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PamR Jul 3rd, 2005 07:43 AM

Just back from great tour to Kyoto
Just wanted to give a quick report on a tour I took of Kyoto. It was a walking tour only in Kyoto (except the day we went to Ohara, and I also went to Nara on my free day). Lasted approximately 2 weeks. The tour company was Esprit, based in California. I can't say enough good things about it. I would have had a difficult time doing this on my own, without a tour. This was my first time in Japan and I don't know the language or read kanji, so it would have been difficult. Every day we walked about 5 miles or so to visit temples, gardens, and the homes of artisans. We stayed at a budget ryokan (traditional hotel/inn) not far from the central train station. The leader, Michael Hart, is American, but studied and worked in Japan and is fluent in Japanese and very knowledgeable about the country. I was told that all of Esprit's tour leaders are of similar calibre. We took our time to absorb the sights, yet covered a lot of ground. I liked the leader's sensitivity to the culture and buddhism. He communicated with us by speaking softly into a device from which he broadcasted; we were required to bring small portable radios which we tuned into the frequency he was on. I thought this would be weird, but it enabled us to move quietly and slowly through an area without seeming to be on a tour. He was also concerned that we not just plug in, but experience places on our own, so after giving an introduction to a place, he would then turn off the device. We experienced many fine restaurants with all different kinds of Japanese cuisine, including tofu and vegetarian restaurants. On my own I ate at simple rice-bowl type places, but the group meals were far superior. This part differed from any group tour I'd even been on. The quality of food was very high, and some of the restaurants were listed in the guide books I'd consulted and given high marks by them. It was hot and humid in Kyoto now, but amazingly green and beautiful. A great time to be there. Now I know why you all love Japan so ;-)
Best to everyone,

laurieco Jul 3rd, 2005 08:20 AM

Pam, that seems like a very interesting tour! I'm not one for group tours but this kind seems so out of the ordinary. Next time you go, you should experience Tokyo. It's a wonderful city and the people are as nice there as they are in Kyoto.

emd Jul 3rd, 2005 08:32 AM

Pam: Thanks so much for the report. I have been doing research on art and craft oppurtunities in Kyoto and I have seen Espirit's website. It looked interesting. Can you say a bit more about the artisan part of the tour? Did you go to their studios and watch them, what kind of art/crafts, and did you get to participate in doing any hands-on activities?
Can you give us more info on some of the restaurants you ate at? My daughter is vegetarian so I am also researching that aspect for the next trip, if you can recommend the places where you dined.
Thanks again.

glorialf Jul 3rd, 2005 09:34 AM

I also used Esprit for Japan-- did the walking tour of Kyoto and would highly recommend them. They took you to places and enabled you to meet artists that would have been impossible on our own. They also do wonderful independent tours.

They have different tours with different specialities. Kyoto was more general but we spent half a day with a caligrapher in his home studio, with a monk who made Noh masks, with a cook who gave us a cooking class, with a woman who was an expert in textiles and with a potter.

If you see any of their tours that are led by Nancy Craft she is a real expert in crafts. She arranged the independent aspect of our trip and was sensational.

emd Jul 3rd, 2005 10:11 AM

I took a closer look at their site. I didn't realize they did independent tours focusing on art/crafts and providing hands on experience. That is exactly what I am looking for, and I have emailed them. Thanks so much for the info.

glorialf Jul 3rd, 2005 01:55 PM

emd-- if your main interest is crafts you are better off taking one of their tours. They can arrange things for you independently but if you're on your own you won't be able to communicate with the artists since the majority of them don't speak English and hiring a private guide to interpret can be very expensive. We did one of their tours and added in two weeks of independent travel.

PamR Jul 3rd, 2005 02:04 PM

I'd agree with glorialf regarding whether it would work to do the independent tour and visit artisans. They speak very limited English. The gardens and temples tour I was on did include several artisans, but as glorialf points out, it wasn't the focus of the tour. If that's your interest, it would be good to try to get a more focused tour. On the other hand if you want to see temples and gardens, you will see plenty on the tour I took. Another warning is there is a LOT of walking. Some of the people in our group opted for taxis and even that wasn't a perfect solution of those with knee problems and the like. I saw similar artisans to what Glorialf mentioned. Hope this helps.

glorialf Jul 3rd, 2005 03:12 PM

It IS a lot of walking and the days are very full ones. Not much free time.

PamR Jul 4th, 2005 07:22 AM

I meant to address emd's question about vegetarian food. One guidebook I had read said it was difficult for vegetarians in Japan because so many things are cooked with fish broth and have fish (bonita) flakes in them, among other things. You can get vegetable dishes, but cooked without meat or fish in the broth is difficult. This proved to be true for the vegetarian in our group. The guide would call restaurants ahead to be sure to accommodate her. On your own this would be tricky if not impossible. On our free days, she'd often eat eggs a lot. (If you don't eat dairy, it's even more difficult) So it can be done, but it's hard. But we went to one vegetarian restaurant in Kyoto which was great. It's Izusen at Daitokuji temple. It's open 11-4 only, 7 days a week except the end of December. I had heard good things about it and really loved it. It would be worth your doing a little research on vegetarian restaurants if you are planning on traveling there independently.

Linda05 Jul 4th, 2005 08:15 AM

Hi emd,

I have a recommendation for a veggie restaurant in Kyoto. It's called Cafe Peace, and it is up by Kyoto University. It has a very nice casual atmosphere, and the food was great. I believe it was kittycatangel who found it and recommended it to me. Here's the site:

Also, the best veggie meal I had was at Koyasan. Not sure if you were planning on going there. How old is your daughter?

And, when I booked my accomodations, if it was a ryokan, I made sure they knew in advance that I would need a veg. meal. I didn't have any problems, even when I stayed at an inn in Magome, where I was told that it would be very difficult to get an all vegetarian meal.

I realize that it's possible that there may have been fish broth in some of the things that I was served, but I was not too concerned about it b/c I had made my best efforts (and, I really don't think there was any.)

So, with a little advance planning, I think it's easy enough to accomodate a vegetarian in Japan. (Oh, and breakfast is certainly easy enough . . . what with all of those pastry shops!!!!!)

emd Jul 4th, 2005 08:45 AM

Thank you both for the vegetarian tips and recommendations, I have noted them. My dughter will be 13 and she does eat dairy, just not meat or fish. But she is ok w/fish broth, just not the meat, so I think we will be ok. Big breakfast, and if we are not eating dinner at a vegtarian restaurant, she can have noodles, kitsune, etc. and take her vitamins.
Those Espirit tours look great. I am looking into Naoshima Island and the Benesse art project which I saw on one of their tours. It looks amazing.

Elainee Jul 5th, 2005 07:23 AM

You can go to Benesse on your own. Reserve on their website. We had reservations there but decided to go to Kobe instead. Had host in Kobe and not enough time for both. Benesse looks great for a full day after travel.

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