How to Take the Ultimate Trip to Japan, from Tokyo to Ancient Samurai Villages
The editors of Travel + Leisure have teamed up with Black Tomato—a company known for securing insider experiences—on a series of one-of-a-kind journeys around the globe. Plus: the must-see experiences and sites in each destination that are so unique we’ve designated them our new wonders of the world.
With Tokyo hosting the 2020 Olympics, all eyes are on Japan right now. This trip starts with two nights in Tokyo, where you’ll get a private tour of the Imperial Palace Gardens, then head to the countryside to see an entirely different side of Japan—including our New World Wonder, the Tohoku region, one of the best spots in the country for cherry blossoms. In rural Iwate Prefecture, stay overnight in a traditional ryokan surrounded by lush primeval forest and spend time in a preserved Edo-period village. Plus: After a hike at the Geibikei Gorge, unwind at Shobo-ji, a temple that doubles as a Zen training center, where you’ll have a private meditation session with a resident monk.
Read the full trip outline below, and when you're ready to speak to an expert, get in touch with our luxury travel partner, Black Tomato.
Day 1: Tokyo
Your first hotel of the trip is almost as compelling as the city of Tokyo itself. The Palace Hotel was created under the meticulous care of architect Terry McGinnity, and is sleek, serene and refined. Situated in the Chiyoda-Ku district, the property is right on the doorstep of the Imperial Palace, letting you hop, skip, and jump right into the culture of Japan.
In order for this trip to be as stress-free as possible, we have included a private and personalised orientation session, where you’ll be given everything you need to travel confidently in Japan. One of our English-speaking staff members will meet you in the lobby of the hotel and will go through your itinerary with you, day by day, and answer any questions you may have. You’ll also receive your “welcome pack” of additional information, such as tourist maps of each destination, suggested walking routes and detailed information on any special activities you may have booked, as well as a Japanese phrase sheet, which should help you travel in Japan more easily.
Day 2: Tokyo
Today, you'll enjoy a guided tour of Eastern Tokyo. Start in Asakusa to see Sensō-ji, Tokyo’s oldest and most famous Buddhist temple. We highly recommend exploring the streets around the temple, which are home to a fascinating mix of souvenir shops and traditional stores. Not far from Asakusa is Tokyo Skytree, the world’s highest tower where the views across the city are stunning. Later, explore Ginza, Japan's most famous upmarket shopping district, where you can browse the amazing food halls in the basements of department stores. End the day with a visit to the Imperial Palace Gardens.
Day 3: Hiraizumi
Your driver today (and for the rest of the trip) doubles as a guide, and will meet you on arrival in Hiraizumi to take you on a half day tour. Start with a visit to Chusonji Temple. Built in 850 as a temple of the Tendai sect of Buddhism, the temple consists of a large network of buildings, the most spectacular of which is the Konjikido. Similar to Kyoto's famous Kinkakuji (Golden Pavilion), Konjikido is a hall completely covered in gold and dates back to 1124. You'll then be taken to visit nearby Motsuji Temple. The roads between the two are lined with cherry trees, creating a lovely vista. End the day with a visit to Takkoku No Iwaya, an unusual temple built into the side of a cliff and originally built and dedicated to the god of warriors in the 9th century.
Then, check into Zuisenkyo, a traditional Japanese-style ryokan that lies in a quiet area surrounded by nature. Guests will experience the rustic charms of its outdoor baths and the seasonal cuisine served at mealtimes.
Day 4: Geibikei Gorge, Kitakami, Michinoku Village
After breakfast, you'll be taken on a scenic boat ride along the spectacular Geibikei Gorge, formed by the Satetsu River and surrounded by soaring cliffs of over 50 meters.
Following this, you'll be taken to the stunning Shoboji Temple, a Zen Training temple, where you’ll get a tour and will include a private session of zen meditation with a monk.
Then, head on to Kitakami for a visit to the Kitakami Tenshochi Sakura Festival. 10,000 cherry blossoms from 150 species of cherry trees appear all over the park. It also boasts a cherry tree-lined path that goes on for over a mile. Later, you will be taken to visit the nearby Michinoku Folklore Village, an open-air museum with examples of old Iwate architecture. It exhibits historical structures such as a pit structure house, a Samurai’s house, a merchant's house, and a Nanbu Magari house (in which a man and a horse live together). The museum depicts the lifestyles of local people who once lived along the Kitakami River.
