Hidden Japan

Multi-Activity, Culture and Cuisine

Overview

Overview

Japan! Nowhere else in the world have we found such a graceful balance of the modern and ancient, of art and utility, of spirituality and respect for nature.

On our classic Japan adventure tour we explore this land of contrasts: hyper-modern cities, bucolic farmlands, rugged coastlines and ancient cultural sites. We visit the ‘must sees’ such as Kyoto’s UNESCO World Heritage sites and downtown Tokyo, but also some truly hidden places. These range from little visited temples and shrines, perfectly proportioned and embedded in Zen gardens, to sea caves on the wild East coast.

As we tour Japan you’ll find the local people to be civility personified – calm, gracious, kind and welcoming. They lovingly nurture old traditions, incorporating them into their daily lives. Along our journey of discovery we meet very special individuals, including a Shinto priest who gives us a private audience; a man whose life work is making soba noodles; and a craftsman whose knives are sought after around the world.

During our Japan trip we discover the country’s amazing cuisine. Every ingredient is treated with the utmost respect. Each meal becomes a performance and a visual and gustatory delight. We sample a wide array of local specialties, in a variety of local restaurants specially picked by our local guide who happens to be a devout ‘foodie’!

This Hidden Places adventure includes visits to a variety of special natural and cultural gems in Japan which we explore by walking, bicycling, hiking and kayaking. Our hiking trips on the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route and paddling and trekking excursion on Yakushima Island are sandwiched between visits to the cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, as well as Koyasan which is the historic center of Shingon – Japanese esoteric Buddhism. Our main mode of transportation between destinations will be train (including two trips on the bullet train). Our lodging includes traditional Ryokan Inns (with in-house hot springs), comfortable western style hotels, and a temple stay in Koyasan.

Highlights

Highlights

Japan is a land of contrasts and delightful surprises. It leads the world with its cutting edge technology, yet it is also a treasury of ancient cultures, art and rituals, which are lovingly preserved and folded into everyday life. Food in Japan is an art form in itself, with every dish a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Our trip takes you to hypermodern cities, bucolic landscapes, wild coastlines, ancient temples and deep into the Buddhist and Shinto spiritual traditions. We walk through ancient streets, kayak to hidden caves and hike along stunning cliffs; we soak in hot spring pools, eat exquisite food, sip craft beers and rare sakes, and meet some remarkable local people who give us an ‘insiders view’ of their beautiful and fascinating country. Don’t miss this chance to discover Hidden Japan!

Tokyo

We visit many must-see locations, old and new, as we make our way around the city by train, foot and river boat.

Enjoy the freshest sushi in Japan for breakfast before touring the largest fish and seafood market in the world, selling everything from seaweed and sardines to 300 kg tuna and the world’s most expensive caviar.
Relax on a riverboat that cruises the Sumidagawa river and Tokyo Bay, with great views of downtown Tokyo and its skyscrapers. The riverboat also serves local microbrews!
Sip Matcha tea in a garden built for the royalty and nobility of the Tokugawa era (1603-1868)
Eat a traditional bento lunch while listening to a live Shamisen (Japanese lute) performance
Tour Tokyo’s most famous temple, Asakusa, with free time afterwards to purchase souvenirs and
traditional crafts that are made in the shops near the temple grounds.
Celebrate the last day of the tour by floating around Tokyo bay in a traditional Yakatabune boat and have dinner on board.

Kyoto and Uji

You can’t travel to Japan without experiencing Kyoto. One of the few historical cities spared from bombing during WW2, Kyoto is charming and ancient with 17 registered UNESCO World Heritage sites, 1600 Buddhist temples and over 400 Shinto Shrines. On our first day in Kyoto we see see the sights by bicycle. Our 4 bike journeys last between 20-40 minutes , with lots of fascinating stops along the way. These include:

Japan’s top shrine–Fushimi Inari. This temple is the origin of Inari-Zushi; a type of tofu sushi which isn’t to be missed. At this temple, we’ll walk through thousands of bright orange Tori gates which wind along a mountain path and lead to several tea houses with great views.
Tasting sake from its birthplace in Japan, legendary because of the quality of water in an aquifer located right underneath Kyoto in the Fujishi area
Spot Geisha while navigating the narrow cobblestone lanes surrounding Kiyomizu-dera

We’ll explore to the lesser-known town of Uji,  famous as the origin of green tea production in Japan–a drink traditionally reserved only for the Samurai and ruling class. Highlights of Uji include:

  • Become a tea snob by learning about the varieties of matcha and how they are prepared
  • Participate in a Tea Ceremony hosted in a traditional Tea House. The facilitators are elderly ladies who aren’t shy about teaching correct form of tea consumption to their patrons.
  • Eat amazing Matcha Soba Noodles and Matcha Tofu–both of which are surprisingly delightful!
    Visit the famous Byodoin Temple, which is the oldest structure in Japan and featured on the back of the 10 yen coin.

