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Chubu, Kansai and Kyushu: Historic Japan by road

Northeast Asia

Travel ancient pathways of Japan through medieval cities and holy shrines, metropolitan regions and traditional Japanese cuisine on this comprehensive 19-day tour

From £18,908 per person for two + flights

Itinerary Idea

Chubu, Kansai and Kyushu: An historic Japan road trip – over 19 Days / 18 Nights

Tokyo > Fukuoka > Saga > Karatsu Bay > Hirado Island > Shin-Kyushu Shinkansen Bullet Train > Nagasaki > Shimabara > Kumamoto > Nara > Kyoto > Ine > Kanazawa > Murodo > Matsumoto > Narai  > Otaki > Inuyama > Nagoya > Tokyo

Travel the ancient pathways of Japan through medieval cities and holy shrines, metropolitan regions and traditional Japanese cuisine with renowned hospitality on this 19-day tour

DAY 1: Welcome to Fukuoka

After your internationa flight into Tokyo, you’ll transfer to the bustling city of Fukuoka in Kyushu.

Here you’ll take a short trip up to Nanzo-in, a Buddhist temple of the Shingon sect, with the world’s largest bronze statue of the reclining Buddha, a prominent stop on the Sasaguri Pilgrimage.

Hugged by lush forest, this is a site of prayer and peace, with shrines and prayer halls scattered all over.

By early evening you’ll be settled in the sumptuous space of the five-star Grand Hyatt Fukuoka.

DAY 2: The History of Saga

Take your time over an sumptuous breakfast before heading out late morning on Rail Kitchen Chikugo train, to experience the scenic delights of Fukuoka. The plush dining cars are filled with the scent of meticulously crafted seasonal dishes prepared for your lunch on board.

You’ll now tqke a river cruise through the ancient castle town of Yanagawa, via its grid of historical moats, guided by convivial boatmen on a gondola-like vessel as it criss-crosses the waterways of this famed historic city.

An hour South is where Saga Castle Honmaru – a faithful reconstruction of the Honmaru Palace, built in the early 1800s and the largest wooden reconstruction in Japan.

Relax in Japanese style at Furuyu Onsen Oncri hotel – home for the night – with its natural, mineral-rich and restorative hot spring baths. This elegant mountain retreat is surrounded by nature but you may want to explore the neighbourhood’s soba bars and restaurants, or try your voice with classic karaoke?

DAY 3: Karatsu Bay & Imari

Dine on local ingredients with a mountain view at Oncri this morning, before a short trip to Karatsu Castle, perched above the bay and town that share its name. Stroll around beautiful flower-filled grounds, browse the museum and peek out from the top floor at the excellent views of Karatsu Bay.

Next dive into an underwater adventure with lunch at Manbou, a floating restaurant with service below the waters of the bay in Yobuko.

Saga has the most famous porcelain regions in Japan, so your next stop is the port city of Imari. Imari porcelain dates back over four centuries, and the ancient methods remain in use today. At the Umi no Silk Road museum, you’ll visit a beautiful replica of a pottery merchant’s house.

Tonight is at Hirado Island in Nagasaki Bay, in Hirado Kaijyo Hotel, where you’ll find a refined charm and soothing hot water springs of the region are directed into stylish onsen baths; followed by a multi-course kaiseki dinner: a variety of fresh sashimi, steamy bowls of light soup and seafood hot pots, rice, grilled fish and vegetables.

DAY 4: Battleship Island

At Takeo Onsen Station catch the Shin-Kyushu Shinkansen Bullet Train. You’ll zip at 200mph towards Nagasaki and watch the rural countryside turn into the beautiful coastline further south. Transfer to the Nagasaki Atomic Bomb Museum and the Peace Park, built in remembrance after the devastating end to World War

Later take lunch in Nagasaki style with a meal at Nagasaki Shippoku Hamakatsu, with unique regional fusion of Japanese, Chinese and European cuisine called shippoku ryori.