Day 5: Dakigaeri Gorge, Kakunodate
Set off for Akita Prefecture today to hike along the Dakigaeri Gorge, where azure mountain waters and lush primeval forests meet in a breathtaking ravine. From there, continue to Kakunodate, a historic samurai town known as one of the Tohoku Region's most popular cherry blossom spots. The city's samurai district once housed around 80 families and is one of the best examples of samurai architecture and traditional housing in Japan. Its wide streets and large courtyards are shaded by dozens of weeping cherry trees and the streets are thronged with visitors at this time of year. You’ll be given special access to the Aoyagi clan samurai house, and allowed to enter areas normally closed off to visitors.
Day 6: Hachimantai
After breakfast, make your way to Iwate Park to enjoy the lovely blossoms. You'll also see the unusual Ishiwari Zakura, a 400-year-old cherry tree that grew out of (and then split) a large granite boulder. Now a Natural Monument of Japan, the tree is a symbol of strength for Morioka City, and the Tohoku region, especially following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Ishiwari Zakura represents the idea that anything can be achieved, no matter how inconceivable it may seem.
You'll then be driven into Hachimantai to visit the Washinoo Sake brewery for a private tour followed by a tasting session followed by an afternoon exploring the Hachimantai district—a mountainous region in northern Akita and Iwate Prefectures, which makes up the southern part of the Towada-Hachimantai National Park. The region is far removed from Japan's cities and offers some of the country's best rural landscapes. At this time of year it's possible to enjoy both the cherry blossoms and the incredible Hachimantai Snow Corridor, where pure walls of snow run for 17 miles, and have in some years reached as high as 26 feet tall. The drive will take you past beautiful lakes and rivers and there's a good chance to see monkeys or bears in the area too.
Your hotel, Hachimantai Heights is a luxury hotel, famed for once hosting the Japanese Imperial Family. Most rooms face Mount Iwate, allowing guests to enjoy scenic views of the mountain. The rooms on the first floor are connected to a rear park surrounded by forest, which offers excellent access for nature strolls.
Day 7: Hirosaki
Today, set off for Hirosaki, traveling along scenic mountain roads for about three hours. Arriving in Hirosaki, you'll visit the castle for a special lunch under the cherry trees. The castle park is one of Japan's most famous cherry blossom spots, with over 2,600 trees, many of which are over 100 years old. Local musicians will play for you while you eat, which includes local sake.
After, check into KAI Tsugaru for the night. Located 50 minutes by train from Aomori Airport, this is a hot spring ryokan in northern Japan and a quiet place designed for guests to get the most out of the local culture, from apple-scented baths fed by the famous Owani Hot Spring to Tsugaru shamisen lute concerts in front of murals depicting Tsugaru's coastal scenery.
Day 8: Tokyo
Fly back to Tokyo today and arrive at The Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, one of the city’s premier hotels. It’s located on the top floors of the Nihonbashi Mitsui Tower, and offers spectacular views of the city both from its rooms and restaurants. You can sip afternoon tea, evening cocktails or experience Tapas Molecular Bar with its sweeping vistas from the 38th floor. The spa, meanwhile, offers a serene escape from hectic city life.
Day 9: Tokyo
Begin today with a visit to the Meiji-jingu, Tokyo’s most important shrine. Continue on to the trendy districts of Harajuku, Omotesando, and Shibuya, which will give you a real taste of modern Tokyo. Some of the architecture in the area is also remarkable, including Ando’s Omotesando Hills development as well as the flagship stores of Prada, Tod and Dior. In Shibuya, visit a cat, rabbit or owl café—or even try karaoke, Japanese style! Continue on to Akihabara, Tokyo's electronics paradise, then end the day with a visit to Koishikawa Korakuen, one of Tokyo's oldest and best Japanese gardens. Like many traditional Japanese gardens, Koishikawa Korakuen attempts to reproduce famous landscapes in miniature, using ponds, stones, trees, and man-made hills to replicate both Japanese and Chinese scenery.
From $18,500 per person for nine days. To enquire about this trip with Black Tomato, click below.