Japan is daunting for first-time visitors, 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, theater tours, and night views. Local tourist offices can tell you how to have the same experience without emptying your wallet.
The country can be quite a culture shock, so resist the temptation to book tours that pack in too much sightseeing. Opt for those 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.
Tokyo and Kyoto feature on almost every tour of Japan, while Hiroshima, Nara, and Nikko are normally the secondary destinations. Along with the usual destinations, General also goes to the Inland Sea, some ancient hot spring 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.
Explorient Travel Services (800/785–1233. www.explorient.com.)
General (800/221–2216. www.generaltours.com.)
IACE (866/735–4223. www.iace-asia.com.)
Kintetsu (212/259–9600. 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 artist studios with English-language help to understand their skills and the chance to try your hand.
Absolute Travel (212/627–1950. www.absolutetravel.com.)
Smithsonian Journeys (855/530–1542. www.smithsonianjourneys.org.)
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.
Aloha Bike (0558/22–1516. www.alohabike.com.)
Japan Cycling Navigator (www.japancycling.org.)
One Life Japan (090/3337–3248. www.onelifejapan.com.)
Okinawa, Kyushu, and the islands and peninsula 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.
Dive Japan (www.divejapan.com.)
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.
Zegrahm Eco Expeditions (800/628–8747. www.zeco.com.)
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.
Golf in Japan (www.golf-in-japan.com.)
Japan Golf Holidays (03/3535–2200. www.wgs-jetgolf.com/.)
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 website for all outdoor activities. Quest Japan, run by an experienced British hiker, has a range of tours in all seasons.
Outdoor Japan (www.outdoorjapan.com.)
Quest Japan (www.questjapan.co.jp.)
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. Japanese Information and Culture Center (JICC) has good links to schools and procedures for study-abroad programs.
Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC) (202/238–6900. www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/jicc.)
For bikers, a motorcycle tour is by far the best way to see Japan’s unique countryside. The roads are excellent and Japan has a thriving motorcycle tour culture. Though road signs are often marked in English, this isn’t often the case in rural areas. The Japan Biker F.A.Q. has information on riding in Japan, and Sasa Trails offers customized motorcycle tours throughout the country.
Japan Biker F.A.Q. (www.thejapanfaq.com/bikerfaq-toc.html.)