Phone: 808-922-2211
Tour 05/17/2024

Spotlight On: Japan Art + Culture Tour 2024

Written by Nichole Bowen

The Kiyotsu Gorge “Tunnel of Light” is one of the many large scale installations you’ll see on the Art + Culture Tour!

New for 2024! Our Japan Art + Culture Tour is for those who seek to explore the road less traveled. Delve through the mountains of Hakone and Minakami, past lush Yamanashi, through the sprawling fields of Niigata, and over the deep blue Sea of Japan to Sado Island. As you travel through each space, try unique activities and experiences that highlight Japan’s diverse regional culture, fostered through handicrafts passed down over centuries of history. 

Can’t wait to hear more? Keep reading for an exclusive peek at the amazing adventure we’ll have this fall on our Japan Art + Culture Tour 2024!

An adventure must start somewhere! Our journey begins when we meet at Honolulu Airport (HNL) at the Japan Airlines check-in counter. That’s right! As long as you can make your way to the airport, you can rest easy knowing you’ll be guided for the entire rest of the trip. Nothing to worry about here!

We’ll make our way through security and have ample time to relax at the Lea Lea Lounge, an exclusive lounge for guests of HIS. Located in the Chinese Gardens, you can take it easy in some big, comfy lounge chairs, away from the hustle and bustle of the airport.

Big, comfy chairs at the LeaLea Lounge at HNL — way better than the regular seats at the airport!

The best part? Grab yourself a snack and even a drink while we wait for our flight to depart! When I was there last, I enjoyed some tea and a homemade lemon cake. But don’t worry! There’s plenty of alcoholic beverages for those who want a little extra help to relax on the plane. 🍺🍷

Free beverages at the LeaLea Lounge!

Sorry! We can’t stay relaxing in our lovely lounge forever — We have a plane to catch! Next, we’ll board our direct flight to Tokyo’s Haneda Airport. The plane features in-flight entertainment at each seat, plus two meals. Now, this is a ten hour flight, so we totally understand if you want to spring on those lay-flat business class seats! If you’re looking to upgrade, just ask our staff, and we’ll be more than happy to assist you.

Once we land in Tokyo, we’ll go through immigration and pick up our bags. Our local guide will be waiting for us as we exit, and after a quick orientation and introduction, we’ll move along to a light dinner at a local restaurant. After such a long flight, we’ll definitely be tired, so we’ll depart for our hotel (Keio Plaza or similar) right after dinner is finished. Then, we’ll get some well-deserved rest to get ready for our adventure ahead!

After a deluxe breakfast at our hotel (have you tried Japanese breakfasts? To die for!), we’ll head to the mountainous onsen town known as Hakone. This town is built on a semi-active volcano, Owakudani, that offers sulfurous hot springs, said to be delightful for the skin and completely unique to this area.

During the Edo Period, Hakone served as a crucial stop along the Tokaido Highway, the main road connecting Edo (now Tokyo) and Kyoto. Weary travelers would rest and rejuvenate in Hakone’s hot springs, such as the renowned Hakone Yumoto Onsen, making it a vital waypoint on their arduous journey between Japan’s two most influential cities. Now, we can feel like the travelers of the Edo Period, as Hakone serves as our first pivotal rest stop after all the travelling we did yesterday!

Hakone Open-Air Sculpture Museum

“The Weeper” 1986, found right after the entrance at Hakone Open-Air Sculpture Museum

Our first destination on the list is the Hakone Open-Air Sculpture Museum, a collection of sculptures juxtaposed against the great sprawling mountains beyond. This spot is beautiful in any season, but autumn is a truly a season to behold. One of my personal favorite places on the entire planet, this is a place where the entwinement of nature and humanity shines through in every piece. The pictures are great, but just wait until you see these pieces in person!

“Miss Black Power” 1968, nestled within the autumnal landscape

As we stroll through the grass and by the creeks, we’ll get some crisp, fresh autumn air, and marvel at the surreal sculptures surrounded by nature — the perfect kick-off to our Art + Culture Tour!

