Experience Japan’s rich samurai heritage in a region which continues to preserve its grand history, as seen from the architecture, delicious cuisine and excellent onsen hot springs in nature. This premium four-day tour takes in exemplary Japanese inns, and provides exclusive access to one of Japan’s traditional master swordsmiths, affording a deeper insight into Japanese aesthetic and culture.
Located inland from the Pacific coast of Hyogo Prefecture lies the majestic World Heritage site of Himeji Castle; an essential location for many visitors to Japan and an excellent starting point to explore the wider adjoining Harima region. Further inland, there are excellent Onsen hot springs, mountainside castle ruins and ancient temples that have been the stages for many key events in Japan’s history. Up until Japan's feudal period, the south-western side of Hyogo was known as Harima province (播磨国, Harima no kuni), with Himeji as it’s capital. In the later years of the tumultuous 16th century, the lands across Japan were in chaos and civil war, where powerful samurai daimyo vied for supremacy over the country. This was an age which gave rise to Japan’s three great unifiers - Oda Nobunaga, Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu – as well as roaming samurai, such Japan’s premier swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, who wandered the lands of Harima on lengthy ‘musha shugyō’ (warrior pilgrimages) to further improve their fighting skills. Later during the Edo period (1603-1868), the coastal Domain of Ako came under Harima province, and was home to the now famous 47 Ronin of Ako, known for their great samurai valor (bushido), and one of Japans best-known samurai stories. Further to the east lie the mountain-top temple complex of Engyoji temple, with over 1,000 years of history and a treasure trove of authentic traditional Japanese architecture and design. Further eastward, between Himeji and Kobe, lie Mount Rokko and Arima Onsen - one of Japan’s three ancient hot spring towns - nestled in a peaceful valley surrounded by red pine-tree covered mountains and numerous hot springs – and once used by traveling monks, aristocrats and feudal samurai. From this historic period to the present day, the area between Harima and Kobe also went on to play a significant role in domestic and overseas transportation and trade, and further developed as an attractive area while incorporating a diversity of cultures into the region.
Our 4-day tour offers a rich variety of cultural and outdoor experiences, including history, nature, hot springs, traditional and modern architecture, and delicious local cuisine.
Our standard tour features four entry-level, optional hikes. Please see here for trips best suited to families.
Please ask for information about our tour extensions to the mountain-top temple town of Mount Koya with its monastery lodgings, or the peaceful, agricultural community of Asuka at a charming Japanese inn or with a local family for a unique homestay experience.
From Kyoto or Osaka, the train journey follows the coast along the Inland Sea to the preserved castle town of Tatsuno, located at the foot of Mount Keiro, along the Ibo River. Situated 15km from Himeji, Tatsuno thrived historically due its proximity to the Ibo River, with convenient transportation access. At Tatsuno, explore the preserved castle town setting, among old samurai homes and temples - the famous samurai swordsman Miyamoto Musashi trained at Enkoji Temple here in Tatsuno, where he also taught his disciples. The local historical museum also houses a wonderful collection of authentic period samurai arms and armor once owned by the local samurai daimyo.
In Tatsuno, we also offer an optional 5km scenic loop hike to the original Tatsuno castle ruins which still remain atop nearby Mt. Keiro - the original mountaintop castle was initially constructed here around 500 years ago by Akamatsu Murahide and controlled by four generations of the powerful Akamatsu samurai clan. In 1577, the Akamatsu turned over the castle to Toyotomi Hideyoshi – the second of Japan’s three great unifiers - who later conquered Harima and the wider Chugoku region. Eventually a new castle was later constructed at the base of Mt. Keiro as a subordinate castle to Himeji Castle.
In the afternoon, make your way by local train to the coastal town of Ako to learn about the famed 47 Ronin of Ako, while visiting the key locations linked with their epic story, including Kagakuji Temple, Oishi Shrine and museum and Ako Castle ruins.
Before arriving to your inn, take in excellent views of the nearby Inland Sea along the coast. Stay at a premium Japanese Ryokan in Ako with delicious regional cuisine.
Walking distance: 5km / 3.1 miles
Elevation gain: 195m / 538 feet of ascent and 540m / 1774 feet of descent
Time required: About 2 hours
Accommodation: Premium Japanese Ryokan
After breakfast, travel by local train and pre-paid taxi to the foot of Mt. Kanjo in rural Harima, and ascend a short scenic nature hike up to the mountaintop and Kanjosan Castle ruins at 301 meters altitude. The trail is well marked, with excellent valley views along the way - the ancient remains of stone walls, building and layout remain relatively distinguishable - typical features of medieval mountain castles (Yamajiro) in the Harima region. Kanjosan Castle was once a stronghold during the Kamakura period (1192-1333) of the Akamatsu samurai clan who once controlled this region. After the hike, stop in at a local swordsmith at the foot of the mountain to see first-hand how master craftsman produce fine-quality Japanese katana swords. Katana blades are said to represent a Samurai’s lives in the past era, and they are considered one of the highest Japanese art forms.
