was also equipped with a routenburo. Our day ended with a BBQ on Sokodo beach which is famous for its beautiful black sands. During the summer months, Hachijojima is home to bioluminescent mushrooms, which we were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of.
Today we had plenty of free time as we exchangde island vibes for city life on our journey south to Osaka. Upon arrival in Kansai’s largest city we checkd in to our accommodation, freshened up and then headed for a night out.
We said hello to one of Japan’s most vibrant cities as we visited one of country’s most famous landmarks, Osaka Castle. The castle grounds span 15 acres and provides a panoramic view of the city of Osaka. We began by getting a good outside view of the castle from a boat trip around the moat that encircles the castle. From there we journeyed inward to learn about the pivotal role that Osaka castle played in unifying the nation of Japan.The rest of the day was catered to guests’ individual interest as we explored the city of Osaka with the assistance of the guide. At night we met up again to discover what the nightlife of Osaka had to offer by starting off with a river cruise through the Tombori area. We then hit the streets of the city’s nightclub district, before calling it a night.
The exploration of Osaka continued on this day as we let guests loose to experience more of Osaka’s many attractions before heading to the southernmost tip of the Kyushu island, Kagoshima. Osaka was our oyster with the whole day being allocated for free time. Once we arrived in Kagoshima, we treated ourselves to the unique dishes and flavors of this coastal city.
Our day began with a short ferry ride from Kagoshima port to the shores of Japan’s largest designated UNESCO World Heritage reserve, Yakushima. Our third island destination for this tour, Yakushima has been the inspiration for many stories, anime, and movies including the multi-award winning animated film Princess Mononoke. The dense, and ancient forests of the island are home to a variety of fauna and flora, including many deer, monkeys and even trees that date back 5,000+ years. Our journey started with a tour by a local guide who gave us a brief history of the island, and its unique characteristics. We then headed to a woodworking class where we crafted our own chopsticks out of the yakusugi cedar wood that is indigenous to the island.
We donned our hiking shoes and got ready for a forest adventure unlike any other! An all-day hike had multiple sights to enjoy including the supernatural Jomon Sugi which, at 25.3m tall and with a circumference of 16.4m, is the largest and oldest yakusugi on the island, and the largest conifer in Japan. Our hike also included a stop at the Unsuikyo ravine for a heart-pumping canyoning experience before continuing our trek to Wilson’s stump, which is big enough to not only fit a shrine in it, but can also accommodate a person.
From the ancient magical island of Yakushima to the mythical town of Takachiho, we headed out to the place that is the setting for multiple Shinto legends and holds much spiritual significance in the Shinto belief system. It is home to the spot where the goddess Amaterasu is said to have hid inside a cave, and caused the world to fall into darkness. Takachiho is also said to be the place where Niniginomikoto, grandson of Amaterasu and great-grandfather of Japan’s first emperor, descended to govern the world. There was much to be discovered, learned and experienced at this mystical spot and we started our time here with a show at Takachiho’s Kagura hall, where our performers played the role of the gods themselves to tell us their story.
We finished up the tour with a visit to Hatsushima which boasts pristine views of Mt Fuji. This island was the fourth and last island on our trip back to Tokyo and is seated in the sea outside of Atami. Positioned in the shadow of the iconic Mount Fuji, Hatsushima houses many different activities including a canopy walk and zip line facility. We spent our day here before saying our goodbyes back in Tokyo.
A nature-lovers delight – 16 days of mountains, islands, fresh air and the stunning Japanese countryside!
Not your average tourist experience, this tour was specifically designed for the nature lovers out there. We left the hustle and bustle of the city behind as we traversed the well-worn paths of the mountain mystics and breathed in the history of forests which have endured for centuries. We drank in the afternoon sun with a boat ride down Takachiho Gorge and tested our endurance with a hike through the three sacred mountains of Dewa Sanzan. We enjoyed remote destinations rarely seen by tourists, beautiful hikes with stunning scenery, and islands brimming with life. Not for the faint-hearted, this tour was for adventurers who enjoyed the outdoors and didn’t mind a bit of physical activity to get there, but the rewards that the tour offered were well worth the effort.