Hakone Ropeway and Owakudani Volcanic Area

You can’t visit Hakone without checking out the amazing views. Luckily, the town offers a ropeway right up the mountain and into the Owakudani Volcanic Area! Getting on this ropeway and embarking over the billowing sulfuric steam vents is like a scene from Mars. It is truly an otherworldly sight to behold! Plus, you may just get a chance to see snow-capped Mt. Fuji on a clear day.

The Hakone Ropeway — check out those views of Mt. Fuji!

Don’t forget to try a “kuro-tamago”! These black eggs are boiled in Owakudani’s sulfurous water, giving them a rich, smoky flavor. Not only are they delicious, but kuro-tamago are said to add seven years to your life! I’ll take ten!

Hakone’s famous kuro-tamago, or “black egg”. Will you try one?

Lake Ashi

Next, we’ll head to Lake Ashi, where you can enjoy a soothing pirate boat ride (yes, you read that right!). This peaceful cruise over this alpine lake has comfortable seats near the window for viewing the surrounding landscapes. There are three model pirate boats, but don’t worry! No pirates are included on the ride.

On clear days, you can also get beautiful views of the stunning Mt. Fuji, like below! Plus, there are drinks and snacks available to purchase on-board should you feel inclined.

Lake Ashi pirate ship ride — Ahoy matey!

After we delight our eyes with those stunning views, we’ll head to our ryokan, or traditional Japanese inn (Susuki no Hara Ichi no Yu or similar), where our taste buds will be singing for a deluxe kaiseki dinner. If you haven’t had a kaiseki dinner at a ryokan, this is an experience you will not want to miss! Not only that, but every room will have its own private onsen! That means you can soak off the day in completely discrete serenity. If you have any lingering aching muscles from the plane ride yesterday, that tension will absolutely melt away when you hit Hakone’s soothing waters.

After a tasty traditional Japanese breakfast at the ryokan, we’ll make one more stop in Hakone before heading north. Yesterday, we saw how Hakone’s modern art blended seamlessly with the surrounding nature, and, today, we’ll take a step back in time.

Yosegi-Zaiku Craft Experience

Hakone Yosegi-Zaiku marquetry! Look at that craftmanship!

Today we’ll try our hand at Hakone Yosegi Zaiku, an Edo period marquetry woodworking practice in which different grains, colors, and textures of local wood are brought together to create beautiful mosaics. As beginners, we’ll start with making simple coasters, but masters make complex decorative items such as picture frames, vases, and jewelry boxes!

Yamanashi Winery

After all that handiwork, I need a drink! And what better way to celebrate culture than a glass of wine?

Anni e bicchieri di vino non si contano mai – Italian Proverb. “Age and glasses of wine should never be counted”!

Vineyards may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think about Japan, but, indeed, several wineries have been popping up over the country, putting their own spin on the time-tested techniques borrowed from the wine regions of Europe. We’ll get to see just how Japanese wine is made, complete with a tasting! How do you think it will compare to a California chardonnay?

Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza

After we rest for a bit at our hotel (Karuizawa Prince Hotel or similar), we’ll have some free time to explore the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza — and this isn’t just any shopping mall! The plaza is in a beautiful landscaped setting, so you can enjoy greenery and a beautiful lake while you shop at premium outlets! Think of it like Japan’s version of Ala Moana Shopping Center.

Ever seen a shopping mall in such a gorgeous setting?

This plaza has a wealth of options for dining, and we want you to enjoy exactly what you’d like, so you’ll take dinner on your own tonight at one of the many wonderful restaurants available. Not sure where to go? Ask our local guide for a recommendation!

Shop until you drop, and then drop right into the onsen. That’s right — this hotel has an onsen too! Soak away some of that buyer’s remorse from all that shopping you did, and we’ll see you tomorrow!

Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale

It’s the day we’ve all been waiting for — Today, we get an entire day to explore the highlights of the Echigo-Tsumari Art Field!

