TOUR OVERVIEW / HIGHLIGHT
Lying between three of the Japanese archipelago’s four main islands, Setouchi, also known as the legendary Seto Inland Sea, has prospered from a vital shipping lane since ancient times into a vibrant region offering a beguiling mix of traditional and contemporary art, architecture and gourmet dining. This carefully-crafted 9-day discovery will take you through the region’s most desirable destinations favoured by discerning travellers. Embrace solitude in the temples at Koyasan, visit Japan’s best-preserved feudal castle, wander through hidden islands of surreal art, olives and wagyu beef, learn how soya sauce, sake, pottery, olive oil and Japanese swords are made, and rejuvenate in traditional hot spring baths of luxurious ryokans. As you travel through various destinations by bullet train, ferry and private vehicle - you will come away with a true appreciation for the traditions and artistic beauty of spiritual Japan.
WHAT TO EXPECT?
DAY 01: ARRIVAL - KANSAI / KOYASAN
Welcome to Central Japan!
You are met on arrival and transferred to your temple lodge in Koya-san (Mount Koya) for a two-night stay.
Unlike a regular hotel experience, this shukubo, or temple stay, provides a spiritual escape set in idyllic surroundings. The temple was founded in the 12th century, and the present structure is over 100 years old - expect rice mat floors, sliding paper doors, the sound of leaves rustling in the wind, and falling asleep to the sounds of the surrounding forest. Awake with the temple bell at dawn and join the priests and monks in their morning ceremony for chanting and meditation. Soji-in serves Buddhist vegan meals - a special kind of cuisine called shojin-ryori - and the dinner is something to dream about once you have left: a five-course feast of veggies served in imaginative and delicious ways. In the evening, dip in the temple complex's hot spring bath and walk among the trees. Soji-in leaves a mark on those that pass through.
DAY 02: KOYASAN
After breakfast, meet your tour guide for a tour of Koya-san.
Starting with the Okunoin Cemetery, the mausoleum of Japan’s most revered religious figure, Kobo Daishi, is one of the most sacred places in Japan. Tombstones of thousands line the paths around the temple. Feudal lords and Japanese historical figures, regardless of their allegiances in life, chose this area as their final resting place so they might be closer to Kobo Daishi and receive salvation.
Next, you would visit the Kongobuji Temple, commissioned by Toyotomi Hideyoshi (Japan ́s second “great unifier”) to commemorate his mother after her death. A recent addition to the temple is a large rock garden fashioned after two dragons emerging from the clouds.
In the evening, enjoy the serene atmosphere of the temple and participate in "Shakyo" (copying a Buddhist Sutra by brush).
Meals: Breakfast, Lunch & Dinner
DAY 03: KOYASAN / HIMEJI / KURASHIKI
Rise early as we participate in the morning prayer service which the monks of the temple perform every day.
Afterwards, enjoy breakfast before travelling to Himeji by the Shinkansen bullet train.
One of the few original castles from the feudal age of Japan, Himeji Castle is a remarkable sight. Nicknamed Shirasagijo (White Heron Castle) for its brilliant white exterior, the castle is immensely popular with Japanese and foreign tourists alike. It remains remarkably intact, as no battle ever took place there and it was spared in bombing raids during the Second World War. As such, it is possible to see the intricate defense fortifications in situ. Among its most prominent features is the tall main keep, which rises six stories from the ground, offering a wide view over the sprawling city below.
Thereafter, transfer to Kurashiki and check in to your ryokan for a two-night stay.
Ryokan Kurashiki began life as the shop, office, and home of a successful sugar merchant in the Edo period (1603-1868). When the transformation to an inn began in 1957, the architect skillfully integrated several adjoining kura (storehouses) to create an expansive space containing seven suites and a room, a private dining room, a private salon, a bathhouse, and a restaurant.
DAY 04: KURASHIKI
This morning, enjoy a walking tour of Kurashiki's Bikan historical area.
Visit the Kurashiki Ivy Square, site of the first modern cotton mill of Japan. Nowadays, the preserved brick buildings contain museums, restaurants and a hotel. Participate in a pottery-making experience.
A little further afield lies the Morita Sake brewery. Deliberately using traditional methods and equipment, this over 100-year-old brewery gives visitors an excellent insight into the process of traditional sake making. The production period is during winter (Nov- Feb), but the owner will give a tour of the facilities and offer some sake for tasting. Also, have a look at their store and buy some sake to enjoy during tonight's dinner. Their store also features goods from all over the world, handpicked by the owner.
Continue to visit the Old Ohashi House. The Ohashi family, having amassed great wealth through the development of new rice fields and other ventures, erected this house in 1796. It provides an excellent example of a Kurashiki merchant house and retains its original form to this day.
The afternoon will be yours to relax at your ryokan or continue with your discovery at your own leisure.
As Okayama prefecture is famous for its high-quality fruit, we recommend savouring a delicious parfait rich in seasonal fruit at Kurashiki Momoko!
You may also want to have a look at the Ohara Museum of Art. This lovely museum was Japan's first museum of Western art and was founded in 1930 to commemorate Kojima Torajiro, a Western-style painter who married Eastern and Western art styles in his work. Make sure not to miss his three "Asagao" ("Morning Glories") paintings which will certainly bring a smile to your face!
Tonight, the ryokan Okami (female manager of a ryokan) Ms Ritsuko Nakamura will arrange a dinner (own account) for you at a local restaurant close to the ryokan.
DAY 05: KURASHIKI / NAOSHIMA / SHODOSHIMA
A grand modern art project, Naoshima Island hosts several modern art museums and is a kind of open-air museum itself.
