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Nine days, three cities, and countless bowls of ramen. Lonely Planet Experiences Japan Express tour powered by Intrepid Travel takes a leaf out of the bullet train’s book by covering vast terrain with supreme efficiency. 

Sure, we’d all like to spend a few weeks (okay, months) in Japan but if time is of the essence, then joining a tour is a clever way to drink in Japan’s cultural, culinary and historic highlights without wasting a drop. After all, this is a nation famous for championing time-saving creations like bullet trains, vending machines and convenience stores. When in Rome…

Someone wearing a bright yellow raincoat stands with their back to the camera, looking up at the colourful signs in the electronic town district of Akihabara, Tokyo.
Tokyo can be overwhelming for new visitors © Marco Bottigelli/Getty Images

First stop: Tokyo

Upon arrival, Tokyo is the kind of city that gives you butterflies in your stomach. A neon-lit metropolis filled with promise, Japan’s capital presents a dilemma for travellers: just how do you tackle it? Joining a tour takes the guess work out of the equation by providing a blueprint. On the first night, our group breaks the ice at an izakaya recommended by our trusty leader. Japan’s answer to a pub, we join ‘salarymen’ downing after-work lagers and soon feel like old (albeit jetlagged) friends.

A booking icon for the Japan Express tour by Lonely Planet Experiences

Over the next three days, Tokyo’s highlights reel is played in high-definition technicolour. We stroll through Yoyogi-kōen (a sprawling green space smack-bang in the middle of the city), scramble across the famous Shibuya crossing (an intersection considered the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing), and geek-out over the anime-themed cafes and gadget stores of the dazzling Akihabara district.

A tiny alley crowded with night bars and clubs in Shinjuku, Tokyo at night
The food scene in Shinjuku is renowned worldwide for good reason © Jon Arnold Images Ltd/Alamy Stock Photo

I discover that some of Japan’s best food is found underground. Department store food halls (known as depachika) are a food scene within themselves, and Shinjuku Takashimaya has one of the city’s best. There’s mochi (little rice cakes), Paris-worthy pastries, fancy fruit that comes with an equally fancy price tag and a KitKat store selling limited edition flavours (the jury’s still out on corn flavoured KitKats).

We also visit hyped-up Harajuku, a pop cultural wonderland that’s home to Insta-famous desserts like oversized rainbow-tinged fairy floss and towering soft serve ice creams that defy the laws of gravity.

Travelling with a local guide is a bit like having a fast-pass at a theme park. He shows us shortcuts to getting around, points out the best places to eat, and explains the ins and outs of Japanese culture (like deciphering the buttons on Japan’s high-tech toilets). I’d be lost without him (figuratively and literally).

A red bridge spans a river and is surrounded by autumnal foliage in Nikko, Japan
The calm beauty of Nikko awaits you after the whirlwind of Tokyo © Nopasorn Kowathanakul/Getty Images

Next stop: Nikkō 

After the sensory overload of Tokyo, we switch gears and head to Nikkō. Located in the mountainous Tochigi prefecture, Nikko’s lakes, waterfalls, and hot springs are a welcome change of pace.

The train to Nikko takes two hours and while it’s not a bullet train, it’s still an efficient affair. With carte blanche to do whatever I want, I visit Tōshō-gū shrine, a forest-fringed Shinto complex. Decorated with gold leaf and intricate carvings, it’s easy to lose track of time in this enchanting place, originally built during the Edo period.

Paradoxically, the key to nailing group travel is spending time on your own. It’s important to find the sweet spot between having buddies to belt out nineties power ballads with in karaoke clubs and also having enough ‘me time’. It’s a hard balancing act to nail, but this tour gets it right.

The following day we set off on a group hike to Senjōgahara Shizen-kenkyu-rō, a scenic spot where mountain, waterfall and lake views max out our camera memory cards. Nikko is just that photogenic.

A couple crouching down in a street covered with cherry blossoms to look at the petals in Kyoto
Kyoto during cherry blossom season is a wonder to behold © James Gabriel Martin

Final stop: Kyoto

One of Japan’s superpowers is elevating unremarkable things to stratospheric levels of awesome. This is certainly the case when riding the shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto. Before boarding, I’m overwhelmed by the train station eats on offer. After fawning over the range of ekiben (beautifully packaged bento box meals), I board the train and enjoy the seriously smooth, three-hour ride to Japan’s former capital.

Kyoto is a history book come to life, with thousands of temples, shrines and gardens just made for exploring. Fushimi Inari-Taisha is the most famous (and busiest) thanks to its thousands of red torii (shrine gates). It’s crowded when we visit, but it’s one of those deeply atmospheric places you really can’t miss.

With freedom to explore, I take my time savouring matcha in teahouses, and buying handcrafted ceramics from pottery studios. A walking tour of Gion reveals geisha history and one fortuitous (although brief) sighting of a kimono-clad geisha turning a corner before disappearing down an alley.

A tour boat sails down the canal past the Heian Shrine lined with cherry blossom and other trees in Kyoto on a sunny day
The Heian Shrine is one of the many cultural attractions on offer in Kyoto © Richie Chan/Shutterstock

By night, some of the group splash out on a traditional kaiseki dinner (a multi-course, seasonal meal), others line up for the best ramen in town and some grab some onigiri from a 7-Eleven. From lauded restaurants to ramen joints and convenience stores – all are legit and tasty options in Japan.

On our final night, we celebrate with a group dinner at a tiny, no-fuss eatery known for serving unforgettable tofu. If it weren’t for our guide, we’d never have found it. Thanks to the city’s strong Buddhist heritage, exceptional vegetarian fare is everywhere in Kyoto, a place awash in artisanal tofu.

My time in Japan passes like a pub quiz lightning round, with the clock ticking as soon as the aircraft wheels hit the tarmac. After nine days, my time is up, but my matcha bowl is full.

Lonely Planet Experiences, in partnership with Intrepid Travel & Urban Adventures, are a new range of mutli-day, day and half-day tours offering amazing experiences in the world’s best-loved destinations. Or, jump directly to this Japan tour and book your next experience now.

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