Escorted tours are structured group tours, with a group leader. The price usually includes everything from airfare to hotels, meals, tours, admission costs, and local transportation. They take you to the maximum number of sights in the minimum amount of time with the least amount of hassle. On the downside, you'll have little opportunity for serendipitous interactions with locals. Tours can be jampacked with activities, leaving little room for individual sightseeing, whim, or adventure -- plus they often focus on heavily touristed sites, missing out on lesser-known gems.
That said, lots of tour companies offer group trips to Japan, including General Tours (tel. 800/221-2216; www.generaltours.com), which offers tours to major tourist destinations in Japan. JTB USA (tel. 800/235-3523; www.jtbusa.com) offers tours that may highlight anything from Japanese cuisine to art. Esprit Travel & Tours (tel. 800/377-7481; www.esprittravel.com) specializes in small-group walking, hiking, and cultural tours that cover such interests as textile arts, Japanese gardens, and the old Tokaido Road. If you want someone else to take care of logistics but don't like group tours, Artisans of Leisure (tel. 800/214-8144; www.artisansofleisure.com) provides luxury tours with private guides that are tailored to your interests. U.K.-based InsideJapan Tours (tel. 0117/314-4620; www.insidejapantours.com) offers small escorted tours to both known destinations and places off the beaten track. If you want to know more about sake, take 5-day Sake Brewery Tour offered by sake expert John Gauntner (tel. 415/5780-4565; www.sake-world.com).
For more ideas on escorted tours departing from North America, go to www.japantravelinfo.com; for tours departing from England, go to www.seejapan.co.uk. For more information on escorted tours, including questions to ask before booking your trip, see www.frommers.com/planning.
If your primary interest lies with ikebana (Japanese flower arranging), the tea ceremony, or other cultural pursuits, Tokyo and Kyoto are your best bets for finding instruction in English. For short introductions, Sunrise Tours (www.jtb-sunrisetours.jp) offers the chance to experience the tea ceremony on 2- or 3-hour tours in both Tokyo and Kyoto, along with other cultural pursuits such as making sushi or writing calligraphy. Tokyo-based H.I.S. Experience Japan (www.hisexperience.jp) offers a wide range of hands-on activities, including a samurai sword class featuring a sword fight demonstration by instructors and a lesson covering the basic movements; a visit to a sumo stable followed by a typical sumo meal; a taiko drumming or shamisen course; a kimono workshop; a survival Japanese-language class; and cooking classes that cover sushi, soba, and traditional Japanese food.
In Tokyo, there are several ikebana schools offering one-time or ongoing instruction in English. In Kyoto, the Women's Association of Kyoto (www.wakjapan.com) offers short, one-time classes on the tea ceremony, flower arranging, origami, Japanese calligraphy, Japanese cooking, and other cultural activities. The tourist offices in both Tokyo and Kyoto have information on temples that provide zazen (sitting meditation) in English.
You won't become fluent in Japanese in a week or two, but for longer stays there are language schools in major cities across Japan that cater to both the beginner and the intermediate. Check the classified sections of city magazines, like Metropolis in Tokyo, for lists of language schools.
Outside Tokyo and Kyoto, local international centers in larger cities, founded to promote multicultural harmony and to assist foreigners living in their communities, are good resources for cultural activities and events. The Nagoya International Center (www.nic-nagoya.or.jp), for example, offers seven levels of Japanese instruction, from conversation for beginners to writing kanji, at reasonable prices. In Kanazawa, the Ishikawa International Lounge (www.ifie.or.jp) schedules cultural events and classes that might cover origami, calligraphy, the tea ceremony, Japanese flower arranging, Japanese folk dancing, Japanese cooking, and Japanese language; classes themselves are free, but materials for the class cost extra. Other cities with similar institutions, all offering Japanese language classes and sometimes cultural classes as well, include the International House, Osaka (www.ih-osaka.or.jp), Kobe's Hyogo International Association (www.hyogo-ip.or.jp/en), the Okayama Prefectural International Exchange Foundation (www.opief.or.jp/english), and the Hiroshima International Center (www.hiroshima-ic.or.jp).
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.