Following in the footsteps of Japan's shoguns and samurai

A 14-day walking tour winds through the Land of the Rising Sun taking in onsens, ryokan and yukatas

The charms of Kyoto beckon, with its Gion district perfect for a coveted geiko (the regional term for geisha) sighting. Photo: Sorasak / Unsplash
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My romantic westernised impressions of Japan began at an early age. I grew up watching movies like Seven Samurai and Ran by director Akira Kurosawa. It took me months – nay, almost a year – to read through 1,312 pages of epic historical fiction in Shogun by James Clavell, but I enjoyed every second of it, and I have since spent many a day dreaming about walking the ancient routes of feudal Japan during the reign of the shogun and samurai.

I was eager to see the real thing so when I spotted a tour called Shoguns and Samurai, it sounded like it had been crafted just for me, and I instantly signed up. The 14-day trip would cover all the destinations that I was keen to visit in Central Japan – including Tokyo, Kyoto and Yamanouchi – and also take us hiking through a sector of the Nakasendo Trail, a mountain route that connected Edo (present-day Tokyo) with Kyoto during the Edo period.

A few days in Tokyo sets the tone for my journey, which is operated by Oku Japan – a tour operator that specialises in off-the-beaten-path tours. Known as Edo for more than two centuries during the feudal rule of Japan's shogunate, the city was renamed Tokyo in 1868 when the emperor claimed imperial control.

Exploring by subway, my tour group ventures to parts old and new, led by our knowledgeable guide Yoko. At Hama-riku Gardens, once the former retreat of the shogunate and imperial family, I marvel at traditional gardens, seawater ponds and a lovely traditional teahouse where guests can partake in a delicate tea service in the heart of the city. Surrounded by gleaming skyscrapers, akin to sentries guarding the precious green space, the contrast between past and present is striking.

Very quickly I learn that each day on the tour will be busy and I'm glad I packed my most comfortable walking shoes. Sightseeing includes visits to Nihonbashi (the "Japan Bridge") considered the zero marker point for all of Japan’s main roads since the Edo period, and the impressive Grand Meiji Shrine near the Harajuku district, famed for its quirky fashion and avant-garde architecture.

Public transport is the order of the trip. In addition to the subway, we travel on bullet trains, public buses and even a cable car, which gives me a real sense of seeing the destination as the locals do. There is plenty of hiking and walking too, which gives me good reason to indulge guilt-free in traditional snacks in each village we pass as well as enjoying delicious kaiseki dinners – a centuries-old dining tradition comprising multiple courses and seasonal ingredients.

Sleeping in a ryokan

In the village of Yudanaka in the Nagano prefecture, it is time to experience my first stay in a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn. During the Edo period, ryokans were frequented by travelling feudal lords and samurais. They feature Japanese-style tatami (straw-mat) floors and, each evening, staff prepare futons for sleeping. I am told only to walk on the tatami floors in socks or with bare feet – a sign of respect for the material's cultural significance. Comfy slippers are provided to use in the rest of the ryokan.

Each room has a yukata (a casual kimono) for guests to wear during their stay. Instead of western clothes, my group is encouraged to wear the ankle-length garment to dinner, and it is fun to see everyone adorned in the colourful robes after we master the art of wearing it.

“You place the left fold of the robe over the right of the chest,” instructs our guide Yoko. As a way to recall the “left over right” technique, she grins and offers the tip, “Just remember this, ‘leftover rice’.” The obi (sash) must then be tied around the waist.

Hot springs and snow monkeys

In Yudanaka, I am also introduced to the Japanese bathing concept of Onsen. Communal bathing is new to me, and soaking in a hot steaming pool of mineral water with naked strangers takes a bit of getting used to. It helps that the Onsen baths are divided into separate male and female sections.

The custom of bathing in hot springs has been part of Japanese culture for centuries, though. With more than 3,000 hot springs across the country, Onsen used to be frequented by samurai and feudal lords to heal wounds and soothe aches and pains or take the chance to relax. After a short talk on bathing etiquette, emboldened, I let go of my shyness determined to benefit from this ancient ritual and sink into the rock pool. The naturally heated waters and peaceful setting is delightful, and it becomes a ritual I look forward to at each destination.

And it’s not only people who enjoy the Yudanaka hot springs.

Japanese macaques, also known as snow monkeys, live in the mountains above the springs and, each year, as the weather gets colder, they venture down to Jigokudani Yaen Koen to bathe in the open-air water. As we hike along a trail leading to the snow monkey park, our guide warns us not to get our hopes up as the primates' schedules aren't always reliable. But when we arrive, we are in luck – there are monkeys everywhere. We see big males, mothers, babies and juveniles bathing in the water, and our group is in awe.

On another day, I step back in time to Japan’s Edo-period via a tour of a stunning 16th-century Matsumoto shogunate castle. Another excursion leads me to discover temples and colourful shrines flanked by towering cedar, maples and golden-leaved ginkgo trees.

Retracing history

One of the great highlights of the trip is hiking a portion of the ancient Nakasendo Trail where our group stays overnight in the historic towns of Narai and Tsumago, two of the Edo-period post towns along the route. As we continue to travel deep into the interior of Central Japan, we visit Unesco World Heritage site Shirakawa-go and stay at a preserved Gassho-zukuri house – a wooden structure with a steep thatched grass roof, which makes for a unique lodging experience.

From there the charms of Kyoto beckon. An evening stroll leads to Sanjo-ohashi Bridge, the western end of the Nakasendo Trail. Afterwards, we venture to the Gion district for a coveted geiko (the regional term for geisha) sighting. The next day, a stroll through some of the city's famous gardens includes a stop at Kinkaku-ji, a glorious Golden Pavilion built in the 14th century by the Ashikaga Shogun.

Before heading back to Tokyo, there is time for one last experience. At the remote Mount Koya, set high in the mountains of the Kii peninsula, I have the chance to visit Kongobuji Temple, one of the region's most prominent sites.

Our group spends the night here, sleeping in shokubo, or pilgrims lodges, attached to the temple. The following morning, as I attend the Buddhist service at the temple – listening to the harmonious sounds of priests' readings and melodic chimes and taking in the heady scent of incense mixed with chilled mountain air – I savour the deep sense of gratitude I feel at experiencing so many of Japan’s unique wonders and having the chance to explore some of this ancient destination's age-old treasures at long last.

Oku Japan's 14-day guided Shoguns and Samurai tour of central Japan starts at $4,930 per person, based on two travellers sharing a room,

Updated: April 12, 2024, 6:24 AM