My wife and I chose this agent and his company because he had spent 14 years living in Japan. He is also fluent in Japanese. We felt that he had the right combination of being an American who also was attuned to the culture and rhythm of Japan. We had been to Japan twice before – Kyoto for two weeks together; my wife, Kyoto for three weeks when my she attended a course on Japanese gardens, and I, ten days in Tokyo for work. This tour took us from Osaka (Kansei) to Hiroshima and back to Kyoto in 17 days.
We are experienced travelers who have driven around Europe, taken river cruises, and a few escorted tours to SE Asia, Russia, and India. Although we had taken trains before, we were surprised and curious how a trip entirely structured around trains and mass transit would fair. We also had only three of seventeen days with guides – one day in Osaka, and two days with our homestay host.
Here is what stood out. First, the guides – their spoken English was excellent. They were well informed and flexible. Our guide for Osaka met us when we deplaned at Kansei Airport. She immediately got us the official JR rail passes and reserved seats on trains that could have been crowded given that we were in the Fall (leaf peeping) high season. She then gave us a detailed itinerary of where we would be each day and what trains to take with the exact times of each train and the corresponding departing and arrival stations. If you have any trepidation about train travel in Japan – lay them to rest. Not only does Japan have the most efficient and cleanest rail travel (we have been on many European rail lines), the trains run exactly on time. So, one can easily find which train to take by looking at the schedule board at each station. The signs (almost 98% of the time) are in both Japanese and English. We found that if you missed one train, another would arrive in a few minutes going to the same destination. Almost every station has escalators and elevators.
Our homestay host gave a very texture feel for rural Japan. Her village indeed has only 300 people. We walked around the village and a broader surrounding area that encompassed farmland, a working grain elevator, the village park and recreation area. We also went to the larger town to enjoy her local ramen shop, the grocery store where I found these marble-sized ume that I loved the previous time we were in Japan, a second-hand store, and the next day to an antique shop. What a contrast from the usual portrayal of Japanese squeezing on subway cars (we had that experience during Osaka rush hour). We would recommend that everyone if they have the time, take the option of two days at a home stay.
Second, the places were stayed. We kept commenting that it seemed like we had the best room in the house and our hotels/ryokans were well located. The western styled hotels were top of the line – the hotel in Osaka was right above the Namba station (the Nanka rail and three subway lines); the hotel in Takamatsu was a block from the main railroad station; the hotel in Hiroshima was within 400 meters of the Peace Memorial Building; and the Kyoto hotel was above Kyoto Station. The ryokans had the old-world charm. In three of them, we were in our own separate building. In another, we were in the corner room with own bath overlooking the valley; however, we also opted to take the funicular to the onsen by the river. We were in awe with the dining in the ryokans; beautiful presentation with Michelin-star quality taste.
Third, our agent was a good listener. After proposing an initial route, he fine-tuned it based upon feedback that we gave him. Whenever I sent an email, he responded within 24 hours. When I asked for advice, he gave his opinion. His recommendation for us to book the home-stay was spot on. Thanks to this agent and his company – highly recommended!
We enjoyed so many different experiences. If I had to choose three, they would be: our two day home-stay, the Peace Park in Hiroshima, and the adventure of getting to our ryokan in the Iya Valley and our stay there (location, and relaxing in the natural hot spring waters of the onsen by the river).
Assuming that we would go for 17 days (my wife wants our trips to be limited to 14 days), we would want to spend another day in Koya-san. You can see much in in six hours of daylight, but to walk around and get the ki-mo-chi (the feeling) of the place, you would need another day at least. We lost some time because the cable car ride to the mountain was out of order because of the typhoon that came through the region two weeks before we arrive in the area. Also, the number of tourists have increased dramtically since were last in Kyoto in 2005. I don't know if one can find a window of time in which the weather is good and number of tourist is somewhat down. We knew that we were going at a peak time.
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