Konnichiwa! Welcome to Japan. Bursting with contemporary urban culture, there are many sides of Tokyo to explore, from fascinating museums and world-class shopping, to neighbourhood backstreets lined with restaurants and karaoke bars. Before the trip starts, we recommend you take a walk around some of Tokyo’s most well-known districts, including Shibuya, Shinjuku, Harajuku and Ginza – variously known as the fashion centre, the skyscraper district, the home of quirky youth pop culture, and the upscale shopping area. Please be aware that there won’t be much free time in Tokyo once the trip begins, so consider booking additional accommodation if you wish to cover anything not included in the trip itinerary. Your adventure begins with a Welcome Meeting at 6pm tonight. You can arrive at any time during the day, as there are no activities planned until this important meeting. Please check with hotel reception or look on the reception noticeboard for where and when the meeting will take place. If you’re going to be late, please inform the hotel reception. Have your insurance and next of kin details on hand as we’ll be collecting them at this meeting. Afterwards, get an introduction to Japanese culture on a walk down Shinjuku’s Memory Lane. This crowded alley of busy restaurants and bar stalls started in the 1940s and quickly gained infamy as a black market drinking quarter. Today, it is still one of the best spots to try some of Tokyo’s famed ‘fast food’ dishes, including yakitori (grilled chicken skewers) as well as some of the city’s more daring fare. Then head up the observation deck of the Metropolitan Government Building for a stunning night view of the city’s skyline.
Today, your tour leader will take you for a morning walk around the famous Tsukiji Outer Market, where fresh seafood from Tokyo’s largest fish market (recently relocated to a new site at Toyosu) is delivered daily. You can wander the narrow aisles of this atmospheric marketplace to find all sorts of amazing food – from fish and shellfish to barrels of green tea, dried seaweed and all manner of pickled vegetables. Afterwards, pop into one of the many sushi restaurants nearby for the freshest breakfast you could hope for!
Later, learn the art of creating soba, Japan’s famed buckwheat noodle, in a hands-on cooking class. Slurp up your creations for lunch. This afternoon you’ll take some time sightseeing in the historic Asakusa area. This is one of the older and more traditional parts of Tokyo, and is often called the temple district. Here you’ll stop by Senso-ji, the city’s oldest temple – founded almost 1,400 years ago when Tokyo was nothing more than a fishing village. If you’ve got a sweet tooth then Asakusa is also a great place to satisfy a sugar craving – try fried sweet potatoes tossed in sugar, soy sauce and mirin, or sweet read bean paste sandwiched between baked pancake batter. Afterwards, consider heading to Tsukishima to enjoy one of Tokyo’s most popular dishes that you’ve probably never heard of – monjayaki. It’s a type of savoury pancake that tastes a million times better than it looks!
Wave goodbye to Tokyo at super speed as you ride the rails on a bullet train to the Edo period town of Takayama. Travelling by Shinkansen is an absolute buzz, as you’ll reach speeds of up to 270 kmh. Arrive in Takayama within approximately 5 hours (one stop). Takayama is a charming Edo period town located in the Japan alps. It’s famous for its traditional inns, sake breweries and Hida-gyu (Hida beef) – the beef from a black-haired Japanese cattle breed that has been raised in Gifu Prefecture for at least 14 months. On arrival you’ll stop into one of the region’s prized sake breweries for a tasting. The alpine climate and crystal clear mountain waters are perfect for creating this signature drop. For the next two evenings you will stay in a traditional ryokan (Japanese inn). Rooms are equipped with thin futon mattresses that are spread on tatami mats for a comfortable night’s sleep. Over the next two evenings you will dine on regional Takayama delicacies, including hida beef.
The Gifu prefecture is known to produce excellent high altitude vegetables. Explore the morning markets that date back 600 years and browse the stalls of seasonal produce brought in from the surrounding countryside. Stalls are set up by local farm women from 6am every morning. Look out for the unique local style of pickles, the bags of miso wrapped in leaves, Genkotsu ame (soy bean candy), preserved fish, spices, and the delicious marshmallow treat of owara tamaten. Later, visit the nearby Hida Folk Village, an outdoor museum where the traditional thatched-roof architecture unique to the area has been recreated in a delightful mountain setting. Discover the techniques used to build farmhouses that could withstand fierce winters and long periods of isolation due to snow-closed roads. The thick thatching kept in warmth and the roofs were angled so as to minimise snow build-up. Each house is like it’s own self-contained museum, with displays of personal items and traditional tools. While in Takayama, keep an eye out for some of these popular regional dishes – mitarashi dango (rice dumplings roasted in soy sauce), houba miso (miso vegetables cooked in magnolia leaf) and chuka soba (Hida’s favourite noodle dish). Tonight you’ll sample some more of Takayama’s signature dishes at a local restaurant.
