Embark on a journey through Japan’s cultural past with this immersive two-week itinerary. Starting in the modern capital of Tokyo, you’ll travel north to traditional mountain hot springs before making your way through the historic post towns of the ancient Nakasendo Trail. Wander through the 16th-century architecture of Takayama, discover the alpine valleys and traditional straw-thatched houses of Shirakawa-go, and step back in time to Imperial Japan in the historic capital of Kyoto. Spend a night with Buddhist monks at the mountaintop temples of Mount Koya before returning to Tokyo for a final evening in the city that never sleeps.

Highlights

  • Soak in mountain hot springs & spot snow monkeys in Yudanaka
  • Discover the historic post towns of the Nakasendo Trail
  • Stroll the atmospheric alleys of Edo-era Takayama
  • See the spectacular mountain valleys & traditional houses of Shirakawa-go
  • Sleep at the mountaintop monastery of Mount Koya

Brief Itinerary

Day Highlights Overnight
Day 1 Arrive in Tokyo Tokyo
Day 2 Explore Tokyo Tokyo
Day 3 Obuse & Yudanaka Hot Springs Yudanaka Onsen
Day 4 Matsumoto & Narai Narai
Day 5 Magome & Tsumago Tsumago
Day 6 Transfer to Takayama Takayama
Day 7 Explore Takayama Takayama
Day 8 Shirakawa-go Shirakawa
Day 9 Transfer to Kyoto Kyoto
Day 10 Explore Kyoto Kyoto
Day 11 Nara Kyoto
Day 12 Mount Koya Mt Koya
Day 13 Transfer to Tokyo Tokyo
Day 14 Depart Tokyo  

Detailed Itinerary

Day 1: Arrive in Tokyo

Tokyo's skyline, with the red Tokyo Tower in the forefront.
Tokyo's skyline, with the red Tokyo Tower in the foreground.

Welcome to Tokyo! After transferring from the airport, settle into Japan’s ultra-modern capital, enjoy a welcome dinner, and rest up for the days of sightseeing and discovery ahead.

Day 2: Explore Tokyo

Tokyo's Meiji Shrine.
Tokyo's Meiji Shrine.

Start your first full day in Japan with a walking tour of Tokyo. Start at the peaceful Hama Rikyu Gardens located near the mouth of the Sumida-gawa River, where you can enjoy the striking contrast between the quiet gardens and the gleaming towers of the new Shiodome business area beyond. Next, you’ll stop at Nihonbashi (the "Japan Bridge") considered to be the center of Japan and the zero marker point for all the country’s main roads since the Edo period. Browse the elegant Ginza shopping district, then continue to the grand Meiji Shrine near Harajuku, an area famous for its avant-garde fashion and architecture.

Day 3: Obuse & Yudanaka Hot Springs

Snow monkeys soaking the hot springs around Yudanaka.
Snow monkeys soaking the hot springs around Yudanaka.

Today you’ll travel northwest to the small town of Obuse in the Nagano Prefecture. This quaint setting was once home to the famous woodblock artist Katsushika Hokusai, whose “Great Wave” print is one of the most recognizable pieces of art in the world. Visit the Hokusai-kan Museum to browse a selection of his historic works, then stop into the nearby Masuichi-Ichimura Saké Brewery to tour and taste your way through the saké-making process.

In the afternoon, make the short journey to Yudanaka Onsen, a romantic hot spring village famous for its resident snow monkeys. The Japanese macaques originally came here to warm themselves in the thermal waters during cold winters, but now stay all year round. Settle into a traditional local Ryokan inn and enjoy a long soak in the hot springs yourself.

Day 4: Matsumoto & Narai

Narai's atmospheric Edo-era streets.
Narai's atmospheric Edo-era streets.

This morning takes you to the beautiful small city of Matsumoto, where you’ll marvel at its imposing 16th-century castle. After lunch, continue into the scenic Kiso Valley and end your day in the small town of Narai. This atmospheric, timbered post town sits along the ancient Nakasendo Trail, an important trade route that linked Kyoto and Tokyo in Edo-era Japan.

Day 5: Magome & Tsumago

The Nakasendo Trail entering Magome.
The Nakasendo Trail entering Magome.

After breakfast, take some time to wander the character-filled streets of Narai and browse its handmade lacquerware and woodcrafts. Continue on a short train and bus journey to reach Magome. Another Edo-era post town that thrived during the age of the Nakasendo Trail, Magome is beautifully preserved—a living museum still inhabited by its local residents. Wander the streets and sample the local delicacy of gohei-mochi: skewered balls of pounded sticky rice glazed with a sweet paste of miso, sesame, and walnuts.

From here, an optional trail walk winds its way over the Magome Pass for just over five miles to the neighboring town of Tsumago. You can take the opportunity to stroll this lovely section through forests and countryside, passing farms, rice fields, and gardens. A local bus provides alternative transport if you’re not in the mood for a hike. Upon arrival, check in to a local Minshuku, a traditional family-run inn in Tsumago.

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Day 6: Transfer to Takayama

Takayama's iconic Nakabashi Bridge.
Takayama's iconic Nakabashi Bridge.

