Arrive at Osaka’s Kansai International Airport. After clearing customs and immigration, meet your A&K representative and transfer to your hotel in Kyoto, situated in the historic area of Higashiyama Shichijo. Spend the rest of the day relaxing and getting used to your new surroundings, or alternately, set out to explore Kyoto with a guide. This culturally rich former capital features over 2,000 temples and shrines, 17 of which have been designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites. Because the city largely avoided bombing during WWII, its historic feel remains intact.
Enjoy an informative tour of Kyoto, stopping by Nijo Castle and the Golden Pavilion, and at Tenryuji Temple there’s a fascinating talk about Zen Buddhism. Then it’s lunch at a local restaurant. Continue on to the Heian Shrine in the afternoon before coming back to your hotel. This evening, there’s a welcome reception and dinner with fellow clients, your A&K guides and the local guides who’ll be accompanying you on your voyage.
After breakfast, a guided tour of local temples and lunch, transfer from Kyoto to Osaka to board Le Soleal, your floating home for the next 11 nights. With 132 cabins and suites for 264 passengers and 140 crew members, you have both privacy and the opportunity to enjoy social time. Le Soleal has two restaurants, a pool, an internet station, a Wii games area, a library, a panoramic lounge and a theatre. She’s also equipped with a beauty centre with fitness equipment and a spa.
Arrive in Takamatsu, gateway to Shikoku Island, and choose from a wide array of excursions revolving around nature, gastronomy, arts or culture. Travel to Naoshima Island by ferry to explore its architecture and art museums. Alternately, board a high-speed boat to Shodoshima, the heart of Japan’s olive-growing industry, for a full-day tour. Otherwise, remain on Shikoku Island to experience the highlights of Takamatsu – a visit to Ritsurin Park (one of Japan’s finest gardens), an udon noodle-making demonstration, or exploring the shops and enjoying the lively atmosphere at your own pace.
Arrive in Hiroshima, where you can visit the Hiroshima Peace Park and Museum. Then either take a tour and explore Hiroshima Castle or take a speedboat ride to Miyajima Island to see the scarlet torii gate at the entrance to the sacred Shinto Shrine, and Itsukushima-Jinja Shrine, listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site and National Treasure. You can also ascend Mount Misen by cable car before returning to the ship to sail on through the Kamnon Strait en route to the Korea Strait.
This afternoon, Le Soleal makes her inaugural visit to the port of Karatsu, an early trading post between Japan and mainland Asia which still maintains its heritage. Visit Karatsu Castle and the Hikiyama Exhibition Hall, which houses the floats used in the annual Karatsu Kunchi autumn festival. The Ningyo Joruri (puppet theatre) and the Nakazato Taroemon Kiln, a ceramic studio that’s been active since the 16th century, are also well worth a visit. Alternatively, meet green tea farmers and pick your own tea leaves in the Kitahata Shige region.
Spend a full day exploring Gyeongju, South Korea, the ancient capital of the Shilla Dynasty and a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Witness its excavated monuments, temples, tombs and pagodas, gaining insight from a cultural historian. Then, unearth the treasures of the National Museum, which houses an exceptional collection of gold jewellery, metal weapons and distinctive pottery. Sit down to a lunch of Korean delicacies and witness a traditional dance performance.
Disembark at Sakaiminato to visit Matsue, the “town of water”, which sits between a scenic lake and a large lagoon. Visit the Peonies Village to wander through its picturesque Yuushien Garden, stopping for lunch at a local restaurant before visiting Matsue Castle, one of Japan’s few remaining medieval castles that retains its wooden form. Alternately, see the Adachi Museum of Art, which combines Japanese fine art and garden design. Following a traditional meal at a ryokan, visit Yakumo-mura Village to learn about the art of paper-making.
Spend the next two days exploring the thriving art centre of Kanazawa. View traditional houses, museums and galleries, as well as a geisha performance at Higashi Chaia geisha district. Later, enjoy a tea ceremony and discover the sophisticated Kenroku-en Garden, known for its contemplative botanical designs. Or, choose a more active excursion that includes a hike in Kakusenkei Gorge; lunch at a local restaurant; and an onsen experience in the Yamanaka Onsen district, or a visit to scenic Shirakawa-go and the Shogawa River Valley.
Go off the beaten track at Sado Island, a picturesque location decorated with rice paddies, bamboo groves and dramatic, surf-pounded coasts. Political exiles, deposed emperors and intellectuals were once banished to live in this beautiful but harsh setting. Today, you can enjoy an exclusive performance by the legendary Kodo Taiko drummers, an exhilarating experience, followed by a rare opportunity to meet the world-famous troupe. Return to the ship and set sail for the west coast of Japan’s mainland.
Disembark in Noshiro and head to Towada-Hachimantai National Park, passing through the panoramic mountain-plateau region of Hachimantai, part of the UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage list. Stop at Great Drum House to see the drums used in the Tsuzureko Shrine Festival, before a boat ride on the ancient caldera of Lake Towada. For a more in-depth experience, you can also take a trekking excursion to Juniko Lake alongside an A&K naturalist and a national park nature guide. Later this afternoon, re-board the ship in Aomori.
Arrive in Otaru, on the island of Hokkaido, a picturesque city known for its historic canal, well-preserved architecture, and stunning views of Mount Tengu. At the impressive “Herring Mansion”, learn the history of the Aoyama family. Then try samples at a sake distillery and end the day with a stroll up the canal. Alternatively, explore Mount Tengu by gondola, looking out for the 100-year-old cherry tree, and visit Tengu House where nearly 700 goblin masks are exhibited. After your descent back to the city, partake in a hands-on glass-making workshop.
On at least one day of your cruise, you should get up early to watch the sun rise over the ocean – a once in a lifetime sight. Enjoy breakfast with your crewmates and fellow clients, laden with pictures, stories and memories of all the tastes and scents you experienced throughout Japan. Then savour your final moments here as you transfer to the airport to board your homebound flight, or else, if you can’t tear yourself away, continue onward with your travels independently.