Japan | A Land of Contrasts
On the far side of the world, the closed society of pre-19th century Japan was the last major civilisation to engage with the rest of the world. Nevertheless, Japanese culture and history have had an extraordinary influence on the progress of the modern world. The archaeological sites of Japan are still difficult to visit, especially as an independent traveller. We are lucky to have an expert in Japanese archaeology leading this tour, giving us access to remarkable monuments from the fiery ceramics of the Jomon Neolithic to temples and Shoguns’ castles.
We traverse the astonishingly diverse landscapes by bullet train in search of the unique archaeology, history and culture of Japan.
- Visit Honshu Island’s largest crater lake, Lake Towada
- Travel by bullet train to Himeji Castle and to Hachinohe
- Pay a visit to the sobering Atomic Bomb Museum in Nagasaki
- Remarkable monuments - Jomon Neolithic to Shoguns’ Castle
- See one of Japan’s greatest landmarks, Osaka Castle
- Great Cities
- Cultural Excursion
We depart for Japan on an overnight flight from London.
We arrive in the metropolis of Tokyo and transfer to our hotel. For the remainder of the day we can take time to rest from our journey, acclimatise, or explore the city at our own pace. This evening we meet as a group to enjoy our first dinner together.
Tokyo will wow us today, starting with a visit to the Fukagawa Downtown Museum – an intriguing glimpse of life in the Edo era, with reconstructed streets and authentic interiors; even a reproduction of a clam peddler’s home, complete with strewn, empty clam shells. The larger Edo-Tokyo Museum is the next stop on our tour. This eye-catching building, modelled on an old storehouse, features impressive exhibitions on the history of Tokyo, and includes life-size replicas of the wooden Nihonbashi bridge, as well as a traditional Kabuki theatre.
What better way to make our exit from Tokyo than on the Shinkansen, one of the world’s fastest trains? The spotless bullet train carries us north to Hachinohe, which is home to the Korekawa Archaeological Museum. Within this striking modern building are hundreds of artefacts, including lacquerware items and impressive ceramics from the Jomon period of 3,000 - 1,000 BC. Clay figurines, as well as personal ornaments found in burials from the Korekawa-Nakai and Kazahari sites — the collections here are simply fascinating. We resume our train journey and head for Aomori, on the north coast of Honshu. Here we visit the well-preserved settlement, the largest and most famous site of Sannai Maruyama, which was occupied by hunter-gatherers between 3,900 and 2,300 BC. The site was only discovered when it was surveyed in preparation for a new baseball stadium – suffice to say the local baseball games are now played elsewhere.
Today we drive to the serene natural landscape of Lake Towada. This is the largest crater lake of Honshu Island: lined with a deciduous forested rim, it sits atop an active volcano and is characterised by two gorgeous extended peninsulas. Later, ancient civilisation beckons us at the mysterious Oyu stone circles, which give us a little insight into the people who constructed and once used them. From the early to the middle phases of the late Jomon period between 2,000 - 1,500 BC, these two sizeable rings, the largest to have ever been discovered in Japan, have been the site of many an archaeological find, and are now surrounded by reconstructions of numerous period Jomon dwellings. The Oyu Stone Circle Centre here contains numerous artefacts and interesting exhibits, as well as a series of enlightening models.
We get back on the train today, for a ride to Nagaoka, a bustling university city which borders the Sea of Japan. The untamed coastline acts as our constant companion while we speed towards our destination. Our first stop here is the Niigata Prefectural Museum of History. A highly informative resource on regional anthropology, history and general local folklore, the museum documents the history of rice-making in Niigata as well as showcasing samples of the weird and wonderful Jomon Flame Pottery, for which this area is known. Further examples of these eclectic pots are to be found at the Umataka Site Museum – which is another of today’s many highlights.
The Shinano River is the longest river system in Japan, draining most of Nagano and Niigata prefectures. It rises at the foot of Mount Kobushi, in the Japanese Alps of Honshu. As we drive down part of the riverside it’s easy to see why Simon Kaner, Head of Archaeology and Heritage at the world-renowned Sainsbury Institute, has made this area a key focal point for research, with recent excavations unearthing some of the earliest examples of Jomon Flame Pottery. Our journey leads up into the Tsunan mountains, where we stop at the Tsunan Agriculture and Jomon Experience Museum “Najomon”. Afterwards our scenic journey continue to our hotel through the magnificent Japanese Alps, to the land peaks of Nagano Prefecture.
