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ekscrunchy May 2nd, 2018 03:23 AM

JAPAN..Travel agent? A few other questions, too
I linked this to another thread but got no response, and it's probably better to start my

've been to Japan twice before, but both trips were in the 80s; one was a budget trip with a RailPass, and the other was a work trip during which I visited only Tokyo and Kyoto, staying in luxury hotels. I do not remember much of either apart from general impressions. My partner has never been to Asia, let alone Japan. I am thinking of going in late fall, this year.

SO: I've long read about KimKeefe and remember her when she was a regular poster here. Would she be someone I should hook up with to plan my own trip, even if I will probably visit only those 2 cities, plus one other, much smaller, destination--maybe an onsen reosrt (??) I'd like some help with hotels and train/bus transfers, and selecting a third destination that would be fairly easy to access without complicated bus/train connections. (Direct train would be great). But on the agency website it mentions private tours and private drivers, and a figure of $1,000-$1500 per person per day. And I'm assuming that does not include meals. I don't want all of that,, just the hotels, ransport, and maybe a couple of days with a guide. Would this still be an agency I should consider?

It was Kim who turned me on to the perks of using Virtuoso to book luxury hotels, but I don't think her agency is a member. When I book with Virtuoso in the US or Europe, we get free breakfasts, and often upgrades to better rooms, and also late check-outs and usually a free lunch or dinner at the hotel. Wondering if I would get any perks from booking witih ArtOfTravel. Do they pass on any savings for the upscale hotels to the client?

On the subject of hotels, we'd like to experience one of the luxury towers in Tokyo, and I'd love one with a pool for lap swimming, as well as a convenient location which I guess means convenient to a main subway line. Being able to walk around someplace interesting from the hotel would be great.

I''ve marked down these and would really be appreciative if anyone could share experiences at the following, and comments about their locations. I know they are hugely expensive but we are not getting any younger and I'd like my partner to be able to get the idea of an Asian luxury hotel at least once in this lifetime. I had hoped an agent might get some discount off the published rates.

Tokyo Palace

For reasons I have forgotten, I have the Cerulean Tokyu Tower in my "saved" column, too.

Is Hakone too touristy to consider? With these onsen resorts, is there much to do if one does not want to spend lots of time in the baths? I'm not sure my partner would even be willing to do the strip and bathe, even if it's single sex. Am I crazy, then, to even go to a resort? I did this on Kyushu eons ago and really liked it for the novelty, but that water was burning hot! Is there another resort that would make sense with Tokyo and Kyoto?

And what about Kyushu? There are so few reports on that island here(??) I've read that Fukokua is a great food city due to the many street stalls, and the Hakata style ramen, too. I do remember that Kagoshima was gorgeous with the volcano overlooking the city. Crazy to include a feww days there? Trip can be about three weeks in length.

Obviously I need to do some reading here, just wanted be pointed to a travel agent who can get some hotel perks and help me plan...many thannks!!!

FromDC May 2nd, 2018 05:47 AM

We're leaving in a few days for our third trip to Japan (in 4 years). We will concentrate on Kyushu so I will post when we return. If you need info before then, PM me and I'll send you info about our itinerary. Kim helped us with with some of the arrangements for our last trip (2 years ago) and we had a lovely lunch with her in Kanazawa.

We stayed at both the Shangrila and the Mandarin Oriental in Tokyo, I'd give a slight edge to the MO. Really liked the Tokyo Station area, where both are located, and LOVED the views from the rooms at both.

We did an overnight in Hakone 4 years ago. There are many tourists but that's because there is much to see and do. We were disappointed that we couldn't see Mt. Fuji while we were there, so for our return trip we went to Fuji 5 Lakes area (Kawaguchiko) where we had an incredible view and nice stroll through the Pink Moss festival.

Moderator2 May 2nd, 2018 07:42 AM

Ekscrunchy, last I communicated with Kim, she had moved from Kanazawa and was living in Kyoto. I've emailed her to get the best way for you to contact her. She can help you with as much or as little as you would like. For instance, for us, we had her get us a machine house to stay in in Kanazawa, but nothing else. She would have good suggestions for an onsen, and can recommend one of the hotel towers in Tokyo. (Why isn't the Park Hyatt on your list?)

ekscrunchy May 2nd, 2018 07:42 AM

Thanks so much! I've begun reading through the Japan threads and see your name come up with some great information. I think now that Hakone should be included, and I hope I can get into one of the two ryokan/inns that have come up as being very lovely and very special. From reading, it looks as if two nights would be good at Hakone, or whichever spa town we choose.

