EXCEPTIONAL SERVICE AND VALUE!!!
In the era of TripAdvisor, Expedia, and the Internet, do travel agents still serve a purpose? I’m afraid many travelers look at them like they’re magazine writers, members of a moribund industry. After using this Japanese travel agency, I can say that that the best niche travel boutiques are not only useful, but indispensable.
I travel a great deal on my own—to Italy and France, but before this trip, always on my own. However, I’d never been to a country like Japan before, one with such profound cultural and linguistic differences from America's. Hence, I thought I could probably use some help. The owner proved himself a cognoscente of Japanese culture. He is fully bilingual and steeped in the subtleties of Japanese life, having lived there five years. His insider knowledge and connections proved invaluable. The whole group undertook the trip with very lofty expectations, yet our agent still managed to exceed them. Our highest compliments to him!
Our agent custom designed our itinerary to provide an ideal balance between old and new, fast and slow, traditional rural and urban chic. After the fascination and fast pace of Kyoto, we had the relative peace and serenity of Hirsohima and Miyajima. After slow and sleepy Takayama, we had funky and overflowing Tokyo.
Even better than the planning, however, was the service. From the first white-gloved driver in Osaka to the delightful last driver who literally deposited us on our departing train, everything was world-class. We especially appreciated each of our four guides. Their expertise added immeasurably to our experience. Being Japanese gave them unique insight into the local culture, in the same way that a native speaker of a language has a natural mastery of their mother tongue. Yet their familiarity with English-speaking cultures ensured effective communication and easy social interaction. Thanks to one guide's persistence, my wife succeeded in procuring the first big Sake barrel cover in the history of Takayama. Thanks to another, we all concocted and consumed delicious Okonoyaki pancakes, despite our collective ineptitude. And thanks to yet another guide, we were able to create and devour an awesome plate of fresh sushi in a native’s home.
My wife had requested a cheesy experience, and the maiko (apprentice geishas) show delivered the goo and then some. Though the food was less than stellar—without doubt the worst meal we had in Japan—we still had a great time seeing the touristy show, in the same way one loves watching an Ed Wood movie. The highlight probably was the centenarian Geisha. Mandolin-strummer and mentor to the meikos, she resembled a preserved figure in a wax museum. The photo of Mark and her and I is priceless.
Countless kudos also for the Tokyo Robot Show. So over the top and so much fun, like seeing the production of a gay Godzilla. It mocked itself in such a fun way, yet also involved a lot of expense, hard work, crazy creativity, and genuine talent. We all thought it would be a mega-hit in Vegas.
We also really appreciated our agent's restaurant recommendations. Andy’s Izakaya in Tokyo was amazing. We devoured over three pounds of delicious crab at a great price. Our agent was really good at recommending restaurants that combined superlative food with incredible value. Indeed, that was a common theme with everything he did. Exceptional service or quality at a really reasonable price. That is why I whole-heartedly endorse his agency with no reservation. At very little extra cost, if any, versus doing-it yourself or joining a touring herd, his expertise turned what would have been a so-so vacation into a superlative one. In short, his service was not only superior, but an exceptional value.
Anyway, I cannot thank our agent or this travel company enough for arranging and executing a 30th anniversary trip that we will never forget. While I remain largely an Italian at heart, I think there’s a bit of Nihon-Jin in there too. What’s not to love? Fantastic food, fascinating sights, great tradition, genuine hospitality, and amazing technology. Early in the trip, after Jana’s many lengthy and surreptitious trips to the bathroom,, I feared my wife might elope with Toto, the Japanese toilet, but our marriage managed to weather the challenge! Anyway, God willing, I hope to return one day, again with this agency's guidance. I doubt that even another typhoon could keep me away!
Japan is an incredibly clean and well-run place, full of delicious food and amazing scenery. What we relished most, however, was the warmth of the Japanese people. Their justifiable pride in their own rich culture was matched with an authentic fondness for their guests. The first night, my wife and I went to a place in Kyoto called Kappa Sushi. We hadn’t a clue what we were doing. The sushi chef, as well as a kind couple next to us, came to our aid. After gently alerting us to our clumsy technique, they treated us to grilled eel and several other delicacies, as well as a round of exceptional sake. The husband then invited us to an elegant nearby bar that he owned. There, we met many other Japanese, one of who went to the University of Georgia, where our daughter’s boyfriend’s recently started law school. We also shared lots of drinks and even more laughs. I kept meaning to tell the owner that his English was really good, but instead drunkenly lauded his Japanese (“anata no nihongo ga jozu desu”), which resulted in much toasting and merriment.
The locals’ kindnesses were virtually innumerable. From comped wine bottles to surprise anniversary cakes to complimentary after-dinner liquers, the Japanese proved themselves as generous as they were polite. The whole staff at the Tanabe Ryokan was incredibly warm and welcoming. They playfully mocked our lousy Kimono-tying and chopstick-eating skills, while filling us full of sake and their delicious culinary creations.
In many ways, I found the courtesy, cooperation, and kindness of the Japanese culture a vast improvement over our own American tendency to disorder and self-absorption.. Besides our evident admiration for our hosts, I think they really appreciated it when told “totemo tanoshi-katta desu” and “owarimashita, okan-joo, onegaishimas,” “nihon-jin wa shitashimiyasui-desu” and the like. Honestly, you can speak their language like a 3 year-old with a knife through your head, and they’ll smile deeply and laud you as “nihongo ga jouzu-ni hanashemas.”
For a fist trip to Japan, the itinerary, service, etc., was practically flawless (99.9%). The only shortcoming, incredibly minuscule, was a meditation class where the Buddhist monk tried too hard to appeal to Western sensibilities.
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