What's it like taking a tour? As you might guess, we here at Frommrs.com don't have enough time to go on every package tour out there, though we do study them intensely, so when one of us has the chance to join our readers on a typical tour package, it's quite exciting. Recently, I bought a comprehensive tour of Japan and looked closely at how it was conducted, and what my fellow travelers had to say about its features, good and bad.
My first experience with the provider of our nine-day/eight-night package that I took with my sister and cousin was for a one-day tour of Tokyo itself. I have always recommended a good tour of the city on your first day as a way to get the hang of things, to size up the place and feel the ambience. (Complete disclosure: I lived in Japan for eight years many moons ago, first as a graduate student, then working in various capacities, and have returned about every 18 months since.)
Japan Travel Bureau (JTB), the nation's largest tour operator has an excellent package called "Dynamic Tokyo" that consists of a morning and an afternoon tour, which can be combined into a day-long trip, including a delicious lunch at one of the city's best catering restaurants, Chinzan-so.
A bus picks you up at your hotel and deposits you at a central tour station, where you catch another bus. You stay with this vehicle all morning or all day. In the morning, you visit Tokyo Tower at first, so you can get an idea of the lay of the land, viewing the capital city from a 150-meter (just under 500 feet) height. The tower itself at 333 meters (about 1,092 feet) is the world's tallest self-supporting steel tower, 13 meters (about 43 feet) higher than Paris' Eiffel Tower. More at www.tokyotower.co.jp.
You then drive to Happo-en, one of Tokyo's two great catering restaurants, scene of many expensive weddings and banquets, where you stroll through its amazing garden and sample the tea ceremony in a shoes-on, bench-sitting version that lasts less than half an hour, but nonetheless gives you a clear idea what the fuss is all about. Gracious middle-aged women in kimono serve you, while your guide interprets. More at www.happo-en.com.
You then make a brief stop in front of the Imperial Palace, where you have time for photographs and to wonder at the amazing transformation of Japan from just 59 years ago, when the palace's chief occupant was considered a god, and hundreds of thousands of warriors were willing to die in his name. Now, it's safe to say, the majority of Japanese don't give a second thought to the imperial family, unless asked.
At lunchtime, available to those taking the full-day tour, you stop at the other exclusive spot for weddings and banquets, Chinzan-so. (On the late October day I took this tour, I saw wedding parties at both places.) You make your way through extensive gardens (highlighted by azaleas blooming from January to March), so rare in midtown Tokyo, to an enlarged teahouse where you are served "Japanese barbecue," a form of ishiyaki (cooking on a hot stone), with grilled meat, fish and vegetables, by English-speaking staff, again, kimono-clad women. More at www.chinzan-so.co.jp.
After lunch, you board your bus for a quick trip through the Ginza to the Hinode Pier, where you board a river boat for a comfortable cruise up the Sumida River (see www.suijobus.co.jp), depicted in many ukiyoe prints, and walk a short distance to the oldest (historically) Buddhist house of worship in the city, the Asakusa Kannon Temple.
The imposing temple was destroyed by bombing in World War II, but rebuilt in the exact manner as the original. For many visitors, the approach to the temple is of more interest, lined as it is on both sides with hundreds of small shops, catering to the tastes of country folk who come up to the city for a rare holiday. They want, and you will like, things like ginger cookies (baked in front of you), rice crackers, mechanical toys, dolls, and lots of cute little things, many not easily identified by the western eye. For more on the temple itself, see www.japan-guide.com.
One hint: if you tire easily of the gaudy junk, just go behind these shops, mainly on the eastern side of the pedestrian street (which is called Nakamise, literally "between the stores"), and you'll find a narrow lane with traditional shops carrying high-quality items for the cognoscenti. That includes shops selling nothing but gorgeous fans such as those used by geisha and the theater trade, or another offering kimono worth thousands of dollars, ditto obi and other accessories, and even tailor's shops. (A few equivalents of the 99-cent stores have moved back here, too, so beware.)
The bus then takes you back to the central tour station, where you can find your way home by taxi or public transport, or you can stay longer here and go back to your hotel directly from Asakusa.
