Overview

Christopher has used his knowledge of Japan based on his recent magazine assignments to create a sensational 14-day itinerary that incorporates a dream-list of destinations and festivals, while tantalizingly unveiling secretive, enigmatic Japan. The trip is timed for Japan’s famous sakura—when the mesmerizingly beautiful cherry blossoms explode in riotous color. This is the best time of year, when the weather is crisp and the skies crystal clear.

As the cherry blossoms burst open across the country, the Japanese delight in picnicking and hanami (flower viewing) parties to appreciate the transient beauty of the flowers, announcing the arrival of spring. The entire culture becomes besotted, with cherry blossoms appearing on all manner of commercial products… not to mention in manga and anime! Timing varies every year, depending on the weather, with more southerly regions blooming first (typically in mid-March) and the far northern islands last. And different varieties bloom at different times, so even if one or two of our destinations are not at their best, others will be.

Of course, we’ll also thrill to photographing Tokyo’s über-contemporary neon-lit Shibuya and Shinjuku districts, as well as the Imperial Palace and other top venues… as well as visits to magnificent temples and Buddhist shrines… jaw-droppingly gorgeous Mt. Fuji… two days in the Japanese Alps, where you’ll photograph the world-famous “snow monkeys” soaking in steaming hot tubs… plus Kyoto, the ancient Japanese capital, with its geishas strolling the lantern-lit streets in kimonos. Plus, we’ll have our own private portrait sessions with maikos (trainee geishas), as well as a chance to photograph traditional weavers and a master katana swordsmith at work.

Along the way, you’ll be immersed in traditional, ancient Japan as we explore its tooi inaka (deep country), dress in yukatas (casual kimonos), feast on fresh seafoods, soak in communal onsen (hot springs), sleep on comfy futons atop tatami mats… and return home stress free, serene, and with your memories (and memory cards) chock-full of indelibly wonderful memories.

Itinerary

Day 1 (Apr 7): 
We’ll arrive and settle in. Our hotel overlooks Shibuya Crossing, rumored to be the busiest pedestrian intersection on the planet! Meet with Christopher in the evening for orientation, then a welcome dinner. Our hotel is perfectly situated for night photography of Shibuya Crossing. Overnight in Tokyo.

Day 2 (Apr 8):
Today we’ll do ‘Old Tokyo.’ We begin with an early morning walk of Tsujiki Open Market. The narrow streets, full of restaurants and shops selling market produce, provide endless photo opportunities. Later we’ll head to the Tokyo Imperial Palace Gardens, and to Ueno Onshi park, both renowned for their spectacular cherry blossom sakura. Nearby, depending on time and the sakura, we may visit the Yanaka Cemetery—in springtime awash in cherry blossoms—plus Nezu Shrine, with its gorgeous garden, and Senso-Ji Shrine, which we visit for dusk and night-time photography. Overnight in Tokyo.

Day 3 (Apr 9): 
Today we head southwest from Tokyo to Lake Ashinoko via the Daikanzan Sky Lounge and Moto-Hakone, which offer stupendous views of Mount Fuji. We’ll arrive in Lake Kawaguchiko around mid-day for two days in Mt Fuji World Heritage Park. This “Five Lakes” area offers one of Japan’s premier sakura experiences. Today’s highlight will be photographing at the Arakuren Sengren Shrine, with its five-storied Churieto Pagoda overlooking the town of Fujiyoshida and, beyond, snow-capped Mt. Fuji—a fantastic perspective during the golden hour, sunset and blue hour. Overnight in Lake Kawaguchiko.

Day 4 (Apr 10):
We’ll get up early for the best chance of photographing Mt. Fuji without clouds! We’ll spend the morning photographing around Lake Kawaguchiko, including the superb perspective from Azegawa. We’ll also visit Iyashinosanto, a traditional thatched village. And if the shibazakura (moss phlox) have already burst into bloom, we may continue to Fujigane to witness the spectacular display—entire fields of pink, white and purple flowers spread like a carpet in front of the sacred volcano. This afternoon we’ll visit the Kubota Itchiku Art Museum, dedicated to the revived art of centuries-old Tsujigahana silk dyeing, used to decorate elaborate kimonos. (Alternately, we may visit the Ide Sake Brewery to learn the traditional craft of producing Japan’s favorite tipple.) We’ll be well placed for sunset photography over the lake towards Mount Fuji. Overnight in Lake Kawaguchiko.

