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

(Subject to change)

Day 1: (Mar 31) Participants arrive and settle into our hotel, in the heart of Ginza, Tokyo’s foremost shopping district and perfect for sensational nighttime photography, with its blaze of neon-lit facades. Meet with Christopher in the evening for orientation, then a welcome dinner. Overnight in Tokyo.

Day 2: (Apr 1) Today, ‘Old Tokyo.’ We begin with an early morning walk to the nearby Tsujiki Open Market. The narrow streets, teeming with restaurants and shops selling market produce, provide endless opportunities for superb photography. 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; or we may choose to walk along the Meguro River, between Gotanda and Meguro Sky Garden illuminated for the sakura with pink lanterns (and the premier location for photographing massed sakura in Tokyo). Overnight in Toyko.

Day 3: (Apr 2) Today we head southwest from Tokyo to Lake Ashinoko via the Daikanzan Sky Lounge and Moto-Hakone, which offer stupendous views of Mount Fuji across the azure lake waters. Arriving Lake Kawaguchiko around mid-day for two days in Mt Fuji World Heritage Park., we’ll base ourselves at a premium lakeside hotel for two days of sensational photography. This “Five Lakes” area offers one of Japan’s premier sakura experiences. Today’s highlight will be photographing the sunset from 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 Lake Kawaguchi.

Day 4: (Apr 3) 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, plus Oishi Park–a lovely landscaped lakefront foreground for images of Mount Fuji. And if the shibazakura (moss phlox) has 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 from 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, for example, if it’s raining, 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 Lake Kawaguchi.

Day 5: (Apr 4) 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 late 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. Strolling to and from the temple via the narrow streets of Ninenzaka offers a smorgasbord of sensational images, with women in traditional kimonos, wooden shops adorned with lanterns, and even rickshaws! Overnight in Kyoto.

Day 6: (Apr 5) Up bright and early this morning to visit the Arashiyama “bamboo forest,” a sublime setting for creative photography before the crowds arrive. A ten-minute drive away, 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 photograph Noh costumes being made. The rest of the afternoon and evening are free for you to enjoy Kyoto at leisure. Overnight in Kyoto.

Day 7: (Apr 6) Up very early again today to beat the crowds to Fushimi-Inari shrine, renowned for its 10,000 vermilion tori gates snaking up the mountainside. The photos ops here are superb! We’ll then have a private tea ceremony and portrait session with a maiko (an apprentice geisha). We’ll enjoy a traditional Japanese dinner in the lantern-lit Gion district with a maiko, 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 8: (Apr 7) 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, famous for its excellently preserved Edo Period (1603-1868) historical center—Sannmachi Seji. We’ll overnight on the edge of the historic district. Overnight in Takayama.

Day 9: (Apr 8) This morning we’ll photograph Matsumoto’s spectacular “Crow Castle.” Built-in 1504 and set in a lake surrounded by the castle’s Honmaru Garden—the cherry blossoms in bloom provide perfect frames. We’ll then journey into the Japanese Alps, stopping to photograph at Togakushi Jinga shrine, surrounded by massive trees at the base of Mount Lizuna. We’ll continue the short distance to Shibu Onsen, a charming and historic mountain hot-spring community where it is common to see visitors walking the streets dressed in kimonos. The balance of the afternoon is at leisure. Overnight in Shibu Onsen.

Day 10: (Apr 9) This morning we get up early to visit the Jigokudaki “Snow Monkey Park” and photograph Japan’s famous “snow monkeys”—a species of onsen-loving macaque that loves to steep in the natural hot springs—before the hordes of tourists arrive! We then travel a memorably scenic (and serpentine) 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, including the Akechidaira Ropeway lookout, the Lower Observation Deck, and the base of the falls. We then descend via a switchback to Nikko, a center of Shinto and Buddhist worship for centuries. Overnight in Nikko.

Day 11:(Apr 10) We will spend the morning photographing Shinkiyo Bridge and at the amazing Toshogu complex that comprises, a UNESCO World Heritage Site composed on more than 100 lavishly decorated temples and shrines. A highlight among many is the Futarasan-jinga temple. Prepare to be awed! The balance of the day is free to explore Nikko at leisure. Overnight in Nikko.

Day 12: (Apr 11) This morning we return to Tokyo in time for lunch. In the afternoon, we’ll focus our cameras on modern Japan in the Shibuya and Harajuku neighborhoods, including Shibuya Crossing, the busiest pedestrian intersection on the planet and where a flood of pedestrians cross from multiple directions every time the traffic lights turn red. Architectural highlights may include Harajuku’s Tokyu Plaza Ometesando’s mirrored entranceway, offering a sensational multi-dimensional perspective; and the nearby “Iceberg.” Finally, after dinner, we’ll photograph the neon-lit Shinjuku district, including the iconic Godzilla Road and Kabukicho red-light district entrance gate, ablaze with neon signs. Traveling by train provides an opportunity for fantastic photography in its own right. Overnight in Tokyo.

Day 13: (Apr 12) This morning we hope to attend an early morning training ritual at a sumo wrestling stable—a rare opportunity to witness and photograph the quintessential Japanese sport close up and personal. (Alternately, or in addition, we’ll head to Akihabara—capital of all things cosplay, anime, and manga-related, including photographing the many Lolita decora girls and fashion monsters dolled up in Gaga-grade garb who frequent the streets. We’ll close the morning with lunch at a “maid café.”) The afternoon is at leisure for you to experience a museum, temple, or district of your choice. This evening we’ll enjoy a slideshow of everyone’s favorite images, followed by our farewell dinner aboard a yakatabune long-boat festooned with red lanterns. Overnight in Toyko.

Day 14: (Apr 13) Today, depending on your departure time, you are transported to Narita airport for your flight home.