Spend this afternoon at Gunkanjima ‘Battleship Island’, an abandoned man-made island resembling a battleship that once housed a community of thousands after coal was discovered. It’s been a setting for many films, includin the James Bond movie Skyfall.

OnceTonight you’ll be in the modern comforts of the Garden Terrace Nagasaki Hotel & Resort with views of the twinkling lights of the Nagasaki waterfront and the busy waters beyond as you eat Sushi in the Tenku restaurant.

DAY 5: Shimabara and Kumamoto

Time to travel a couple of hours east to the foothills of Mt. Unzen, to Shimabara Castle, a five-storey white edifice rising up against the sky. This Edo Period castle design, retains the original stone walls and moat. Nearby Shinmachi is known as the City of Swimming Carp, its waterways filled with the flashing colours of nishikigoi – koi carp.

Lunch is a fun affair today with a sushi conveyor restaurant called Onihei, with gleaming cuts of fresh sashimi and soft mounds of rice.

Cross the Ariake Sea by ferry from Shimabara Port and land at Kumamoto, most famous for its restored castle, the largest in Japan! .

Tonight it’s classic Japanese hospitality at ANA Crowne Plaza Hotel Kumamoto New Sky, a sleek and modern hotel beside the river.

DAY 6: The ‘Hells’ of Oita

You’ll now head to Kusasenri in the Aso-Kuju National Park, where lush grasslands meet the foot of spectacular Mt. Aso, the largest active volcano in Japan. Standing on the plateau with magma boiling just a couple of thousand metres below your feet, you can clearly see the still-smoking crater of Mt. Nakadake, one of the most active volcanoes in the world.

Now head to Oita, for more stunning panoramic views – this time from the Kokonoe Yume Otsurihashi Bridge, suspended over a remote tract of forest and the winding Naruko River, where you’ll see two of Japan’s most spectacular waterfalls: Medaki and Odaki.

Off to the colourfully named Umi Jigoku (the ‘Sea Hell’) – the biggest of Beppu’s nine Hells. These vividly coloured natural hot springs are the most startling onsen in Japan.

Next is Chinoike Jigoku (the ‘Blood Pond Hell’), where in this case the iron oxide of the clay beneath turns the water a deep red. These famous Oita onsen mark the end of your time in Kyushu. Hop onto the Sunflower Ferry at the port of Beppu, heading for Osaka – you’re guaranteed a sea view tonight from your cosy cabin.

DAY 7: Nara – The ancient capital

Breakfast at sea this morning, before disembarking in Osaka for the ancient city of Nara; Japan’s first permanent capital  boasting three UNESCO World Heritage Sites.
Gaze in awe at Todai-ji temple. Todaiji’s Great Buddha Hall (the ‘Daibutsuden’) with its gigantic bronze seated Buddha and many smaller Buddhist statues. Nara’s most celebrated Shinto shrine is also found in the park, Kasuga Taisha, which sits in front of the Kasuga Primaeval Forest. Now it’s off to Ippodo Tomigaoka in central Kyoto for all-you-can-eat yakiniku. Leave for Uji and its notable Byodo-in Temple, a short drive south. Built in 998, it has one of few Japanese original wooden structures to survive from the Heian Period.

Your last stop of the day is the spectacular Fushimi Inari Shrine in north Kyoto. Inari is the popular Shinto deity of rice, harvests and prosperity, represented by the humble fox, a messenger from god. You’ll find dozens of fox statues scattered around the gardens. Tonight you’ll stay in the inspiring city of Kyoto. Check into the outstanding Kyoto Century Hotel. The night is yours and the hotel is perfectly situated in the centre.

DAY 8: Exploring Kyoto

After breakfast take a short train journey to Kameoka, a pretty city deep in the countryside outside Kyoto. Pleasure boat cruises have been a main attraction since the 19th century, and you’ll glide through the majestic Hozugawa Gorge, towards Arashiyama, a whispering bamboo grove where lunch will be served on the banks of the Katsura River.