Similar to the works at the Hakone Open-Air Sculpture Museum on Day 2, these works explore the relationship between nature and humanity. However, instead of being confined to one place, this festival spans vast rural landscapes, and features over 200 works by artists from around the globe. The Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennale aims to breathe new life into the region, which is suffering the effects of depopulation, through art. Showcasing installations, sculptures, and performances that interact with nature, local communities, and even the audience themselves, it allows visitors to immerse themselves in this unique fusion of art, culture, and nature by creating a dialogue between art and the rural environment.

Sado Island

Full steam ahead to Sado Island! This large island off the coast of Niigata, being separated from mainland Japan, has a rich history and culture that isn’t quite found anywhere else. If you were looking for a tour more off the beaten path, away from all the typical tourist spots, this is where you’ll really have some fun! Today and tomorrow will be spent exploring this beautiful and unique island.

Senkakuwan Bay, Sado Island

Fun fact: Sado Island is an area that became a game changer in repopulating the Crested Ibis, or “Toki”, population. These elegant birds were once widespread throughout Japan and parts of China, but, due to the effects of hunting and habit loss, became critically endangered and were even thought to be extinct in the wild. Since conservation efforts began, spearheaded by Sado Island, the Crested Ibis has seen a great resurgence in population. Today, you can see them hunting for food in the fields right next to the main roads of Sado or flying proudly in the sky. Do you think you’ll see a Toki?

Ferry Ride to Sado Island

Hope you didn’t forget your sailor’s shoes on the Lake Ashi pirate ship! Sado Island is about two and a half hours away by ferry, so it’s time to sit back, relax, and enjoy this marvelous ship!

Big comfy recliner chairs — time to relax!

The Sado Kisen ferry boasts an observation deck, a snack and drink stand (yes, there’s alcohol!), a wall of gacha machines, and even an arcade! There are also large comfy seats with plenty of legroom, complete with free WiFi, so if you manage to get tired of all the ferry’s awesome facilities, you can always just sit down with a snack and watch some Netflix on the way over.

Grab a beer and a snack while you watch the waves pass by!

Tarai-bune Tub Boat Ride

Ever heard of a tarai-bune? Translated to “wash basin boat”, these circular wooden vessels were used all over coastal Niigata to fish, transport goods, and collect things like seaweed and shellfish. Their round shape allowed them to be resistant to capsizing in rough waters, while their hollow body and light material made them easy to get on and off land. Their shallow build also allowed them to get close to shores and rocky coastlines without beaching.

The women who navigate the boats are known as tarai bune onna, or “tub boat women”

The attendants might make it look easy, but driving these boats is actually much harder than it looks! When I tried, I just went around in circles😩! Do you think you can master the tarai-bune?

Guide the boat by moving an upright wooden oar back and forth — it’s harder than it looks!

Shukunegi Fishing Village

Now that we’ve seen how they got around, it’s time to see how local fisherman lived their daily lives in the Shukunegi Fishing Village.

This is called Triangle Street because the building it surrounds is shaped like a triangle rather than the typical rectangle!

During the Edo Period, this village was a thriving hub for maritime activity, including fishing and shipbuilding. It is characterized by its unique architecture, featuring tightly packed wooden houses with dark cedar siding, that tower over winding streets and narrow alleys. Most notably, many of the residents at the time built their roofs with patterns of large stones nailed down to hold it all together. Keep your eyes peeled, and you might still see some of these rocky roofs today!

Hotel Oosado

Hot tip: We’ll be on the west coast of Sado Island, so try to catch the sunset over the beautiful Sea of Japan if you can!

Good morning! It’s time for a deluxe breakfast buffet at the hotel — eat up because we have a full day of Sado Island fun ahead of us!

That ridge you see in the mountain is manmade! That’s where gold miners drilled deep into the mountain to find ores!

