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An intoxicating mix of time-honored tradition
and cutting-edge modernity, Japan is a fascinating
place to photograph. In Kyoto, enjoy a private
photo opportunity with elegant geisha and
explore the lantern-lit streets of the Gion district.
Photograph the thatched villages of Shikoku before
traveling to Hiroshima, the island of Miyajima, and
Meet with geisha and photograph their traditional performance in Kyoto, and capture the vivid costumes and masks of Kagura dancers in Hiroshima.
Enjoy a photo shoot in the gardens of Saihoji, a temple draped in lush mosses.
Capture images from the ancient pilgrimage site of Mount Koya and from Naoshima Island, overlooking the Inland Sea.
Record the ancient traditions of rural Japan as we explore age-old villages and thatched dwellings in Shikoku's verdant Iya Valley.
Itinerary - 11 Days
Day 1 — Kyoto, Japan
Arrive in Osaka at any time. Transfer to Kyoto and check in to our hotel. Kyoto Hotel Okura
Day 2 — Kyoto
Our exploration of Kyoto begins with some of the city’s most treasured temples and gardens, where photographic opportunities abound. Train your lens on the lines of swaying bamboo trees in Arashiyama’s atmospheric bamboo grove early this morning before the crowds arrive.
Step into Ryoan-ji's Zen rock garden for a chance to photograph the serene site. Then try out different perspectives of shimmering Kinkakuji, a UNESCO World Heritage site also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion.
This evening, go on a photo walk through the lantern-lit streets of Gion, Kyoto’s historic geisha district. At our welcome dinner, we’ll be joined by a former geisha and current proprietress of a geisha house. As we learn about this unique tradition and watch a performance, enjoy a rare chance to photograph geisha freely. Kyoto Hotel Okura (B,L,D)
Day 3 — Kyoto
This morning, photograph paths lined with hundreds of vermilion torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Continue to Nijo Castle, built in 1603 and designated a National Treasure. Explore the castle’s Ninomaru Palace, known for its beautiful wall paintings and its intruder-deterring "nightingale" floors, designed to squeak when stepped upon.
This afternoon, take a photo excursion to Saihoji, often called Kokedera (or “Moss Temple”) for the 120 varieties of moss that carpet the grounds. A visit to Saihoji requires special permission, which means its stunning gardens are refreshingly free of crowds.
Kyoto Hotel Okura (B,L)
Day 4 — Mount Koya
Travel to Mount Koya, headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect and a popular pilgrimage site. With your camera in hand, meander through the evocative Okuno-in cemetery, where some 200,000 tombs of samurai warriors and dignitaries fill a grove of towering cedar trees. Venture into Kongobuji, the chief temple of the Mount Koya monastery and continue to the tranquil Danjo Garan monastic complex, originally constructed in the 9th century. Settle into our simple lodgings and enjoy a traditional Buddhist
Rengejo-In Monastery or Eko-In Monastery (B,L,D)
Day 5 — Mount Koya/Iya Valley
Rise early this morning for a photo shoot of a local temple at this sacred place. After an optional morning prayer service, descend to the shores of the Inland Sea and ferry across to Shikoku, the smallest of Japan’s main islands. On our way to the remote Iya Valley, enjoy an Awa Odori dance performance followed by a photo shoot of the dancers in their colorful costumes. Our home for the next two nights is a ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn, where inviting, on-site hot spring baths offer a chance to relax and rejuvenate.
Hotel Hikyonoyu (B,L,D)
Day 6 — Iya Valley
As we travel through the dramatic Iya gorge, stop to photograph shrines peeking out from the emerald slopes. Our destination is a 300-year-old thatched farmhouse, home to the Chiiori Trust, a unique project that seeks to preserve age-old rural traditions in the valley. Document the architectural details of this ancient building style and continue to photograph the evocative Okuiya Niju Kazurabashi, primitive twin suspension bridges constructed out of coiled vines that stretch high above the river valley below. Then capture timeless scenes of village life in Ochiai, a community of traditional dwellings, some of which date from the Edo period (circa 1700).
