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Experience Japan, Past and Present
Japan is high on the must-visit list of many travelers, whether they’re drawn by the excitement of contemporary Tokyo, the age-old temples and shrines of Kyoto and smaller towns, or natural wonders like Mount Fuji and Lake Ashino-ko. If Japan is on your list but you’ve been hesitating because of the language or the expense, G Adventures’ nine-day Japan Express: Osaka to Tokyo itinerary provides an introduction to a number of the country’s highlights.  

This surprisingly affordable trip includes some of Japan’s most fascinating cities—Kyoto, Osaka, Hiroshima, and Tokyo—and also detours to the quieter corners of the country. You’ll have the opportunity to experience a temple stay at Koyasan, enjoying a Buddhist vegetarian meal and watching monks pray the following morning. You’ll also take a ferry to Miyajima Island, known for its famous torii gate and population of friendly deer.  

As you explore the country—with no more than 15 other travelers—your group’s CEO (chief experience officer) will always be on hand, ready to assist with logistics and provide insights on Japanese culture, etiquette, and more. This adventure also includes free time so you can dive deeper into whatever aspects of Japanese culture interest you the most—from its cuisine and crafts traditions to its contemporary pop culture and music scenes.
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    Day 1
    Arrive in Osaka
    After your journey across the Pacific, you’ll land in Osaka and have a free day to explore the city

    With a population of 19 million in the larger metropolitan area, Osaka ranks among the world’s most populous cities. As one of the commercial centers of the country, it has the bustle of new restaurants and shopping, but there are also a number of historic sites, from Osaka Castle to some of Japan’s most important temples.  

    There’s too much to see in only one day, and an early arrival is strongly recommended (G Adventures can assist with arrangements). However long your stay is in Osaka, the castle is a good place to start. You can see this magnificent structure from points throughout the city and, conversely, when you climb to the upper floors, you’ll have views of Osaka below you.

    Construction on the original Osaka Castle began in 1583, and while the building you see today is a reconstruction from 1931, the sight is still impressive.  

    A very different side of Osaka is on display at the surprising Cup Noodles Museum. A celebration of instant ramen, the museum showcases the mind-boggling array of flavors and varieties of this favorite of both budget-conscious and time-starved diners. One highlight is creating your own custom cup of noodles: You design the packaging, pick a soup base, and choose your additional ingredients, then leave with a one-of-a-kind souvenir. Another option is a visit to Universal Studios Japan—there’s something fascinatingly surreal about experiencing some Hollywood magic while in Japan.  

    Residents of Osaka think of themselves as less stuffy than their counterparts in Tokyo, and this extends to the dining scene. While the city doesn’t lack in fine dining options, you’ll find an abundance of budget-friendly, no-attitude options, from humble noodle stands to hamburger joints. Make sure to try local specialties like yakiniku, grilled beef, and takoyaki (octopus dumplings).  

    In the evening, you’ll gather at the hotel, where you’ll meet your fellow travelers as well as your CEO—Chief Experience Officer—who will go over the details of your trip.
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    Day 2
    Koyasan
    You’ll wake up early this morning for your journey by train to Koyasan, or Mount Koya, where a quintessential Japan experience awaits: a temple stay. From the bustle of Osaka to the serenity of a centuries-old temple, you’ll have seen two extremes of Japanese life and culture, and all within your first two days here.  

    The town of Koyasan grew up around a temple established by Kobo Daishi, also known as Kukai, in 819. One of Japan’s most important religious figures, he introduced the Shingon sect of Buddhism to the country. You’ll see his mausoleum on a visit to the Okunoin, the largest cemetery in Japan with 200,000 graves—many of them followers of Kukai, who wanted to be buried near their spiritual leader. In front of his mausoleum, the Torodo Hall (Hall of Lamps) has 10,000 lanterns burning day and night.  

