My sister has been to Japan a few times now and has been singing its praises every since her first visit a few years back. Couple that with reading about other bloggers adventures in Japan, I started to become increasingly jealous and curious as to what all the fuss was about.
So to cure my curiosity, this time last year we booked return flights to Tokyo for the end of September and set about planning the rest of the trip over the next few months.
We wanted of course to visit Tokyo and Kyoto and see a bit of the country side, staying in at least one rural town but beyond that we were open to anything.
As we had booked the flights so far in advance, we had plenty of time to plan and save so our budget was fairly reasonable.
Along with researching accommodation and things we wanted to see and do, I researched different ways of getting around the country. I looked into Japan’s incredible train network and also a few tour operators.
If your not familiar with Tucan Travel, they are a worldwide adventure tour operator offering all sorts of different tours mostly in the style of small group and overland adventures. They have been operating tours for many years and have a good reputation amongst those who have travelled with them.
There were a few things that attracted me to this tour in particular. Firstly, was the transport that is used throughout the tour. Rather than being stuck on a tour bus for however many hours every second day to get from destination to destination, this tour utilises only local transport making it more interesting and adventurous.
Secondly, it’s a small group tour. I think the maximum amount of travellers is about 15. One of my pet hates when travelling is large tour groups getting in mine and everyone else’s way. So the fact that this tour offered a small group size was definitely a big plus.
Finally, all the accommodation was on a twin share basis in hotels. Now, I do love staying in hostels most of the time when I travel to cut costs and because they are awesome. But most tour companies that run tours staying in hostels use dorms. Large dorms! And I’m not a dorm type of girl. I like my own space. So this was definitely another big plus for us.
Here is a run down of the tour and our experience.
$2,300 per person – this does sound expensive, I know. And it probably is but I found it to be pretty much the same price as other similar tours with other companies.
Nine nights accommodation, breakfast daily and two group dinners, tour leader, 7 day Rail Pass and all transport which included trains, taxis and some public transport in the places we visited. Entry into the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum is also included.
Bob was his name. A middle aged Aussie guy who has been running tours with Tucan and other companies around South East Asia for about seven years. He left Australia after being made redundant from his job with the intention to travel for a few months but has just never made it back home.
On our way down to Kyoto station to validate our rail passes, Bob told us he has taken groups on tours around Japan dozens of times. At that point I knew this was going to be an awesome 10 days.
Bob’s knowledge of the places we visited including the history, main attractions, delicious but cheap restaurants and only in Japan sort of bars, is what made this tour so awesome for us. He kept our small group of seven together with ease, getting us from one platform to another for short connections between trains and making sure we maximised our time in each destination.
His job was to guide us around and take care of all of the logistics but he went above and beyond to ensure that we all enjoyed our time. Taking us to restaurants and bars on his nights off and introducing us to each place with a walking tour or introduction using a map.
His guidance was invaluable and we can’t praise him enough for the way he runs his tours.
This is where our tour began. Day 1 didn’t start until the late afternoon where we met our tour guide and our fellow travellers. As the tour doesn’t spend much time in Kyoto, Tucan recommend that you arrive a few days ahead so you have time to check out this awesome city. And that’s exactly what we did.
First stop on Day 2 was this lovely town about an hour or so outside of Kyoto by train. We stored our bags in lockers at the station and Bob walked us to Himeji Castle which unfortunately at the time was mostly covered in scaffolding. We had a few hours to enter the castle and explore before making our way back to the station for our next train.
A few hours from Himeji, we finished day 2 by arriving in Nagasaki, our home for the next two nights. We had enough time to check in and freshen up before meeting our group downstairs for a short walking tour and then dinner. This wasn’t one of the included dinners but Bob took us to one of his favourite restaurants that specialise in a local dish called Champon. It was interesting is all I can say.
After dinner we continued our walking tour before Bob took us all to a bar. But not just any bar. Crazy Horse! Anyone who has been to Crazy Horse will understand why I used an exclamation mark. Basically Crazy Horse is a bar owned by a Japanese man who loves 70’s rock music. Every night him and his mates get up in the corner of this tiny bar and have a jam. It’s a very cool place and an even cooler experience. Our photo now adjourns the wall there.
Day 3 and still in Nagasaki. This was technically a free day to explore the city but Bob offered to take us all by tram up to the Peace Park so we obliged. After a short tour he left us there with instructions and suggestions on how to get back and what else to do for the rest of the day.
Day 4 we headed back to the train station and started our journey to Yufuin where we would spend the next two nights. Most of the day was spent travelling and getting on and off trains. As we would come to realise this was just the start of many many more trains to come.
Arriving in the tiny mountain town of Yufuin in the rain (it didn’t stop the whole time we were there), we made our way on foot to the hotel. Again with just enough time to check in, freshen up and visit the local supermarket before meeting the group for dinner. Bob again took us to one of his favourite places to eat (again not included), a small Japanese style pub called an Izakaya. Izakaya specialise in skewers of meat, every type of meat you can think of an then some, plus great Japanese beer.
