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.
- Tour an ancient civilisation, closed off from the outside world for centuries
- November is one of the best times to visit: with wonderful autumn colours in full display
We depart for Japan on a direct flight from London.
We arrive in the buzzing metropolis of Tokyo and enjoy a private transfer to our hotel. The rest of the day is free to relax after our journey. Venture into the pristine city streets, dip in to an eclectic assortment of local shops, sample a glass or two of rice wine and adjust to the electric atmosphere of Japan’s capital city at your own pace.
Tokyo continues to wow with its 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. A great introduction to the city.
What better way to make our exit from Tokyo than on the Shinkansen, one of the world’s fastest trains? The spotless bullet carries us north to Hachinohe, home to the Korekawa Archaeological Museum. Within this striking modern building are hundreds of artefacts from the Korekawa-Nakai site, including lacquerware items and food waste dating from the Jomon period of 3,000 to 1,000 BC.
We resume our train journey and head for Aomori, on the north coast of Honshu. Here we visit the beautiful Jomon 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 at the Oyu stone circles. These two sizeable rings, the largest ever discovered in Japan, have been the the site of many an archaeological find, and are surrounded by reconstructions of numerous period Jomon dwellings. The museum here contains numerous artefacts, as well as a series of enlightening models.
We get back on the train today, for a wonderful 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, 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– another of today's many highlights.
The Shinano River is Japan's longest river system, flowing from Mount Kobushi all the way to Matsumoto. As we drive down part of the 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 Jomon Period and Agricultural Practice Museum. Alongside the local earthenware and archaeological displays on offer here is a chance to try your hand at making traditional regional sweets.
We continue through the magnificent Japan Alps to the inland peaks of Nagano Prefecture, making this day one of truly superlative scenery.
Anyone familiar with the Jomon era will have heard of the Tanabatake Venus. 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. We visit the Venus in residence as part of our trip to the Togariishi Jomon site.
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. (Once upon a film, the castle was even destroyed by a warring Godzilla!) The Golden Tea Room here has to be seen to be believed – a truly jaw-dropping sight. Eight floors of displays lead up toan 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 consists of graves measuring up to 500 metres in length: an awesome spectacle right in the heart of Osaka.
On to Kyoto today, where a wealth of temples and world-class sites awaits. We head first for Nijojo Palace, an enormous complex with multiple moats and fortifications. Don't miss the famous nightingale floorsso-named for the bird-like noise potential assassins may have made while attempting to sneak their way
across them. Alarms have never looked so attractive.
Tomorrow will be a day full of exploration, so we have this afternoon free to take in the city at our leisure. Why not see if you can spot an authentic Geisha on the streets of Gion? There's bound to be one somewhere...
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.
A little way out of the city centre lies Tenryuji Temple, surrounded by stunning mountain scenery. Lose yourself in its well-kept gardens, before making your way to the beautiful bamboo grove. Thanks to this area's Zen Buddhist roots, the local restaurants here are a haven for vegetarian cuisine. Try the locally-made Yuba, or tofu skin – a delicacy in these parts.
Later today there is a chance to take part in an authentic afternoon tea ceremony at Urasenke Tea Foundation Museum. A real highlight of the trip.
We take the bullet train to the hilltop Himeji Castle complex, which has stood intact on this site for several hundred years. Five of its buildings are 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 hop on 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. This is one of Japan's largest archaeological sites, with significant findings that demonstrate the shift from a nomadic lifestyle to one based around more permanent dwellings.
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 atomic bomb. The city's Atomic Bomb Museum, built on the explosion's epicentre, is a harrowing reminder of the events and legacy surrounding this terrible event.
Since then, Nagasaki has been extensively rebuilt and is now a bustling commercial city. We remember its productive past in a visit to Dejima, location of the first Dutch trading station, and an island to which the Dutch presence in the country was restricted during Japan's extended period of isolation.
Afterwards a we enjoy a leisurely walk through China Town, perhaps sampling some of the famous Japanese/Chinese fusion food available, and take in the rest of the city at our leisure.
It's a long day of travel today, but by no means a dull one, as we ride the bullet train back to Tokyo and enjoy the final night of our trip in the city where the journey first began. This is our last chance to take in the vibrancy of Japan, before heading home this evening.
- Tour Manager
- Local Travel - Private a/c coach
- Meals - All meals included with wine at dinner
- Entries & Tips - Entry to all sites in programme; tips included
- Field Notes