Tauck Essence of Japan itinerary map

My wife and I went on this trip in April 2016. We had a wonderful time, and thoroughly enjoyed our exploration of Japan on this tour. We want to share our experience with others who might be considering taking this Tauck tour, or have already booked it and are looking for information to help them plan.

IMPORTANT: Tauck has made substantial itinerary changes since we took this tour. The changes took effect in 2017 (see the 2017 itinerary differences). Because of that, some of our experiences will be different than future tours. But hopefully my information will at least give some overall insight into Tauck tours in general, and some specifics about the Japan experience.

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Photographs Taken On This Tour

You may view the photo gallery with our pictures from this tour to see the beauty of the area. It opens in a new tab.

Our Experience

Before going on this tour, we did some reading in hopes of preparing for the different and somewhat unique Japanese culture. But we were still caught off guard by the politeness of the people, the beauty of the land, and the incredible recovery since the devastations of WWII.

We had already traveled to numerous other Asian countries, but Japan was definitely different. With the help of a wonderful Tauck Tour Director and some amazing local guides, we were able to experience the country in a way that would have been impossible on our own. We came home with a new understanding and appreciation of Japan and its people. We now have an understanding that allows us to see all things related to Japan in an entirely different light.

We are so glad we took this tour. Our bucket list of foreign travel is long. I admit, Japan wasn't near the top. But now that we have gone, I think it should have been in my Top 10. We definitely plan on returning to Japan in the future, and that's not something we can say with every country we visit.

Tauck graphicChoosing Tauck

We chose Tauck for a number of reasons:

  1. We have toured with Tauck numerous times already, and they have set the tour company standard for us. We have taken other tours with Trafalgar, Uniworld, and Insight, and Tauck has been our best experience.
  2. Tauck has a good balance of scheduled activities and free time.
  3. Tauck tends to book hotels that are better located, making it easier for us to explore on our own during our free time.  The hotels are of better quality than with most other companies.
  4. We appreciate how Tauck does not try to up-sell extra activities or options during their tours.
  5. They also do not make stops at places that are clearly shopping stops thinly disguised as sightseeing.
  6. The Tauck reputation as a company helps them attract top-notch tour directors.

Planning Our Trip

We decided to visit Japan to supplement our previous Asian travels (China, India, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunai, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand). For the last couple of years, we have been a weekend host family for numerous Japanese exchange students who are in our town to study English; this increased our interest in visiting Japan, so we bumped it higher on our travel wish list.

Booking Our Tours

When Tauck released the 2016 itinerary and pricing in 2015, we immediately selected the date we desired, and had Mindy book it for us. We knew that many of the Japan tours sell out very quickly, and we didn't want to miss out on our preferred dates. We also asked Mindy to add two additional pre-nights stay, as is our usual routine.

First a good word for our travel agent Mindy. She gets us literally the best prices available (not only with Tauck, but on our cruises also), and has booked many tours and cruises for us. Mindy is very experienced with booking Tauck tours, and has been great to work with.  Pavlus Travel books more Tauck Tours than any other travel agency. I have no hesitations recommending her if you are considering booking a tour with Tauck. Here's how to reach Mindy.

Here is the information Mindy needed to relay to Tauck order to book our reservations:

I gave her the information, she called Tauck and made the booking, and confirmed our booking within a few hours.  She said that Tauck usually mailed out documents 1 to 3 weeks after final payment is received (which is due no later than sixty days before departure).

Incidentally, Pavlus Travel is "the world's largest single office seller of Tauck World Discovery Tours".  I appreciate working with a travel company that has plenty of experience with the specific travel I am doing.

Cancellation Fees

Taking various factors into account, we are comfortable declining travel insurance.  But we always try to familiarize ourselves with policies concerning cancellations.  Tauck's cancellation fees for this tour (if you didn't have Guest Protection or Cancellation Fee Waiver) were:

Pre-Tour Documents From Tauck

Soon after paying the deposit on our reservation, our travel agent forwarded us a "Summary of Purchase" from Tauck, showing pertinent reservation details, including total package cost, payments made, balance due, and final payment due date. After every payment on our balance, we were sent an updated invoice.

We received our final tour documents about two weeks after making our final payment through our travel agent. The Tauck documents were sent to the travel agency, who then sent them to us, along with additional Pavlus items, via UPS. We received a tracking number so we could track our package, which was helpful since it required a signature for delivery.