Hotel Hikyonoyu (B,L,D)
Day 7 — Iya Valley/Naoshima
Travel north to Zentsuji, a lovely complex of temples and a pagoda that marks the birthplace of the Buddhist priest, Kobo Daishi. In Takamatsu, stroll the 17th-century gardens of Ritsurin Park, photographing tranquil images of a local model in kimono on graceful bridges arcing over ponds. A ferry then brings us to the small island of Naoshima, which has recently emerged as a mecca of contemporary art and architecture. Our home for two nights is a photo op in itself: the cutting-edge Benesse House was designed by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando. This evening, photograph the island-dotted Inland Sea from our excellent vantage point at the hotel.
Benesse House (B,L,D)
Day 8 — Naoshima
Early risers may go on a photo shoot overlooking the Inland Sea. Later, appreciate the innovative architecture of the Chichu Art Museum, built underground but designed to capture natural light and shadow. See the works of Claude Monet, James Turrell, and others in the museum’s collection, and then visit a house that is part of the Art House Project, which has transformed some of the island’s older structures into imaginative works of art.
Benesse House (B,L,D)
Day 9 — Naoshima/Hiroshima
Ferry back to Honshu and take the high-speed train to Hiroshima. Pay a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Museum, which documents the atomic explosion that ravaged the city. Continue on an optional guided visit to Shukkei-en Garden, or explore this thriving modern metropolis—a testament to Japanese resilience—on your own.
Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima or Crowne Plaza Hotel (B,L)
Day 10 — Miyajima
Set off by ferry on a full-day excursion to Itsukushima Island, popularly called Miyajima. Explore the 12th-century Itsukushima Shinto shrine, a World Heritage site, then enjoy ample free time for hikes, visits to tiny temples, and a stroll through the picturesque town. Participate in a tea ceremony this afternoon, with opportunities to capture images of this iconic tradition. Stay to photograph the shrine’s iconic vermillion torii (wooden gateway) at high tide, when the torii and parts of the shrine appear to float on the sea. This evening, gather for a private farewell dinner and photograph the highly stylized movements of dancers clad in vivid costumes and expressive masks during a specially arranged Kagura performance.
Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima or Crowne Plaza Hotel (B,D)
Day 11 — Hiroshima/Osaka
Take the high-speed train from Hiroshima to Osaka, and continue by rapid train to Kansai International Airport for your flight home. (B)
Photographer Karen Kasmauski has produced 25 stories for National Geographic magazine on topics ranging from earthquakes in Japan to oil exploration in Alaska. Over the course of her career, she has traveled throughout Asia from India to Myanmar, Vietnam, Thailand, and China. Karen has photographed numerous stories on Japan, where she was born on the Yokosuka U.S. Naval Base. She finds the personal stories behind the headlines, blending a warm human sensitivity with a photographer’s eye for detail to distill global issues into resonant images. Karen's book Impact: From the
Front Lines of Global Health, published by National
Geographic, was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. Her book Nurse: A World of Care tells stories of dedicated medical professionals—“frontline soldiers” in the war against suffering and disease—from the frozen rivers of Alaska to the slums of Nairobi. The book earned awards from Communication Arts, Pictures of the Year, and the American Academy of Nursing. Her photographic work has appeared in numerous publications including Smithsonian and the New York Times. Karen was awarded the inaugural Getty Images Grant for Good, and she recently received a Knight Foundation Fellowship with which she earned a Masters in Visual Communication at Ohio University.
Travelers should be in good health and comfortable walking or standing for extended periods of time. Daily activities may include city walking tours, visits to sites, game drives, or easy hikes, with options for more physical activities such as hiking, kayaking, snorkeling and biking.
Click here for a description of all activity levels.
What To Expect
The Hotel Hikyonoyu and our Mount Koya temple lodging (Rengejo-in or Eko-in) are traditional
Japanese accommodations with futons set atop tatami
mats on the floor. We stay one night in a typical temple inn (Rengejo-in or Eko-in) with simple rooms, rice-paper sliding doors, and traditional Japanese-style shared bathrooms.