Journey across the land of the rising sun, Japan will enchant you with its beauty, simplicity, and
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Can’t-miss spots and hidden gems in the land of the rising sun.
Sit down to a traditional meal in Japan, and you’ll likely hear the word “itadakimasu” uttered by locals before eating. Loosely translated, it means “I humbly receive.” A token of gratitude derived from Buddhism.
To visit Japan is to humbly receive the multifaceted culture, history and tradition that are so deeply ingrained in the country, it can easily make visitors feel more like spectators.
Bringing travelers into the culture they’re experiencing in a way that makes them feel part of it has been one of Abercrombie & Kent’s specialties since 1962. “Our resident tour directors have lived for decades, if not their entire lives in the places that we visit,” explained product manager Beth Sherer. “As year-round residents, they possess insight into local culture that can only come from being a local themselves. They’re able to open the doors to different experiences and people that you otherwise wouldn’t have access to anywhere else.”
As a member of the United States Tour Operators Association (USTOA), the service provided by A&K tour directors goes far beyond pointing out landmarks and reciting Japanese history. “By weaving in stories of their own lives, stories of their ancestors, you feel like its living history that you’re experiencing,” said Sherer.
A&K’s Classic Japan tour blends the bustle of city life seamlessly with the tranquil wonders of serene countryside. The trip started in Tokyo with a sweeping view of the city skyline at The Ritz-Carlton’s opulent accommodations in the heart of the city. Tokyo’s itinerary featured a mix of metropolitan marvels, like a visit to the world’s busiest pedestrian crossing in Shibuya, to a personal samurai sword demonstration performed at Tokyo’s Samurai Museum. The iconic Tsukiji Market was a favorite among the group – especially for traveler Madonna Carsello, who was eager to pay a visit after seeing the spot on a list of must-see places around the world.
“Japan has a very unique food culture,” said Sherer. “It’s very different than most Western diets, and the fish market is the first encounter with how different that experience is.” Tour guide Chizuru Yanase, a Tokyo native, took travelers through each of the market items they encountered, explaining how it was caught, how it’s prepared and why it’s important to the Japanese culture.
After two full days of exploration in Tokyo, the group traveled to the nearby mountainous town of Hakone via coach, just over an hour outside the city. Travelers were then whisked away by boat on a scenic Lake Ashi excursion, featuring views of majestic Mount Fuji in the distance.
More natural wonder awaited. The serene climb up the Hakone Ropeway to the “Great Boiling Valley” of hot springs was something to marvel at alone. But arriving at the foot of the deep canyons and craters of Mount Hakone’s hot springs is one of those moments where nature humbles you and makes you feel small.
The Hakone Open-Air Museum takes the natural beauty of the town’s sprawling landscape, and magnifies it with sculpture and artwork from noteworthy artists. It’s a spot that surprised traveler Deborah Gorth. “I think the biggest benefit is that [the tour] planned places we probably wouldn’t have planned to go to ourselves, because we didn’t know the country as well as the guides who live here,” she said. “One of my favorite places was The [Hakone] Open-Air Museum, which I definitely would have passed up had I not been on the A&K tour.” Deborah and her wife Meryl had always wanted to explore Japan. So when Deborah’s parents, avid travelers Bill and Janet Gorth told her of their plans, the couple joined them.
Art is what brought Madonna Carsello and longtime friend Janice Boehm to Japan in the first place. “A few years ago we visited the Houston Fine Arts Museum and they had an exhibit on Japanese silk screens,” said Carsello. “I was just awestruck. I said, ‘I’ve got to go to Japan.'” Both women agreed The Hakone Open-Air Museum far surpassed their expectations.
“The whole museum, the way it was laid out, the sculptures were so different from one another,” said Boehm. “Having such great artists as Picasso and seeing them up close and personal was really great.”
Authenticity and access to Japan’s unique traditions are reflected in accommodations like Gōra Kadan in Hakone, a traditional ryokan so picturesque it feels as if you’ve been dropped into an intricate Japanese tapestry. Travelers were given traditional kimonos to wear during Japanese Kaiseki dinner, and had the opportunity to experience the natural hot springs baths, or “onsen” during their stay.
