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My husband and I are planning a trip to Japan. We are avid European travelers, but I have never been anywhere in Asia. My husband did live in Japan for three years near a military base, but that was 30 years ago. He has not been back since. We do not speak Japanese.

Our areas of interest are the food, natural beauty, slower pace of travel. Can we plan this ourselves? Should we take a tour? If so, what tour companies do you recommend.

Thank you in advance.

Posted by
10344 posts

Make sure you visit Kyoto, the cultural and spiritual capital of Japan.

Posted by
528 posts

You should be able to handle places like Tokyo fairly well without the need for a guide. Once you get outside of there I would recommend a guide. We toured Tokyo and the surrounding area,. Then cruised around Japan for 14 days. If we go back we would hire a tour company for the interior.

Posted by
3334 posts

We were in your shoes a few years ago. Experienced independant travellers in Europe and going to Japan for the first time. We opted for a fully escorted 2 week tour of the main island. There were only 15 people, so it was a good size for easily getting around. We had a very good mix of large cities, small towns, and one glorious day and night in a rural onsen/ryokan. There are compromises with any group tour, but we're glad we did it. When we go back we will likely do another tour, but add on extra days pre and post tour on our own in Tokyo and Kyoto.

Posted by
374 posts

I have planned 2-3 days in Tokyo independently with a work colleague twice before or after trips for work, and found it to be easy to tour there without knowing any Japanese. I used the Frommer's Tokyo Guide and advice of a friend who has been there several times. It's a fascinating city. The subways are excellent and on the few occasions when we couldn't figure something out, someone who spoke English would ask if they could help. If I return, I'd love to visit the Mount Fuji area and Kyoto, and would probably arrange for a guide for the first day in Kyoto. You can definitely plan it yourselves IF you enjoy trip planning. I've heard Odyssey International is excellent, and would consider it seriously for other Asian destinations that I think are more difficult than Japan. The problem I have with guided tours is that they don't usually spend enough time in each location.

Posted by
2162 posts

I just got back from Japan. We did a week on our own and 10 days on a Gate One small group tour - 21 people. I was happy to be on a tour for part of our travels. We navigated around pretty well on our own in Tokyo and Kyoto but I did find there to be a bigger language barrier than in any of my previous travels.

I was surprised at how lush and beautiful the countryside was. Takayama was my favorite town and I wished we had more than one night there.

If you have any specific questions, feel free to ask. I blogged this trip extensively. You can find the name of my blog in my Bio on this site. If you can’t find that, PM me and I’ll send you a link.

Posted by
2675 posts

I was in the same place last year, did not know to take an organised tour or go on my own. In the end I went on my own way to Tokyo (3 nights), Kyoto (4 nights), and Osaka (3 nights). I felt like on my own I would be able to go at my own pace and really choose what I wanted see, I had a special interest in the Sengoku Jidai (Waring States period). I took only two group day tours for the "highlights of Kyoto" and "Himeji castle", mainly for the transportation. The rest of the sights I was able to do on my own with little difficulty, I'm pretty adventurous though.

I found Japan to be easier to navigate then I originally expected, even If I did not know much of the language (just basics). It was a breeze to get around using the bullet train to travel between cities. Once you get out of Tokyo things are generally much less expensive. My favorite city was Kyoto followed by Osaka, last place was Tokyo which for me was ok.

In the end, It was a great trip, everything went smoothly and the Japanese people were warm and friendly. Definitely brush up on some basic Japanese polite words and cultural norms/customs, you'll be bowing a lot 😉.

In Tokyo I liked:
Sensō-ji Buddhist temple
Kabuki performance at Kabuki-za theater in Tokyo's Ginza district
Samurai sword exhibition at the Tokyo National Museum
Egg salad sandwiches at Lawson Markets
Ekiben bento lunch on the Shinkansen bullet train to Kyoto

In Kyoto (my favorite of the three citites) I liked:
Tōfuku-ji Temple, great for Autumn leaves/colours
Rengeoin Sanjusangendo, home to 1001 Buddha statues
Nishiki Market
Kyoto Marui Market, incredible luxury food market at the bottom floor
Nara, the old capital of Japan before Kyoto
Kyoto International Manga Museum

In Osaka:
Osaka Castle
Himeji Castle
Conveyor Belt Sushi at Osaka Station
Toro Tuna Tasting

Hope this helps! :)

Posted by
5630 posts

Carlos provided some great advice.
We did several days in Japan prior to our Japan and China cruise that ended in Hong Kong.

1) Tokyo- Carlos provided great advice. I would add Nikko (north of Tokyo) as a site to visit.
2) Kyoto is wonderful, we spend two full days there and did a tour of nearby Nara. Study all the sites of Kyoto, there are many to visit. The Philosopher's Walk is nice.

Here is my review of our entire trip: Japan and a little bit of China

Posted by
8293 posts

Before we attended an International congress in Japan some years ago, we attended a few sessions at the Japanese Cultural Centre here in Montreal. We learned a few polite phrases, the numbers 1 to 20 in Japanese, some important cultural information and how to make sushi (!) as well as other things I have long since forgotten. Is there such a source in your city?

