I’ve just returned from escorting a small group of clients through Japan on a personalised itinerary but with the luxury of a full time professional guide. Most of our travel was via their very extensive and proficient rail system and our stays were in mainly western-style hotels, with a couple of stays in traditional Japanese-style hotels complete with their own Onsens (hot spring bath houses). Our tour included several Japanese dining experiences plus all the usual tourist attractions.
Our guide spoke perfect English, and she even understood “Australian” as she now mainly looks after Australian groups. This had several advantages, one being she understood our sense of humour, but more importantly, she knew what would interest us and knew all the protocols and procedures which enabled us to get the most from our hosts and saved what could have been many embarrassing moments. She also took us to many out of the ordinary restaurants and attractions which suited our interests that regular tourists would never find.
The extent of Japan’s train system and the amount of people using it was just mind-boggling. One particular day our travel was via tram, local train, Bullet train than local train, cable-car, and ropeway gondola just to get to a mountain spa hotel. Obviously we were the only tourists in this hotel and we would never been have able to work out connections and be at the right places even if we had a week to do it. Then we also had our guide teach us protocol and communicate with hotel staff and guests. This for us was a luxury that really allowed us to get the most from our holiday.
For most of our travel our guide organised for our main luggage to be sent ahead by courier and we would meet up with it in a couple of days. This allowed us to live out of our “carry-on luggage” which was much more manageable on public transport.
Although English is compulsory for all Japanese school students, there is very little of it spoken once you are away from the main tourist attractions and hotels. Taxis and tour buses would be easier if travelling on your own but taxi drivers have little-to-no English and it would lessen the experience. Train stations do now have signage in Japanese and English and trains and trams have announcements in both Japanese and English, but finding your way around the train stations which is choked with people going all different ways is daunting. That’s if you have managed to work out the rail system map which looks like a bowl of multi-coloured spaghetti.
On the trains and in some hotels, we ran into some Australians who were travelling independently, some with some very funny stories of finding their way (lost), none had the cultural experiences that our guide gave us and most were taking one to two months to travel hence many times more expensive than our trip.
Travelling independently certainly rewards with a great sense of adventure and reinforces that great feeling of achievement having done it on your own, but for my money to really gain an insight into the Japanese culture and history I would always do it with a professional Japanese guide.