This morning we depart Auckland aboard our Air New Zealand flight to Tokyo. We’ll arrive late this afternoon and transfer to our hotel. Tokyo is a huge capital city and full of many delights.
Tokyo: this populous city (over 14 million) was a mere fishing village in the early 17th century; however with the shift of the imperial court in the 18th century it grew in size and status. Two main events: the 1923 Great Earthquake and extensive firebombing during WWII has reshaped the architecture and there are few ancient structures and many modern buildings.
We have a sightseeing tour of Tokyo with a local guide and travel by subway to enjoy a panoramic view of Japan’s capital from Tokyo Skytree’s observation deck.
The next stop is a short walk to Asakusa Kannon Temple, the oldest and most popular Buddhist temple in Tokyo, where we will have an introduction to Shinto customs and beliefs and can wander through an extensive market.
After a traditional Japanese lunch we cruise on the Sumida River and then stroll in Hamarikyu Garden. In the garden we should get our first hint of Autumn colour. For those with energy left at the end of the afternoon, we will also spend time in Ginza, the famous shopping area.
Walking : Grade 1 (mostly flat)
Hold on to your hats as we board the bullet train and are whisked across the country westward to Kyoto. The Shinkansen (bullet train) is fast, comfortable and always on time; if it says it will depart at 10.10am it will be on the dot.
When we arrive in delightful Kyoto, we have a brief stop at the hotel to drop off our bags. Then let’s take a quick trip by local train out to Fushimi Inari to visit the thousand vermillion torii gates. This temple complex is a visual masterpiece, and we can catch our breath and just enjoy it until we go back to central Kyoto.
Walking : Grade 1 (mostly flat)
After breakfast we plan to take a local bus to the far end of the Philosopher’s Walk and use this quaint walkway to walk back towards Nanzenji Park. The Philosopher’s Walk was the path a local professor took to reach his university and takes us beside a canal, past urban houses and local shrines. Thankfully the walk is not usually very busy so we can walk at a comfortable pace and enjoy the scenery and the trees with their autumn leaves.
Once we reach the Park we can take time to find lunch and explore the many shops which climb the slopes to the Heian Shrine and its beautiful garden. When we are all done its back on the bus to our hotel to prepare for this afternoon’s activities.
This afternoon we enjoy Calligraphy and Origami lessons from charming and talented teachers at the Woman’s Association of Kyoto. These entertaining ladies will help us all manage to write some Japanese characters and fold paper into a recognisable shape.
When we are ready, we’re off for a memorable evening with a Geisha. Our local guide will be with us to help translate conversation with the Geisha and also interpret the traditional Japanese banquet. Usually, a banquet will have a theme, even a poem which links each dish back to the poem’s essence. Sometimes the concepts can be lost in translation, but we’ll do our best to make it understandable. Our group has privately booked the Geisha and her instrumentalist for dancing and music.
Walking : Grade 2 (some slopes involved)
We start the day by catching a local express train to Nara, a town about 45 minutes from Kyoto. Nara is a much smaller place and we have chosen to bring you here for a number of reasons. Firstly, the tame sacred deer, secondly an opportunity to see the largest sitting Buddha in the world and lastly the primeval forest walk.
When we arrive in Nara, we leave our bags at the hotel and walk to the nearby Nara Park. First stop is Todai-ji, the largest sitting Buddha. After this photo stop we can walk up a small slope and around to Mt Kasuga Primeval Forest. This forest has been protected since 841AD when the emperor declared no hunting or logging of the forest was permitted and is now a UNESCO Heritage Site. Different from New Zealand nature trails, this forest has a broad gravel path which we follow – once you get used to it and adjust your thinking it’s actually very pleasant walking without having to watch your feet and enjoying the smooth gradient as we climb Mt Kusaga and then descend into the valley below. As we head back to Nara township we can feed the deer.
Nara has lots of excellent small restaurants so join your Tour Leader to find a cheap and cheerful local place to enjoy noodles (Udon/Soba) or Japanese pancakes (Okonomiyaki).
Walking : Grade 2.5 (some slopes involved)
This morning we travel by private coach with an English speaking guide to Koyasan on the Kii Peninsula.
Koyasan is the centre of Shingon Buddhism, introduced to Japan in the 9th century by the monk Kobo Daishi (also known as Kukai – we’ll encounter Kukai again on the island of Shikoku).
It is now a town of more than 100 temples and universities dedicated to religious studies; but also an important meditation place for a lot of pilgrims from all over the world.
We have time for an extensive walk through the area, including walking through the largest and oldest cemetery in Japan. The cemetery has over 200,000 tombstones, one of which is the Mausoleum of Kobo Daishi.
We then travel to our Ryokan in the Kawayu Onsen area.