I didn't mention MO in Tokyo due to the fact that it lacks a pool but, really, I might be so busy that I would not have time to swim in Tokyo. Toklyo Station Hotel also looks like a good hotel and great location..would like to hear more on that, too.

I'll be eager to read all about Kyushu!! Meanwhile I will contact Kim and see if she can help me out..maybe that $$$ daily figure on the website is not set in stone.

Did you book restaurants in Tokyo far ahead? There are many, many reports ono Chowhound and other sites about how difficult it is to book the great restaurants. Not even sure if I would be able to tell the difference with sushi, as I'm certainly not a connoisseur. It would be a relief to just wing it and not be so meticulous with the eating plans. And I'm not interested in the Michelin 3-stars in any case. And probably not the 2 stars, either.

ekscrunchy May 2nd, 2018 08:00 AM

Moderator2: I did not realize she had moved on. I
'd be most grateful if you would get me her contact info.

I thought Park Hyatt did not share a location as convenient as the ones I mentioned but I'd certaily consider it if the location is good. (??) Honestly, even though I've been before I am pretty clueless about Tokyo and Japan in general as my trips were so long ago. But I will try to remedy that as best as I can by reading.

BigRuss May 2nd, 2018 08:23 AM

"Did you book restaurants in Tokyo far ahead? There are many, many reports ono Chowhound and other sites about how difficult it is to book the great restaurants. Not even sure if I would be able to tell the difference with sushi, as I'm certainly not a connoisseur. It would be a relief to just wing it and not be so meticulous with the eating plans."

Never booked a Tokyo resto. The eating options in Japan are too numerous to detail. Every intercity train station has a department store or two or three on it and every department store has a food court in the basement and about 5-15 restaurants in the store itself (and not just a Macy's cafe type of thing, full-on restaurants). As for sushi, you can go to Tsukiji area for the fish market outlets or a sushi outlet just about anywhere in Tokyo. I randomly popped into one near Senso-ji temple in Asakusa, bought $90 worth of sushi (based on US prices) for less than 1/2 that fee and it was da-n good. The non-star food prep in Japan is generally good so that seeking a rubberized French icon's endorsement for dining doesn't give you a comparable return on your investment.

ekscrunchy May 2nd, 2018 09:00 AM

Thanks!! I get it about Michelin being French but many Japanese take their ratings so very seriously. Many of the CH posters on their Japan board live in Japan, but there are some who are really focused on getting into places, even the ones that do not allow diners not known to them.

I might try one or two high-end places for certain type of cuisine, but will do a lot of random dining, too. Want to sample kaiseki, udon, oden, ramen, Kurobata pork, yakitori, first-rate beef, sushi, sukiyaki......oh dear my list is too long!! Thanks again!

FromDC May 2nd, 2018 10:19 AM

You may also recognize my name from the Africa Forum, we corresponded last year about it. I am very grateful to you for recommending Liesl back in 2009, she organized both trips for us (you and I were in Botswana at the same time last May but at different camps). Happy to return the favor with information that will help you in Japan.

I don’t think you will need private drivers. We took taxis or subways/trains everywhere and it’s easier in reality than it seemed beforehand. We did not make any advance restaurant reservations but we did have the hotel concierge help us on the day of. We had a private guide one morning in Tokyo, Yukari Sakamoto, took us to the fish market plus, she was phenomenal and worth every penny (author of Food, Sake, Tokyo). Our hotel in Kyoto arranged for a guide one day and it worked out very well. Otherwise we did things on our own - - got advice from this forum and lots of reading. On the onsen issue, we had our own hot spring tub in our ryokan’s room in Hakone, so you have privacy if that’s a concern.

ekscrunchy May 2nd, 2018 10:31 AM

Excellent! Now I remember you more clearly! Liesl planned a trip for my sister (first time to Africa) and her husban, who left NY two days ago so will have more news from that front in a few weeks.

I mentioned the private guide because the Art of Travel, the agency I thought Kim was with, gave that daily figure and it sounded like they did not want to deal with people not wanting to spend that much. So I'm thrilled that that is not the case with Kim. I will contact her as soon as I get the new contact info. Amm I correct in thinking that she is no longer with that agency?

I would love to hire a guide for Tskuji, though, like you did. Yukari sounds great. How did you happen to get in touch with her? I'd like to have someone show me the ropes at a local eating spot, too; sometimes it's just fun to have a local "friend" along to chat about daily life, etc.

DC: Where did you stay in Kyoto and do you recommend?