Yakushima

Probably the most biologically diverse place in Japan, Yakushima is an island of immense natural beauty, with waterfalls, ancient cedar trees and moss-covered subtropical forest. In 1993 Yakushima became the first UNESCO World Heritage site in Japan, and roughly one-fifth of the island is registered as a World Heritage Site of Natural Beauty.

Hike through a mossy subtropical forest in Shiratani Unsuikyo. There are a variety of hiking trails in this World Heritage park, and depending on the group’s fitness and the weather we can opt to hike for between one and six hours.
Spend an afternoon kayaking on a quieter stretches of one of the island’s rivers, or go for a paddle along the coast.
Relax at Hirauchi Onsen, a public seaside hot spring after, your paddle or hike. Located right on the ocean and only available for use twice per day at low-tide, Hirauchi Onsen has a number of different sized pools, including a 6 person bath and a footbath.

Koyasan

One of the most important religious centers in Japan, Koyasan is a temple town in the mountainous region of Wakayama prefecture (2 hours south of Kyoto). It was built 1,200 years ago by Kukai, the founder of Japanese Esoteric Buddhism, as a Buddhist retreat. Its location was chosen for its remoteness and because the surrounding mountains were said to create the shape of a lotus flower. The town of Koyasan is owned by local temples, so despite its popularity among Japanese tourists there has been little expansion and no large hotels have been allowed to be built.

Guided night-time tour of Okunoin, a sacred ancient cemetery, led by a monk from our temple lodging. Okunoin stretches for more than 2km and an estimated 200,000 monks have been buried in the ancient graveyard. At night lanterns light the dark cemetery as we walk beside our monk-guide who fills us in on the history and significance of many of the tombstones and buildings we pass. Despite being man-made, the cemetery is a natural beauty on its own, with moss growing over century-old statues and crumbling tombs. In contrast to much of the rest of Japan, Okunoin’s trees were not cut down during the war, and 600-800 year old cedars tower over the site.
Our lodging at Ekoin Temple is another fantastic highlight of Koyasan. Monks here are very open to sharing their knowledge and ceremonies with guests. Guests can participate freely in morning meditations and watch the Goma fire ceremony performed by one of the monks. For breakfasts and dinners, we will eat the same vegetarian Buddhist cuisine as our monk hosts.
Walk in the footsteps of pilgrims along the many trails that circle Koyasan and originally connected it to the outside world. One of these is Nyonindo, a trail that was created for female pilgrims back during the times when women were not permitted to enter the grounds of Koyasan. This 5km trail crosses the mountains that surround Koyasan, and offers great scenic views.
Kumano Kodo
The Kumano Kodo refers to a set of four pilgrimage routes that lead to the Kumano Sanzan, or three grand shrines of the Kumano sect of Shinto, Japan’s indigenous national religion. We’ll walk along Nakahechi, the original pilgrimage route that is over 1,000 years old and was used for more than 100 pilgrimages by the imperial family in the 12th and 13th centuries. As the heart of Japanese Buddhism’s intersection with Japan’s indigenous, nature-worshipping religions, we will be trekking through one of the country’s most spiritually and historically important regions.
Hike along ancient Nakahechi trail which traverses the mountainous region of Kumano through dense, biologically diverse forests. Along the way pass many Jizo, Buddhist statues placed along the trail by monks to protect travelers and children.
Stay in a 250 year old ryokan inn at Yunomine Onsen, an ancient, traditional town famous for its hot spring
Embark on a traditional longboat, as pilgrims have done in the past, and travel down the Kumanogawa river to where it meets the Pacific Ocean in the town of Shingu. Our riverboat guide will share folktales at different historical sites along the river and entertain us with a flute performance as well.
In Shingu we’ll visit Hayatama Taisha, one of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, as well as Gotobiki-iwa, a massive boulder located at the top of a small mountain on the edge of town. An important place in the earth creation story in the Shinto faith, it is said that the gods first touched earth here, and a large crack through the center of the boulder appeared as a result.
Hike to the stunning 500 ft Nachi waterfall above the ancient shrine village of Shingu.