The most important document was the 5.5" x 8.5" spiral-bound book customized for us, entitled "How You See The World Matters...Documents For Your Journey." Along with luggage tags, this booklet contained these sections:


DAY-BY-DAY — Our Itinerary at a Glance (Note that Tauck has made substantial itinerary changes since our 2016 tour)

Thursday April 7 Travel day

We chose to arrange our own flights. Our usual routine is to plan our flights so we arrive at our destination at least one day before an actual group tour (or cruise) begins, but often we plan two or even three days on our own at the start. We have found that the extra days really helps us acclimate to the new time zone, and allows us to start the group tour in much better shape.

Today our flight left home early Thursday morning. Our arrival will be on Friday since we travel west from Seattle, and cross the International Date Line.

Friday April 8 Travel day; Osaka

Our flight arrived in Osaka at 6:15pm, which was 45 minutes ahead of schedule. The arrival routine in Japan is no different from other travels. We first went through Immigrations for photo and fingerprint scan, and passport check. Then we picked up our checked bags and efficiently passed through Customs.

We easily found our Tauck representative standing right outside Customs, holding the green "Tauck" sign. The representative said there was one more couple joining us for the ride to the hotel, so we went to an ATM that we spotted right outside of Customs. It was an 7-Eleven branded ATM; we knew from our research that these were good and safe ones to use in Japan.

Once the other couple found our representative, we were led outside to the awaiting van. The ride to our St. Regis Osaka hotel took about 45 minutes.

At the hotel, we were met outside by hotel staff, and escorted to the 12th floor, where the reception desk is located. Our passports were collected and we were asked to take a seat. Five minutes later, another staff came to us with our room keys and passports. He got our suitcases off of the bellhop trolley and escorted us into another elevator and up to our room. The elevator required swiping of the room key to allow access to room floors.

We were very tired from travel, so decided to go to bed once we were settled in, which was about 8:45pm. Housekeeping knocked on the door at 8:40pm for turn down service, but we politely declined. Then we found the Do Not Disturb light button.

Hotel: The St. Regis Osaka (1st of 4 nights; extra pre-stay night)

Saturday April 9 Osaka

The entire day today is on our own since we opted to arrive early.

We woke up nice and early, and had trouble figuring out the Nespresso coffee machine in our room. We asked our room butler (standard with every room in this hotel) for a couple of new Nespresso pods. Ten minutes later he was in our room, showing us how to use the machine. Turns out we simply hadn't put enough water in the reservoir. The butler also delivered a couple of extra pods to the magical butler closet.

On Tauck tours, we rarely completely unpack our suitcases. We only get out what we will be wearing during our stay at a particular location. But, one of our travel strategies is for my wife and I to pack our belongings into each of our two suitcases. That way, if one suitcase doesn't make it, we will both have at least some things in the other suitcase. Therefore, at our first hotel we repack our suitcases so that we each have our own suitcase for the remainder of the tour. We have learned from experience that once you are on the Tauck tour, it is very rare for them to lose a suitcase.

After enjoying a refreshing shower (five shower heads in the shower!), we packed our day bags and reviewed our notes about what we wanted to do today.

We went to the 12th floor restaurant for breakfast (buffet style, included with room). It was a nice mixture of Asian and Western selections. We were very satisfied with the Japanese selections. In addition to the buffet, one item cooked to order could be included.

After breakfast, we stopped at the reception desk and asked for smaller currency for one of my three ¥10,000 bills I had brought from home. The smaller denominations would greatly help our day-to-day incidental expenses. We were also given a map of the area, with our hotel clearly marked. We told him where we planned on going today, and he marked the map for us. He pointed out that the map also had taxi information on the back for taxi drivers who don't know English or don't know where the hotel is located.

Our self-planned adventures today started with a walk towards the river, with many photo stops along the way. We thought there would be more people out at 8:30am. After visiting a couple of temples, we made our way to the fish market, which was very busy and bustling with activity. The market was mostly locals, with few tourists. We had an early lunch at one of the stalls, finding a few of the Japanese foods that were on our "Japanese foods to try" list. More strolling, and we stopped in a Starbucks for coffee and restroom. We continued to Dotonbori Street, walking up and down the street, slowing for window shopping, people watching, and numerous photos. We had fun looking at all the fake food displays that are common at restaurants. We eventually headed back to the hotel, stopping for a treat in a bakery. We were back at the hotel by late afternoon.