Sado Island Gold Mine

Yesterday, we explored Sado’s maritime culture, and today we’ll dive deep into the mountains and delve into Sado’s sparkling other half — the Sado Island Gold Mines. Sado has, quite literally, a very rich history surrounding these mines, which drove Sado’s economy as it provided gold and silver for the Edo period Shogunates. Not only that, but Sado Island was the only place in Japan that mined, processed, and even minted its gold and silver for trade. The gold trade contributed significantly to the Shogunate’s revenue, and, thus, only the most deserving officials were sent to oversee the mines and processing plants.

Prisoners used to be sent from mainland Japan to work the Sado mines! But don’t worry — only replicas remain today.

The mines were closed with the fall of the Tokugawa Shogunate as the government’s focus shifted, and were only reopened briefly during the Meiji period before closing again. With efforts to preserve culturally significant historical sites, the Sado Gold Mines were made a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2010. Today, visitors can still visit the mines and former processing plants to step back in time and feel like an important Shogunate official themselves!

What kind of design will you make out of gold?

Oni Taiko Drum Experience

You may have hard of taiko drums, but you probably haven’t seen them quite like this! Although Sado Island was certainly connected to mainland Japan due to its vital role in the economy, it was separated just enough that it developed several unique cultural traditions that are found nowhere else in Japan. One of these is called oni taiko, roughly translated to “demon drums”.

In oni taiko, not only do performers present spectacular drumming, but they also don demon masks and dance around the drums in complex, robust movements that echo the power of the drums. These dances are meant to tell the story of Sado Island’s history and folklore. Today, we’ll watch a demonstration of these dynamic performances at the Sadoya Nippon Culture Center, and then we’ll get to try it out for ourselves! Do you think you’ll prefer drumming or dancing?

Obata Sake Brewery Tour + Tasting

Niigata is said to make the best sake in the world, and Sado Island is no exception. Fresh mountain water, fertile lands for growing delicious rice, and time-tested traditions combine to make the most spectacular varietals. It wouldn’t be a Japan culture tour without some sake, so we’ll get to visit at a few different places for sake tasting along our tour — And Obata Sake Brewery is our first stop!

Here, sake has been brewed for generations, and we’ll get to see the process of brewing itself, from rice polishing to fermentation and bottling. The factory tour saves the best for last — a tasting of Obata’s many varieties of sake! Many of the brews we’ll be tasting are unavailable anywhere else in the world, even the rest of Japan, so make sure to stock up in the gift shop!

Tasting time!

We’ll finish our day by returning to our Sado home base — Hotel Oosado. Here, we’ll enjoy a deluxe buffet dinner at the hotel. And if you didn’t get to take a dip in the onsen yesterday, don’t miss your chance today!

Ferry back to Niigata

After fueling up on a buffet breakfast at the hotel, we’ll head straight to the port and bid goodbye to Sado Island. If you didn’t get enough sleep last night, don’t worry! The ferry ride is about two and a half hours, so you’ll have plenty of time for a nap on the way back to the mainland.

Why not try out the Sado Kisen game room?


Oh boy, will this be a treat! As we learned yesterday, sake is a critical part of Niigata’s culture — to the point that Niigata Station has its own sake museum — Welcome to Ponshukan!

Over 200 varieties of regional sake to taste!!

Those who have tried every single sake at Ponshukan get their names on the wall… Is it time to lay our claim to fame here at Ponshukan?!

Geigi Performance

You’ve definitely heard of geisha, but do you know what a geigi is? These are Niigata’s regional geisha, with their own sets of customs and traditions. While the Kyoto-style geisha have been around since the 17th century, Niigata geigi actually started emerging as late as the 19th century. At the time, Niigata had developed into a wealthy port city, a crucial stop between Osaka and Sapporo. Businessmen and local officials sought the company of geisha entertainment in their own town, and, soon, hundreds of geigi were entertaining in Furumachi teahouses, banquet halls, and restaurants.

Geigi performing a traditional dance to the shamisen

Many say that the Niigata geigi are friendlier and less rigid than the geisha in Kyoto — You might even get invited to play a drinking game! Will you win against the trained geigi?