This afternoon get to know Kyoto’s spiritual appeal with a guided tour of its most popular attractions- Arashiyama’s famous groves to the Zen temple of Tenryu-ji and the golden pavilion of Kinkaku-ji, you’ll learn the enchanting story of Kyoto’s place in Japan’s cultural history.

DAY 9: Deeper into Kyoto

It would be impossible to discover all of Kyoto in a single day, so today has been set aside to explore. Head over to the geisha district of Gion to see these colourfully dressed hostesses on their way to appointments over the wooden Tatsumi Bridge, browse Shijo Dori, an upscale shopping street brimming with antiques and souvenirs.

Visit well-preserved teahouses to sample the authentic tea ceremony and Nishiki Market – sometimes known as Kyoto’s Kitchen – for a taste of speciality produce.

This medieval imperial capital also houses dozens of must-see museums devoted to art, crafts and social history. Dining tonight is for you to choose. Why not try one of the floating platforms that line the Kamogawa River.

DAY 10: A Coastal Cruise

Leave Kyoto and head to the coastal town of Ine to Ineura Preservation District, a quaint old port lined with traditional wooden buildings. Tour the old fishing town by boat, putting in at Amanohashidate to take lunch on the shore of the Aso Sea.

Follow the coastline east to your next stop, the city of Obama in Fukui Prefecture by early afternoon.

Check in at Obama Machiya Stay, a cute traditional inn for travellers that was once a private townhouse in this historic town of carefully preserved ancient streets overlooking Wakasa Bay.

DAY 11: A Golden experience in Kanazawa

Depart for Kanazawa in Chubu, to Kenroku- en, one of Japan’s three best landscape gardens, considered by many to be the most beautiful of them all and filled with water features, wooden structures and bridges, perfectly manicured borders and glassy ponds.

Omicho Market, Kanazawa’s largest fresh food market since the Edo Period, is close by for a seafood feast come lunchtime. The art of gold lacquer has been practised and produced in Kanazawa for over 120 years and now is time for your own gold leaf experience.. Choose from 60 types of seal to decorate your own itme to keep!

A stay in the city wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the architectural masterpiece, the 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art.

DAY 12: High in the Japanese Alps

A day of sightseeing in the Japanese Alps, following the course of the Tateyama Alpine route, starting at Bijodaira and its landscape of centuries-old primaeval forest, only accessible by cable car. Travel around the base of Mt Tate Tateyama to Murodo, the highest observation point on the route, 2,500m above sea level, where there’s often powdery snow cloaking the area even in summer. View the wispy, smoking sulfuric Jigokudani (meaning ‘Hell Valley’) hot spring.

After lunch embark on the Tateyama Trolley Bus, a subterranean bus under the hard rock of Tateyama itself to the Panorama Terrace at Daikanbo, a connection via ropeway to Kurobedair. Join the river where it meets the Kurobe Dam for splendid views and a short boat trip to vie the frothing waters pouring from the dam’s great barrier. Head to the ancient city of Matsumoto for the night, most famous for Matsumotodojo Castle over 400 years old with an awe-inspiring feudal history. Once an enclave of the earliest ninja warriors. Your hotel for this evening is the only residence inside the castle walls.

DAY 13: Matsumoto Castle

Breakfast is served in the retro styling of the former Dai-Ichi Kangyo Bank, a stately 1940s building with vaulted ceilings and original features. Your morning will be spent at Matsumoto Castle – treading lightly through the wooden interior of this well-preserved feudal monument. Look out for hosts dressed as ninjas and samurai in the castle grounds. On your way down to picture-perfect Narai in the heart of the Kiso Mountains, you’ll stop to see the lacquerware of Kiso Hirasawa, one of Japan’s most beautiful crafts.

