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Japan



There is no country in the world like it.


Japan is a remarkable, incredibly varied and diverse country stretching over 3,000 km from the quasi-Siberian snowscapes of Hokkaido to the subtropical beaches and mangrove forests of Okinawa.


Over 70% of its terrain is mountainous and contains one-tenth of the world’s active volcanoes.


Each region is totally unique and will provide a never-ending list of things to see, experiences to be had and tastes to savour; and the Japanese themselves are some of the most charming, gracious, hospitable people you’ll ever meet.



I have barely scratched the surface with a visit in my days at sea that gave glimpses into Kobe, Tokyo, Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Having regularly been sending clients to Japan over recent years, I have learned that many like to take a comprehensive and well-organised tour - something that is most definitely on my list too.


Depending on personal interests and available time, there are lots of ways to construct an exciting schedule for the first-time visitor.


Here are some of the most requested activities and experiences you would be wise to seek out...

 

Gastronomy tours



From the finest Michelin starred restaurants to the most informal of izakaya (Japanese pubs), you won’t go hungry.


An overview of the foodie scene with a local expert is a must-do; whether it’s a street food tour or an izakaya night, they’ll introduce you to the very best places and help to navigate the menu. Be prepared to return home with an insatiable taste for Japanese food!



Meet a maiko (apprentice geisha)



Few Japanese experiences are as special as meeting a maiko. While elusive, these trainee geishas are recognisable for their elaborate kanzashi (hair ornaments) and striking patterned kimonos.


Becoming a geisha requires years of intense training in traditional performing arts.


Many Japanese people will never get the opportunity to meet one of these performers, but with the right connections to okiya (geisha houses), meetings can be organised with live music, dancing and drinking games too.



Hot spring baths



If you thought Japan’s lush green paddies and rolling mountains were beautiful, wait until you relax in an onsen (hot spring bath). Forget wild swimming, nature’s own hot tubs with steaming turquoise waters are for wild soaking and there are thousands across the country.



Snow monkeys



Lazy afternoons in the onsen aren’t just for humans. In Yudanaka Onsen, groups of Japanese macaques, or snow monkeys, take respite from harsh winters in their very own hot spring baths. Nothing deters them from taking a dip, so visitors are welcome to walk to the clearing and snap them in action (or inaction!).



Unique accommodation



There’s no shortage of Western-style accommodation in Japan, but for something different, a night or two at an authentic ryokan (inn) is a must.


They feature traditional interiors, including sliding paper doors and tatami mat floors, along with delicate multi-course dinners and private onsen.

Those interested in getting in touch with their spiritual side should swap the frenetic city life with serene temple lodgings.


Mount Koya is a calm and secluded monastic retreat where you can stay in a shukubo, with tatami mat floors, beautifully presented vegetarian meals and an opportunity to join monks in meditation.



Beautiful gardens


Kenroku-en
Kenroku-en

Gardens are serious business and the perfect antidote to the modern skyscraper strewn Japanese cities. They are curated and cultivated to exceptional standards.


Expect pretty pagodas, lily ponds, vibrant flowers, wooden bridges, tea houses, Zen rock gardens, waterfalls and streams of koi carp.



Sumo stables


The image of two large loincloth-clad wrestlers battling it out is unmistakably Japanese.


Becoming a sumo wrestler takes several years of tough training at a heya, or stable, where they eat, sleep and train.


Tournaments take place regularly, but for a unique experience, get up early and watch the wrestlers’ gruelling schedule at a Tokyo stable.



The outdoors


Kamikochi National Park
Kamikochi National Park

Japan has magnificent national parks containing everything from snow-capped peaks to colourful fields of flowers, so whether you’re an active hiker or you prefer an easy-going bike ride, there’s plenty of reasons to venture out and explore.



Take the train



In Japan, public transport is a revered way to travel and huge importance is given to making journeys as efficient and pleasant as possible. None more so than by taking the train.


There’s no need to struggle with large suitcases with a reliable luggage forwarding service at your disposal to ensure belongings are waiting at your destination.


The Shinkansen bullet train stylishly glides between stations, reaching speeds of up to 200mph and is a fantastic way to get across the country.


Grab a bento box (the perfect bullet train snack), sit back and watch the scenery go by.



Experience the different seasons


Each season in Japan has its own unique charm and personality:

Winter (December to February)



Although equally beautiful as at any other time of year, winter isn’t peak travelling season and with tourist hotspots far less busy, it’s a great time to visit for keen photographers.


Crisp clear skies undoubtedly make it the best time to see Japan’s tallest mountain, Mt Fuji, which tends to stay hidden behind clouds for much of the rest of the year.


Winter sports enthusiasts will also find Japan home to some of the world’s best powder conditions.


Spring (March to May)



Spring of course brings the famous cherry blossoms that turn the trees into canopies of pink, where you can join the locals at sake-fuelled picnic parties. Coinciding a trip with peak blooming is always a gamble but a two-week adventure at the end of March or the start of April covering the main island of Honshu shouldn’t disappoint.


The cherry blossoms are a big draw, so accommodation tends to be more expensive during this period and be prepared that many tourist landmarks can get crowded.


