Japan - by Janelle Johnson
I have just returned from an excellent 20-day tour of Japan offered by Adventures Abroad, 1124 Fir Avenue, Blaine, Wa 98230, l-800-665 3998. www.adventures-abroad.com.
The tour began 5/8/04 in Tokyo so I actually left Dallas on 5/7/04 and it ended 5/27/04. Price was $5,000 that included airfare from Los Angeles. I paid a single supplement of only $500.00. I expressed a wish to fly direct from Dallas to Tokyo and they readily agreed to this and arranged the ticket for slightly less than I could have obtained it from a discount company on the internet.
First I want to say that the reports of the enormous expense involved in visiting Japan are simply not true. The department store prices I saw compared with those in the nice department stores in the U.S. There was always a very well stocked 7-ll or Lawsons store near the hotel and in some instances their prices were less than those in "convenience" stores in the US. There are very nice l,050 Yen stores in many areas where things such as beautiful Geisha type dolls as well as many other nice items can be purchased for approximately $l0.00. The prices for normal souvenir type things were in no way outlandish—certainly not as cheap as China or Thailand but very reasonable.
The people were unfailingly courteous and friendly. They are delighted to have their photo taken and often asked to take pictures of us in return. The country is beautiful beyond description. I had no idea it was so lovely. And thanks to the excellent planning of AA, we saw many, many areas.
A tour to Japan is unique in a way as almost all travel is done by public transportation. The subways, the magnificent Shinkansen, and the regular JR trains are very comfortable and they are always on time. Even the city buses which we actually used a few times were right on time no matter how far we were out from the city center. Contrary to what I'd read, there are escalators in most of the stations. I only recall having to carry my 22" bag up or down stairs about 3 times. Also, I never thought the stations were "very crowded" as had been reported in travel books. They are usually like malls with all sorts of shops and amenities.
Another thing I found to be exceptional in Japan were the many clean toilets conveniently located for tourists no matter where we were. Japan is actually a very tourist friendly country and I adored it. You can drink the water anywhere.
I heard about Adventures Abroad through the Message Board at ITN. They offered much the most comprehensive tour I could find as well as buffet breakfast and dinner each day. I was impressed with the trouble free handling of my tour arrangements and actually received a phone call to let me know when my plane ticket and tour documents were being sent so that I would be at home to sign for them. They arrived over two weeks Before my departure.
The tour began in Tokyo and on the first day we were able to attend an interesting festival as well as the Imperial Palace and Museum. The next day was spent in Kamakura, the location of the 2nd largest Buddha in the world and a truly beautiful Rain Forest.
We moved on to the Hakone area where we visited the wonderful Outdoor Sculpture Garden then on to Odawara into the National Park. We finished this day by Gondola ride to a mountaintop where we could see Mt Fuji clearly. Our hotel was way up in the mountains among blooming Azaleas and the view of Fuji. Our trip to Takayama took us through the magnificent Japanese Alps. We visited the old section of the city and the Hida Folk Village as well as the Float Museum where we were amazed by the ancient intricate floats of gorgeous colors.
Kyoto is a wonderful city with its treasures left untouched by WWII. Some of us saw a delightful Geisha Show in the old section which included a lovely tea ceremony for an up close look at the Geisha costumes and makeup. The next day we visited the Golden Pavilion with its gorgeous, typical Japanese style gardens. This is truly a National Treasure, breath taking as it seems to float on the lovely lake. We were fortunate to be in Kyoto during the Hollyhock Festival and our tour director managed to work it into our schedule. Wonderful sites in Kyoto are too numerous to list but we did our best to see them all.
I wont elaborate on each place visited but the tour included Nara to see the largest bronze Buddha in the world along with many other wonderful things. We moved on to Hiroshima, a truly moving experience, Miyajima, one of the loveliest sites in Japan, Beppu where you can have a hot sand bath and where "Hell" is a lovely park with smoke rising from the pools of water and from the earth. This was the only place where we stayed in a typical Japanese Inn and slept on pallets on the floor. All our other hotels were very nice, comfortable western style hotels.
We continued to Kagoshima by train. Most of the train trips are really lovely with rivers running over rocks beside the tracks and mountains in the distance. One highlight of this area is the amazing Iso Koen Garden. Then to Kumamoto where among many other wonderful things we saw the Mt Aso Park. Fascinating to look down into a live volcano and buy bright yellow colored lumps of hardened sulphur.
We next crossed the Ariake Sea to Shimabara on a nice, clean ferry. Some of the Japanese people seemed to wonder what a small group of Americans was doing there but were very friendly and wanted their photos taken with us. The site of the buried houses and the shrine to the victims of the last eruption of Fugendake that began in l990 and continued for several years is sobering. I was surprised when our guide said that 70% of Japan is mountains and 90% of this area is mountainous. Very beautiful. We walked along plank paths across actual boiling water and mud in the "Hell" of this area. It reeks of sulphur and there is smoke rising everywhere.
Arriving in Nagasaki we went directly to the Peace Park with its many beautiful sculptures donated by different countries. Nagasaki hangs onto a mountainside and sort of slides down to the sea. The first night we were treated to a colorful fireworks display in honor of a huge ship in the harbor near our hotel. We just hung out our windows to enjoy the excitement. The next morning we visited the Glover Gardens, a large collection of colonial style homes of westerners who resided there and contributed to the history of this region. The lovely strains of the aria from Madame Butterfly is heard in one of the homes where there is a small museum devoted to this opera. A statue of Pucini and one of Madame Butterly and her son is nearby.
From Nagasaki to Fukuoka we traveled by bus along winding roads through beautiful areas. We stopped at two kilns, one deep in the lovely woods. We had shopping time at a huge group of wonderful ceramic shops that are more like museums as there are so many beautiful things. We paused at Karatsu for a walk on a beach, collecting shells, time for afternoon tea or a little shopping at a small one-man ceramic booth.
At Fukuoka we visited two very old temples, half forgotten maybe but moving to see. Then to the magnificent Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine with its lovely multiple raised red bridges over ponds of colorful carp. We were able to actually witness a baby blessing ceremony with everyone in full ceremonial kimono dress. A lovely quiet moment.
Our hotel adjoined a huge mall with a canal running through it and dancing water shows several times a day, usually to the music of Glen Miller which seemed sort of nice and homey.
Our guide, Stephen Scrogings, did a wonderful job. He somehow was able to shepherd 20 people onto and off of mass transportation in the rapid time necessary with quiet, courteous efficiency. He arranged many small additions to the tour for us and was always friendly and cheerful. This tour is a bargain for the price. We saw so many wonderful things and had so many great experiences that I cannot begin to tell it all.
The hotels were very nice, in most places the rooms were small but always had a fridge and coffee maker, robe and slippers. In most of the hotels hot thermal baths were available, many of them absolutely gorgeous baths. Breakfast was a huge buffet usually with plenty of western food as well as Japanese. I do not care for Japanese food but those who do like it said that the dinners were usually very good. I know they were arranged in different nice restaurants and there was a lot of variety of types of food and ways of serving it.
I sincerely recommend that people give Japan a chance and that they use Adventures Abroad to do it. It's a wonderful tour.
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