Tailor-made Tour 13 days from £3995 per person
Places Visited: Tokyo, Nikko, Kusatsu, Kanazawa, Noto Hanto, Kyoto, Izu Hanto
Japan is arguably the best Asian country to drive in, especially for British drivers since the Japanese drive on the left. The roads are in excellent condition, all signs are in both languages, and the included satnavs invariably have an English language option these days. Self-drive is the best way to explore the fading hillscape of the Izu peninsula between Tokyo and Kyoto, and the rugged Noto peninsula on the north sea coast beyond Kanazawa. But perhaps the most stunning drive is ‘the romantic road’ from the ornate shrines at Nikko, up the winding Irohazaka road to a beautiful lake plateau, past majestic waterfalls and picturesque traditional mountain villages to the hot spring mountain town of Kusatsu. The drives are interspersed with bullet train rides and the city hotels with cosy traditional inns, making this one of our most varied and adventurous Japan itineraries.
Landscape & Nature Holidays Active Holidays
Overnight flight from the UK to Tokyo.
Arrive in Tokyo and transfer to your hotel. Enjoy the rest of the day at leisure to acclimatise and perhaps explore the local area.
Tokyo has one of the most efficient public transportation systems in the world, so while you're in the city it's better to use trains and subways rather than drive. Stations are almost spotless, the Japanese queue politely at the carriage doors and trains run to the minute barring a typhoon. An IC card - similar to the London Oyster Card - is included on this itinerary, with 2,500 yen credit pre-loaded so that you can simply jump on any train.
Meet with your private guide and explore some key sights of the city by public transport. Visit the hallowed Meiji Shrine and bustling Shibuya in the morning, then stroll around the Imperial Palace and Senso-ji temple in the afternoon.
Japan's road system has been developing since the feudal Edo period ushered in by Tokugawa Ieyasu after victory at the Battle of Sekigahara. This was the great age of the Shoguns, when regional lords called daimyo were required to live in Edo (feudal Tokyo) each year. Ieyasu had five postal routes built, parts of which can still be traversed today, and he made Nihonbashi Bridge in modern-day Ginza the confluence point of this system. The stone bridge stands in contrast to the modern flagship stores and the overpass above it, and along with scattered temples provides a poignant reminder of this futuristic city's feudal roots.
Take the express train to Nikko and explore the ornate Toshogu Shrine area, nestled in a forest up in the mountains north of Tokyo.
The forests of Nikko conceal some of the most ornate architecture in all of Japan. This is the Mausoleum of the Tokguawa Shoguns, and no expense was shared in the building of the tombs and temples during the 17th century Edo period. Heavily influenced by Chinese architectural styles and Confucian philosophy, the centrepiece of the complex is the 'see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil' carving of the three monkeys. The various buildings and pagoda are undergoing restoration one by one, so please note that one or two may be under wraps when you visit. The most detailed structure, the Yomeimon Gate, has now been restored and revealed again in all its splendour, and the project will be completed by spring 2020.
Pick up your first rental car and drive the scenic switchback road up to the Chuzenji lake plateau and three beautiful waterfalls – Kegon, Ryuzu and Akechidaira. Then take the ‘romantic’ road’ past more scenic waterfalls and picturesque little towns to one of Japan’s premier hot spring resorts, Kusatsu.
The Irohazaka switchback road takes you from Nikko, 200 metres up in the foothills of the Japan Alps, to the Chuzenji Lake plateau at 1,200 metres. The view looking back is like a Japanese 'sumi-e' watercolour painting, banks of hills fading into the distance. Then as you head onwards and upwards through the Japan Alps, the crowds of visitors become a faint memory as the unspoilt natural beauty of the infrequently travelled 'romantic road' opens up before you. Have a hearty breakfast this morning as there are only a handful of rest stops and restaurants en route to Kusatsu where a luxury multi-course 'kaiseki' dinner is included for guests of 'ryokan' (traditional inns).
Spend the day relaxing in Kusatsu, soaking up the atmosphere around the Yubatake hot springs at the centre of the town, or in the bath house at your ryokan (traditional inn). Some ryokans have rooms with private hot spring baths, ideal for couples since the communal baths are segregated.
The stunning aquamarine hues of Yugama crater lake and the surrounding mountain scenery are half an hour's drive on from Kusatsu, at an elevation of 2,160 metres. It can also be reached by cable car, but note that it is only accessible in the summer months and can be closed due to sulphur levels from the active volcano.
Continue on down the romantic road to Karuizawa, another renowned weekend getaway location for Tokyoites. Drop off the car and take the bullet train over to the north coast of Japan. Tour an original teahouse in the Higashichaya district and explore Kenrokuen Garden with a private guide this afternoon.
Lying on the north coast of the main island of Honshu, Kanazawa's location means it has escaped the kind of destruction wrought by war and earthquakes on the south coast over the centuries. It did experience a major fire in the mid-16th century, but has a number of original buildings dating from the mid-18th century. The castle is a reconstruction, but there are some original teahouses that you can be explored in the Higashichaya area while the Nagamachi area has some beautiful samurai houses. One in particular, Nomura House, stands out for its perfectly arranged Japanese garden and rooms full of fine artistic details such as illustrated shoji (sliding doors).
You are at leisure today to explore the other fine historical buildings in Kanazawa, and Omicho market with its super-fresh ‘kaisendon’ restaurants.
Omicho market in Kanazawa has been in operation since the 17th century Edo period, and today the stalls are packed with fresh fish, giant crabs, local vegetables and succulent (though expensive) fruit. The restaurants in the market offer kaisendon - a bowl of rise topped with various slice of 'sashimi' (fresh raw fish). If you are a foodie and a fan of sushi, Omicho market offers an unforgettable but excellent value dining experience.