We think of our itineraries as melodies: they have a beginning and an end, a certain arc, dramatic highlights and a few surprises. We like to improvise, to adapt to the mood of our guests or to circumstances that arise — an invitation to a traditional wedding, say, or a local ethnic festival…

Crafting beautiful, harmonious trips with delightful twists is our trade mark and passion.

FAQ

FAQ

What's special about Japan?

Where to start?! The artistry that runs through every element of daily life. the incredible food culture. The contrasts – from hyper modern cities to bucolic farmland to wild coastlines. The kindness and civility of its people. The lovingly preserved traditions and rituals – from green tea ceremonies to communal bathing. The stunning temples, monasteries, and perfect gardens. The chance to meet Shinto priests, and watch Zen archers practice with exquisite slowness and precision. The cosy sushi bars that seat only a handful of people, where you have the chef’s undivided attention. The trains – the high speed Shinkansen, and the more sedate local trains, all comfortable and prompt to the second. The superb art galleries and museums, filled with dizzyingly beautiful work. The history, stretching back millennia. The fact that one city, Kyoto, and its surrounds, can have 17 UNESCO World Heritage Sites. The squeaky cleanness, which should never be underestimated! And this is just the start of the list…..

What is the food like?

Fresh, fresh, fresh, and treated with the utmost respect, love and artistry. Meals are a feast for the eyes and the taste buds. Often they are a dizzying array of small dishes, including fish, vegetables, tofu, meat, soup and rice. During our trip we will be sampling many different local specialities. We will eat everywhere from tiny sushi bars, to top restaurants, to tucked away cafes serving only soba noodles. The food in Japan is a big part of the adventure.

Where does the trip start and end?

It starts and ends in Narita Airport, Tokyo. We arrange airport transfers on the first and last days of the trip.

How do I get to Tokyo?

You can fly direct: from Vancouver, Calgary and Toronto with Air Canada; from New York or Los Angeles with United, ANA, JAL, American Airlines or Delta; from Washington DC with United or ANA.

What are the physical activities on the trip and what level of fitness do I need?

The hikes are easy and none are more than two hours in length. The kayaking excursions will each be about two hours in length, and we may do two excursions on each kayaking day. As we use stable double kayaks it is suitable for everyone. However, if you are a beginner we suggest you take a couple of introductory lessons beforehand. On the city tours we will be walking for up to two hours at a time, with lots of stops along the way, but please note that that in some places, for example Kyoto, there are numerous steps. Also, for some meals we will be seated at very low tables, so you should be able to sit down on the floor and get up without too much difficulty. This also applies to some of the sleeping arrangements, when you will be using futons very low to the floor.

I’m a vegetarian, is that a problem?

This is not a problem on any of our trips; you just need to let us know in advance what you can and can’t eat. The same goes for any food allergies – please give us full information on these.

What are the accommodations like?

A real mix, from Western style hotels to ryokans, which are traditional inns. In the ryokans you will experience true Japanese lifestyle. On arrival you swap your city shoes for slippers. Your sleeping room will be covered with a tatami mat, and the bedding is a futon and quilts, which are made up at night and stored away during the day. Inside your sleeping room you go barefoot. A fresh cotton robe (yukata) is provided for each guest. You can wear this around the ryokan, and when you are going to its onsen (hot spring bath). Meals at the ryokans are usually presented at low tables, and you will be sitting on cushions or low benches.

What can you tell me about the onsens?

Bathing is a time-honoured tradition in Japan, dating from the early Shinto period, and it is taken very seriously. All our accommodations will have en suite bathrooms with showers, but it would be a shame to miss the onsen experience. These are pools fed by hot springs, and they are communal – separate pools for men and woman. You are required to bathe naked, but if this is a challenge for you, some ryokans have small private baths, or ofuro, that you can use. As with all things Japanese, using the onson requires certain rituals. Before bathing you wash yourself from top to toe in areas specified for this close to the pool. Stretching out and soaking in hot spring water, with steam rising around you, sometimes with a spectacular view, is a fantastic experience. Traditionally the bathing is done before dinner, but we admit to sometimes going to the onsen last thing at night – a deep sleep is assured!