Summer (June to September)



Japanese summer is hot and humid with a little rain at times in the early months but don’t let that deter you. Summer sees a packed programme of colourful and animated festivals that involve traditional dances, parades, floats, food stalls and fireworks with everyone dressed in yukata (summer kimonos).


July and August are the only months of the year when Mt Fuji is open to hikers.



Autumn (October & November)



Colourful leaves are to the Japanese autumn what the cherry blossoms are to its spring. The landscape bursts into shades of russet reds and browns as the “koyo front” sweeps down the entire length of the country.


Rows of yellow ginko and crimson maple trees line the city streets and the magnificent hues of autumn provide a perfect backdrop for temples, shrines, country hikes and hundreds of photo opportunities.

 

I can build any of these into a tailor-made or escorted tour itinerary with the brilliant Japanese specialists, InsideJapan Tours.


I have carefully selected a sample itinerary below, called Classic Japan, perfect for first-time visitors to illustrate the type of trip I would recommend.



This is a 13-night tour collecting the best of Japan's classic cultural and natural locations and is offered as a small group. It can also be organised on a private basis.


It features authentic experiences such as:


  • Japan's historic capital, Kyoto - the “City of Ten Thousand Temples”, where you will enjoy a private afternoon tea with a maiko

  • The modern metropolis of Tokyo including a Sumida River cruise and a stroll in the peaceful Hamarikyu Gardens

  • Hakone reached by Bullet train, visiting the Open-Air Museum and Fuji-Hakone National Park (and if you're lucky) spectacular views of Mount Fuji and experience a hot spring bath

  • Osaka – food heaven plus step inside samurai era history at Osaka Castle

  • The alpine craft town of Takayama in the Japanese Alps, exploring traditional houses at the Hida No Sato folk museum and experiencing a ryokan dinner

  • Kamikochi, visiting the stunning national park of Chubu Sangaku, hiking along the Azusa River plus enjoying the area's superb onsen baths


Tea with a Maiko in Kyoto
Tea with a Maiko in Kyoto

Important Tour Information


  • Group Size: 4 – 14

  • Single Supplement: Single rooms are guaranteed at all night stops on this tour through payment of a mandatory single supplement.

  • If you choose to travel in July or August, you will also have the option to climb Mount Fuji.

  • A tour leader will accompany and guide you throughout, ensuring getting the best from the tour.

  • The tour leader will be staying at the first hotel for two nights before the tour commences so will be available for advice if you choose to book pre-tour nights. I do recommend booking at least one extra night to check-in and relax before the tour begins.

  • Fitness: Even when not using public transport, sightseeing in Japan often involves walking between sights, climbing up steps in temples and being 'on the go' for much of the day. To maximise enjoyment, you should be of moderate fitness and able to walk and climb stairs without difficulty.

  • Transport: Most transfers are by public transport making use of Japan's first-rate transport network. This tour uses a mixture of trains, taxis, public buses, boats, as well as private coaches for some transfers and sightseeing.

  • Accommodation: Please note that in some traditional accommodations, fully private en suite facilities may not be available. The tour will do its best to secure rooms with private toilet and sink however some accommodations are not able to offer private bathing facilities. Shared facilities (when included) will always be separated by gender.

  • Please note that in Japan, twin rooms are very much the norm so a double may not be available in every hotel on this tour.

  • International Flights: This tour starts and finishes in Tokyo for arrivals and departures at Tokyo, Narita or Haneda. The included meet-and-greet and airport transfer to the first hotel are ONLY available from these two airports.


Cherry blossom
Cherry blossom

What is included in the price?


  • Full-time services of your tour leader

  • 13 nights' accommodation

  • Breakfast every day and eight evening meals

  • Your Info-Pack

  • Seven-day Japan Rail Pass

  • IC transport card with 4,500 yen credit for city transport

  • Three-day Hakone Free Pass for transport in the Hakone region

  • Private coach from Takayama to Kamikochi; bus and trains from Kamikochi to Tokyo

  • Full day private guide in Kyoto with private bus

  • Afternoon tea with a maiko in Kyoto

  • Entrance to Kiyomizu Temple and Yasaka Shrine in Kyoto

  • Entrance to the Hida no Sato folk village in Takayama

  • Entrance to Osaka Castle

  • Tickets to Hakone Open-Air Museum

  • Sumida river bus ride and entrance to Hamarikyu Gardens in Tokyo

  • Luggage forwarding from Tokyo to Osaka and from Takayama to Tokyo

  • Shared portable Wi-Fi access throughout the trip

  • Arrival and departure transfers by shared shuttle bus


What's NOT included?


  • International flights

  • Any local transport unless covered by the included transport passes

  • Entrance fees (including temples, shrines and museums) unless otherwise specified

  • Baggage handling and luggage forwarding unless otherwise specified - you will be expected to carry your own luggage.


This is about getting a hands-on experience and an insight into what life in Japan is about whilst seeing great sights, eating delicious food and enjoying good company.


There are other tour options available depending on personal interests and if you are an independent traveller, you can still be accommodated with a tailor-made itinerary to suit.

Whatever option, I know Japan will amaze and one trip may not be enough.


Kyoto
Kyoto

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