Pick up your next rental car and drive around the Noto peninsula, with its rugged coastline, terraced rice fields and onsen towns. Stay in a traditional-style ryokan with sea views, a private hot spring bath and luxury traditional dinner this evening.
Although there is a rail line to the hot spring resort town of Wakura Onsen mid-peninsula, the north half is only accessible by car. The coastal road has an array of stunning scenery from rice terraces to the 'wedded rocks' featured in the photo here. There is a even a beach that cars can be driven down, and some excellent rykoan (traditional inns) with panoramic sea views where you can stay for a night to break the loop around the peninsula from Kanazawa.
Complete the loop of the Noto peninsula, drop off the car in Kanazawa and take an express train to Kyoto. Meet your guide and explore The Golden Pavilion, Kiyomizudera temple and the geisha quarter of Gion.
The ancient sites and renowned gardens of Kyoto are scattered all over the city, sometimes huddled behind modern buildings and sometimes up on hillsides just beyond the city. To-ji pagoda, pictured here, is one such monument in the grounds of a temple in an otherwise modern residential area. It dates from the 17th century Edo period and has survived earthquakes and fires over the centuries to remain the tallest in Japan.
You are at leisure today to explore the many other historical sights and gardens of Kyoto.
There are dozens of sites to explore in Kyoto, but you may like to escape the city for a day and visit Arashiyama, half an hour westwards. The sliding screen doors of Tenryu-ji are opened on dry days so that visitors can admire the finely designed interiors while strolling in the temple's ornamental garden. This leads to the adjacent giant bamboo grove that Arashiyama is most famous for, but Okochi Sanso villa tucked away down the back of the grove is less well known. Built by Denjiro Okochi, an actor from the golden age of Japanese 'jidaiteki' (historical) silent cinema, it comprises a teahouse and a charming set of gardens with views back towards Kyoto. The beautiful moss garden alone makes it worth the visit, and it is rarely crowded even in high season.
Take the bullet train to Mishima, pick up your next rental car and take in some magnificent views of Mt Fuji before driving down the picturesque coast of the Izu peninsula to the historic port town of Shimoda.
The port town of Shimoda at the southern end of the Izu Peninsula is one of the most historically significant spots in Japan. This was where the American Commodore Perry arrived with his 'kurofune' (black ships) in the mid-19th century, forcing the Japanese shogunate to open up to trade with his display of naval military might. The events are recounted on Perry Road in the town. A short drive down the coastal road, the vista of 800-metre long Shirahama beach curves gently along the emerald waters of the Pacific which are usually warm enough for swimming from May through to the end of September. The interior roads wind through the hills up from Shimoda to the ancient hot spring town of Shuzenji. Legend has it that Kobo Daishi, founder of Buddhism in 8th century Japan, founded the hot spring as well as the 1200-year old temple here.
Complete the circuit of the Izu peninsula, drop off the car and take the bullet train back to Tokyo, thus completing you loop of central Japan.
Tokyo is a hive of energy and neon by day, but by night it steps up a notch to become arguably the best urban playground in the world. Many downtown izakaya (Japanese-style bar-restaurants) are open round the clock, so at the weekend many Tokyoites are not deterred by the fact that trains stop running shortly after midnight. One great way to round off your Japan experience is to ascend the Metropolitan Government Towers in Shinjuku, and have a cocktail at the bar on the free panoramic viewing floor. The sprawling metropolis spreads out to the horizon, reminiscent of the classic sci-fi movie Bladerunner and the seminal Japanese anime movie Akira. Life really does reflect art at moments like these in Japan.
Transfer to the airport and fly home for same-day arrival in the UK.
Tailor-made Tour 13 days from £3995 per person
✓ International flights from the UK
✓ 12 nights accommodation including some heritage and boutique stays
✓ Private arrival and departure transfers and all intercity transport inc. 6 days car hire with sat nav
✓ 3 Days with English-speaking guides, including public transport and entrance fees
✓ Breakfast daily, 4 'kaiseki' luxury traditional dinners included with stays at ryokans (traditional inns)
✓ Hotel-to-hotel overnight luggage forwarding on two occasions
✓ Unlimited expert advice, restaurant recommendations and reservations
✓ Customised maps and English/Japanese translation sheets
Places and Experiences in this tour
As the epicentre of the world’s largest and most cutting-edge conurbation, Tokyo is where the nation’s heart beats fastest. If there’s a new gadget or fashion accessory out, you’l...
Lines of moss-covered Jizo bodhisattvas sporting knitted crimson caps and bibs; stone lanterns backed by towering Japanese cedars; a red-lacquer bridge framed by snowy white mount...
Lying two and a half hours up in the Japan Alps north of Tokyo, Kusatsu is one of Japan’s most well-known hot spring resorts, with its iconic open-cast yubatake hot water spring a...
Buffered by the ocean and Alps of central Honshu, Kanazawa has over the centuries enjoyed longer periods of peace and prosperity than most Japanese cities. This has enabled it to ...
A remote peninsula on the north sea coast of Japan’s main island Honshu, Noto Hanto is best explored by car from Kanazawa. It boasts rugged coastline, terraced rice fields and eve...
Kyoto is the Japan of the imagination – a city of cherry trees, pagoda-roofed temples, geishas and tea ceremonies, all set against a backdrop of lush green hills and fine traditio...
Lying halfway between Tokyo and Kyoto, Izu Hanto is a historic and scenic peninsula dotted with charming ryokans (traditional inns). At its southern tip is Shimoda, where American...
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