In subtle Japan, where the simplicity and refinement of life in the countryside are as thrilling as the technicolor aggregations of Tokyo, centuries-old traditions—influenced by philosophies rooted in Zen and an ancient reverence for nature and the seasons—blend effortlessly with what also feels like life in the future. Stay in a family-run machiya in the southernmost tip of Kyushu and soak in an onsen on top of a skyscraper in the capital, which looks up to the stars. And the best part? All of these experiences are possible in one trip, thanks to the county’s immaculate shinkansen network, which makes traversing the island-nation seamless and efficient.

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Example Itinerary 1

Japan Behind The Screen

In a country where penetrating the surface can be a challenge to outsiders, travelers in search of true immersion in the country’s way of life can connect with the culture through insider-only experiences. In fast-paced Tokyo, that might mean a private tour with a curator at a contemporary museum where artworks literally communicate with each other through walls, followed by a sake tasting at a family-run shop where techniques have been preserved for generations.

Modernity gives way to tradition in the ancient capital of Kyoto, where the head monk at the maple tree-flanked Kiyomizudera temple leads the way on a private tour of secret prayer rooms and hidden gardens, followed by dinner with a private geisha—refined women who’ve danced for the highest levels of Japanese society for centuries. Venture further south through rice fields and fishing villages and ferry hop between the surreal art islands of the Setouchi region, where an art expert guides a visit through the galleries of Teshima and Naoshima—after the crowds have left for the day.

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Example Itinerary 2

Spirit and Craft in Japan

Adventurous pilgrims seeking a spiritual journey through the Japanese countryside—far from labyrinthine alleys and kawaii girls of Harajuku—head north to Nikkō to bike around Lake Chuzenji and soak in the onsens within the Senjogahara Marshlands, a mythical pocket of white birch trees 4,500 feet above sea level. Spend an afternoon meditating with a Yamabushi monk after hiking up to the ancient shrines, pagodas and temples nestled within the holy mountains of Yamagata.

Venture further west to the quiet city of Kanazawa, home to the country’s most revered artisans—from ceramicists to embroiderers—to spend a morning hand-dyeing a silk scarf with artists of the region’s varicolored Kaga Yuzen tradition, which focuses on nature themes, after visiting centuries-old textile studios.

In Kyoto, take a workshop in indigo dyeing, lantern-making, or handwoven textiles and spirit away to the foothills of Mt. Fuji to “forest bathe” through the dense Aokigahara, known as the Sea of Trees, and wander through nearby lava caves, followed by a cooking class where you’ll learn to make Zen vegetarian shojin ryori cuisine using locally foraged ingredients, from bracken shoots to “princess” bamboo.

Oh and also...

Visit a sumo stable to watch their morning practice, where you’ll witness the rituals of this ancient tradition that remains Japan’s national sport.

Apprentice with an expert in the art of ki-oke (wooden buckets), which were historically used for baths and food storage–and are now used for everything from dog beds to champagne coolers to stools.

Stay in a traditional machiya townhouse, indicative of Kyoto’s architectural landscape prior to Japan's rapid modernization after the 1950’s.