Osaka, Japan Saturday, May 18
Upon arrival in Osaka, your driver takes you to your centrally located hotel, Mitsui Garden Hotel Osaka Premier, an upscale riverfront hotel. Enjoy the day/evening at your leisure, enjoy hotel amenities, then join us for our evening welcome dinner and tour overview.
Day Trip to Nara - Japan's First Capital & Big Buddha
In the morning after breakfast you meet your private guide and embark on a full day trip to Nara. Together with your guide you take a train to Nara, Japan's first permanent capital then knows as Heijo. Before the establishment of the first permanent capital in 710, the capital used to be moved to a new location whenever a new emperor ascended to the throne. Nara (Heijo) remained a capital for less than a century, but the city’s past had a significant impact and the city remains full of historic treasures, including some of Japan's oldest and largest temples. We take a bus to the Todaiji Temple, that was constructed in 742 as a head of all provincial temples and grew so powerful that the capital of Japan has to be moved to Nagoka in 784 to lower the temple's influence on government affairs.
The temple’s main hall, the Daibutsuden (Big Buddha Hall) is currently the world's largest wooden building, even though its present reconstruction of 1692 is only two thirds of the original size. The massive building houses one of Japan's largest bronze statues of Buddha (Daibutsu). The beautiful temple is located in Nara Park, which is also famous for being the home to hundreds of freely roaming deer.
After a break for lunch, you explore Kasuga Taisha, which is most celebrated shrine in Nara. This shrine is famous for its lanterns, are donated by worshipers. Hundreds of bronze lanterns are hanging from the buildings, while as many stone lanterns line its approaches.
Here you also find the Kasuga Taisha Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden that boasts about 250 kinds of plants described in the Manyoshu, Japan's oldest collection of poems which dates to the Nara Period, when Nara was the capital from 710 to 784. After the tour, you take a train to Osaka.
Depart Osaka to Koyasan. Arrive in Koyasan and check into one of the temple accommodations. You will actually sleep in a 1,000 year-old Buddhist temple for 2 nights. Enjoy heartfelt hospitality and special experiences in Wakayama’s mountaintop temple town Koyasan. Gain exclusive access to history-rich temples through overnight stays, try shojin-ryori cuisine, prepared by the priests, and join guided walk and activities.
Nestled deep in the lush, misty mountains of Wakayama, Koyasan (Mount Koya) is probably Japan’s most well-known spiritual sanctuary. Rather than just one mountain, Koyasan, as it is called in Japanese, is a small town located between eight mountains. The area was established as a spiritual destination in the 9th century by Kobo Daishi, the founder of Shingon Buddhism, after studying esoteric Buddhism in China.
Today, Koyasan is dotted with countless temples and populated by robed monks studying Shingon Buddhism and running the temple accommodations, known as shukubo. Overnight guests can experience morning meditation, recite mantras, and eat shojin ryori—vegetarian Buddhist cuisine. The town’s most fascinating destination is Okunoi, a mystical and enigmatic forested cemetery that houses Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum. Many believe the spiritual leader still lives inside, resting in a state of eternal meditation.
For a culturally illuminating encounter, staying overnight at one of the 52 temples offering accommodations is an experience of a lifetime. Each temple’s design uniquely showcases aspects of Japanese philosophy and aesthetics. All visitors are welcome, and can not only see the inner workings of Shingon monastic life, they can also take part. To enter the quietude, practices such as meditation (ajikan), listening to sutra teachings and a calligraphic sutra copying practice (shakyo) are offered.
Enjoy Shojin-ryori, a vegetarian Buddhist cuisine made entirely of vegetables and edible wild plants, shojin-ryori may sound simple yet that could not be farther from the truth. Harmoniously composed into a symphony of seasonal tastes, shojin-ryori is all about bringing out the essence of its ingredients. Specialties include koya dofu and its sesame- flavored relative, goma dofu.
Feel free to explore this spiritual oasis; take contemplative walks, do yoga, meditate and be at peace.
Continue to explore and enjoy the contemplative surroundings that make Koyasan spectacular. Koyasan have welcomed emperors, feudal lords, aristocrats and politicians, acolytes and ordinary citizens. Its 117 intricately crafted buildings are the vestiges of the more than 2,000 temples that existed during the height of the Edo era (1603 - 1868).
Whether richly textured in autumn leaves, covered in winter snow, or abloom with spring cherry blossoms and rhododendrons, Koyasan offers Shingon devotees and non-believers alike respite from the stresses of everyday life. Participate in morning meditation, do yoga, ride a bike, take a contemplative walk around this peaceful spiritual oasis, or meditate.