Day 5 and our group (except me and another lady) was taken by Bob to the start of the climb up Mt Yufuin. The weather was terrible and they came back soaked to the bone (so glad I didn’t go) but enjoyed it all the same.
Making our way back to the train station in Yufuin early on Day 6, we were bound for Miyajima with a stop in Hiroshima first. In Hiroshima we stored our bags in lockers only taking with us what we needed for our nights stay on Miyajima and then went by tram to the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Museum. We had a few hours to check out the Museum and surrounding area before taking local transport, including a ferry, over to Miyajima, our home for the night.
We headed straight to our hotel, dropped our bags and Bob took us back into the main part of town and on a short walking tour to see the famous floating torii. We then had a bit of free time to explore the shops and temples in the area before meeting up for a beer and an afternoon Okonomiyaki. We then headed back to the hotel for an unforgettable included meal complete with traditional outfits and lots of sake and plum liqueur.
We had the morning of day 7 to explore around Miyajima before heading back to Hiroshima station to collect our luggage and then it was back on the train bound for Kawaguchiko. This was a long seven hour day of travelling on multiple trains but made interesting by the scenery and a unusual train (see pic below).
Another included meal (buffet, average) in the hotel and then Bob took us to another bar. I thought it was going to be tough to top the last bar but I think I may have been wrong. This one was again owned by a music obsessed Japanese man. His obsession though is Billy Joel. Only Billy Joel music gets played in this small New York styled piano bar. There is Billy Joel memorabilia adjourning the walls and an unusual stuffed animal collect on the piano in the corner. And the menu is cocktails named after……..you guessed it, Billy Joel songs. It got better when the Japanese man sat at the piano and played and sang us a fantastic rendition of Piano Man.
Day 8 was a free day in Kawaguchiko which is on the Fuji Five Lakes. We were lucky enough to catch a glimpse of Mt Fuji when we rose at sunrise, took a trip up Mt Fuji to the highest accessible point by road and toured around the lake.
Tokyo – Making the short journey to Tokyo for our second last day of the tour, day 9. Arriving before lunch time and having the rest of the day free before meeting our tour mates and guide for a farewell meal and a few (too many) drinks.
The final day of the tour ended after breakfast. We had a few extra days to explore Tokyo while most of our tour mates headed home.
Most of the accommodation was in 2-3 star hotels with the exception of Miyajima and Yufuin where we stayed in Ryoken, traditional Japanese inns. All rooms had air conditioning and breakfast was included daily. Here is a list of the hotels we stayed at.
Hotel Alpha Kyoto – The room was clean but small. Bed was comfortable and the pillows had beads in them, apparently this is very Japanese. Location was perfectly positioned in the downtown area.
New Tanda Hotel Nagasaki – Very well located across the road from the harbour and parklands. Rooms were slightly more spacious than in Kyoto and very clean. Bed was comfortable and beads in the pillow again. What I loved the most was the view from our window looking out over the harbour. Not all rooms have this view.
Yufuin Sansuikan Onsen Ryoken – This was our first taste of traditional Japanese accommodation and a step up from the 2 star hotels towards luxury. Each night at 7pm the staff would turn our rooms from day use to night use by laying out thin mattresses on the tatami matt floor. Then the next morning, while we were having breakfast, they would clear away the mattresses and turn our room back to day use. We had a sitting room space with a massive picture window overlooking the mountains which is where I spent a lot of my time. Within the hotel is an onsen (Japanese type spa) and a bar in lobby. It was quite an incredible experience.
Miyajima Seaside Hotel – Another traditional Japanese Ryoken just as incredible as the last with the same set up, except this time overlooking the water. The hotel has a games room with table tennis table which we utilised after a few drinks (much fun was had). The only downside is the location, around the northern side of the island away from the port and attractions.
Hotel Route-Inn Kawaguchiko – Located right on the lake with stunning views of Mt Fuji (when it’s not hiding behind the clouds). The room was again small but comfortable and clean. A big meals area is located off the lobby where we had our included buffet dinner and breakfast overlooking the lake.
Hotel Villa Fontaine Kayabacho – Nice, clean and comfortable hotel located about a 15 minute walk south of Tokyo station with a few subway stations closer by. We stayed in the annex building around the corner which was nice and quiet. Plenty of small bars in the area and a Starbucks up the road.
I definitely wouldn’t hesitate recommending this tour to anyone who is looking for a little adventure but doesn’t want to step too far outside of your comfort zone. You will do a lot of walking with and without your bags so pack light and bring comfortable walking shoes and wet weather gear if your planning to climb Mt Yufuin.
The tour gives you a lot of free time to explore each place as you please. And if you are travelling on your own then you have the option of hanging out with your tour mates or exploring on your own.
What made this tour so great apart from getting to see this incredible country was the great people we met in our fellow travellers and our guide Bob, for all of his knowledge and the experience travelling on Japan’s awesome network of trains.
We had the most amazing 18 days, with Japan living up to everyone’s praises.
Read More: Japan Travel Guide
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Over to you!
I’d love to hear about tours you guys have been on that you loved? Or have you used Tucan Travel before?
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Thanks for reading and I hope you enjoyed this post.