Japan Photo Expedition

  • 12-day journey with a renowned National Geographic photographer
  • Photograph temples, gardens, markets, and pilgrimage sites from Kyoto to Hiroshima
  • Explore Shikoku’s remote Iya Valley

Expedition Details


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 sunrise atop a sacred mountaintop and the thatched villages of Shikoku before traveling to Hiroshima, the island of Miyajima, and more.

Trip Highlights

  • Meet with geisha and photograph their traditional performance in Kyoto, and capture the vivid costumes and masks of Kagura dancers in Hiroshima.
  • Enjoy an exclusive photo shoot in the gardens of Saihoji, a temple draped in lush mosses.
  • Catch the sunrise at the ancient mountaintop pilgrimage site of Mount Koya and again on 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 - 12 Days

Days 1 & 2 — U.S./Kyoto, Japan

Fly to Osaka, cross the international date line, and arrive on Day 2. Transfer to Kyoto and settle into our hotel.
Kyoto Hotel Okura

Day 3 — Kyoto

Our exploration of Kyoto begins with some of the city’s most treasured temples and gardens, where photographic opportunities abound. Step into Ryoanji’s Zen rock garden as soon as it opens, for a chance to photograph the serene site before the crowds arrive. Then try out different perspectives of shimmering Kinkakuji, a UNESCO World Heritage site also known as the Temple of the Golden Pavilion. This afternoon, take a photo excursion to remote 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. 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 4 — Kyoto

This morning, our photo excursion depends on which sites are at their seasonal best: stroll the Philosopher’s Path along a canal lined with cherry trees if they are in bloom, or train your lens on the lines of swaying bamboo trees in Arashiyama’s atmospheric bamboo grove. 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. Conclude the afternoon with a chance to photograph paths lined with hundreds of vermilion torii gates at the Fushimi Inari Shrine.
Kyoto Hotel Okura (B,L,D)

Day 5 — Mount Koya

Travel to Mount Koya, headquarters of the Shingon Buddhist sect and a popular pilgrimage site. Meet one of the temple priests, and 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 see work by artists of the Kano school of painting. Settle into our simple lodgings at Rengejo-in, the first temple of Shingon Buddhism, and enjoy a traditional Buddhist vegetarian dinner.
Rengejo-In Monastery (B,L,D)

Day 6 — Mount Koya/Iya Valley

Rise early this morning for a sunrise photo shoot on this sacred mountain. 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, visit Ryozen-ji, the first stop along Shikoku’s 750-mile, 88-temple pilgrimage route. 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 7 — 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 8 — 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 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 the night is a photo op in itself: the cutting-edge Benesse House was designed by acclaimed architect Tadao Ando. This evening, catch the sunset on the island-dotted Inland Sea from our excellent vantage point at the hotel.
Benesse House (B,L,D)

Day 9 — Naoshima/Hiroshima

Early risers may go on a sunrise shoot overlooking the Inland Sea. Later, photograph 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. Ferry back to Honshu and take the high-speed train to Hiroshima.
Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima (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. In the evening, stay for sunset photographs of 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.
Rihga Royal Hotel Hiroshima (B,L)

Day 11 — Hiroshima

Pay a visit to Hiroshima’s Peace Memorial Park and Museum, which documents the atomic explosion that ravaged the city. This afternoon, go on an optional guided visit to Shukkei-en Garden, or explore this thriving modern metropolis—a testament to Japanese resilience—on your own. 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 (B,D)

Day 12 — Hiroshima/Osaka/U.S.

Take the high-speed train from Hiroshima to Osaka, and continue by rapid train to Kansai International Airport for your flight home.

Optional Extension

  • Tokyo - Post-Trip Extension, 4 Days

Related Trips

National Geographic Expert

Karen Kasmauski

Karen KasmauskiPhotographer 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 new 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.

Karen will join the following departure:

Apr 06 - 17, 2016



  • Apr 06 - 17, 2016 (waitlist only)
  • Nov 09 - 20, 2016 ALT

ALT indicates a departure that has a slightly different itinerary than the one shown on this page. Click the ALT icon to see the day-to-day itinerary.

Expedition Cost



Prices are per person, double occupancy. For a single room, add $1,795 in 2015 and $1,895 in 2016.

International airfare to/from Osaka is not included in the expedition cost.

In order to optimize photographic opportunities and allow for better access to our National Geographic photographer, we will limit these trips to 16 travelers beginning in 2016.

Featured Expedition Moment

What To Expect

The Rengejo-in and Hotel Hikyonoyu are traditional Japanese accommodations with futons set atop tatami mats on the floor. The Rengejo-in, where we stay one night, is a typical temple inn, with simple rooms, rice-paper sliding doors, and traditional Japanese-style shared bathrooms.