This will be our last day in Koyasan. Be sure to visit The Danjo Garan Sacred Temple Complex, which can be described as the center of Koyasan. It was opened by Kukai (aka Kobo Daishi) as a place for secret training in Shingon esoteric Buddhism. Several temples are located inside the Danjo Garan, and the 49-meter tall Great Stupa is of an especially splendid and impressive scale.
Don’t miss Okuno-in, considered the holiest location in Koyasan, along the 2 km path to monk Kobo Daishi’s mausoleum are more than 200,000 tombstones and commemorative monuments. Walking down this cedar- lined path is like flipping through the history pages of Japan. Tributes to shoguns, writers, actors, poets and even companies such as the confectioner Glico, mark this path.
Rental bicycles are available, so you can cruise around the retreat area. Please be sure to request early for bike booking. Note that Shukubo temple retreats normally do not accept credit cards, only cash. Remember to bring warm clothes in case it gets cold in the mornings or evenings.
After lunch, in the late afternoon, your journey to Kyoto begins. Upon arrival in Kyoto, your private driver takes you to the luxurious, award-winning hotel, Kyoto Brighton Hotel, located at the heart of Kyoto. After dinner, enjoy the evening at leisure. The hotel offers many amenities for your pleasure. You will stay at Kyoto Brighton Hotel till the end of the retreat.
Tour of Higashiyama with Kiyomizu-Dera & Sake Tasting and Brewery Tour
Meet your guide and immerse yourself in the rich history and culture of Kyoto's enchanting Higashiyama district. Your journey begins with a visit to the timeless Kiyomizu-Dera Temple, an ancient and breathtaking Buddhist masterpiece. This temple, steeped in history, has withstood the test of time and remains one of Japan's most extraordinary spiritual landmarks.
Don't miss the opportunity to savor the medicinal pure waters of the Otowa spring, believed to grant health and longevity.
Continuing your exploration, you will encounter the iconic Yasaka Pagoda, a remarkable 5-story tall structure that stands as the last vestige of the ancient Hōkan Temple, a temple complex dating back to the 6th century.
We then continue for an immersive visit to a local sake brewery where you'll learn about traditional brewing methods and taste distinct on-site crafted flavors. Embark on a brief yet immersive visit to Fushimi's largest sake brewery where you'll learn about traditional brewing methods and taste distinct on-site crafted flavors. This experience is further enriched by a specialized tasting session where you will sample unique, non-exported sake varieties, understanding their diverse flavor profiles under the guidance of an expert. To top it off, you will be served traditional Japanese snacks, known as Otsumami, specifically paired with various sakes, allowing you to explore and appreciate the best flavor combinations. After the tour, you return to your hotel in Kyoto and enjoy the evening at leisure.
Zen Garden, Zen Mind Experience & Private Geisha Tea Ceremony and Dance Performance
Meet your friendly guide then begin your journey to learn about and understand the cultural significance of the gardens. Get away from the busy tourist sites and visit some of Kyoto’s most mystical and spiritual temple gardens. Learn about the history and meaning of Japanese gardens, and explore 3 different locations that are often missed by visitors to the area.
We then invite you to participate in a time-honored tradition that symbolizes mindfulness, well-being, and harmony, known as the Way of the Tea. Your experience begins by donning a traditional kimono, chosen from our exquisite selection.
During the workshop, a maiko will meticulously guide you through the tea ceremony. You'll learn about and use authentic tea ceremony tools and ingredients. Post-ceremony, be enthralled by a traditional dance performance, a rare art form usually reserved for a select few.
The traditional tea ceremony will be followed by luxury dinning and Geisha dance performance. Geisha, also known as geiko or geigi, are a class of female Japanese performing artists and entertainers trained in traditional Japanese performing arts styles, such as dance, music and singing, as well as being proficient conversationalists and hosts. They have been a part of Japanese culture since 1751. Elegant kimono, smooth white make-up, and that classic demure look, geisha are, by nature, charming.
The general public usually catch a glimpse of a maiko or gecko as she hurries to her next appointment, magnificent kimono rustling as she walks. Even though they seem to exist in a hidden, artistic world, there are actually a number of opportunities for visitors to enjoy the performances and even conversation with these cultured Kyoto ladies!
On our last evening in Kyoto, you will have an opportunity to experience to meet a real geisha in Kyoto Gion. Enjoy an authentic traditional tea ceremony hosted by a real Kyoto geisha, also called a geiko, or their apprentice called a maiko! You will be introduced to the unique geisha culture of Kyoto, where young geiko women would serve tea to you.
Enjoy a special geisha dance performance orchestrated just for you! This performance is a very unique experience you will remember for the rest of your life.
Today in the morning, you check out from Kyoto Brighton Hotel and have a private transfer to Osaka airport for your departure flight home. If you wish to extend your Japan experience, we'd be glad to offer some suggestions. We wish you well on your way home.