Walking : Grade 1 (mostly flat)
We start the day with our local guide by taking a private bus to the start of our walk on part of the Kumano Kodo (Japan’s sister path to the Camino in Spain). Prepare yourself for a slow walk as we take in forest bathing (truly a lovely experience where you lay on logs and gaze at the sky), walking through deeply forested areas on winding natural tracks and as many small statues with their red bibs as you could want. The trees are so old here we may get a visual masterpiece of colour with the trees donning their autumn hues. At the end of the walk is Kumano Hongu Taisha Grand Shrine. Our lunch will be traditional Japanese bento boxes, prepared at our Ryokan.
There will be time after our day’s walk to just relax or to enjoy the hot baths at our Ryokan.
Walking : Grade 2 (rough paths in places)
Once again we have a private transfer as we travel to Wakayama. In central Wakayama we will stop for an independent lunch and then move onto Wakayama Port to catch our ferry to Shikoku Island. Not many Westerners visit Shikoku so prepare yourself for our group being the definite minority. The people are very friendly and you may be stopped to be greeted and welcomed.
Our first stop in Shikoku is Tokushima, a lovely town with many waterways. The town has colourful night illuminations so if you’re not too tired join your Tour Leader for a stroll in the river park near the hotel.
Tokushima is known for its Soba so if you’re interested in another cheap and cheerful join your Tour Leader to go to a small restaurant probably owned and operated by a husband and wife team.
Shikoku is known for its 88 shrines and the pilgrimage walk between all of them. The pilgrimage is open to all and doesn’t have any fixed rules; you can start where you want and all beliefs, genders, nationalities and reasons for walking are welcome. In fact you don’t even have to walk; you can cycle, drive or take local transport – they are all possible. We are using these Temples as markers for walks and it should be noted we will not be spending much time in these complexes as the focus is on walking not Shinto or Buddhism.
Today we are planning to walk between Temple 20 (Kakurin-ji) and Temple 21 (Tairyu-ji). Both are remote, so to get us on our way faster and easier we have arranged local private transport to take us to Temple 20 and pick us up from Temple 21. High in the hills the trees are likely to have started changing from green to red.
Temple 20, (Kakurin-ji). When the saint who founded this pilgrimage came to this place in 798 AD, he saw two white cranes, male and female. They were protecting a 6cm statue with their wings. The saint, Kukai, carved a 90cm statue and put the smaller statue inside it. So at this temple, its time to play ‘Spot the cranes’.
We descend from Temple 20 through a forest until we reach a small village near the river Naka. We cross the road bridge and start climbing through more forest to Temple 21. The track is a mix of concrete and compacted clay.
Temple 21, (Tairyu-ji). This is a large temple complex high in the hills. The best part of the place is its amazing Ropeway (gondola) which will take us across the hills and then steeply down into the village of Wajiki where our private transport will be waiting.
Walking : Grade 3 (Steep descent 1.5km and steep ascent 1.5km)
Tokushima is home to the traditional start and finish of the pilgrimage, so let’s go visit it. We get there by local train and a short walk on the flat to Temple 1, Ryozen-ji. Temple 2 is just along the road and then we take a quiet country road to Temple 3. The most interesting aspect of the walk is the farms and small villages we will pass through.
Temple 1, (Ryozen-ji). Kukai visited here when the farmers were suffering from natural disasters and sickness. Ryozen is the name of a sacred Buddhist Mountain in India.
Temple 2, (Gokuraku-ji). Kukai carved the statue of the deity of light. It is said in ancient times the light reached the sea and prevented the fisherman from catching fish so a small hill was built in front of the image.
Temple 3, (Konsen-ji). The gold well beside the Daishi hall is the reason why the temple is called Konsen-ji. If you can see your face in the reflected well water, you will live a long life.
After we get back to Tokushima we will take time to look around, grab some lunch and collect our belongings before taking the express train to Takamatsu.
Walking : Grade 1 (Flat on footpaths and sealed country road )
Takamatsu is larger than Tokushima and has more of an urban vibe. This morning, we take the train to Yashima Station and walk to Shikoku Village Museum. This outstanding ethnographic museum has collected many buildings from around Shikoku and landscaped the whole area into a harmonious and enjoyable place to visit. There is a free app for your phone which has an excellent explanation of the buildings and the life of the previous inhabitants in perfect English. You can have free time here or accompany your Tour Leader until we rendezvous at the café.
All going to schedule we’ll catch the local bus up the hill to Temple 84. The views from beyond this temple are panoramic. There are numerous souvenir shops and green ice cream available up here. Once we are all done we will take the well-constructed path down the slope and back to the train station.
Temple 84, (Yashima-ji). Kukai carved a sitting statue of Senju Kannon and built the main hall. Due to the access by road and being near Takamatsu this huge temple complex is wealthy and well maintained. The mountain was the site of a major battle in the 12th century.
Walking : Grade 2 (Slopes and a steep descend)
What do you do when your small island is dying as your young people move away and your main source of income is undermined by large fishing entities – you become an Art Island!
Yes today we are going to Naoshima, the first Art island in the Seto Sea (this type of rebranding has since been adopted by other islands). Firstly, we take the fast ferry to the island and once we are there you have several options for your day.
