When people visit Japan seeking a cultural experience they may be called to the modern lights of neoTokyo, but it's more likely that they're looking for the side of Japan that was preserved by the country's self imposed cultural exile, pre-Meiji period. This era of shrines, temples, wooden castles, hot springs, shoguns, samuri and geisha, depicted so clearly for the rest of the world in wood block prints, is a rich peak in the country's cultural heritage, the one discovered in the following basic itinerary which borrows from the ancient routes that crossed Japan joining Kyoto and Edo, now Tokyo.
What's now often referred to as 'The Golden Route', joins Tokyo and Kyoto along the Tokaido Road, via a few scenic, coastal detours. The Nakasendo Trail has the same beginning and end points, but runs through the mountains. Take either stretch on its own, or do the loop, following as many day trips or side trails as you can manage until your whole itinerary resembles a charm bracelet, decorated with cultural highlights like Miyajima Island, Mount Koya and the Matsushima Islands, as well as larger gems, Kyoto and Nara.
In old Japan all roads started at Nihonbashi (literally named Japan Bridge), which marked the centre of Edo or Tokyo and the zero marker for all journeys. But before setting out on your journey it may be worth getting acquainted with some of the old treasures of Tokyo. The Tokyo Imperial Palace requires pre-booking if you want to do more than stroll around the lovely gardens, but it's still a good place to start because it's right beside the Imperial Palace East Garden, on the site of the old Edo Palace. The Yasukuni Shrine to great shoguns and other Japanese war dead is nearby, after which a wander though the old Tokyo booksellers district, where you can pick up some cheap books on Japan's history if you're not totally prepared, will drop you at the Kanda Myojin Shrine.
For even greater immersion in the past visit the Edo Tokyo Museum by the sumo stadium - this museum has some wonderful artefacts and beautifully reconstructed models of an old wood block workshop and a wooden theatre. Visiting Tokyo's shrines and temples, many of which are still used for their original purposes, is another good way to feel as if you're immersing yourself under the waves of Japan's rich culture. Senso-ji Temple, Hase Kannon Temple and the Meiji Jingu are some of the most memorable of Tokyo's temples.
After absorbing as much culture from Tokyo as you can, board the Shinkansen to Odawara: the gateway to the Hakone National Park and Mount Fuji. There, as well as a potential Fuji pilgrimage, appreciate the sights that have inspired so much art and poetry on Lake Ashi, and see some full sized old buildings and artefacts at the Hakone Open Air Museum. Make sure you try the local delicacy: black eggs cooked in valley water, supposed to add seven years to your life.
Kyoto is the beautiful ancient heart of Japanese culture: the streets of its floating world, Gion, haven't lost all their mystery, scents and flashes of colour, and here the temples are at their freshest. If you're searching for cultural gems, Kyoto should be the focus of your Japanese journey. An afternoon stroll along the Philosopher’s Path is the perfect introduction to Kyoto - certainly a path which encourages you to ponder as you plod. The route passes some of Kyoto’s most beautiful old houses - all behind gates - temples and shrines, and along a willow and cherry tree lined canal, home to fat, happy carp. Ideally you’ll reach the end of the route just as evening is beginning to set in but with time to see the moss garden of Ginkaku-ji. Chion-in Temple, with Japan’s largest bell, perfectly arranged Maruyama Park and beautifully colourful Yasaka Shrine are all on the outskirts of Gion, and once you get beyond the unfamiliar place names this is a pretty easy city to get around on foot and on the Metro.
If you don't know a lot about Japanese feudal history before you get to Kyoto you'll learn a lot before leaving. One of the most basic things you'll pick up on is that the Shoguns lived fairly nice lives when they weren't involved in wars or life threatening court intrigues, and Nijo Castle proves that. Toji Temple is right next door, Rokuon-Ji Temple – possibly more familiar under the name Golden Pavilion, Heian Jingu, Sanjusangendo and the Ryoanji Temple and Garden, Japan's most famous zen garden, are other Kyoto highlights, but spectacular Fushimi Inari Shrine is one of the most magical places in a magical old city.
Kyoto is an excellent base for several day trips. Hiroshima is only a few hours away by train, and it's a return day trip to Miyajima Island for the the Itsukushima shrine and famous floating toji gates, or to Himeji Castle. Osaka, with its castles and gardens is only 30 mins from Kyoto on the Shinkansen, and Nara, for the ancient monuments and deer park, is only a little further.
Mount Koya, where Buddhism was founded, is on the Nankai railway line from Kyoto, and is a lovely backdrop for a walking pilgrimage.
After your choice of day trips, scoop around and head for the mountains, either walking parts of this old trail, or catching the train between cultural highlights.
On the way back, Obuse, a small attractive town in Nagano Prefecture and home to the artist Hokusai famous for the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, especially that of The Great Wave, could be one of your first stops, before heading for the snow monkey spa at Yudanaka Onsen, Nikko National Park - for the Kegonno-taki waterfalls, Lake Chūzenji and the hot springs and onsen, or Naruko Onsen for Naruko Gorge. Geibikei Gorge is one of the most photographed spots in Japan, especially in spring and autumn, and can be visited out of Hiraizumi, which also entices visitors with ancient Chusonji Buddhist Temple.
Matsushima with its idyllic view: one of the three best in Japan if the old stories are anything to go by, is near Sendai, further north than Tokyo, so involves an overshoot off the trail... After which you'll be back to the modern world of Tokyo's lights and action.
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This journey from Tokyo to Kyoto follows one of Japan's most famous ancient roads.