The day-long tour, including lunch, costs ¥12,000 (about $111), but kids 6 to 11 pay ¥9,300 ($86) and operates daily from now through December 26, 2004, except on February 22, 2004. Departs even if only one person shows up, which policy, they say, is true of most of their tours. The separate morning or afternoon tours run from ¥4,000 to ¥5,000 ($37 to $46, less for kids) and visit some of the Dynamic Tour spots plus other attractions not part of the full day trip. Contact JTB at their website, www.jtbusa.com, or at one of their several offices in the USA and Canada, as well as through your local travel agent.
In addition to JTB, other firms offer the same or similar tours of Tokyo for half or full days. Hato Bus (which also operates the JTB tours) is the biggest, reachable at www.hatobus.co.jp/english. Their fares are the same as JTB's for comparable tours.
Japan Gray Line has similar tours, with slightly lower prices, perhaps because you have lunch on the full-day Grand Tour at a Ginza establishment, Isomura, where the food is good (fried meats and veggies on skewers, called kushiage), but there are no gardens to contemplate as in the JTB tour. Full-day price with lunch is ¥9,600 ($89), children ¥7,600 ($70), and you visit the Tasaki Pearl Company in addition to many of the same sites as on the JTB and Hato tours, including the river cruise. If you want the tour without lunch, deduct ¥2,000 ($18.50). Contact them at www.jgl.co.jp.
On Your Own
Should you wish to avoid a group tour, note some of the costs for the items covered by that activity. Admission to Tower Tower's main observatory is ¥820 (about $7.60), to the Special Observatory another 100 meters higher, another ¥600 (about $5.55). The tea ceremony at Happo-en costs ¥2,100 (about $19.45). The huge barbecue lunch at Chinzan-so Restaurant costs ¥2,800 (about $26). The Sumida boat cruises costs ¥660 (about $6.11) and lasts 40 minutes. Aside from your bus transportation, other venues are free (Asakusa Kannon Temple, Imperial Palace Plaza, etc.).
Comparing do-it-yourself with a tour, you could save between $37 and $50 by going it alone. For first-timers, however, it may not be possible to cram it all in, what with getting lost, not finding the English-language signage, missing connections and the like on subway trains. The difference you are paying for on the tour is also for the services of an English-speaking guide and the often satisfying conversations you can have with him or her, part of your learning experience and often quite fun.
In the evening, try to reserve ahead for a performance of kabuki or a sumo match. (You have to plan ahead for these, as they sell out quickly and are not available every day in the first place.) Ask your hotel front desk to assist you in making reservations if you have not done so before leaving home for Japan. If you can't get tickets for full performances at either, consider a tour group. JTB has a Kabuki tour in the evening, featuring a sukiyaki/tempura/vegetarian dinner, costing ¥9,800 ($91) when the Kabuki is performing. There is also a Sumo Tour available on certain dates in May, September and January, for ¥9,800 ($91, adult and child).
I could find little to fault with this day tour. Hato and JTB have been doing this for years, narrowing it down to a fine science. The only complaints I heard from two other participants was that there was too much time spent at the temple in Asakusa, but several others said just the opposite. (In fact, since the tour ends at this point, people who want more time could simply stay on and get back to their hotels by subway or taxi.)
The Tokyo Tour is a stand-alone tour, independent of whatever other tours were being taken by the guests. JTB, like other operators, has segments of tours which it strings together for an overall package, as I will point out in a further article about our Japan-wide travel. In Tokyo, we would be with some people who would also be on our national tour, some not.
The central tour bus station hub is a marvelous idea, allowing smaller vehicles to pick up individuals at their hotels, then dump them at a central point, where they board a bus for their particular tour. It's very much the hub-and-spoke concept of the airlines, and quite efficient. At the central station, individual hosts (male or female) were ready with their tour bus and guided arriving travelers swiftly and carefully through the ropes to the right departure gate, even with luggage (for overnight journeys outside the capital). I was impressed with the careful order that prevailed over what could have been, in some countries, loud chaos.
The tea ceremony at Happo-en was, of necessity, a Reader's Digest version of what the original might be, but with 20 or 30 people being served in a limited time, I thought it was done in a dignified and meaningful manner, if too abbreviated.
Lunch was at tables seating eight persons, so you had a chance to meet your fellow travelers. At my table were visitors from India and China, with their Japanese friends. The amount of food was copious despite its quality, drinks other than tea or water being extra. I wanted more time in the gardens, but nobody else complained when I asked them.