An important decision that you will have to make when it comes to visiting Japan is whether or not it will be better for you to take a guided tour for the amount of days that you will be in Japan, or if you want to discover the sights and sounds of the country at your own pace, on your own schedule.
If you are interested in guided tours – those that provide tours in English for most of your trip – the company to turn to is JTB. The largest travel agency in Japan and one of the largest in the world, JTB caters to Japanese natives and non-natives alike. They provide everything from short tours (half-day, full day, two or three days) to completely escorted (from airport to airport). One of their most popular completely escorted tours is the 6-day Scenic Japan course, which starts from 133,900 yen per person double occupancy. The tour focuses on Tokyo and Kyoto with a stop near Mount Fuji, Hakone and Nara along the way. Round-trip transfers to and from Narita Airport, round-trip bullet train transportation between Tokyo and Kyoto, hotel accomodations and guided tours are all included in the price, along with two lunches during the trip. JTB also offers tours based in Tokyo if you plan on staying only 4 days (from 61500 yen per person double occupancy), all the way up to the 14 day grand tour (from 382,000 yen per person double occupancy) which includes stops in Tokyo, Kamakura, Nikko, Mount Fuji, Hakone, Nagoya, Toba, Ise, Kyoto, Nara, Takayama, Shirakawago and Kanazawa. (phew!)
Obviously, the fact that your itinerary is planned for you – and you have no worries about it – is the good news.
Other tour companies, both public and private, offer a different range of tours. Private tours however tend to be on the more expensive side.
On the other hand, you could try what I’ve done on both of my trips to Japan – and that is to set your own itinerary. This allows for a lot of flexibility – you set your own rules, you choose your own hotels, and you choose your own destinations. This is good if you are looking to go to a certain destination that is not served by a tour, or if you are looking to meet up with people. The way I set up my itinerary is to figure out the places that I want to see, take into account the time that I have in the country, and make a schedule. As I make the schedule, I do research to find out what’s happening on that particular day. For example, on my second trip I found out that a shrine in Kotohira was going to begin its annual festival, so I made provisions to go to that shrine on the festival’s first day to watch the afternoon shrine maiden’s dance. (You can watch what I saw by viewing Episode 13 of my “Jose in Japan” video series.)
No matter what path you take, you will run into the problem of expenses. Guided tours are all-inclusive, with the longer tours including train and hotel accomodations, as well as round-trip airport transfers. When you’re on your own, you pay a-la-carte. The way to figure out what’s right for you is to do a side-by-side comparison of the tours, and their prices, compared to what you want to do, and how much it will cost you. You will want to figure in an allowance for meals and souvenirs in both cases.
If you are by yourself, tour companies like JTB charge single supplements for tours requiring overnight stays – which is one reason that you might want to set your own plans if you plan to travel solo.
If you are on your own, and you’ll be doing a lot of traveling, then you might want to consider a Japan Rail Pass, which is sold to foreigners and includes unlimited train travel on nearly all trains operated by Japanese Railways (JR) for a certain number of consecutive days. A 7-day ordinary pass (equivalent to tourist class) costs 28300 yen. But if I was you, and if I had the extra money to splurge, I would go for the Green Car (first class) pass. The seats are wider and more comfortable, and on the bullet train journeys you’ll get hot-towel service and several channels of audio at your seat (you need to bring your own headphones with a single jack, or buy some on board). Perfect listening to pass the time as you whiz along. (Granted, most of the audio will be in Japanese)
If you do plan to stay to your own schedule, you MIGHT want to figure in the shorter half-day or full-day JTB tours anyway. Some of the JTB tours offer trips to places that most foreigners don’t know about, or are hard for tourists to secure tickets to. One obvious example – JTB might be the only way for a tourist like you to EASILY secure lucrative seats to a Sumo wrestling tournament – which are held in Tokyo three times a year – or to go to conventions like the World Cosplay Summit. JTB, and another private tour guide – Peter MacIntosh of Kyoto Sights and Nights – offer tours in Kyoto that will allow you to meet actual Geisha and Maiko (apprentice Geisha). (Click here to watch one of the hosts of the Australian travel show “The Great Outdoors” dine and drink with Peter and the Geisha)
Finally it doesn’t hurt to make friends with actual Japanese people, or know some friends that have actually traveled to Japan, or have even lived there. Their suggestions for places to visit and dine – places that only they themselves know – will always be your best bet.