Fire ritual in temple

Our favorite Japan tours and excursions

Japan is where it all began for us. We led our first tour here in the year 2000, and we’ve spent the years since building a network of the very best guides, tour leaders, hoteliers, inn owners, enthusiasts and experts across Japan.

Over the years, we’ve learned that a trip to Kyoto isn’t just about ticking off the top ten temples. It’s about peeling back the layers of history with one of our favourite Kyotoites, Kiyono-san, whose passion for traditional culture will bring the city to life. Likewise, a visit to Miyajima isn’t just about seeing the stunning World Heritage shrine, it’s about staying at the tiny inn run by Shinko-san and her son, who’ve known us for over two decades and will serve you the best baked oysters in the whole world.

Our guided tours and excursions cover everything from tea ceremony to cycling tours, and from traditional festivals to kitschy theme parks. Some of them are things you could do without a guide, and some are things you couldn't — but what makes them all special is the people. These are people we’ve known for years, who’ve been on this journey with us and who are passionate about taking you beneath the surface of Japanese culture, and that’s something you won’t find anywhere else.

Our top picks

You won't want to miss out on these must-dos hand-picked by our expert team

Japanese tea ceremony

Culture
Japan

Developed and refined over centuries, tea ceremony is intrinsically linked to Japanese concepts of esthetics, spirituality, nature, the seasons (actually, pretty much everything).

In fact, the precepts behind tea ceremony run so deep that some Japanese spend a lifetime training to master them — a fact that’s sometimes lost in the myriad tourist “experiences” out there today. A good tea ceremony experience won’t just take you through the motions, it’ll help you understand why. Why a certain utensil is used in a certain season; why the ideal teahouse is rustic and simple; why each movement must be performed just so. Tea ceremony isn’t just a ritual, it’s a meditation on life, and beginning to understand it is the first step towards understanding Japanese culture. One thing’s for sure, you’ll never look at a cuppa the same way again.

Taiko drumming

Activity
Culture
Hands on
Performance
Japan

Japanese taiko drumming is an all-sensory experience that’ll have your brain and your body racing to keep up.

Forget marching bands and driving rock beats, taiko is an all-kicking, all-dancing, all-jumping-around endeavor, with tightly choreographed performances including shouts and calls, sweeping arm movements, and other musical accompaniments. Taiko is competitive (Japan’s professional groups perform all over the world), but it’s also incredibly accessible. Join a taiko lesson (dressed in traditional garb) and you’ll find yourself letting loose in no time, throwing in all manner of lunges and flourishes as you get the hang of the basic rhythms. It’s a super-fun way to dove into Japanese culture without feeling like you’re being educated, and it’s particularly great for families.

Visit a Japanese swordsmith

Culture
Hands on
Japan

More than a weapon, the Japanese sword is the symbol of loyalty between a warrior and his warlord, the ceremonial tool used in religious rites, and the physical manifestation of the owner’s soul.

Visit a Japanese swordsmith today and you’ll see one of a dwindling number of masters of this art making katana as they have been for centuries. Watch as he folds and welds the layers of tamahagane steel to yield both strength and flexibility, then curves and polishes the blade — a process that can take weeks. Through an interpreter, you’ll be able to ask about this meticulous operation, the significance of the sword in Japanese culture, and how to tell a katana’s quality. Depending on the stage of the process, you might even get to try your hand yourself. Sword enthusiast or not, it’s hard not to be impressed by such supreme skill and dedication to a centuries-old art that might not survive much longer.

Sumo

Culture
Performance
Japan

A sport, an art form and a religious ritual all in one, sumo wrestling is far, far more interesting than the comedic stereotype that made it to the West.

Did you know, for instance, that sumo wrestlers are not allowed to drive cars, or to wear Western-style clothes? Or that a sumo match is also a religious ritual dating back 1,500 years? Pay a visit to a sumo “stable” — where the wrestlers live and train — with us and you’ll get a glimpse into this strictly regimented way of life. Training begins early in the morning, but wrestlers are also expected to cook, clean and serve their superiors, and to be self-effacing and softly spoken in public. Have us book you a seat at a tournament and you’ll have great fun even if you know nothing of the sport, but go with a guide to keep you up to speed and it’s completely enthralling.

Sake and whiskey tasting

Food & Drink
Japan

We all know that Japan is famous for sake, but did you know that it also produces some of the best whiskey in the world?

It probably won’t surprise you that the Japanese treat their booze with the same level of dedication, sophistication and precision that they apply to all areas of life. There’s even a word for it: kodawari, or a relentless devotion to one’s craft. Sake, a fermented rice wine brewed in Japan for centuries, comes in all shapes and sizes (milky, clear, cheap, premium, strong, mild, hot, cold) and offers a palate as subtle and varied as wine. Whiskey, meanwhile, has only been produced in Japan since 1923, but it can already compete with Scotch for quality and depth of flavor. You can sample sake on a brewery tour and whiskey on a distillery tour, or you can go all out and combine them both (plus cocktails and food pairings) on a fabulously indulgent gourmet tour of Tokyo or Kyoto.

Osaka food tour

Food & Drink
Japan

There’s a reason Osaka’s unofficial motto is kuidaore: “eat ‘til you drop”. Join our street-food tour and you’ll find out why as you sample mouthwatering treats at our favorite foodie spots in the city.

Osakans don’t tolerate sub-standard food, so you can rest assured that any grilled chicken skewer or octopus ball you grab will be delicious — but if you want to sample the real crème de la crème, the best of the best, you’ll need to join one of our street-food tours. The quintessential Osaka experience, this is a night-time safari of the food stalls, snack bars and izakaya pubs of the Namba district, slurping kitsune udon noodles, wolfing down okonomiyaki pancakes, and sampling deep-fried kushikatsu skewers as you go. Of course, there’ll also be plenty of opportunity to clink beer glasses with the locals, famed for their down-to-earth attitude and sense of humor. Kanpai!