We returned 10 days ago from a fantastic trip to Japan. We combined a 10-day walking tour (Nakasendo Way plus Tokyo and Kyoto) with 3 extra days on our own in Kyoto and one night in Kyoto. The tour was with an adventure travel company, Mountain Travel Sobek, which we previously used for hiking in Patagonia. At $6300 each it was half the cost of the Tauck tour, and we felt it could have not been better. There were only7 of us with one Japanese guide from whom we learned so much about the culture, history, religion, architecture, etc. The lodging was in 4* Western-style hotels in Kyoto and Tokyo, and Japanese -style inns and ryokans for 5 nights in the mountains. (Meaning tatami rooms with futons on the floor). All the meals were amazing, with numerous dishes presented on little plates for each person, even in the little family-run mountain inn. I do not know how they do it.
Our guide arranged a number of very special experiences for us, including lunch at a “make your own sushi” restaurant; another lunch at a little soba restaurant where the head chef came out to sing to us at the end of the meal; sake-tasting at a local brewery in Nara; a night walk around illuminated temple grounds in Koyasan; visiting a tiny that made hand-cut wooden combs and another where we learned about making lacquerware and watched the master at work; ducking down a small unlit passageway in Ginza to see a secret shrine to Inari, the rice god, complete with talisman foxes, and a semi-private Shinto blessing ceremony at the Meiji shrine in Tokyo to ensure our safe travels homeward. None of these would have been possible in a larger group; certainly not a group of 20 or more (both Tauck and Road Scholar call a “small group” 24 people).
The timing of our trip (November 6-20) was excellent for fall foliage in the mountain areas, but a bit early for Kyoto when we were there for 6 days early in the trip.
Of the tours you have listed, I much prefer the Road Scholar History and Culture tour. At $8200 it is more expensive than what we did, but it includes more days and more stops. Although billed as 17 days, they include the day you fly to Japan, losing a day when you cross the Date Line. You actually meet the tour at the end of Day 2, and you depart after breakfast on Day 17, so it is really only 15 days. But most tour companies count the days this way, because it is the number of calendar days you are away from home.
Other things I like about this tour: they use the train and other public transport (unlike the ultralight HIghlights which as Suki points out uses a coach); they visit a village on the Nakasendo way, and provide at least a few nights (3 total) in Japanese-style ryokans or inns with a tatami rooms and futon on the floor, and the timing of the November trip will likely cover some fall color. I think you could have a good experience of Japan on this tour.
The Road Scholar Cultural Highlights tours appears to be designed for older, less mobile travelers, as they specifically say they avoid public transport, sleeping on futons, and dining with floor seating “as far as possible”. I think you will miss out by avoiding these quintessential Japanese experiences.
Which brings me to the Tauck tour, which I find over-the-top-expensive at $12,000 - $13,600 for a “13 day” tour (the latter price is for the “small group” of up to 24 people). That is roughly $1000 a day per person, and you are on your own for 4 of the dinners. Wha??? This tour appears to be all about the 5-star hotels——Hyatt, 4 Seasons, Sheraton Grand, etc., with a single night at a ryokan. In other words the only thing you will experience of a true Japanese hotel room is the Toto toilet with Washlet (build-in bidet function).
Sorry if that sounded harsh, but I think it would be a shame to miss out on the wonderful hospitality of the small inns and ryokans, and dining on floor cushions with a beautiful array of wonderful dishes.