Take a morning walk through Magome before continuing to Takayama, an exquisitely preserved small city in the Gifu Prefecture. Much of its 16th century Edo-era architecture has been conserved, and the town is well-known for its crafts, particularly yew-wood carving, Shunkei lacquerware, pottery, and furniture. After arriving at your local inn, take some time to explore the surrounding areas, and relax in a hot-spring bath before dinner. In the evening, sample the region's famed Hida beef and perhaps some locally-brewed saké.

Day 7: Explore Takayama

Takayama's Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine.
Takayama's Sakurayama Hachimangu Shrine.

Spend today further exploring the many charms of Takayama, starting with a visit to the bustling morning market, with its stalls of vegetables, pickles, crafts, and souvenirs. Stop in at the Yoshijima Heritage House, a precious wooden structure with a famously refined architectural interior, then discover the San-machi area with its rows of old merchant houses and museums. After lunch, there’s plenty of time to browse the local markets and shops for more special treasures to bring home.

Day 8: Shirakawa-go

The traditional thatched houses of Shirakawa-go.
The traditional thatched houses of Shirakawa-go.

In the morning, take few more hours to browse some of Takayama’s museums, such as the Festival Floats Exhibition Hall, which displays the enormous, elaborate floats used for the famous Takayama Festival. After lunch, you’ll travel back in time to the rustic village of Ogimachi in the Shirakawa-go region. Surrounded by the towering Hida Mountains, the town has been a UNESCO World Heritage Site since 1995 and is home to a large number of gassho-zukuri houses. These large wooden dwellings have a steep thatched design to withstand heavy snow—the term gassho-zukuri is inspired by the shape of praying hands formed by the roofs.

Day 9: Transfer to Kyoto

The elegant imperial capital of Kyoto.
The elegant imperial capital of Kyoto.

Today you bid the mountains farewell, traveling first by bus to Kanazawa and then by train to Kyoto, Japan’s elegant imperial capital. Settle into your accommodation and take an evening stroll through the historic Gion district, famous for its many ryoteis (exclusive private restaurants) and geisha tea houses. End your night with a visit to the Sanjo-ohashi Bridge. Built by a samurai ruler in the 16th century, it marks the western endpoint of the Nakasendo Trail.

Day 10: Explore Kyoto

Kyoto's Golden Pavillion.
Kyoto's Golden Pavillion.

Start your morning in Kyoto with a half-day walking tour of the city’s most important sights. Begin at the famous Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion,) a breathtaking temple painted in gold leaf and set at the shores of a shimmering pond. Originally built by the Ashikaga Shogun in the 14th century as a place of contemplation and rest, it houses relics of the Buddha’s ashes and is an iconic symbol of Kyoto. Head next to the Ryoan-ji Temple, with its serene zen garden of raked gravel and fifteen moss-covered boulders. Enjoy some free time in the afternoon to explore further or shop for crafts and souvenirs.

Day 11: Nara

Friendly deer mingle among the ancient statues and lanterns of Nara.
Friendly deer mingle among the ancient statues and lanterns of Nara.

Today takes you 45 minutes south to the ancient city of Nara, which preceded Kyoto as Japan’s capital from 710 to 784 CE. Today the compact city is home to many important historic and cultural sites and is well-known for the friendly deer that roam its beautiful grounds. Start with a visit to the imposing wooden structure of Todai-ji Temple, with its giant bronze statue of Buddha. Next, you could explore the old merchant district of Nara-machi with its narrow streets, shops, and cafes, or walk along the scenic back road from Todai-ji to Kasuga Taisha Shrine. At the end of the day, make your way back to Kyoto via local train.

Day 12: Mount Koya

Towering cedars line the walk through Mount Koya's Okuno-in Cemetery.
Towering cedars line the walk through Mount Koya's Okuno-in Cemetery.

Board a local train to Osaka this morning, then travel along the scenic Nankai Railway to Mount Koya, a tranquil valley filled with cedars high in the mountains of the Kii Peninsula. Mount Koya has been a sacred place of ceremony and religious devotion since the 9th century. Today it's home to over one hundred monasteries, many of which have comfortable Shukubo (pilgrims lodgings.) Stay in an elegant temple and dine on beautifully prepared shojin-ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.) Spend the afternoon walking the surrounding forest trails, or take a stroll through the vast Okuno-in Cemetery, home to thousands of graves and memorials to feudal lords and other past luminaries.

Day 13: Transfer to Tokyo

The Tokyo skyline at night.
The Tokyo skyline at night.

This morning early risers have the opportunity to get up early (6 AM) to join in a Buddhist service at the temple before saying goodbye to your mountain sanctuary and returning to Tokyo via Osaka—with the latter part of the journey on the famous Shinkansen Bullet Train. Enjoy a farewell dinner at one of Tokyo’s world-class restaurants to toast a memorable two weeks in Japan.

Day 14: Depart Tokyo

Sunset over Tokyo and Mount Fuji in the distance.
Sunset over Tokyo and Mount Fuji in the distance.

Depart Tokyo today, either heading to the airport for your flight home or continuing on with your adventures.

Map

Map of Shoguns & Samurai: Tokyo, Kiso Valley, Mount Koya & Kyoto - 14 days
Map of Shoguns & Samurai: Tokyo, Kiso Valley, Mount Koya & Kyoto - 14 days