In the afternoon visit the impressive fortress of Himeji Castle and Edo period-style Kokoen Japanese gardens. Himeji Castle is Japan’s best-preserved castle - known as the "White Heron Castle" as the main keep with its three smaller towers resembles a white heron. It is both a Japanese National Treasure and a World Heritage site, consisting of a massive fortress made up of over 80 buildings connected by a series of labyrinth-like winding paths.
Later in the afternoon arrive in the rural hot spring town of Shiota Onsen north of Himeji and an authentic Japanese inn, with time to relax before dinner.
Private tea experience at Himeji Castle (optional upgrade)
As an optional premium experience in the early afternoon, we can also arrange an exclusive, authentic 2.5-hour Japanese tea experience at a private Japanese tea pavilion on the castle grounds, along with a private guide. Please enquire with us in advance and we can happily look into availability).
Walking distance: 2.3km / 1.4 miles
Elevation gain: 195m / 640 feet of ascent and descent
Time required: About 1 - 2 hours
Accommodation: Premium Japanese Ryokan
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner
This morning, travel to a nearby, rewarding nature hike along the ancient 33-sacred temple Saikoku Kannon pilgrimage route up to Engyoji Temple on Mt. Shosha. Engyoji Temple dates back to 966, and is Temple No. 27 along the 33-sacred temple Kannon pilgrimage route in the Saigoku region (which extends further into the Kansai area). The pilgrimage route is said to date from the 11th Century, though many of the temples were pilgrimages in their own right beforehand, and some even date back as far as the 7th Century. The route is known as a "miracle pilgrimage" with each temple being associated with a miracle related to Kannon (Bodhisattva of Compassion / Goddess of Mercy). Upon entering the temple grounds, you’ll pass 33 Kanon statues - each representing one of the Kannon enshrined at each of the 33 temples along the Saikoku Pilgrimage route. Walking the historic temple grounds of Engyoji, among ancient forest and an abundance of traditional architectural structures, is also a highlight in itself.
Optional experience (please enquire in advance)
At Engyoji Temple, we can also arrange a 60-minute Zen meditation session in a calm setting of the Jogyo-do Hall. For a deeper experience designed to focus your mind, try an authentic 1-hour Shakyo (sutra copying) calligraphy session under the guidance of a Buddhist monk in the Cho-do hall, an atmospheric wooden planked hall with nature light and delicate scent of incense.
In the afternoon, travel eastward by train to the foothills of Mt. Rokko and Arima Onsen - one of Japan's top three ancient hot spring towns dating back to the 8th century - renowned for its therapeutic waters. The mineral baths of Arima also became popular with the feudal ruler Toyotomi Hideyoshi - from 1597 during his two-year long campaign against nearby Miki Castle. The centre of Arima Onsen features small, weaving lanes with traditional wooden buildings, giving the area a quintessentially Japanese atmosphere.
This evening stay in Arima Onsen with a premium Japanese Onsen Ryokan inn featuring unmatched Japanese hospitality and fine Japanese cuisine. Onsen baths here are a particular highlight.
Walking distance: 5.3km / 3.3 miles
Elevation gain: 365m / 1,200 feet of ascent and 148m / 486 feet of descent
Time required: About 2 - 3 hours
It is also possible to skip the hike by riding a scenic ropeway up to the entrance of Engyoji Temple complex. You can choose which option you prefer on the day – no need to decide in advance.
Accommodation: Premium Japanese Ryokan
Meals: Breakfast, Dinner
After breakfast, begin hiking from Arima Onsen with a scenic 3-4-hour valley hike (optional) through red pine-tree forests and waterfalls up to the top of Mt. Rokko with a breathtaking panorama of the Seto Inland Sea, Kobe and Osaka in the distance. From here, ride the cable-car down to Kobe and explore this compact cosmopolitan port city with a unique history and distinct architecture. Take time to visit the engaging Takenaka Carpentry Tools Museum, housed in a beautiful gallery, which showcases the fascinating world of traditional Japanese carpentry and design. The museum houses more than 32,000 items related to traditional architecture and wooden construction unique to Japan, including tools, models, documents, and scale building components, and enables visitors to gain hands-on knowledge of past building materials and methods - of which feature at historic temples such as Engyoji and the country’s numerous hand-built wooden temples, traditional residences, and tearooms. In the afternoon, travel onward to end your tour in Osaka or Kyoto.
Walking distance: 6.29km / 3.9 miles
Elevation gain: 546m / 1,791 feet of ascent and 50m / 164 feet of descent
Time required: About 3 - 4 hours
It is also possible to skip the hike this morning by riding a scenic ropeway up to the top of Mt. Rokko. You can choose which option you prefer on the day – there is no need to decide in advance.
Kobe Sake breweries visit (optional)
If more time allows in Kobe, famous sake (rice wine) breweries of Nada Gogo, also known as the five villages of Nada, are nearby and the sake production in Japan is said to have begun here nearly seven centuries ago. The main Sake Brewery street also has many sake museums that shed light on the sake production process.