Take the train from Takayama to the delightful seaside town of Kanazawa (approximately 2 hours), which is sometimes known as the hidden pearl of the Japan Sea. Having avoided bombing in WWII, it’s a place where both modern and traditional Japan are found. The city is full of historic sights like Kanazawa castle, Korakuen gardens, Bukeyashiki (Samurai House), the very traditional Chaya gai (tea house district), geisha and samurai districts, but also home to the world class, ultra-modern 21st Century Museum of Contemporary Art. On arrival, your leader will take you on an orientation walk and the rest of the day is free for your own exploration. In the evening, your leader can assist you to make a booking at one of the city’s renowned seafood restaurants for a truly memorable meal.
Wake early and head over to the Omicho market, where the city’s quality foods and producers gather. Fish from Ishikawa prefecture is brought in from the port every morning and, as well as on sale fresh, there are also a number of restaurants in the market whip it up into special seafood rice bowls or sushi. There are almost 200 different stalls to get lost in. Later, you’ll go out for dinner with the group and explore the city’s unique food scene. Later on you may wish to visit the 17th-century Korakuen Gardens – highly landscaped acres of bridges, ponds, waterfalls and fountains that are beautiful no matter what the season. Alternatively, make your way to the ‘Samurai House’ in the Nagamachi district, where Maeda samurai lords provided their vassals with grand estates. Be transported back in time, with the house giving a good idea of the life-style of samurai during the Edo period, when Japan was secluded from the outside world. Later in the day, take part in the city’s living cultural heritage with a Japanese sweet making class. Wagashi sweets are classically used to accompany tea ceremonies, and they are a tasty to look at as they are to eat.
Hop on the train (approximately 1 hour) to arrive in Japan’s third-largest city and unofficial culinary capital, where the motto is ‘Kuidaore’ (‘eat until you drop’). This is where some of Japan’s best street food is on offer. There are sprawling shopping hubs and tiny backstreets overflowing with restaurants and bars, serving up local delicacies as well as Japan’s answer to fast food. Osaka is credited with the first kaiten-zushi (conveyer belt sushi) restaurants, after its inventor – the owner of a sushi restaurant with staffing issues – watched beer bottles on a conveyer belt at the nearby Asahi brewery and thought it might be a good way to solve this problem. The city is also renowned for its brand of okonomiyaki (a delicious savoury pancake) and kushikatsu (seasoned, deep fried meat on skewers). Take in some of the city’s landmarks, including the wonderful Kuromon covered food market, and maybe pick up some final kitchen gadgets (or plastic food!) at the quirky Doguyasuji Arcade. Then embark on a delicious street food tour to sample some of the best morsels that Osaka has to offer. Even try your hand at making a local specialty, takoyaki (a hot snack of shredded octopus, pickled ginger, spring onion, covered in batter).
Take the train (approximately 2 hours) into an important region for Shingon Buddhism. Founded in the 8th century by the Buddhist saint Kobo Daishi, Koya-san has been a centre for religious activities for over 1,200 years. You’ll visit Okuno-in, the mausoleum of Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism and one of the most revered people in the religious history of Japan. Your unique accommodation tonight is in one of the hundreds of temples still operating here. You’ll live alongside Buddhist monks and follow their routine of evening meditation and morning prayers. Temple lodgings, known as shukubo, have facilities similar to Japanese ryokans. Rooms are equipped with thin futon mattresses that are spread on tatami mats for a comfortable night’s sleep. Tonight you’ll enjoy an introduction to shojin ryori, or monastic cuisine, lovingly prepared and presented by novice monks. Shojin ryori was popularised in Japan in the 13th century by Zen monks from China. Shojin ryori is vegetarian, and prohibits inclusion of meat and fish, following the teaching that it is wrong to kill living animals. Instead meals are prepared with seasonable vegetables and wild plants from the mountains.
Notes: There are no western bathing facilities at the monastery. Instead, bathing is done in a traditional public bath. This is a two-step process. The first step is to thoroughly clean yourself, followed by a cleansing soak in a hot bath. Onsen are communal bathing areas and it is not permitted to wear bathing suits. While this can seem intimidating at first, it is a quintessential Japanese experience and often a highlight for travellers in Japan. For those who are more sensitive about public bathing, you leader can suggest times of day when you are likely to have more privacy.