    In the centuries since Kukai founded the area’s original temple, over 100 more have been built in this remote wooded town. Many of them offer the chance to experience a temple stay, and you’ll spend the night at one of them. You’ll end your day, and start your visit to the temple, with a shojin-ryori vegetarian meal. This refined Buddhist cuisine is built around a system of balancing various colors and flavors and emphasizes seasonal ingredients. You’ll then retire for a good night’s sleep in the serene atmosphere of the monastery.
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    Photo By Fezbot2000
    Day 3
    Hiroshima
    After watching the monks and their morning prayers, you’ll board a bullet train to Hiroshima. The city’s name is known around the world because of the events of August 6, 1945, when tens of thousands of residents died after the United States dropped an atomic bomb on Hiroshima. The Hiroshima Peace and Park Memorial is dedicated to all who died that day and encourages visitors to become advocates for peace. The centerpiece of the memorial is the haunting dome of the former Prefectural Industrial Promotion Hall, the only building to have withstood the blast. It’s a place not only to remember what happened, but commit to ensuring it never happens again.  

    You may also want to visit Hiroshima Castle, a contemporary recreation of a 16th-century complex of buildings. Just east of the castle, Shukkeien is a masterpiece of Japanese garden design from the 17th century, with a landscape of valleys and peaks, though all scaled down to garden-sized versions. When you’re feeling hungry, try the local specialty okonomiyaki—a savory pancake of eggs, squid, cabbage, and other ingredients.
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    Photo By Robin Noguier
    Day 4
    Miyajima Island
    You will head out today on an excursion to gorgeous Miyajima Island. Once you disembark from your ferry, start your free time exploring the island with a visit to the Itsukushima Shrine. The iconic torii gate that sits in the water just off the island is the symbolic entrance to the shrine and, like the gate, itsvarious halls and temples were built above the water and are connected by boardwalks. As you make your way along the trails that cross the island, you’ll see the ubiquitous deer—there are around 1,000 of them. For centuries, it has been a crime to harm any of these sacred animals, which has made them fearless when it comes to approaching humans. 

    If you’re up for a short hike (under four miles), you can join an optional excursion up to the summit of Mount Misen, the island’s highest point (at 1,640 feet). Your effort will be rewarded with views of the many islands of the Seto Inland Sea. (If you’d prefer a less-strenuous ascent, you can take the Miyajima Ropeway, a gondola cable system, and walk the final 1.2 miles.)  

    At the end of your day exploring the island, you’ll take a ferry back to Hiroshima for the night.
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    Photo By Sorasak
    Day 5
    Travel to Kyoto
    You’ll board another bullet train this morning and continue on to the cultural and traditional heart of Japan: Kyoto. It was the country’s capital for more than 1,000 years, until 1868, and its temples and palaces celebrate traditional Japanese aesthetics, spirituality, and crafts. The city can boast 17 different historic sites that are collectively recognized as the Historic Monuments of Kyoto by UNESCO on its list of World Heritage Sites. You’ll start your time in Kyoto with a CEO-led tour of Nijo Castle and the Gion district. 

    Nijo Castle, the Kyoto residence of the Tokugawa shoguns, is the only non-religious building on UNESCO’s list. The fortress in the city’s center includes a collection of pavilions and gardens, with the oldest portions dating from 1603. It was intended as a demonstration of the wealth, power, and refinement of the Tokugawa clan, and it continues to impress even four centuries after it was built. The Gion district is where the city’s famous geisha have entertained their guests for centuries. It’s a fascinating area to stroll. Drop into its boutiques, teahouses, and restaurants and you will likely come upon geisha or maiko (apprentices to geishas) as you wander the area.
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    Photo By Billy Pasco
    Day 6
    Kyoto
    You’ll have another day to explore the sights and temples of Kyoto, and this morning will begin with an excursion just outside of town to the Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine. It’s most famous for the thousands of torii gates that line the network of trails to and on nearby Mount Inari. You may recognize them from their big-screen appearance in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. They were also one of the inspirations for the artist Christo’s famous 2005 installation in New York’s Central Park, The Gates, which consisted of thousands of similar-looking gates lining the park’s paths.  