Next meander through Narai-juku, a small town so carefully conserved that it feels like you’re walking through history! Dinner is at a convivial former sake brewery that retains its original wooden beams and rustic character.

DAY 14: The Cormorant Fishermen of River Kiso

You’ll take to the calm waters of Lake Ontake in canoes, where professional instructors will guide you over the glossy waterways to the village of Otaki, .

Lunch is in the quaint old town of Agematsu, with unrivalled views of Nezame no Toko, a heritage site with famously stimulating views.

Now journey to central Inuyama after a stop for an unusual dinner served on the banks of the River Kiso. Tonight you’ll learn about the unique tradition of cormorant fishing, boaring fishing boats to observe local fishermen using cormorants to catch sweetfish in the clear waters, which they’ll grill over charcoal and serve to you with a crisp, cold beer – truly a once-in-a-lifetime dining experience!

DAY 15: Stately Nagoya

A morning of sightseeing around Inuyama and its hilltop castle, before heading off to Nagoya, Japan’s fourth largest city. The culinary epicentre of Nagoya is found in a space built by the Owari Tokugawa family – the one-time shoguns of Japan.

Nagoya Castle was one of the first to be designated a National Treasure. Beautifully crafted original works of art fill the preserved interior rooms, while the manicured grounds are replete with cherry trees. Wander the grounds before an afternoon of culture and natural beauty at the serene Tokugawa-en gardens and the Tokugawa Art Museum, which contains a priceless collection of samurai artefacts, furnishings, and heirlooms.

DAY 16: Around Nagoya

A leisurely breakfastfollowed by a full day of sightseeing! Visit long-established merchant areas such as the Narumi cotton-trading district. Arimatsu has an artistic history with arimatsu shibori, a method of tie-dye created in the 1600s and still practised today. Stop by the Furukawa Art Museum or take a spiritual walk through the Atsuta Jingu Shrine, founded to house Kusanagi no Tsurugi, a legendary sword of ancient times. The site now holds a treasure trove of swords and other weaponry.

Meals are up to you today and we encourage you to sample the local cuisine.

DAY 17: Welcome to Tokyo

Time to say goodbye to ancient Japan and prepare for an exciting city break in modern Tokyo. Board the Bullet Train to Shinagawa, with a private car to whisk you to Tsukiji Outer Market for lunch at this world-renowned seafood marketplace. Your next stop is the wildly conceptual, immersive teamLab Planets exhibition, where you’ll immerse yourself in a gigantic, overwhelming visual experience.

For a little shopping, you’ll be directed to the market streets of Nakamise, a historic avenue selling handicrafts and souvenirs, on your way to Senso-ji, a central Tokyo Temple of great religious importance in the Asakusa district.

Take a coffee break at the Owl Cafe, where you can interact with the cafe’s adorable residents. You won’t just meet cute owls – there are parrots, meerkats and snakes in this famous animal cafe. Seek out the spirited restaurant scene in Shinjuku and Shibuya!

DAY 18: Explore the Metropolis

There’s a whole day free for you to explore Tokyo, with everything you could hope for from such a fashionable, eclectic city. History and innovation sit side by side here – you can move between the districts with ease on the famously efficient Tokyo Metro. Why not take tea in Minato City, ascend the ultra-modern Tokyo Skytree for its jaw-dropping views across the city, indulge in gastronomic curiosity on Kappabashi Street or even catch a sumo event at Ryogoku Kokugikan?

If you prefer to escape the city, there’s an optional tour of iconic Mt Fuji and the natural beauty of Hakone.

On this, your very last night in Japan, take advantage of the hotel’s comforts or branch out into the diverse Tokyo night.

DAY 19: Sayonara Japan

Say a sleepy sayonara to Tokyo this morning before an early departure from Haneda Airport.

Watch the misty Tokyo morning and distant Mt Fuji disappear as you head towards your final destination.

We hope you have a comfortable trip home with time to reflect on such an incredible voyage through the sacred history of Japan.