Before leaving the hotel this morning, I placed two shirts in the butler closet for pressing. The freshly-pressed shirts were awaiting in this magical closet when we returned.

We charged camera batteries, took a brief nap, wrote some notes, and watched the sunset from our room.

When we went out for dinner, the manager saw us on the 12th floor reception area, and rode with us in the elevator to the ground floor, walked us outside, and pointed out directions and various recommendations. We found a hole-in-the-wall noodle restaurant, full of locals, and had a fun and challenging dinner there. For desert, we had some mini tarts from another bakery; one custard and one cherry flavored. We peeked into a pet shop, and were surprised by some of the prices, such as $7,000 U.S. equivalent for a kitten.

When we returned to the hotel at 8:30pm, there was a packet of papers under our door. The packet was our Welcome Packet from our Tauck Tour Director named Kit. Hotel housekeeping arrived at 8:40pm for turn down service, and left two new bottled waters. We read through the papers and familiarized ourselves with the details.

Hotel: The St. Regis Osaka (2nd of 4 nights; extra pre-stay night)

Sunday April 10 (Tauck Tour Day 1) Osaka

Meals: D

Tauck booklet description: Transportation from Osaka's Kansai or Itami Airport to the Tauck hotel is included upon your arrival. VERY IMPORTANT: For detailed instructions, be sure to carefully read the "Arrival and Transfer Instructions" section earlier in this booklet. To locate the "Arrival and Transfer Instructions," please consult the table of contents at the front of the booklet. Join your fellow travelers this evening for a welcome reception and dinner. Detailed information on where and when we'll gather will be provided on Day 1 of your Tauck itinerary.

Today is the official Day 1 of the tour. The entire day is on our own, and group tour activities start with tonight's Welcome Dinner.

We awoke early again, but using the Nespresso machine was a snap this time. I prepared by satchel for today's exploration, loading it with spare camera battery, memory card, power bar snack, hand sanitizer, map, guides. I took pictures of a couple of last night's handouts so I would have copies of them on my phone for quick reference.

We were at breakfast at 6:50am, and there were only six other people there. Again we had mostly Japanese food. This morning we also ordered cappuccinos with breakfast.

I again stopped at the reception desk and asked for smaller currency for another one of my three ¥10,000 bills.

We left the hotel around 8:30am for another day of adventuring on foot. Today we went out of the hotel and turned the opposite direction of yesterday morning's walk. We again found a few temples to explore and photograph. One had many cherry trees that were just finishing their peak blossoming for the spring. We continued our walk, passing many small sculptures dotting the sides of this street.

We eventually came to the river and followed the southern path along the bank, through a rose garden, and all the way to a park at the end. There were many people proudly walking their dogs in this area. We then crossed the river to the north side, walking further, and finding a beautiful path lined with blossoming cherry trees. The blossoms were just starting to fall off, so a few gusts of wind made it feel like a wonderful warm weather snowfall.

We had passed many vending machines that are ubiquitous in Japan. We decided to try one of them. We put in our money and selected one of the canned coffee drinks. Much to our surprise, the can came out hot! It tasted better than we expected also.

We walked west along the river, and eventually came to the Art Museum, with it's interesting architectural features. It was right next to the Science Museum. We purchased our admission tickets, then went to the information desk for a photographer's pass. Before going further, we had a nice lunch at their cafe where we were able to check a couple more items off of our "Japanese foods to try" list. Then we explored the museum. Photos were not allowed at one exhibit, but okay in most areas. We again noticed that there were not many foreigners here; it was mostly Japanese.

By mid-afternoon we were ready to retrace our steps back to the hotel. Along the way, we passed a demonstration by an animal rights group, being escorted by police along the main street. It seemed very peaceful compared to some of the demonstrations we have seen in other countries.

We returned to the hotel, rested our weary feet, and refreshed ourselves for the evening. As instructed in our Tour Director Kit's handout, we went to the 11th floor (banquet and business rooms) for the Welcome Reception at 6:00pm.