To reach Osaka, the next stop on the tour, travelers boarded Japan’s high speed bullet train. What could have been an overwhelming experience to navigate for first timers was made simple by resident tour director Devin Gwie, who guided the group through the bustling station and informed them of the customary way to board.
The city of Osaka has become known as a “foodie” destination – but with so many options available at the Dotonbori district, knowing where to start is key. For Yanase, it was all second nature as she moved from one food stand to the next, passing out bite-sized delicacies.
Travelers sampled specialties such as takoyaki, a grilled ball of wheat flour with octopus at the center, grilled crab legs, Kobe beef, and okonomiyaki – a pancake made with shredded cabbage, meat and seafood at the center, artfully topped with mayonnaise.
Religious experiences in nearby Nara were also made accessible to the travelers, who were able to partake in centuries old Japanese ceremonies. A retired teacher, Carsello was eager to experience the shrines and religious customs of Japan. “I formally taught world religion, so I had an introduction to Buddhism and Shintoism, but had a lot more to learn,” she said.
Todai-ji Temple in Nara was one of Carsello’s favorite sites. “Seeing the massive statues of Buddha – to really experience it, being there was just amazing.” At Kashihara Jingu Shrine, travelers took part in a Shinto purification ceremony, where priests used a white feather to cleanse the air around them. “Shinto is an old religion based on nature and hero worship,” Yanase explained. One of the most important holy places, the Kashihara Jingu Shrine is dedicated to the deity Emperor Jimmu, the founder of the Japanese nation according to mythology.
After having lunch at Le Benkei, a Michelin-star restaurant where Japan’s imperial family frequents, the travelers headed to a private sumo demonstration, where the significance of the moves and practices were explained. “Sumo started as a ritual to pray for the abandoned crops of rice,” said Yanase. “It’s the national sport of Japan.” The group was also offered the rare opportunity to enter the ring and face an amateur sumo opponent.
After two days in Osaka, culture continued in nearby Kyoto, where travelers took part in a traditional Japanese tea ceremony at the Gesshin-In temple. “One of the things we’ve seen with A&K is that the tour will organize an event or several events during the tour that are planned specifically for [us],” said Bill Gorth. During a traditional ceremony, asking questions would be off limits – but experiences like this give travelers the opportunity to interact with the Japanese preparers and performers. Another selling point for Gorth is the bond formed between travelers on the tour. After the tea ceremony concluded, one traveler volunteered to try his hand at replicating the ceremony, and offered the tea he made to a fellow tour member – rather than his wife – which got a laugh out of the group.
“Every time we have gone on a trip we’ve always found other people who have seen things and participated in activities we haven’t yet,” said Gorth. “It’s about the sights and activities on the location, but it’s also a way of making friendships with other people. We have gone home and been able to keep in touch with some of the people we’ve met, and I think that enhances both the trip itself as well as the future.”
The historic capital of Kyoto is known for vivid Shinto shrines, peaceful Zen gardens and tranquil temples. The two-day itinerary allowed travelers to walk through natural wonders like the majestic Bamboo Grove, take in the view from iconic Togetsu-kyo Bridge and peek back in time at the late artist Kawai Kanjiro’s house, a key figure in the Japanese folk art movement.
In Kyoto, there are no shortage of options – from exploring centuries old Nishiki Market to walking through over 10,000 Torii gates at Fushimi Inari Taisha.
The last night of the tour in Kyoto concluded with a traditional hot pot meal shared between guests, and a special Geiko and Maiko performance, where travelers learned the subtle nuances of Geishas as they pertain to Kyoto, their training and the way they dress to show the distinction. After the performance, both Maiko and Geiko tended to the travelers, refilling glasses and answering questions.
“For me, it’s the people and the culture,” said Carsello. “I know people are part of the culture, but we have just been so enamored with the people. They’re kind, polite, helpful. They won us over.”
To search itineraries from Abercrombie & Kent and the 75+ members of the United States Tour Operators Association that provide trips to Japan – from budget to luxury, escorted group tours to private journeys, couple-focused to family-friendly, and more, visit ustoa.com/why-we-travel/japan.
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