Insights and suggestions-Essence of Japan trip

We greatly enjoyed our recent Tauck Essence of Japan trip, and I wanted to share a few insights, suggestions and observations-
(1) The people are incredibly friendly and helpful. Whenever my wife and I were on our own and needed help finding a restaurant, store, subway stop or shrine we were looking for, we would ask for assistance from someone and they were invariably helpful, despite the language barrier. Sometimes they even walked with us to take us to our destination, or did a search with their own smartphone or iPad to find out how to get there.
(2) There is no tipping in Japan--none! The only person you need to tip is the Tauck tour guide(not the local guides).
(3) No need for special adaptors or converters for your laptops, phones and other electronic devices-outlets in hotels are same as in US.
(4)The water is perfectly safe to drink everywhere. No need for bottled water at restaurants or elsewhere. Also, despite a number of Japanese people wearing masks on their faces, the air is just fine, and nothing like the pollution in Beijing(or LA, for that matter!). In addition, absolutely no need to be concerned about any radiation from the nuclear reactor incident at Fukushima after the tsunami in March 2011.
(5) Public toilets are clean and free, and are plentiful in places visited by tourists. Unlike China, the vast majority of public toilets are "western-style"(meaning they have seats). Apropos this subject, the toilets at the hotels are more modern and fun than you can imagine!
(6) Taxi drivers in Japan are the most honest taxi drivers we have ever encountered. They will take the quickest, most direct route, and won't rip you off. However, their English is often spotty at best. To avoid problems we would ask the concierge to write down for us in Japanese the name of our intended destination, as well as the name of the hotel, so we could show to the driver(s). This also comes in handy in case you are walking around and can't find your restaurant or your way back to the hotel, and want to enlist the help of a local pedestrian.
(7) Take the subways in Tokyo. They are clean, modern, very safe, and extremely user-friendly to English speaking tourists(the machines at subway stations that sell tickets have an English option, and subway stops are shown and announced in English). Tokyo is a big city, and the easiest, fastest and most fun way to explore many areas of interest when you have free time is to take the subway. Don't confine yourself just to the Ginza District-there is so much more to see! We took the subways to explore the Shibuya area at night(very highly recommended!), the fancy stores on Omotesando street(including the architecturally magnificent Prada store), the Imperial Gardens and even more beautiful Shinjuku Gyoen National Gardens, the Ameyoko street market and nearby Shinobazu Pond. By the way, we were able to see so many different areas of Tokyo because we added an extra day on our own there. In my view, even though Tauck allocates 3 nights to Tokyo, there is not enough time to see things there because you arrive in Tokyo late in the afternoon on the first day, and during the two full days in Tokyo with the tour there was only one afternoon on your own, and the tour covered just a museum and a couple major temples and shrines.
(8) Crime is virtually non-existent. You can and should walk around and explore the streets at night, especially in Tokyo and Kyoto, which are wonderful at night.
(9) ATM machines are prevalent in 7-11 stores, which are ubiquitous in Japan(really!)
(10) When you have free nights in Kyoto and Tokyo, leave the hotels and go out to local restaurants. With the expert guidance of our concierges, we went to several terrific restaurants where we were the only Englsh speaking patrons, and we enjoyed dining with local residents in non-tourist places. The language barrier was not insurmountable, and the authentic experience was so much fun. Try lots of different cuisines-during our lunches and dinners on our own we had sushi(conveyor-belt sushi was cool!), tempura, yakitori, ramen, teppanyaki, and monjayaki, all of which were terrific.
(11) If you want to see a Japanese equivalent to the Harrods Department Store food court in London, go to the basements of any of the big department stores in Tokyo-an extra fringe benefit is lots of delicious free samples!
http://on.wsj.com/1QexAzk
By the way, we did our gift shopping in the beautiful department stores--they have such a broad selection of things to buy for yourself or your family and friends, ranging from custom made kimonos to sake or tea sets, do a great job of wrapping and making purchases safe for travel, and their prices are not tourist-driven. Plus, shopping like a local and with the locals is fun. Also, if you buy more than $100 worth of items, you get a tax rebate on the spot if you have your passport with you. Tip-if you enter the department store when it first opens at 10am or 10:30am, it is amazing to see the staff all line up at their stations, and bow and greet the incoming customers!
(12) The ryokan in Kanazawa and hotels in Takayama and Hakone all have very nice onsen(hot springs) that are separated by gender(different sexes go to different floors for their onsen). In order to enter the waters of the onsen, you must first shower in a nearby area and then enter the onsen waters naked-no bathing suit, no underwear, nada. It is a quintessentially Japanese experience. On our trip, my guess is that about half of the tour members elected to give it a try (unlike going out to restaurants on our own, where new friends often joined one another for dinner, almost everyone who ventured to the onsen did it on their own, and at times when they presumed that other tour members were unlikely to be there!). I really enjoyed the onsen and found it both relaxing and culturally interesting, but my wife and the two women she befriended on the trip all took a pass.
(13) In Kyoto, during your free time, you must go to the Silver Pavilion, which is part of the Philosopher's Walk, which encompasses various gardens, shrines and temples adjacent to one another. It is just a short cab ride from the Okura hotel in Kyoto. The amazing gardens at the Silver Pavilion were one of the highlights of our trip, and frankly I am perplexed why the Silver Pavilion is not part of the trip itinerary. Also, just a 15-20 minute walk from the Okura Hotel is a beautiful shrine and garden(Heian Jingu Shrine), and a giant, colorful torii gate, one of the largest in all of Japan.
(14) The hotel in Takayama (the Associa) is not located in town, so when dinner is on your own if you want to go out to a restaurant outside the hotel you need a cab. One of the memorable highlights of our trip was renting the karaoke room at the hotel for an hour (at a very reasonable cost) for a really fun time with our wonderful new tour friends. Suffice it to say that the sake we brought with us helped immeasurably!
(15) Last but not least, our Tauck tour guide, Kit Loose, was simply FABULOUS!!
Hope this posting is helpful, and that you enjoy your Tauck tour of Japan as much as we did!

Comments

  • just about to leave for Japan and really appreciate "Not-so's" insights and suggestions. Many thanks!
  • Does Tauck trip includes Kabuki (puppet performance) Sumo wrestling or taking to the fish market in Tokyo
    Thanks!!
  • Thanks. Great review and tips!
  • edited March 2016
    Kamlesh, we did this tour just a few months ago. Tauck does not include Kabuki or take you to the fish market. We stayed an extra day in Tokyo at the end of the tour and did the fish market on our own. It is so hectic at the fish market (but worth a visit) that there is no way they could have taken an organized group into the fish market. As for the Sumo wrestling, during one of the included dinners, some retired Sumo wrestlers put on a show for us.
  • Thank you so much for taking the time to post this. We are going on this tour in May and found the information very useful.
  • What an excellent post. I'm glad people are willing to supply such nitty-gritty information.
  • We were planning to go on the Essence of Japan tour in 2017. The itinerary has just been published on-line and has changed significantly from the 2016 itinerary. Starts and ends in Tokyo, still with total of 3 nights (2 and 1). No Osaka. No Hiroshima. Question to anyone who went on 2015-2016 tour: Would you still go with the 2017 itinerary? Or would we be sacrificing too much to go with the lesser options?
  • Amazing post, helps out alot with the great information you have given us, appreciate it a TON!
  • We are going on this tour. We are concerned about the amount and size of the luggage. We tend to take a lot. There are two trips on the train when we will not have our regular bag. What size bag will the train overhead accommodate, like the airplane overhead? Also they say one bag per person but we hear couples sometimes bring three bags. Is that correct?

    Thanks
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