    In the afternoon, you’ll have free time to explore Kyoto on your own. You won’t be able to visit all 16 of the temples recognized by UNESCO in a day, so the best approach is to pick a few of them to see. While all are impressive, several are more noteworthy than others. Ryoan-ji is home to a Zen rock garden that has inspired everyone from garden designers to philosophers. The Golden Pavilion is perhaps one of Japan’s most famous landmarks—a gleaming temple covered entirely in gold leaf. Given its fame, be prepared for crowds. The Silver Pavilion, on the other hand, is not covered in silver leaf; the name came from an abandoned plan. Nevertheless, the 15th-century building is still elegantly impressive.  

    If you start to feel overwhelmed with visits to temples, take a break with a stroll along the Philosopher’s Walk, next to a canal in the Higashiyama district. The walk is lined with hundreds of cherry trees; while it’s most spectacular when they’re in bloom, it makes for a pleasant shaded stroll in the summer and fall.
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    Photo By Federico Sironi
    Day 7
    Hakone
    It’s time to board another bullet train—by this point, you’ll qualify as an expert in all things related to JapanRail. Today, you are headed to the town of Hakone, famous for its hot springs.  

    You’ll start with a boat ride on Lake Ashino-ko, surrounded by wooded hills and with iconic views of Japan’s most famous natural landmark, Mt. Fuji (at least on clear days). The city boasts 17 natural onsen, or hot springs, and is near Fuji Hakone Izu, Japan’s most-visited national park. Sitting on the road from Kyoto to Edo (today’s Tokyo) Hakone also has a long history, reflected in its many temples and shrines, as well as a former imperial palace, now open to the public. It’s a popular day trip from Tokyo, but G Adventures won’t hurry you on to the country’s capital. Instead, you’ll spend the night at one of Hakone’s ryokan, or traditional Japanese inns. Along with the temple stay at the beginning of your trip, this is a quintessential experience when visiting the country that too many foreign visitors skip.  

    At the ryokan, you’ll stay in a tatami-lined room and enjoy a multicourse meal of local dishes. Later in the evening, a long soak in the ryokan’s baths, fed by one of those 17 hot springs, will assure a good night’s sleep.
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    Photo By Louie Martinez
    Day 8
    Tokyo
    You’ll be able to enjoy most of today in the fascinating metropolis of Tokyo, as it’s just over an hour by train from Hakone, You may want to head to the Ginza, one of Tokyo’s most famous districts, where global and Japanese brands have their flagships, many in buildings by leading starchitects.  

    If you have a green thumb, then visiting some of Tokyo’s gardens is a must. The Imperial Palace’s gardens (open to the public, while the palace itself is not) are only the most famous of many. The neighborhoods of Harajuku and Shibuya both offer opportunities to experience the compelling energy of Tokyo.  

    In contrast to the youth culture of those neighborhoods, Asakusa Shrine is one of the city’s oldest temples and most famous landmarks. It’s a bustling scene, with stands selling candies and souvenirs, as well as worshippers visiting the shrine itself. Ueno Park is home to a half-dozen museums, among them the National Museum of Western Art and the Tokyo Metropolitan Art Museum. You may have already seen images of the Mori Building Digital Art Museum with its beautifully surreal environments in your friends’ Instagram feeds.  

    Don’t spend all your time indoors, however; part of the magic of Tokyo is wandering its streets and observing and experiencing daily life. At one extreme is Akihabara, the center of anime culture, with stores selling very cool, only-in-Japan gadgets. Kuramae, on the other hand, celebrates a different side of Japanese life with shops and artisans’ studios that keep alive age-old crafts, from leatherworking to papermaking and pottery.
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    Photo By Yu Kato
    Day 9
    Depart
    You’ve spent one day in a city that’s larger than London and New York combined. If that sounds insufficient to you, we agree. If you can manage to get just a little more time off, try to add an extra day or two to your itinerary and dive deeper into all that Tokyo offers—G Adventures can assist with hotel and other arrangements. If you must leave today, enjoy a final sushi breakfast and then make your way to the airport for your return flight across the Pacific.