There's more to winter in Japan than just skiing. From winter wonderland landscapes around the Japan Alps to hearty and warming food in the backstreet izakaya of the big cities, there's plenty on offer for anyone willing to wrap up and brave the cooler temperatures. This tour is designed for travel in January and February and from the Golden Pavilion dusted with snow to the hardy macaques soaking in the hot springs of mountainous Yudanaka, the self-guided itinerary sends you on a journey to experience the charms of some of the country's most scenic wintery landscapes.
On arrival at Tokyo you will be met at the airport and taken to your hotel in the capital city to relax and unwind after the journey. Spring's cherry blossoms and the momiji autumn leaves tend to draw the most interest - and for good reasons - but Japan still has lots to keep you entertained in the winter season. And on the days that follow you will discover some of the country's frosty highlights on the main island of Honshu, while enjoying a variety of cultural and hands-on experiences and activities.
On your first full day a private guide will take you around the city using the famous public transport. Where you go and what you see is up to you. The city has a force and power all of its own. It creates its own gravity; a centre of everything: politics, industry, finance, shopping, the arts, architecture, scientific study, nightlife and food.This is a truly overwhelming city, a vibrant hub of modern civilisation, constantly buzzing with activity and today you can explore it seeing lots of the highlights..
Suited businessmen rush from one meeting to the next; smartly turned-out girls totter on impossibly high heels; kimono-clad housewives fill the up-market department stores - and at every turn there's a barrage of different sights, sounds and aromas. Japan's largest city and capital since 1868, Tokyo is a sensory bombardment and the street-level detail means there is always something to keep the attention. Tonight you are taken to experience a Izakaya, the Japanese answer to an English pub.
Today you leave the city and head west to the mountains of Nagamo to visit the famous snow monkeys. The walk through the forest leading up to Jigokudani Monkey Park where the macaques while away their day soaking in the outdoor hot springs will be a snowy one, so be sure to wrap up. This evening you can mimic the monkeys and take full advantage of the private hot spring bath in your room at the authentic ryokan inn at Jinpyokaku where you will spend the night after a full kaiseki course dinner.
This morning it's a short journey to Matsumoto an old samurai city which provides a fascinating contrast to Tokyo. The majestic “Black Crow” castle in the centre of the city is the main attraction, and is often considered to be one of the most beautiful original castles in Japan thanks to its unique colouring. After visiting the castle there's plenty to see and do including a visit to the woodblock museum. And you can enjoy a soba class learning how to make the local noodles. Overnight at the Buena Vista Hotel.
A trip through the mountains today to the beautifully preserved town of Takayama. Tickets will be reserved for you to take the Highway Bus from Matsumoto, a journey which will lead you along winding roads besides rivers and huge dams in the picture-perfect snowy Japan Alps. Another traditional inn will be your base for your stay in this well-preserved mountain town. A delicious dinner awaits on your first night, but on the second you can try one of the local restaurants.
On your second day in Takayama you have a thrilling snowshoe adventure to Tanekura Village, a tiny hamlet with rice terraces where the traditional ‘satoyama' farming lifestyle can still be seen to this day. With a local English speaking guide you will put on snowshoes for the trek around and outside the village. Snowshoeing is a breeze even for complete beginners and it's provides a fantastic opportunity to see a side to rural Japanese life that you would otherwise miss. Overnight at Tanabe Ryokan.
Today it's onwards to Kyoto, using your Japan Rail Pass on the trains. As the former imperial capital, Kyoto is the cultural heart of the country. It has so many temples and shrines that it would be impossible to visit them all even if you stayed for two weeks. Fortunately, we have arranged for another private guide to take some of the hardship out of getting around all of the famous sights, and they'll even be able to lead you away from the major tourist spots to some lesser-known gems.
On your second day you have time to take a day trip to any number of destinations. A favourite option is Nara, the capital before Kyoto, which is only 40 minutes away by train, and has a wonderful array of UNESCO World Heritage sites and some very friendly deer. Other possible trips include the food mecca Osaka, an easy 30 minute train ride away, or the castle town of Himeji with its original feudal period gleaming white castle. Your Japan Rail Pass is valid on all of these routes.
Kyoto to Tokyo
The following morning you have some more time to explore in and around Kyoto before taking the famous bullet train to Tokyo – keep your eyes peeled for a glimpse of elusive snow-capped Mount Fuji as you pass by. On arrival back in the capital you will have free time to go out and see more of the sights and try one of the many great restaurants serving traditional Japanese cuisine. Overnight at the Celestine Kyoto Gion.
With the end of your trip just around the corner, it's now time to do a last spot of sightseeing and souvenir shopping. You'll be staying in the Shinjuku area, known for its neon-spangled skyscrapers and plethora of shops, bars, and restaurants. In the evening you will have reservations to the sensory extravaganza that is the Robot Restaurant, the epitome of Tokyo bizarreness. Overnight at Century Southern Tower. The next day head to the airport for your flight home.