This morning, transfer to Naoshima by ferry, and explore the quaint little island offering modern art museums such as the Chichu Art Museum, the Benesse House Museum & outdoor art, and the Lee Ufan Museum.
Continue to Shodoshima Island by chartered speed boat where one can truly escape the hustle and bustle of mainland Japan in favour of a relaxing, quiet paradise surrounded by the sights of the tranquil Seto Inland Sea.
Finally, we will then arrive at the outstanding Umioto Mari, a classic yet modern ryokan that evokes a timeless setting and impressive culinary offerings. Dinner tonight will consist of the “Olive Kaiseki” course, which uses rich, freshly pressed Shodoshima olive oil enhanced by spices prepared at the retreat.
Meals: Breakfast & Dinner
DAY 06: SHODOSHIMA
A beautiful day in Shodoshima begins with a visit to one of Japan's oldest and most authentic soy sauce manufacturers - Yamaroku - where traditional production has changed little over the centuries.
Next, ascend the mountains and travel by Kankakei Ropeway (cable car) over the incredibly-gorgeous Kankakei volcano while being treated to the spectacular view of the Seto Inland Sea laid out before you.
On your descent, enjoy the amazing views of endless terraced rice fields of the Nakayama Senmaida and perhaps pop by the beautifully preserved Komame Shokudo cafe to enjoy a delightful "Olive Beef burger". A 300-year-old tiny Kabuki theatre is also located here. Once a year, the locals arrange a “farmers kabuki” with traditions passed down from generation to generation.
Further down, there's time for a visit of Toyo Olive - one of the largest producers of olive oil on Shodoshima producing 25% of all olives grown in Japan. Enjoy a professionally-guided tour of the olive fields and factory. Other than olive oil, they offer a range of products from sugared olives, olive-leaf tea, olive cider, olive bread, olive pasta and more! Moreover, in a zero-waste approach, Toyo Olive provides the olive pulp (the residue after extraction of the oil) to local farmers producing the superb Olive Wagyu beef, one of the rarest and most expensive steaks in the world. (During the picking season between October and December, you will be able to pick olives by hand and make your own bottle of fresh olive oil. This highly fragrant oil is not sold to the public as it has a short shelf life, however olive oil offers its peak of flavor and nutrition when fresh-pressed.)
If time allows, have a quick visit to Angel Road, a romantic and mysterious sandbar that can only be crossed at low tide.
Meals: Breakfast & Dinner
DAY 07: SHODOSHIMA / HIMEJI / NARA
Today, make our way back to Himeji by ferry, and visit Mount Shosha ropeway and Engyoji Temple Complex in the outskirts. This temple complex has more than 1000 years of history. The temples are spread across the densely forested area giving an ancient kind of atmosphere. A fifteen-minute walk takes you to the beautiful wooden hall Maniden, constructed on wooden pillars. Due to its ancient appearance, the area is frequently used for TV dramas and movies and the location was also used in the movie "The Last Samurai" starring Tom Cruise.
Thereafter, catch a Shinkansen to Osaka followed by a road transfer to the countryside of Nara.
Check in to your private villa and enjoy the rest of the day at your own leisure.
Set in a prime location of Nara, Sasayuri-ann is the ultimate escape from city life. This renovated Edo period farmhouse surrounded by rice paddies and expansive mountain views serves as a luxurious private villa for up to 10 people.
In the evening, enjoy the quietness of the area surrounded by terraced rice fields and mountains while savouring some delicious Japanese cuisine arranged through catering! (Catering menu includes a variety of cuisines including dinner course served by local Japanese restaurant, special Iga beef cuisine, hot pot cooked on "irori", etc)
DAY 08: NARA
Wake up early and join the owner on a small walk through the Akame 48 waterfalls where the legendary Ninja used to train. The owner is a "Shugendo" monk and will share with you his secrets in this private and intimate walk (upon availability - free of charge). At Akame 48 waterfalls you can also see the giant salamanders at the tiny aquarium at the beginning of the path. The giant salamander is a disappearing species, as disease and urban development harm their existence in the mountains of Japan.
Well back at the villa, enjoy the quietness of the area while having breakfast before returning to your tour guide and heading out for a full-day Nara countryside tour.
Starting with a specially-arranged visit to the Futsunomasataka Sword Forge, where Japanese sword makers are becoming increasingly rare, but here in Nara, you can still watch a master craftsman skillfully hammer blades into shape on his red-hot forge.
Lunch will be served at Ushigen, a butcher shop of persistently high standards with history since the early Meiji Period (1868-1912). The restaurant aims high, even with their top-notch A5 graded beef. Their persistency in offering the finest beef has attracted visitors from far and wide.
From here, we proceed to visit Muroji Temple, known for being one of few open to female worshippers back hundreds of years ago when most temples prohibited women from entering their precincts. Of its many buildings, the most renowned is the beautiful five-storied pagoda designated as a national treasure. As this temple is located deep within the mountains surrounded by lush nature, it retains a calming and tranquil atmosphere. Despite a climb of many steps, this temple is well worth a visit!
Return to your villa, and spend the remainder of the evening at leisure.
Meals: Breakfast & Lunch
DAY 09: NARA / KANSAI - DEPARTURE
There’s still time for a last taste of Nara before heading to the airport for your flight home. Safe travels!
ACCOMMODATION WE LOVE:
9D8N - 2N Mount Koya, 2N Kurashiki, 2N Shodoshima, 2N Nara