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Tokyo and Kyoto feature on almost every tour of Japan, while Hiroshima, Nara, and Nikko are normally the secondary destinations. Read brochures carefully and try to see through the inevitable pictures of cherry trees and geisha—to check whether what is planned fits your idea of a holiday. Is it temple after temple? Does the tour include experiences such as sushi and sumo—or are they only pricey options? Is the domestic travel by bullet train, plane, or bus? Japan can be quite a culture shock, so resist the temptation to pack in too much, and go for tours that include half days of freedom, because just stepping outside the hotel into the local streets is likely to provide some unimagined sights and experiences.
Along with the usual destinations, General also goes to the Inland Sea, some ancient onsen towns and World Heritage sites; Kintetsu promises to get you closer to the world of geisha in Kyoto. IACE and Nippon Express Travel USA have tours that look to modern Japan by taking in the Tokyo Anime Festival and the Comic Market (side trip to techie-paradise Akihabara) and architecture old and new. Even the big companies try to get visitors off the beaten track: Explorient goes to the Kiso Valley near Nagoya.
Japan is daunting for first-time visitors and anyone without Japanese-language skills, so a package tour is a great way to get into the country and find your feet. However, beware of expensive optional tours such as tea ceremonies, Kabuki tours, and night views. Local tourist offices can probably tell you how to have the same experience more economically.
Explorient Travel Services (800/785-1233 in U.S. www.explorient.com.)
General Tours (800/221-2216 in U.S. www.generaltours.com.)
Kintetsu (630/250-8840 in U.S. www.kintetsu.com.)
Japan is overflowing with art—from pottery and painting to the precise skills of flower arranging and calligraphy. Many tours include museums and art galleries, but only some get you right into the artists' studios with English-language help to understand their skills and the chance to try your hand.
Absolute Travel (212/627-1950 in U.S. www.absolutetravel.com.)
Smithsonian Journeys (855/330-1542 in U.S. www.smithsonianjourneys.org.)
Most airlines accommodate bikes as luggage, provided they're dismantled and boxed.
Cycling is popular in Japan, but local bike-rental shops may not have frames large enough for non-Japanese cyclists. For more information on cycling in Japan see the Japan Cycling Navigator.
Okinawa, Kyushu, and the islands and peninsular south of Tokyo are all popular diving areas. If you are a novice diver, make sure that a dive leader's "English spoken" means real communication skills. Dive Japan has lists of dive services and locations.
Whales, monkeys, bears, and cranes—Japan does have fauna and flora to appreciate slowly, but English-language tours are limited. Naturalist Mark Brazil, who writes extensively about wild Japan, leads ecotours through Zegrahm Eco Expeditions.
Japan's love affair with golf does not make it any easier for non-Japanese-speaking visitors to reserve a game unless introduced by a club member. Japan Golf Tours takes guided groups from the United States, and Golf in Japan, put together by golfing expats, helpfully lists more than 2,000 courses that welcome foreign golfers.
Japan has well-marked trails, bus-train connections to trailheads, and hidden sights to be discovered. Millions of Japanese are avid and well-equipped hikers. English information is growing, so check local tourist offices for details. Visit Outdoor Japan's Web site for all outdoor activities. Quest Japan, run by an experienced British hiker, has a range of tours in all seasons.
There is no better way to learn the language than to immerse yourself by studying Japanese in Japan, with classes, a homestay, and cultural tours on which to put the newfound skills into action. The Japanese Information and Culture Center (JICC) Web site has good links to schools and procedures for study-abroad programs.
Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC) (877/338-8687 in U.S. www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/jicc.)
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