For anyone who gets The New Yorker, there is a terrific article by Elif Bautman in the current issue on the phenomenon of rental relatives in Japan. Yes, you read that right! I will link it but not sure if you need a subscription to view. Fascinating.

FromDC May 2nd, 2018 10:40 AM

I'm hoping we have one more trip to Africa. Hope your sister has a wonderful time.

Found Yukari from a mention on this forum. Our time with her was very special, one of the best guides we've ever had anywhere in the world, here is her contact info: [email protected]
We stayed at Hotel Mume in Kyoto last trip and will be there again at the end of this trip. DH and I LOVE LOVE LOVE it, as do so many other posters here. I booked about 10 months in advance, it's very small so you need to lock in dates asap if you are going this fall.

Kathie May 2nd, 2018 12:34 PM

I just heard back from Kim, she says to email her at [email protected]

BigRuss May 2nd, 2018 01:20 PM

"Want to sample kaiseki, udon, oden, ramen, Kurobata pork, yakitori, first-rate beef, sushi, sukiyaki......oh dear my list is too long!!"

If you're going to Kyoto, there's likely one resto serving each of these in Kyoto station. Around the 8-11 floors of the main department stores or in the various connected subterranean passageways. Kyoto probably has as many restaurants within half a km of Kyoto station as most major US cities do in their territory. Of course, if you're staying anywhere near Tokyo station or Shinjuku, the same is true - you cannot swing a dead cat without hitting an eatery.

And you forgot Katsu-don and okonomiyaki.

Boveney May 3rd, 2018 02:08 AM

Re need for reservations - I understand the appeal of winging it but it pays to do some research in advance. There are certainly many restaurants in the train stations but the problem is some of those restaurants you'll hit when swinging that proverbial dead cat (cf post above) will be awful. Mushy soba, claggy tempura, greasy katsudon, nigiri sushi with icy toppings and hard rice.....bad Japanese restaurants definitely exist and many of them are in train stations.

That said, please be aware that some of the best restaurants don't accept reservations anyway. Eg Hosokawa, lovely soba place near the Hokusai museum 1 Michelin star. Very simple, elegant, small menu, totally tied to the season. Lunch prices around 2,000 yen. You simply hope to get lucky - - but it would be folly to try to get in here when one of the three annual Sumo tournaments is on at the nearby Ryogoku Kokugikan. That's the sort of research required - try to suss out which neighbourhoods you'll be in at mealtimes and maybe pick some options using tabelog, chowhound, bento, michelin guide.

Re truly luxury Japanese hotel - take a look at Hoshinoya. No pool at the Tokyo hotel but these properties are of a higher order than those of the big international chains.

Re Yukari Sakamoto - her blog/articles should give an idea of the high caliber of what she offers:

ekscrunchy May 3rd, 2018 11:15 AM

Great info, thanks. I've already come across the legion of restaruants that will be impossible for me to book, even months out and even with a top hotel concierge. And many where dinners range well into the 5-figures, or many hundreds of dollars per person.

All this sounds maddening but I do realize that since I am so inexperienced with this type of cuisine, much at those top-tier places will likely be lost on me anyway. I read the description of a few of the top rank places online and honestly, even for a rabid food-hound, the flavors sound so subtle and so unfamiliar that I doubt if I would appreciate even a sublime kaiseki dinner, or even the best of the best of the sushi places. (I never knew that "fresh" is not always best with sushi, and that some fish are aged a few days before being considered ready to serve; tell that to most Americans!)

I've done some reading--just finished SUSHI AND BEYOND, where the author scores a coveted invite to MIBU, which seems to be among the top restaurants in Japan but which is effectively closed to anyone who is not a regular, or guest of a regular, and which appears almost nowhere on the internet, at least not in English.

I've been glancing at Tablelog and will make more use of that in addition to hotel concierge for selecting places to eat. And of course I've read through tons of Chowhound threads. It might be nice to be near Tokyo station of Kyoto station to have an array of places under one roof but I will save that for a time when we are too tired or too full to eat in a more well-respected restaurant. ( I know Sukiyabashi Jiro is or was in a subway station but I don't plan on getting in there, although I would not discount a place due to location.)

I will write to Kim today, Kathie. Thanks so much for the contact information and a big hello!

OOOH, Boveney, I looked at Hoshinoya and it looks astounding. There's one in Kyoto, too. And it is a Virtuoso participant. Will add it to the list!

One more thing: I'm thinking we can go for three weeks. Considering the jet lag from NYC will wipe out a day or two, I'm thinking 6-7days each in Tokyo and Kyoto, two nights in an onsen ryokan convenient to one of the two cities or both, like Hakone.