Get acquainted with the beautiful city of Kyoto, home to numerous imperial sights and arguably the source of Japanese culinary tradition. The train from Koya-san to Kyoto takes approximately 3.5 hours. The beautiful city was originally founded as Heian-kyo (literally “tranquillity and peace capital”) by Emperor Kammu in 794 and had its golden age during the imperial court’s heyday from 794 to 1185. Kyoto was the capital of Japan for over 1,000 years (the name means “Capital City”) but the emperor and government are now located in Tokyo. With its many cultural landmarks and historical sites, and the abundance of traditional arts and literature, Kyoto is regarded as the cultural heart of Japan. When you arrive you’ll stroll through the glass-covered walkway of Nishiki Market, a seemingly never-ending wonderland for food lovers and shoppers. This is the perfect introduction to Kyoto’s regional specialties – from pickled vegetables hidden beneath layers of fermented rice to delicious and ornate Kyo-wagashi (Kyoto sweets), not to mention incredible local produce, silken tofu and a renowned hand-crafted knife shop. In the late afternoon, take a step back in time on a walk through the narrow streets of Kyoto’s charming Gion district and learn about the city’s geisha culture. If you’re lucky you might spot geikos (geishas) or maikos (apprentice geishas) with their elaborate dress and make up. The evening is free for your own food adventure, although your leader will have plenty of suggestions.
As the millennium-long home of the imperial kitchen, Kyoto is known as the centre of Japanese culinary tradition. From the aristocratic kaiseki ryori (Japan’s haute cuisine), to the simple yet refined dishes of obanzai ryori (home-cooked cuisine), Kyoto is a city that takes food seriously. Today, you’ll experience the simple pleasures of obanzai ryori in a cooking class. Perhaps less well-known than kaiseki in the West, the ancient style of obanzai ryori also has strict rules that must be adhered to. It follows a strictly seasonal approach, and at least half of the ingredients must be Kyo-yasai (kyoto vegetables) and other locally sourced produce. It should also embody the spiritual elements of genuine things, balance, encounter, hospitality and not creating waste. Ingredients are prepared simply, often simmered in dashi with traditional flavouring. Obanzai is down-to-earth, unpretentious and increasingly gaining popularity in Kyoto as people seek to ensure that this culinary tradition is preserved. You’ll then get to enjoy the dishes you have cooked for lunch. This evening is free for your own rest or exploration. Perhaps find a theatre putting on shows of Noh – music, traditional dancing, kabuki and banraku puppetry or splash out on a kaiseki meal in a ryotei (small restaurants serving traditional multi-course cuisine).
After breakfast today, venture out of Kyoto to explore the traditions, culture and history behind tea, which plays an important part in traditional Japanese society. Go behind the scenes of a local tea farm to learn about the long-lived customs surrounding this brew, which is more than simply a drink. Walk several beautiful tea fields in the surrounding mountains and learn about the farming process, then taste a variety of locally-grown brews: from everyday houjicha and genmaicha to premium sencha and matcha. The careful symbolism of Japanese society reaches its height in the tea ceremony, and here you might ask about the importance of the cleaning of tea utensils, the bow on receiving a cup and the three clockwise turns before a sip is taken. Return to Kyoto in the afternoon and spend some free time pursuing your culinary passions. An unknown chef in Kyoto transformed the eel (hamo) from inedible to star ingredient with the invention of a heavy knife that cut the flesh away from the many bones. Perhaps try this quintessential Kyoto taste of summer for yourself. Otherwise maybe try some of Kyoto’s famed smooth flavour tofu, perfected over centuries by Buddhist monks.
Perhaps meet up with your group for one final dinner to celebrate the end of this Real Food Adventure.
Your delicious Real Food Adventure Japan concludes after breakfast. There are no activities planned for the final day and you are able to depart the accommodation at any time.
Tokyo - Memory Lane Yakitori Dinner
Tokyo - Metropolitan Government Building
Tokyo - Asakusa Guided Walk
Tokyo - Soba-noodle Class
Tokyo - Sensoji Temple
Tokyo - Seafood Market & Sushi Breakfast
Takayama - Sake Brewery Tasting
Takayama - Hida Folk Village
Kanazawa - Orientation Walk
Kanazawa - Wagashi (sweets) cooking demonstration
Kanazawa - Omicho Market
Osaka - Street Food Tour
Kyoto - Gion District walk
Kyoto - Obanzai Cooking Class
Kyoto - Tea Farm Visit