Explore the magnificence of Japan during this 11-day expedition with National Geographic. Our journey starts amid the skyscrapers of Osaka; then we step back in time in Asuka, one of Japan’s ancient capitals. In the sacred mountains of the Kii Peninsula, embark on the Kumano Kodo, a beautiful pilgrimage route that has drawn emperors and kimono-clad worshippers for more than a thousand years. Get closer to Japan’s spiritual traditions as we hike to stunning shrines nestled amid cedar-covered slopes. Soak in hot springs, stay in traditional mountain inns and ryokans, and experience the diversity of Japan’s fine cuisine—from the lively pubs of Osaka to delightful, locally sourced meals along the Kumano Kodo.

Trip highlights

Spend four days hiking the Kumano Kodo, one of only two pilgrimage routes in the world designated a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Walk past burial mounds and rice fields in the ancient capital of Asuka, and enjoy a private class with a taiko drummer.

Take part in an authentic tea ceremony in Kyoto, and enjoy a special visit to a Zen temple.

Settle into an authentic Japanese ryokan and soak in the neighbouring Kawayu Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan.

Itinerary - 11 Days

1 Osaka, Japan

Arrive in Osaka and transfer to our hotel. Meet for an orientation briefing, then head to a local restaurant for a welcome reception and dinner. (D)

Accommodation: Osaka Miyako Marriott

2 Asuka/Osaka

Journey by train to Asuka, the site of some of Japan’s first Buddhist temples. Small shrines, ancient stone monuments, and the burial mounds of Japan’s first emperors dot the terraced rice fields. Explore the town on foot and, weather permitting, meet a farming family for a picnic lunch. Then visit a local studio to watch a private performance by a taiko drummer and try your hand at drumming. Return to Osaka for dinner. (5 miles hiking, 3-4 hours, 260' ascent/descent) (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Osaka Miyako Marriott

3 Kumano Kodo to Takahara

After breakfast, travel by private coach south along the coast to Takijiri, on the Kii Peninsula. Set off on the Nakahechi trail, part of the network of ancient pilgrimage routes known as the Kumano Kodo. The rich spiritual history of the region is evident along our route, which links three important Shinto/Buddhist shrines and is scattered with smaller shrines called Oji. The first challenging leg of the hike ends at the village of Takahara, with time to relax in hot springs at our Japanese-style hotel. (3 miles hiking, 2-3 hours, 820' ascent) (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Organic Hotel Kiri-no-sato Takahara

4 Kumano Kodo/Chikatsuyu

Starting from Takahara, continue eastwards along the Nakahechi pilgrimage trail. Hike through lush cedar forests, passing old tea houses which provided rest to pilgrims until the early 20th century, and small jizo bodhisattva statues placed by locals to protect travellers. Descend to Chikatsuyu, and return by bus to our inn in Takahara. (7 miles hiking, 4 hours, 1150' ascent/1180' descent) (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Organic Hotel Kiri-no-sato Takahara

5 Chikatsuyu to Kawayu Onsen

The trail ascends to Tsugizakura-oji, one of more than 100 small shrines along the route where pilgrims leave offerings. Travel from Tsugizakura-oji to Hosshinmon-oji, then hike the final section through ridge-top villages before descending to the Hongu Taisha, one of the grand shrines of the Kumano Sanzan. En route to the shrine, meet a local Shugendo priest to learn firsthand about this ascetic Buddhist sect that focuses on the connections between humans and nature, and pass under the majestic Oyunohara torii (wooden gateway). Later, make the short drive to Kawayu Onsen, one of the oldest hot springs in Japan, just a few steps from our ryokan for the night. (6 miles hiking, 3-4 hours, 780’ ascent/descent) (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Fujiya Ryokan

6 Hongu Taisha To Yunomine Onsen

Walk the Danichi-goe and Akagi-goe sections of the Kumano Kodo, which link the Hongu Taisha shrine with Yunomine Onsen. Hike along a forested trail, passing small mountain settlements and taking in panoramic valley views. Travellers may opt to limit their hike to the portion of the trail running between Danichi-goe and Yunomine Onsen, or spend a day relaxing at our ryokan. (5-6 miles hiking, 3-4 hours, 1345' ascent/1065' descent or option for 2 miles hiking, 1 hour, 855' ascent/670' descent) (B/D)

Accommodation: Fujiya Ryokan

7 Kumano River/Katsuura Bay

Take a scenic boat ride on the Kumano River, cruising along a route historically used by pilgrims to travel between the Hongu Taisha and Hayatama Taisha, another one of Kumano Kodo’s grand shrines of pilgrimage. Explore the precincts of the Hayatama Taisha on foot, then continue by train to Katsuura and settle into our hotel, built into the rock on the edge of Katsuura Bay. Soak in the hotel’s hot springs, set within a cave overlooking the water. (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Hotel Granvia Kyoto or Noku Kyoto

8 Nachi Taisha/Kyoto

After breakfast, pay a visit to Nachi Taisha, another of the three Grand Shrines of Kumano, and see the nearby waterfall, said to be inhabited by the kami spirit Kiryu Gongen. Continue by coach to Kyoto, and enjoy free time to explore before dinner. (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Noku Kyoto

9 Kyoto

This morning, stroll past the cherry trees that line the Philosopher's Path, then venture into the gardens of Nanzenji Temple for a Zen meditation session. After lunch, head to Nijo Castle, the former seat of the Tokugawa shoguns in Kyoto. At the castle's Ninomaru Palace, see work by artists from the Kano school and take note of the “nightingale floors,” designed to squeak when walked upon to ward off intruders. (2-3 miles hiking, 4 hours) (B)

Accommodation: Noku Kyoto

10 Kyoto

In the morning, visit Tokufuji Temple, which features a unique zen rock garden. Then enjoy lunch with a maiko, or apprentice geisha, and learn about her ancient arts. After lunch, experience the complex traditions of the Japanese tea ceremony, a highly stylized ritual that began in the 16th century when tea was first brought to Japan. After some free time, meet up for a farewell dinner. (B/L/D)

Accommodation: Noku Kyoto

11 Kyoto

Transfer to the airport for your flight home. (B)

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