What will the weather be like?

Temperatures will be pleasantly warm, ranging from 24 C by day and 15 C by night. There may be the chance of some showers.

Do I need a visa?

Canadian and US citizens do not need a visa for Japan.

Do I need insurance?

Medical insurance, including emergency evacuation, is mandatory on all our trips. We also strongly advise you to purchase trip cancellation insurance which should be done within a few days of making your booking.

Do I need vaccinations?

Your routine vaccinations (tetanus/diphtheria, polio and measles-mumps-rubella, etc.) need to be up to date. Please consult with your physician or local travel health clinic for any other vaccinations that may be recommended in your case.

What about malaria?

Japan eradicated malaria in 1959, and to date there have been no new outbreaks.

What does the trip price cover?

Airport transfers on the first and last days of the trip, all tour guiding, excursions and entrance fees, all accommodation, all meals, and water.

What does the trip price not cover?

International flights, airport transfers not on the first or last days of the trip, beverages other than water, personal insurance and gratuities for our kayak guide and local trip leader.

How can I access cash when I'm on the trip?

ATMs are available throughout Japan.

What clothes and equipment will I need?

When you sign up for the trip, we will provide you with a comprehensive clothes and equipment list.

I’m travelling alone, is that a problem?

Absolutely not. We have many guests who travel with us on their own. They appreciate the camaraderie of our Hidden Places groups, and usually go home with newfound friends.

You can pay a the Single Supplement if you’d like your own room or you have the option of sharing accommodation with another suitable single guest. In the case that we don’t have anyone for you to share with we charge 50% of the Single Supplement for a ‘forced’ single accommodation.

Can I talk to someone who has previously travelled with you?

Of course. Just ask and we will be happy to put you in touch with one of our Hidden Places guests.

Gallery

Gallery

Trip Details

Pricing
between US $ 600 – 700 per day per person


Suggested Trip Length
10 to 14 days


Preferred Time
November, April, May


Accomodations
Traditional ‘Ryokan’ inns
4-5 star Western-style hotels


Group Size
Min: 4


Activities
Easy walking tours (some include lots of steps); easy biking; kayaking in stable doubles (for beginners, previous introductory lessons are advisable).
Please note: Some meals are served on low tables and some beds are futons on tatami mats, so you should be able to get up from floor level without assistance.


Begins/Ends
Tokyo, Japan


Guest Comments

  • We explored some truly hidden places, with lots of great surprises along the way. The planning and scheduling were amazing, and our guides were truly first class. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Japan will live on in my memory.

    Roger L Vernon BC, Canada
  • Thank you for leading me to Buddha and Shinto deities in hidden places in Japan. Even a shoreline shrine seen from a kayak. And for everything in between – this was another memorable adventure with Hidden Places!

    Margaret S Washington, DC, USA
  • The Japanese are the sweetest, most gentle people on the planet. My highlight of the trip was the cuisine - I never thought I would eat urchin, snail or eel!

    Jim D Victoria, BC, Canada
  • The Japan trip and guides couldn't have been better! Add to that the perfect weather, paddling conditions, accommodations and delightful surprises and an unforgettable experience was the result.

    Gary V Ewing, NJ, USA
  • "The trip was a wonderful mix of cuisine, culture and beautiful countryside – and it was something we could never have done on our own! Thank you for another incredible experience, creating so many special memories."

    Janis MacN Stratford, ON, Canada
  • What a trip through Japan’s incredible culture, cuisine and landscapes.. Our guides were fabulous - knowledgeable, attentive and passionate about their country.

    Patty P Victoria, BC, Canada
  • What a great country: the cuisine, the people, the beautiful temples and gardens and the amazing transportation network. Thanks so much Maria for putting the trip together and for all the special moments that make Hidden Places a joy to travel with.

    Dave P Stratford, ON, Canada
  • Hidden Places did it again. The trip was phenomenal, showing us the flavor and serenity of the Japanese experience.

    Rob C Alexandria, BA, USA
  • Thank you for making our pilgrimage to Japan so memorable. I really enjoyed discovering so many hidden places in this beautiful country. Our guides were outstanding.

    Susan L Vernon, BC, USA
  • We explored some truly hidden places, with lots of great surprises along the way. The planning and scheduling were amazing, and our guides were truly first class. The sights, sounds, tastes and smells of Japan will live on in my memory.

    Roger L Vernon, BC, Canada

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