At Honmura is the Art House Project, a collection of six empty houses now turned into installations. From Honmura you can bus or walk to Benesse House Museum and from there walk/free bus to Chichu Art Museum and then back to the Ferry Port.
All over the island are pieces of outdoor art including the yellow pumpkin which you can enjoy for free.
Late afternoon we take the ferry back to Takamatsu.
Today is a flexible day as people have different levels of interest in art. Please note, entry fees are not included in the tour price.
Walking : Grade 2 (some hills)
This morning, we visit Ritsurin Garden, considered to be one of the best in Japan. Lovingly tended for over 200 years by 22 generations of one family, this garden has all the elements of a classical Japanese garden.
After visiting the garden and a spot of lunch it’s time to catch another train and relocate ourselves in Matsuyama. In Matsuyama the game to play is ‘How many types of local transport can I use?’ They have trains, trams, ropeways, buses, local trains and rickshaws.
We start the game by using the local tram for a quick trip around the castle to our hotel.
Matsuyama is another town with lots of small local restaurants; udon and soba are the local specialities.
Walking : Grade 1 (mostly flat)
So far, we haven’t visited a Japanese castle so let’s tick that off our list with a visit to the enormous Matsuyama Castle high on its hill close to our hotel. To make the journey easier we’ll take the Ropeway up the hill and start our castle visit from there. The castle has a designated route so you can’t get lost and numerous interesting displays with explanations in English along the way. The panoramic view from the top of the hill is expansive.
When we are ready, we’ll walk down the slope and catch the local tram to the Dogo Area. This is an ancient part of Matsuyama famous for its onsen. You can visit the oldest onsen in Japan here if you like or just enjoy the pedestrian street with lots of shopping opportunities and delicious citrus ice cream. There is a mechanical town clock which strikes on the half hour which is worth having a look at.
When we are done its back on the tram to our hotel. If you have the energy, we would recommend walking in the moat area at the bottom of the castle; there are explanation boards in English and some interesting archaeology done in this area.
Walking : Grade 2 (mostly flat. Slope down from the castle)
Prepare yourself for another day of walking as we take our arranged transport out into the countryside to Temple 45. After a brief visit we then take the flatter route across country to Temple 44. Today’s walk is a delight as we walk through forests, alongside waterways and pass small farms. The trail is more like we are used to in New Zealand. At the end of the walk, we will be taken by private transport back to Matsuyama.
Temple 45, (Iwaya-ji). According to legend Kukai was told about this place by a mysterious female recluse. On the way to the temple you pass thirty-six stone Buddhist statues of immortal youths.
Temple 44, (Daiho-ji). At the main gate are huge straw sandals which are remade every hundred years.
Walking : Grade 2 (mostly flat. Steep slope towards the end)
Sadly, today we leave Shikoku; we hope you have fallen in love with this unique island and its many unique charms. We travel by local train to Matsuyama Port and catch the Super Jet Boat to Hiroshima Port. It’s an interesting trip from the Port into central Hiroshima by streetcar (who knows how old these vehicles are).
From Hiroshima Central Station we will take our bags to our hotel and then set off to visit the Peace Park, ground zero for the atomic bomb dropped on the city in 1945. Your Tour Leader will walk you around this beautiful park with its memorials donated by many countries to promote peace. If we have managed to make cranes, we’ll leave them at the Children’s Memorial and you can hear the rather moving story about Sadako Sasaki.
The final stop in the park will be the Museum where you can choose how long you wish to stay here. When you want to go back to the hotel you can take the local bus again or walk back through the Christmas illuminations with the Tour Leader – to be seen to be believed.
Tonight its an independent dinner; however there are so many options at Central Station or nearby you may have to narrow your choices down to Western or non-western.
Walking : Grade 1
In Hiroshima harbour is the island of Miyajima; you might not know the name, but you will no doubt recognise its much-photographed Torii sitting in the water.
We start our journey to Miyajima by travelling on a local train, then a ferry accompanied by local Japanese tourists. We head up to the Ropeway and take the easy way to the top of Mt Misen and its views across the Inland Sea. You can either walk down or take the Ropeway back. When we gather together again, we can take the ferry and train back to our hotel.
Tonight is the night for Okonomiyaki (Japanese Pancake) which is really like a vegetable omelette with delicious sauce, usually eaten with a local beer.
This morning you decide what you might like to do and then late morning we are back on the Shinkansen for a very speedy trip back to Tokyo.
When we are back in Tokyo you might choose to do a spot of last-minute shopping, walk in the Imperial Castle gardens or just enjoy a coffee and watch everyone on a mission to somewhere.
This evening, we celebrate our trip with a Farewell Dinner.
The first part of the day is at leisure; if you wish to your Tour Leader can take you to Ginza or point out some other delights you might like to take in before leaving Japan.
Then it will be time to catch the Narita Express and whisk ourselves off to the airport to board our plane home.
We arrive home with wonderful memories of amazing sights and experiences.