Posted by
2272 posts

I really don't think you need to spring for an all-inclusive guided tour for your time in the country.
Booking airfare is pretty straightforward and is certainly something you can handle on your own if you're already experienced travelers. I would suggest exploring open jaw itineraries (flying into Tokyo and flying home from Osaka for example) to make the most of your time.
Likewise getting around the country via the excellent train system is easy, convenient, and relatively cheap.
We found that joining day tours once we were there was a cost-effective way to make the most of our time and they provided us with a good introductory overview of a particular city (Kyoto for example) so that we could return to particular spots that interested us at our leisure. Suggest looking at the "Things to do" pulldown menu on Trip Advisor to preview day trip providers and local attractions and organise an itinerary based on that. You'll find that there are a lot of things you can do on your own, while others are more easily done on an organized tour.
Your lack of Japanese language skills is really no impediment - you'll be able to get around just fine. The country is actively working to upgrade both its infrastructure and its transportation to make everything more user friendly for foreign visitors in preparation for the summer Olympics next year. Point being that there's not as much culture shock as you may think.

Posted by
1000 posts

Wow, thank you everyone. I am even more excited got our trip now!

I have found a three night tour out of Tokyo that I think will be the organized part of the trip to get out into the countryside. I think we can handle Kyoto and Osaka on our own, with perhaps a half day walking/food tour in each of those towns.

I’ve also received a few pm’s and blogs that I have been scouring. This is the first time I’ve had to do this much research in almost 15 years. I love this part of the trip—the planning and exploration!

Posted by
216 posts

Since you mention that you are interested in natural beauty, I recommend trying to visit Nikko (as a day trip or overnight from Tokyo) and Hakone. Hakone has a loop you can take around the area purchased as a single ticket (including a boat ride across the lake). I believe the best departure from Tokyo is via Shinjuku station.
A day trip to Kamakura from Kyoto would also be worthwhile. While there, try shojin ryori (Buddhist vegetarian cuisine).
In all of these places, you'll be able to get by without any Japanese skills. You may not be perfectly understood, but you'll be fine.

Posted by
374 posts

Who runs the 3-night tour out of Tokyo? I'd be interested for future travels. And I can also add that Nikko is a great trip from Tokyo.

Posted by
327 posts

Prior to retirement, I was fortunate to travel throughout Japan on business for many years. Get yourself a good Tokyo Subway Map and you can go anywhere on your own (hotels have them or you can print one from the Internet before you travel). However, one suggestion: Maybe take a one-day guided tour with Hato Bus in Tokyo to get the "lay of the land" since the remainder of the time it will be easier to travel underground. You will see some places that you might want to return to on your own - plus the English speaking guide will give you other valuable suggestions.

Travel tip: A book which I used on all my trips to Japan is "Tokyo: A Bilingual Atlas" - every map is in English and Japanese! The 1990 version was $14.95 and worth every penny. I also used the "Kyoto/Osaka" version. Even if taxi drivers (or people you encounter) don't speak English, you can point on the map where you want to go and they can show you the way. I'm not sure if this still applies, but the level of English was better in Tokyo than in Osaka. The Japanese people are very polite and go out of their way to help.

I hope you enjoy Japan - it's an amazing destination with wonderful people!

Posted by
5630 posts

Warning about doing Kyoto on your own

If you do the research and take a look at the location of the key sites to visit in Kyoto, you will see that they are widely dispersed. Doing it on your own without wasting time would require a taxi use several times. Taxis are expensive in Japan.

We did a wonderful three day tour of Kyoto and Nara from Tokyo that included the bullet train and a hotel close to the Kyoto rail station.

We visited three key sites in Kyoto with the tour as well as sites in Nara and had a day on our own in Kyoto. On the day on our own, we did the sites close to the Philosopher's Walk (we must have seen 8 or 9 that day. We did have to take a taxi one way in each direction.

Check the link on my earlier post for details.

Posted by
216 posts

For Kyoto on your own, the bus system is great. There is one that runs in a clockwise loop from the train station specifically for tourists with English announcements naming the sites at each stop. With some advanced planning, you could layout a good route using that.

Posted by
1871 posts

We have visited twice. Our first trip was Kyoto with side trips and the second included both Kyoto and Tokyo. We aren’t tour people, and we fared very well on our own both times. We relied on public transportation entirely. The Westin in Kyoto is great for walking to many major sites directly across the street as well as nearby subway access, and many dining choices are also easy to reach. We had zero problems. Have a wonderful trip! We speak no Japanese either but merely looking confused is apparently universal and we were often approached by Japanese offering to help us.

Posted by
7 posts

April - If you get homesick (or in my case, tired of Asahi) there is a little PDX-themed bar in Tokyo/Shibuya.

They were thrilled to see an Oregonian there. I believe it's called PDX Taproom. I think my host was more excited/proud to show us that over any of the typical tourist spots, but was kind of a fun little discovery if you're in the area.

Japan is fantastic. Enjoy!

Posted by
1000 posts

Thank you JRose ! I will bookmark that PDX place. I’m so excited!