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Japan is a country where, perhaps more than anywhere else in the world, ultra-modern and ultra-traditional culture coexist, typically harmoniously, and often in strikingly close proximity. Towering neon-clad skyscrapers overlook peaceful Japanese gardens; sumo wrestlers and J-pop superstars occupy the popular imagination; chefs specializing in highly-specific types of regional cuisine — buckwheat noodles, perhaps, or yakitori — are beloved, as are the engineers who have put Japan at the forefront of the world’s tech industry. For visitors, this means that there’s a lot to see, taste, hear and do; an overwhelming bounty of decisions. A good tour can help a person cut through these many, many choices to get a wider taste of several things or, perhaps, a much deeper sense of just one experience. Keep reading to see which tours to book the next time you're headed to Japan.
Best Weekend Tour: 3-Day Mt. Fuji, Kyoto, and Nara Rail Tour
This whirlwind trip takes visitors to three cities in three days and includes guided visits to some of Japan’s most famous and impressive tourist destinations. The trip starts with a motorcoach ride to Mount Fuji, Japan’s highest mountain (and best-known image), followed by a pirate ship cruise on beautiful Lake Ashi and a trip on the Shinkansen — Japan’s famous bullet train — to Kyoto. Spend the next day exploring the most beautiful sights in Kyoto and neighboring Nara: the 8th Century Todai-Ji Temple, with its huge bronze Buddha statue; the Kasuga Taisha Shrine, a traditional Shinto shrine; the deer-filled Nara Park and more. The following day, you can either return to Tokyo or stay another day in Kyoto to explore further. It’s a quick trip, but one that nicely balances guided sightseeing with free time.
Best Private Tour: Three-Day Private Tokyo and Nagano Tour
A private tour combines the best of both worlds: you see what you want to see and at your pace, but with live commentary and recommendations (and translations!) from an expert who knows the area inside and out. If you can swing it, it’s a really great way to go, and this one in particular, which includes not just visits to attractions but traditional experiences as well, is an outstanding choice. Among other things, you can choose to study ikebana (traditional flower arranging), calligraphy, aikido, Japanese archery or woodblock printing. You’ll also have an option to take a traditional onsen (hot spring) bath and visit a number of temples, parks and architectural features in both Tokyo and Nagano. Every meal is included, and your guide takes this part very seriously: you’ll eat izakaya (kind of like Japanese tapas), sushi and sashimi, traditional Japanese breakfast dishes and daily lunch bento boxes. Lodging at ryokan — a Japanese inn — is included, as well.
Best Self-Guided Tour: Three-Day Kyoto and Hiroshima Independent Tour
On the other end of the spectrum from the private tour is this self-guided tour, where train tickets from Tokyo to Kyoto, Kyoto to Hiroshima and Hiroshima back to Tokyo are provided, as are hotel bookings, but the itinerary is simply a suggestion. You’re free to spend more or less time at each, skip some entirely or add extras. Among the suggestions are Kyoto’s 17 UNESCO heritage sites, including the Kinkaku-ji (the Golden Temple), and the Ginkaku-ji (the Silver Pavilion), as well as the historical remembrance monuments and museums in Hiroshima. It’s a great way to see these areas if you want some freedom to explore but don’t want to bother with the fussy details of booking transport or lodging.
Best Homestay Tour: Two-Day Matsushima Historical Tour
If you’d like to get a feeling for the rhythms of everyday life and culture in Japan, you might want to visit an actual Japanese home. This tour links travelers up with host families in the small Northeastern coastal city of Matsuhima, where guests will experience a guided walking tour of the city and its beautiful temples, a green tea tasting and tea ceremony, an in-home dinner with your host family, as well as a three-hour fishing trip, complete with a seafood BBQ where your fresh catch will be cooked up.
Best Temple Stay Tour: Mt. Koya Tour with Overnight Stay at Fukuchi-in Temple
Those interested in learning more about Buddhism (or those who simply want to enjoy a serene, quiet experience away from Tokyo and Osaka’s hustle-bustle) should consider this short tour, focused around an overnight stay at Fukuchi-in, a Buddhist temple with a natural spring onsen, where you can soak to your heart’s desire before or after your delicious vegetarian dinner and, should you choose, join the monks for a morning meditation. The tour also includes a visit to the Okunoin Temple, the extraordinary home of Shingon Buddhism, complete with a mausoleum housing 200,000 monuments, as well as the Danjo Garan, a World Heritage site with a famous Cosmic Buddha statue and a large temple complex.
Best Hiroshima Tour: Two-Day Hiroshima Tour from Osaka
Packed with stops at fascinating (and sometimes heartbreaking) locations, this two-night tour, with upscale lodging, transportation, and entrance fees included, provides excellent value and is a good choice for those who wish to see a lot but don’t have much time in which to do it. The tour visits the sacred island of Miyajima, replete with Edo-era shrines and monuments; the Peace Memorial Park and other Hiroshima landmarks; the Kurashiki Bikan Historical Quarter; and the private Ohara Museum of Art, which contains both European masterpieces by the likes of Degas, Monet and El Greco, as well as significant Japanese pieces, particularly from the first half of the 20th Century: Kawai Konjiro, Fujishima Takeji, Aoki Shigeru and more. The overnight stay is in Hiroshima proper, as are most meals, and a fair bit of free time in which you can explore the city and the monuments to the people who were lost there.
Best Toyama Tour: Two-Day Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route, Shirakawago & More
If you’d like to get out of Osaka and see a bit of the less-traveled spots nearby, consider this short trip THAT takes you to the Toyama prefecture with a stop in the Gifu prefecture, visiting the charming town of Hida Takayama and a gorgeous trip through several villages and scenic vistas along the Tateyama Kurobe Alpine Route. It's a sightseeing route where travelers move by bus, trolley, aerial tramway and funicular through tall, snow-covered mountains, with stops for food, shopping and just breathing in the scenery. Overnight accommodation in Toyama, including dinner and breakfast, is included.
Best Tokyo Day Tour: Tokyo Day Tour: Meiji Shrine, Asakusa Temple & More
This full-day bus tour around the city of Tokyo begins with a pickup at your hotel and then immediately sweeps you off to the famous Meiji Shinto Shrine and then on to the Imperial Palace East Garden and Asakusa Kannon Temple, one of Japan’s most important Buddhist sites. You’ll also visit the modern, shopping-focused Ginza District, the Edo-period Hamarikyu Garden, as well as the Aqua City Odaiba Complex. Later in the day, the tour includes a one-hour boat trip on the Tokyo Bay, where you’ll get the best views of the city and its awe-inspiring modern skyline.
Best Kyoto Day Tour: Kyoto Full-Day Sightseeing Tour
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is its hub of traditional culture and is packed with monuments, temples, gardens and even palaces. On this one-day tour, you’ll visit many of these and view many more from your comfortable motor coach, all with the help of an expert local guide. On the agenda: Nijo Castle, Kinkaku-ji Temple, the Kyoto Imperial Palace, the Heian Shrine, Sanju-Sangendo Hall, Kiyomizu Temple and more. Stops will also be made for both dining and shopping. The price includes pick-up and drop-off from select Kyoto Hotels, as well as lunch.