Tsubame City Industrial Museum + Metalwork Experience

Not only is Niigata known for its sake, but the Tsubame region is also famous for metalwork! If you’ve got a chef in the family, you may have heard about Japanese knife craftwork, and Tsubame is one of the places you can find these incredible tools!

And the best part? We’ll get to do some metalworking of our own! Here, visitors can hammer designs into cups or bowls or color a spoon using titanium oxidation, all under the guidance of a professional. I can’t wait to show my family the spoon I made when I get home!


To finish the day, we’ll make our way to Minakami, a beautiful, mountainous onsen town. Here, we’ll settle into our hotel (Hotel Juraku or similar), enjoy a deluxe dinner, and — that’s right! — get another chance to relax in the soothing hot spring waters. Our skin will be absolutely glowing after this trip!

Apple Picking at Fruits Land Mogitore

Good morning! I hope you didn’t spoil your appetite at that incredible breakfast buffet because we’re about to go on an all-you-can-eat apple picking adventure! Fruits Land Mogitore in Minakami has over 65 square kilometers dedicated to growing fruits for picking in every season — even winter! Today we’ll get to pick their big, juicy apples and eat them to our heart’s content!

How many of these fresh, delicious apples do you think you can eat?

Takumi no Sato Craft Village

What would an Art + Culture tour be without some traditional craft experiences? Welcome to Takumi no Sato, or “Craftsman’s Village”, a cultural center dedicated to preserving and promoting traditional Japanese crafts. Situated in a scenic area surrounded by nature, visitors can try out an array of time-honored crafting traditions such as washi papermaking, lacquerware, indigo dyeing, weaving, painting and glass etching.

One of the many craft houses in Takumi no Sato

This area is particularly fond of straw weaving. In fact, large straw sculptures, known as wara, in the shapes of figures and animals can be found scattered throughout the town. Keep your eyes peeled for the famous dinosaur wara!


At long last, it’s time to circle back and return to Japan’s cultural hub — Tokyo. A Japan Art + Culture Tour wouldn’t be complete without a visit to the big city — a culmination of all the history and tradition we’ve learned brought forward to the modern world.

Yokoso! Welcome to Tokyo!

But we’ve done enough adventuring for one day! Let’s go back to the hotel (Keio Plaza or similar) and relax for awhile. Tomorrow is our free day, so take some time to consider what you might like to do!

Free day in Tokyo

A full day to explore the city! Set your own schedule and shop, dine, and sightsee as you’d like.

Try the Yakata-bune Dinner Cruise!
  • Traditional Yakata-bune Dinner Cruise on Tokyo Bay
  • Sumo Experience & Chanko Nabe Lunch
  • Tokyo morning tour: Exploring Meiji Shrine, Shibuya, Imperial Palace East Gardens and Asakusa
  • Professional Sushi Chef Experience
  • Japanese Calligraphy Experience
  • Shamisen Experience
  • Mt. Fuji & Hakone Day Tour from Tokyo

Can’t wait to join one of these awesome activities? They can sell out, so just make sure to ask one of our HIS agents to help you book ahead of time!

No bus or guide provided on this day.

After our final deluxe Japanese hotel breakfast buffet, you’ll have a free morning to do any last minute sightseeing or omiyage shopping. Then, we’ll meet in the afternoon for our final stop on the Japan Art + Culture Tour — teamLab Borderless!

Become a part of the art at a teamLab exhibit!

Finally, we’ll head to Haneda Airport about three hours prior to departure. This should give us a little bit of time to do any last minute shopping (“Oh no! I forgot to buy Tokyo Banana for Auntie Carol!”). Then, we’ll board our direct flight on Japan Airlines and arrive back in Honolulu on the morning of October 7th (Hello time travelers!). Pick up your luggage and head home with some incredible memories!

Thank you so much on embarking on this adventure with us! We hope you feel enriched, enlivened, and inspired by this once-in-a-lifetime trip!

Have questions or want more information? Give us a call at 922-2211 and our friendly staff members will be happy to help you, or use our convenient inquiry form. We can’t wait to see you this autumn for the Japan Art + Culture Tour!