Trip Report: Essence of Japan April 9, 2023

Just returned from Essence of Japan early yesterday morning. It was a delightful trip led by the best TD, Larry Abbott. We were a group of 21 terrific travelers, with everyone getting along and always on time. This is a long report, so settle down with your favorite beverage!!

My two friends and I arrived a day early to Haneda Airport. We got through customs and immigration easily, because we had our QR codes printed and ready to go. Be sure to visit JAPAN WEB a several weeks before to upload everything needed. We were met by our Tauck rep and driven to the Park Hyatt in Shinjuku. We had a light dinner in the hotel French restaurant that evening. If you plan to dine at the NY steak restaurant at the Park Hyatt, make the reservations well before you go. We could not get in when there.

The first morning, even before our welcome reception our TD offered a walk into the Shinjuku section of Tokyo to get our bearings, which was appreciated. Our welcome dinner was very nice, with a demonstration by two Sumo wrestlers, who almost fell into my lap!! The Park Hyatt is lovely, with beautiful rooms and a wonderful breakfast. Tokyo is huge, with 14 million people, tons of high rises and traffic.

On our first day of touring we visited the Meiji Shrine and garden with our wonderful local guide, Harumi-san….she was conversational and well spoken in her knowledge. We toured the local Tsukiji market, full of fresh fish, seafood and veggies/ fruit. Japan is THE MOST IMPECCABLY CLEAN country I have ever visited, and it was evidenced everywhere. Markets, streets, trains….all extremely clean and schedules well ordered. And of course we all know about those intelligent TOTO toilets everywhere!!

We had our first lunch at Nobu, which was fun, but honestly, underwhelming. The sea bream and tuna raw fish was scrumptious, but the rest was very ordinary. However, if you have not ever had sushi, this is a great introduction. Personally, I found the bits of fried spring roll and tempura, along with the California roll disappointing. We then did the Taiko drumming, which woke everyone up. Many people enjoyed it, however IMO the best part was the demo and songs by the teacher.

Dinner was not included, so my friends and I went to “ Gucci Osteria” in the Ginza for a ten course dinner advertised as an Italian with a Japanese twist. This one star Michelin restaurant is gorgeous, with impeccable service, but most of the courses were adventurous including raw cuttlefish and eel gelato. It was an experience.

Our second full day in Tokyo we went to the Tokyo Museum, which was very impressive with lots of Samurai armor, beautiful kimonos and art, as well as gorgeous painted screens. Lunch was a Teppanaki beef lunch, similar to what we get in the US at Benihana, tasting Australian beef and Wagyu beef, with some veggies. No rice….instead they served us rolls and butter!! Once again, I felt the experience was “ dumbed down”… but okay…. I had purchased tickets to the Tokyo Kabuki for the three of us for a 4:00 pm show. It was really interesting, as men are all the characters, including the females. They change the story every month, and if you want to go, be sure to buy tickets way in advance. We had dinner at a cute French bistro around the corner, which was quite good. The Japanese love French food, which was evidenced many times during our trip.

The final Tokyo morning we boarded the Shinkansen to get to Lake Ashizawa for a short cruise to Hakone. It was a bit rainy and cloudy, so we could not see too much. The highlight of the day, and one of my favorite stops was at the Hakone Open Air Museum, a wonderful site with some of the most interesting outdoor sculptures! Don’t miss the fried eggs and the column. Also, we were blessed with seeing tons of cherry blossoms at their peak!!! We were too late to see them in the city, but at a higher altitude it was breathtaking. The hotel in Hakone was very nice, and our first chance to dress in yukatas. Try the Japanese restaurant there, the sushi and food was extraordinary. Only four of us from the group went but it was delicious.

The second day in Hakone was bright and sunny to enjoy the glass museum. We also visited a gallery of the most beautiful hand dyed and embroidered kimonos. One of my favorite stops.

Off to the Matsumoto Castle and an overnight in the Ryokan the next day. On the way, we had the best, clear, unbelievable and close views of Mt. Fuji. We stopped for pictures, and all agreed how fortunate we were. The Matsumoto castle is stunning, but be forewarned if you want to explore inside….shoes off, and climb several stories of old, worn wooden steps, carrying your shoes in a bag. I did not go in because of my bum left knee. Many who did said it was a tough climb, but somewhat interesting. Your choice. We arrived at the Ryokan late that day, and it was drizzling. Lovely place, but too quick a visit IMO. We all dressed in our Yukatas and had a very traditional Japanese dinner and entertainment, but left early the next morning. I might have liked to stay a bit longer, but we needed to keep the pace of our tour, with so much to see.

On our way to Kanazawa for two nights, we stopped in Takayama. The rain prevented us from seeing many of the mountains, but we saw lots of beautiful varied cherry trees in bloom. To me, Takayama was a filler and waste of time. Lost of shops, with all junk souvenirs, made in China. On to Kanazawa and the next morning a walk through Kenrokuen garden. Just gorgeous! Lots of azaleas and camellias in bloom, with beautiful trees and bushes, bridges and lovely views. We had a tour of the Samurai area, which was very interesting, and a nice lunch at Paul Bocuse and another market walk and a Samurai show in a Buddhist temple. It was fun and had many in our group participate. The Nikko hotel was fine, even though other previous travelers disliked it. The rooms were smaller, but very clean.