We start our day at the Togariishi Jomon site and archaeology museum, and anyone familiar with the Jomon era will have heard of the Tanabatake Venus, a replica of which is on display here whilst on loan to the a museum in Paris. This small clay statue is dated back to 3,000-2,000 BC, and, unlike its Greek namesake, is remarkable for having all its limbs intact. Yet more sculpted marvels have been discovered at the
Shakado Jomon site, where over 1,100 figurines are now exhibited in a local museum. We travel from here, in the midst of Japan’s wine country, on to the Suwa Grand Shrine complex, thought to be one of the oldest shrines in existence. Every six years the Ombashira (or Honoured Pillars) Festival takes place here, and sees huge cedars felled and ridden down the mountains. Thankfully this isn’t a mode of transport we’ll be using for our own descent.
Today we return to the railway for another scenic ride, this time through the southern Alps to Nara, the ancient Heian capital of Japan. This compact city boasts no less than 8 UNESCO World Heritage sites, and is well worth taking some quality time to explore. We visit Nara Park, with its herds of roaming wild deer, the splendid Todaiji Temple, the biggest wooden building in the world – home to the famous Great Buddha – and Yakushiji Temple, which was built in the 7th century in a bid to heal the Emperor’s ailing wife. Its construction must have done the trick: she succeeded him as Empress Jito towards the end of the century.
Our adventure continues today via the amazing Osaka Castle, one of Japan’s mightiest landmarks and site of many a vital battle. The Golden Tea Room here has to be seen to be believed – a truly jaw-dropping sight. Eight floors of displays lead up to an observation deck for wonderful views of Osaka itself. The ancient tumulus clusters of Mozu-Furuichi take our interests underground this afternoon. This collection of rounded keyhole-shaped mounds consist of graves measuring up to 500 metres in length: an awesome spectacle right in the heart of Osaka.
We explore Kyoto today, where a wealth of temples and world-class sites await. We head first for Nijo Castle, an enormous complex that boasts multiple moats and fortifications. Don’t miss the famous nightingale floors, so-named for the bird-like noise that potential assassins may have made while attempting to sneak their way across them. Alarms have never looked so attractive! We have free time this afternoon to take in the city at our leisure.
Kinkaku-ji Temple is one of Kyoto’s main attractions. We visit it this morning, admiring exteriors lacquered with pure gold leaf, and enjoying the gorgeous views reflected in the lake. It is then a short drive to the Urasenke Tea Foundation Museum, where we will take part in an authentic tea ceremony, an important tradition in Japan. This afternoon is free to spend as we choose. One option is to head a little way out of the city centre to Tenryuji Temple. Surrounded by stunning mountain scenery, here you can lose yourself in its well-kept gardens, before making your way to the beautiful bamboo grove.
We take the bullet train to the hilltop Himeji Castle complex, which has stood intact on this site for several hundred years. Also known as the White Heron Castle, it is regarded as Japan’s most beautiful surviving castle with five of its buildings now designated as official National Treasures. We explore the castle’s sprawling site, including its maze-like paths, originally designed to befuddle potential assailants. Later we take the train to Hiroshima and hop aboard the ferry to the wonderful Miyajima Island, where deer pose tamely for tourists on paths and in doorways. The iconic Itsukushima Shrine is our main stop here – recognisable from many a book on Japan and its great structures. Look out from the shrine’s wooden boards across the water, to the shores of Hiroshima.
This morning the train takes us to subtropical Kyushu, the seaside starting point for a scenic drive to Yoshinogari. Here we find a huge Yayoi period site in Saga, dating from the 3rd century BC to the 3rd century AD. One of Japan’s longest moat-encircled settlements, this long-lived site shows evidence of intensive trade with the continent, and in its final stages, it may have been the seat of one of Japan’s earliest kingdoms. Nearby Imari introduces us to Japan’s history of porcelain production – a valuable export for the country during the 17th and 18th centuries. We pay a visit to the Kyushu Ceramics Museum to view its extensive collection of old Imari and Arita wares.
Today we spend a day in Nagasaki, made famous, of course, for its destruction by an atomic bomb. The city’s Atomic Bomb Museum, built on the explosion’s epicentre, is a harrowing reminder of the legacy surrounding this terrible event. After lunch, we visit Dejima, an important site as it represented the only contact with a European country during the Isolation of the Edo period from 1621-1868. We end our day with time to enjoy a leisurely walk through Chinatown, perhaps sampling some of the delicious fusion food available. From here, we can explore the rest of the city at our own leisure.
We fly from Nagasaki to Tokyo in the morning and then continue our journey on to the UK.
We arrive in the UK this afternoon.
- Expert Guide Lecturer
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Meals - Most meals included
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in programme; tips included
- Field Notes
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