Day 5 (Apr 11): 
This morning we’ll journey to Shizuoka and catch the Shinkansen “bullet train” to Kyoto, the ancient Imperial capital, boasting more than 1,600 temples. After checking into our hotel in Ninenzaka—a preserved historic quarter close to the temples—we’ll spend the balance of the afternoon strolling the “Philosopher’s Path” alongside a narrow canal lined with cherry blossoms; and the early evening visiting the mountainside Kiyomizua-dera temple for sensational sunset photography. Overnight in Kyoto.

Day 6 (Apr 12):
Up bright and early this morning to visit the Arashiyama “bamboo forest.” We’ll also visit Otagi Nembutsu-ji temple, where thousands of stone statues represent the souls of the dead. This afternoon we’ll visit the Nishijin district and the Watabun weavers’ workshop, or the Orinasu-kan weaving house, to see Noh costumes being made. We’ll enjoy a traditional Japanese dinner in the lantern-lit Gion district, then photograph the geisha district by night—a chance to capture geishas scurrying to secret liaisons, and other such quintessential Japanese scenes. Overnight in Kyoto.

Day 7 (Apr 13) : 
Up early again today to beat the crowds to Fushimi-Inari shrine, renowned for its 10,000 vermilion tori gates snaking up the mountainside. We’ll then have a private tea ceremony and portrait session with a maiko (an apprentice geisha). The afternoon and evening are free for you to enjoy Kyoto at leisure. Overnight in Kyoto.

Day 8 (Apr 14) : 
Departing Kyoto early this morning, we’ll head northeast to Seki, Japan’s capital of samurai sword manufacture. Here, we hope to have a private photography session as a swordsmith tempers a traditional samurai sword at the Kajida studio, in Tomika. We’ll then head to Takayama, hoping to arrive in early afternoon in time for the annual “Takayama Matsuri” spring festival of the Hie Shrine, featuring floats decorated with karakuri ningyo—sophisticated mechanical dolls that move and dance. We’ll continue the short distance to Matsumoto for dinner and overnight at our Ryokan. Overnight in Matsumoto.

Day 9 (Apr 15):
This morning we’ll photograph Matsumoto’s “Crow Castle” at dawn. Built in 1504 and set in a lake surrounded by the castle’s Honmaru Garden full of cherry blossoms. We’ll then journey into the Japanese Alps for the short hike into Jigokudaki “Snow Monkey Park” to photograph Japan’s famous “snow monkeys”—a species of onsen-loving macaque that loves to steep in the natural hot springs. The balance of the day will be at leisure in the nearby mountain spa town of Yudanaka, with its thermal river cascading through town. Here we’ll stay at a traditional ryokan inn with onsen (hot-spring baths). Overnight in Yudanaka.

Day 10 (Apr 16) : 
This morning we travel a memorably scenic route into the Japanese Alps via Mt. Shirane—sensational vistas here from Japan’s highest mountain pass—and Mt. Nikko. (If the mountains are still snowbound, we will take a lowland route.) At Lake Chuzenji, we’ll stop to photograph the spectacular Kegon Waterfall—ranked as one of Japan’s three most beautiful waterfalls—from several key vantage spots. We then descend via a switchback to Nikko, a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for centuries. Overnight in Nikko.

Day 11 (Apr 17) : 
We will spend the entire day in Nikko to photograph the annual Yayoi Festival, held over five days every year to celebrate the coming of spring at the Futarasan-jinga temple and in the center of town. A highlight is the colorful hanayatai (floats) decorated in flowers, and hundreds of Japanese dressed in traditional costume (pink is the color of choice). The temple is just one of many fabulous temples and shrines comprising Toshogu, considered Japan’s most lavishly decorated religious complex. Prepare to be awed! Overnight in Nikko.

Day 12 (Apr 18) : 
This morning we return to Tokyo. We’ll focus our cameras on modern Japan, beginning around our hotel in the Shibuya and Harajuku neighborhoods. Together, they are the epicenter of Tokyo teen fashion—a chance to photograph Lolita decora girls and fashion monsters dolled up in Gaga-grade garb. In the evening, we’ll walk along the Meguro River, between Gotanda and Meguro Sky Garden illuminated for the sakura with pink lanterns (and the premiere location for photographing massed sakura in Tokyo). Finally, we’ll photograph the Shinjuku district, including the iconic Kabukicho red-light district entrance gate, ablaze with neon signs. Overnight in Tokyo.

Day 13 (Apr 19) : 
This morning we’ll visit the Meiji Shrine, surrounded by lush green forest a short distance north of Shibuya. The balance of the day is at leisure for you to experience a museum, temple, or district of your choice… or maybe even a sumo wrestling match! This evening we’ll enjoy a slideshow of everyone’s favorite images, followed by our farewell dinner. Overnight in Tokyo.

Day 14 (Apr 20) : 
This morning we’ll head to the airport for our onward flights home.