The next day, we took two different trains to Hiroshima and had the ill fated Bento box lunch. All I can say, is buy snacks BEFORE you get on the train. We gave hefty feedback for a change in that lunch. BLEH!! On arrival, we visited Miyajima Island, with its red floating shrine. The tide was out, so the shrine was on sand, but still impressive. Expect to walk over 4 miles this afternoon to the Shinto temple and walk through, and come back through the tourist focused shops on the way back to the ferry. Lots of tame deer begging for food on the island, and more junk shops.

More on the next post.


  • Nice review, Marla. I still have to go through my pics (I rename each one to something descriptive, rather than a date code dot jpg, which helps me review the tour in my mind).

    I laughed at your Toto toilet comment. When at the airport to fly home, I stopped first in the ANA lounge for some excellent food. Then, I went to the United lounge, near my departure gate at NRT, and laughed when I saw the toilets were standard American style.

    Re Matsumoto Castle, we were told there was no time to climb up, but just go through the first one or two levels. Hmm...

    Personally, I was underwhelmed by Kyoto. Perhaps it was the big build-up about how beautiful it is, but I found most of the city ugly, with a mish-mash of rectangular buildings of various size and upkeep, due to Japan's lax zoning regs and power lines hanging in random disarray. And we walked about 12 miles in Kyoto during free time. My favorites were Tokyo and Hiroshima.

    And yes, I agree that Bento box on the train was pretty bad.

  • edited April 25

    Nice report, Marla. We just completed Japan Travel Web; waiting for verification of our documents. Thanks for the heads up about 100 challenging steps to Kinkakuji Temple. I just might skip it. Easy trip for us. We live on Maui so it’s a 25 min flight to Honolulu, and 2 hrs later, nonstop to Tokyo arriving May 3, day before tour starts. Husband and I are looking forward to our first time to Japan.

  • Was going through my pics. Didn't realize I took a pic of the yuck Bento box on given to us on the train. Eat at your own risk:

  • BKMD….I have the same picture….only upside down!!! As I said to those after me…BUY SNACKS!!

  • Dmdiehl it’s Kiyomizu Temple. the last morning in Kyoto

  • Said Bento Box - a 9 course meal!!! :D

  • Maria526, love your detailing of the tour. Between yours and BKMD’s I am compiling quite a list of suggestions. (And, good to know about eliminating the Bento box with snacks!) Can’t wait to read of the trip from others. Thanks!

  • edited April 25

    Marla526….Thanks for the correct name..Just looked at our Kyoto/Nara itinerary and saw the name. Aloha, Diane

  • What was wrong with it? From what I can see of the picture it looks like standard Japanese Bento box,, was it not fresh or something?

  • edited April 26

    What was wrong with it? From what I can see of the picture it looks like standard Japanese Bento box,, was it not fresh or something?

    The problem may be that it's Japanese food. Some westerners have difficulty getting used to it.

    I remember my first Japanese breakfast - white rice and some small, translucent fish - like minnows. But it wasn't bad. Just different.

  • I'll, second Mike's observation. From personal experience -especially for group functions - things get made well ahead of time and served cold. I once took a group ski trip that included western breakfast. Cold omelet made the night before served with catsup. Would have been thrilled with the Japanese version - hot miso soup and rice.

  • Tasteless, soggy. Good thing a lemon slice was there to give it some flavor.

    It's not that it's Japanese food. This was day 9 of the trip, so we've already had Japanese food (including a GOOD Bento box lunch in a restaurant).

  • Agree with BKMD, this looked gorgeous, but was cold and soggy. I ate the rice and the little piece of salmon, then had a protein bar and some rice crackers.

  • These were my favorite snack in Japan. Happily I can buy them from Amazon or World Market.

  • We can buy lots of Japanese snacks at our regular supermarket.

  • I loved having pumpkin soup for breakfast while in Japan, loved all the food.

  • Hi Marla: Thank you for sharing your experience, and thanks to everyone for the warnings about the bento box on the train!
    Did you buy your Kabuki tickets online before leaving home, or when you arrived in Tokyo? Did you go to the National Theatre?

  • Hi MM Walsh, yes I purchased the kabuki tickets several weeks before we arrived. Just Google Kabuki Grand theater in Tokyo. You purchase online and then go down one level to collect the tickets before the show. Bring binoculars or opera glasses!!

  • Thanks Marla! Another question: you mentioned not having much time at the Ryokan, was there enough free time time to bathe in the hot springs, or was there just enough time to change and head to dinner?

  • edited April 28

    There was a bit of time after dinner as I believe the onsen was open until at least 11:00 pm. It also opened very early in the morning.

  • Thanks for all the terrific information. We are going on the November 2nd tour.

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