When I first started visiting Japan 25 or so years ago it scarcely registered as a destination for Australian travellers. It was seen as being too expensive and too difficult in respect to what were then perceived as impenetrable language barriers and arcane cultural mores.
Now, with the growth of skiing holidays and an increasing appreciation of its refined cuisine exposing more and more of us to the delights, and new-found ease, of a holiday in Japan, the country has emerged as one of our hottest destinations, and not just as a place to frolic in the snow.
In fact, Japan has been the most-searched for destination by readers of our website, traveller.com.au, for two consecutive years with overall foreign visitor numbers to the country now exceeding 24 million.
It's therefore a great pleasure to invite Traveller's readers, in partnership with Wendy Wu Tours, on an exclusive, experts-led, tour of this complex and captivating country, one of my favourite destinations.
You'll travel in late March (during the highly-desirable and visually-stunning cherry-blossom season) next year in the company of our quartet of guests, carefully selected by the editors of Traveller.
Our experts for the tour are Murray McLean, former Australian ambassador to Japan, Matthew Crabbe, a leading Tokyo-based expatriate Australian chef, Mark Hovane, a Kyoto-based Australian expert on Japan's renowned "contemplative gardens", and Amelia Lester, a leading Australian journalist based in Japan.
During the course of the 13-day tour, readers, journeying to all corners of the main island of Honshu, will benefit from our guests' extensive knowledge of Japan across a wide range of subjects and interests.
If you've ever dreamt of visiting Japan, or even if, like me, you're a regular visitor and enthusiast, this tour, in the company of a former ambassador, chef, gardening guru and travel writer, represents a truly one-off opportunity.
DAYS 1-2 March 22-23
Fly to Tokyo
Fly overnight to Tokyo, Japan. On arrival, you will be met and transferred to your hotel. Tokyo has a vibrant charm. Experience a capital hurtling into the future whilst maintaining its links with the traditions of ancient ancestors. Enjoy a special welcome dinner at chef Matthew Crabbe's restaurant, Two Rooms, where old and new-world cooking techniques and only the freshest market produce are used. Matthew will be joined by journalist Amelia Lester who will interview him about his fascinating life as a chef in Japan and about how he grew to love Japanese cuisine.
DAY 3 March 24
Commence your touring of Tokyo, in the company of Amelia, with a bird's eye view of the sprawling city from the observation deck of the Tokyo Sky Tree. Discover Asakusa, Tokyo's old town and home to Senso-ji Temple, Tokyo's oldest Buddhist temple. After lunch, wander through the sea of more than 1000 bright cherry blossom trees in Ueno Park, one of Tokyo's most popular locations for hanami (flower viewing). In the evening, take a relaxing dinner cruise on Tokyo Bay and enjoy the dynamic views of the passing cityscape.
DAY 4 March 25
Tokyo City Sights
Enjoy a sightseeing tour of Tokyo in the company of Amelia. You may choose to take part in the Exclusive Experience of dressing in a Japanese kimono or explore Tokyo's most famous Shinto shrine, Meiji Shrine. This sacred space and the neighbouring Yoyogi Park are part of a large forested area nestled in the centre of the city. Head to Tsukiji Fish Market, one of the largest markets in the world, and learn the art of sushi making. Enjoy your self-made sushi for lunch. In the afternoon, take some time in Shibuya, the colourful shopping and entertainment district.
DAY 5 March 26
Journey to the Fuji Five Lakes
Travel to Hakone and the pristine Fuji Five Lakes region. You have one of the best chances of viewing Mt Fuji from this area. Be sure to have your camera ready, as Fuji-san is notoriously shy! Hakone is also home to many onsen ryokans (hot spring resorts). Take a boat cruise across Lake Ashinoko, formed after the volcano's eruption. Ride the Komagatake Ropeway from the shores of the lake to the peak of Mt Hakone. Return down the mountain and step back in time at the Hakone Open Air Museum. You may choose to ride on Hakone Tozan Railway this afternoon as your Exclusive Experience, or enjoy time at your leisure.
DAY 6 March 27
Join Murray McLean on an exploration of Mt Fuji. Standing at 3776 metres, Fujisan is Japan's highest mountain and an active volcano, which last erupted in 1707. The Japanese worship the almost perfectly shaped volcano as a sacred mountain. Visit Mt Fuji Visitor Centre to learn more about its landscape, history and culture. Journey up to Mt Fuji's 5th Station to view the peak and stunning surrounds from 2300 metres above sea level (weather permitting). After lunch, spend the afternoon at your leisure. Murray will join the group for dinner tonight.
DAY 7 March 28
Zoom across the countryside on a bullet train to Japan's cultural capital, Kyoto. Home to 17 UNESCO World Heritage sites, more than 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines, this ancient city encapsulates the heart and soul of traditional Japan. Visit a traditional teahouse (Ochaya) to meet a geisha or maiko (apprentice geisha). Since the 1800s, geisha and maiko have been a striking sight throughout Kyoto. With their iconic make-up and intricate kimonos, they train in Japanese arts, such as classical instruments, dance and tea ceremony, to entertain guests. Later, wander through Kinkaku-ji (Golden Pavilion), a Zen temple and one of Kyoto's most famous sights, and Ryoan-ji with its famous Zen garden.