And then 5 nights(??)

Fukuoka has the reputation of being a great food city but what else is there to do there? Kagoshima is more beautiful but I don't remember that there were many sights there apart from a trip to the volcano.

I like the idea of Kyushu for the weather, the pork and beef, and the fact that maybe we can fly back from there. Will look for DC's report on that island once she (?) returns.

But open to any other suggestions on one more destination to include. Of course I will put this to Kim and see what she thinks. Should have good architecture and accessible food culture, and not involve multiple bus/train links to get there. Even thought of goingn to an onsen outside Kyoto; has anyone visited or stayed in one of those in the area of Arashiyama or beyond? (After or before stay in Kyoto city, not as alternative to city hotel/inn)

We speak no Japanese, needless to say, and I am a bit daunted by going too far off the beaten track because so much of the joy of t ravel is about talking to people. And in restaurants, like the more local izakaya and ramen places, I fear I will be confronted with a plate of pig bladder or whale meat if I can't make head or tails of the menu! Do I ahve to eat in a tourist restaurant to have an English menu? Of course I will download some app for menu translation but still....

FromDC May 3rd, 2018 12:26 PM

Kyushu is onsen heavy. Think about what you are looking for in Hakone. If it is only for a conveniently located onsen area, then you might skip it and do several ryokans/onsens in Kyushu (since Kyushu seems to interest you), then you'd get to spend a week there and fly back from Fukuoka. At this point, it's a suggestion only based on my planning for this trip (and having spent one night in Hakone). on our last trip we stayed one night at Kayotei, you could call it outside Kyoto but really not a suburb - - too far. We stayed there after Kanazawa, on our way to Kyoto. Loved it. Best food we had last trip and a serene setting.

ekscrunchy May 3rd, 2018 03:21 PM

Kayotei looks gorgeous! How did you get there?

I will read more about this and maybe substitute it for Hakone. I really wanted only to stay in a beautiful ryokan and have the baths and great scenery, and good food. Not so interested in doing activities outside the ryokan unless they are easy to access walking.

I did read about spa towns in Kyushu...It's a lot to do with the particular ryokan, I think. But did not see any one particular ryokann with onsen that looked as fablous as the two mentioned on this forum in the Hakone threads. And now Kayotei.

Also began reading about Shikoku...have you been there? Convenient to Hiroshima,, which I thought we might do as a stopover if we took train to Kyushu; I've been there but I imagine partner would lik to visit, as probably most travelers to Japan should do.

I need to get my guidebooks and spend more time reading. I wrote to Kim.

You're a great help! Thanks so much.

Boveney May 4th, 2018 02:58 AM

You don't need to eat in a tourist restaurant to find an English menu. If worse comes to worst, looking at what others are eating and pointing discreetly and asking for the same should work. Or ask for 'omakase onegai simasu' - chef's recommendation, please. Kaiseki - if you stay in a top end ryokan, you will be sampling a fine kaiseki dinner.

Another destination: have you looked at Kanazawa?

By 'architecture,' do you mean modern? Tokyo is outstanding in that regard. Kanazawa has the DT Suzuki museum. And if you go to Shikoku, the 'art islands' are easy to fit in - mind blowing architecture.

Re Tabelog - make sure you use the Japanese language version, with Google translate.

BigRuss May 4th, 2018 08:43 AM

"Do I [ha]ve to eat in a tourist restaurant to have an English menu? Of course I will download some app for menu translation but still...."

No. Many restaurants in major cities have picture-based menus and the second language of Japan is English.

"I'm thinking 6-7days each in Tokyo and Kyoto . . ."

Depending upon what rail passes you want or decide upon, you can easily extend Kyoto for day trips or go to a third destination (Matsumoto to Takayama to Kanazawa or something).

ekscrunchy May 4th, 2018 06:10 PM

Thanks..I have read a bit more and am now leaning toward a week in each city followed by train to Hiroshima so partner can experience, then on to Kyushu for 2 nights at an onsen hotel. This would be instead of Hakone. Then visit
Kagoshima or Fukuoka or both plus whatever else I find by more reading. Maybe fly home from Fukuoka via Narita.

Sounds like a plan, no?

What about hotels in Kyoto?? Not ryokan in that city? Are the monthly temple fairs good for vintage textiles? Worth keeping in mind when trip planning?

Not sure if we would get rail pass since we want so much time in Tokyo and Kyoto. (???)

Kathie May 4th, 2018 06:50 PM

With what you are planning right now, I'd be surprised if a rail pass would save you any money. But you can figure it out at

You do know about don't you?

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