Day 8 March 29
Wander through some of the 10,000 orange torii gates at Fushimi Inari Shrine, which features in the movie Memoirs of a Geisha. The vibrant gates form a path up the mountain behind the shrine. Participate in the Tea Ceremony and Origami Exclusive Experience or enjoy time at your leisure. This afternoon, join Mark Hovane from Kyoto Garden Experience. Mark will provide unique insights into Japanese garden design during an inspiring talk, followed by a question and answer session.
Day 9 March 30
Hiroshima & Miyajima
Travel by bullet train to Hiroshima and head to the Peace Memorial Park. The area where the park lies was ground zero for the atomic bomb on August 6, 1945. Join Murray on a special exploration of the park and its memorials and monuments, before heading to the poignant Peace Memorial Museum. Take a ferry to Miyajima Island, a sacred island for Shintoism. Take in one of the most photographed sites in Japan, the centuries-old Itsukushima Shrine. Explore the island and its shrines and temples on foot or take the Exclusive Experience of a ride up Miyajima Ropeway.
Day 10 March 31
Okayama & Osaka
Journey by coach to Okayama and take in the beauty of Korakuen Garden, which is one of the three best-landscaped gardens in Japan. Explore Okayama Castle, popularly named "crow castle" due to its black exterior, located just across from the garden. Take a bullet train to Osaka, a city that loves its food and fun.
Day 11 April 01
For 74 years during the 8th century, Nara was Japan's capital. Meet the resident deer in Nara Park, who may bow to you in exchange for a snack. Visit Todaiji Temple, the world's largest wooden building and home to Japan's largest Buddha. Walk the peaceful paths lined with bronze and stone lanterns in Kasuga Taisha, Nara's most celebrated shrine. Return to Osaka and in the evening, stroll through Dotonbori, a restaurant mecca.
DAYS 12-13 April 02-03
Fly Osaka to Australia
Fly overnight from Kansai International Airport to Sydney/Melbourne, arriving home the following day.
To Book: Phone 1300 852 958 (Saturday, 9am to 1pm; Sunday, 10am to 2pm, and Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm)
Each participant can choose from one of the following Exclusive Experiences as a complimentary inclusion. Hurry as places are limited.
The Japanese kimono is arguably the most exquisite national dress on Earth and a real treat to try on. Experience the art of wearing a Japanese kimono in Tokyo.
Hakone Tozan Railway
Japan's oldest and only mountain railway is a delight for all, especially train enthusiasts. The small trains wind through the narrow, thickly forested valley over bridges and through tunnels. Stop along the way at small stations and change directions at three switchbacks.
Tea Ceremony & Origami Experience
In Kyoto, participate in interactive cultural experiences. Observe the intricate, sacred ritual of a Japanese tea ceremony and learn Origami, a traditional pastime that transforms paper into a variety of animals and flowers through folding techniques.
The Miyajima Ropeway runs from Momijidani Park to Mt Misen. On a clear day, the views from the top are spectacular. There are also Buddhist temples to explore near the peak.
March 22, 2018
Twin share From $11,990 per person
Single hotel supplement From $1,960 per person
Ask us about our willing to share option.
Prices are person, twin share. Single supplement applies. Subject to availability.
Airline fuel surcharge included and subject to change. While every effort will be made to ensure participation by the special guests, please note that circumstances beyond our control may result in changes to the guests or itinerary.
Booking conditions available at www.wendywutours.com.au ATAS A10517
13-days fully inclusive
● International economy class flights from Sydney and Melbourne flying Cathay Pacific Airways
● All domestic transportation in Japan● All accommodation● All meals (from dinner on day two)
● Touring with expert National Escort
● Sightseeing and entrance fees
● One Exclusive Experience
To Book: Phone 1300 852 958 (Saturday, 9am to 1pm; Sunday, 10am to 2pm, and Monday to Friday, 9am to 5.30pm)
OUR SPECIAL GUEST: MURRAY McLEAN AO
Australia's ambassador to Japan between 2004 and 2011, Murray, who now lives in Victoria, is chair of both the Australia Japan Foundation and the Foundation of Australia-Japan Studies. In 2014, the Japanese Emperor presented him with the Grand Cordon of the Order of the Rising Sun, one of the highest honours accorded to foreign nationals.
OUR STAR CHEF: MATTHEW CRABBE
One of Australia's most accomplished and acclaimed chef exports, Tokyo-based Matthew runs the kitchens of three Tokyo restaurants and bars: Two Rooms Grill-Bar, R2 Supperclub and Ruby Jack's Steakhouse & Bar. He is a former chef de cuisine at the Park Hyatt Tokyo's New York Grill where the Oscar-winning film Lost in Translation was shot.
OUR GARDENING EXPERT: MARK HOVANE
Kyoto-based Australian Mark Hovane is a leading expert on Japanese garden history and design. A long-term resident of Japan, having lived in the former ancient capital of Kyoto for more than 25 years, Mark remains a passionate advocate for the "contemplative landscapes" that are a feature of any serious visit to Japan.
OUR TRAVEL WRITER: AMELIA LESTER
A former editor at The New Yorker magazine and editor of Good Weekend in The Sydney Morning Herald. Amelia is now based in in Okinawa, Japan. From there she writes regularly on travel and food, among other subjects, for Fairfax Media and international titles.