Our Tour Director greeted each person as they entered the banquet room, giving them a sticker to write their names. This would be the only time that name tags were suggested on the tour. Kit also handed out a card that was printed with each guest's name and hometown. There was an open bar for cocktails or soft drinks. Once everyone was in the room, Kit walked around and gathered the information sheet that was in our welcome packet and we were asked to fill out and bring to this reception.

Kit talked to us a little, and then he asked each guest or couple to introduce themselves, telling where they are from, and how many prior Tauck tours they have been on. Our tour group numbered 20 people, but there were two last-minute cancellations. We noted that there were more first-time Tauck travelers on this tour than we found to be the norm on our other Tauck trips. We were then given time to mingle and get to know each other.

Most men were dressed in sports coats. Only one wore a necktie. About half of the women wore dresses; the remainder wearing nice slacks.

At 7:00pm we were escorted to another room for our dinner. We chose our own table seats at the tables set for eight people each. We had a choice of entrée of wagyu beef tenderloin or lobster; the rest of the menu was set. Grilled salmon appetizer, pumpkin soup, bread. Tapioca with fruit sorbet for desert. Coffee and tea afterwards. Right after the first course, Kit talked more. He gave more details about tomorrow's schedule. He excused himself shortly afterwards for the rest of the evening. Most everyone left as soon as coffee was served since many in the group were still weary and jet lagged.

While we were at dinner, housekeeping did their turn down service. This evening they left kimonos in addition to the regular hotel bathrobes.

Hotel: The St. Regis Osaka (3rd of 4 nights)

Monday April 11 (Day 2) Osaka, Hiroshima

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: From Osaka, travel aboard a bullet train for a visit to Hiroshima. A ferry takes you to Miyajima Island (a holy site of Shinto) for a walk to view the often photographed Itsukushima Shrine and its floating torii gate. Have lunch on the island and return by ferry to Hiroshima for a visit to the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, where the first atomic bomb fell on August 6, 1945. Today it is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Your visit is poignant, the story described in words, pictures, artifacts and optimistic hope represented by the peace flame that burns outside the museum. Return to Osaka by train for an evening arrival back at your hotel.

By now we had the Nespresso coffee machine in our room mastered, which helped our early morning. Knowing that the weather can be very different in different areas of the country, we put one travel umbrella in my satchel for today, along with my usual day trip items. We were at the restaurant for breakfast when they opened at 6:15am for us.

The group met in the lobby at 7:15am. Our local Guide Machiko was introduced to us. She would be with us until Kyoto. We were led out to our awaiting coach. Machiko pointed out the seating chart posted on the door. Most Tauck tour directors prepare a new seating chart every morning, rotating guests in a circle one or two rows every day so that everyone gets a chance to sit up front, and everyone gets a chance to chat with someone new across the aisle. This arrangement has worked out extremely well on all the Tauck tours we have been on.

Our coach ride to the new Osaka train station took about 20 minutes. Complementary bottled water was available for us on the coach. Tour Director Kit led us on our short walk inside the station to our numbered platform. We had another 20 minutes to wait until our 8:15 train arrived. There were a couple of small kiosks with snacks and reading material. Some people bought the unusual "Black Black" caffeinated chewing gum. At 8:10, Kit showed us exactly where to stand, exactly how to line up, and exactly what to do as soon as the train arrived. This was because the trains in Japan are extremely timely, they don't stay long at each stop, and the Japanese passengers know what to do to keep it that way. A local person saw our orderly line and smiled, approving of what we were doing.

One train arrived, but it wasn't ours. It unloaded and loaded very fast. We looked down the line and saw a different group of Westerners boarding slowly and delaying the stop. Soon after this, our train arrived. We all quickly boarded and easily found our seats. Our reserved seats were on Car 12, Rows 5 to 8.

Our train ride to Hiroshima took about 90 minutes. A service cart soon came through our car, with the attendant bowing every time he entered a new car. He turned around and bowed again to the passengers right before he left each car. The Japanese travelers in our car were all extremely quiet throughout the ride. This was in contrast to our group of Westerners, who chatted and laughed loudly.

Kit handed out our listening devices; he called them "Ear Buddies". We were to keep these in our possession the entire tour. He said we would use them often. We would turn them back in at the end of the tour, and lost ones cost $40. He had extra earpieces and batteries if anyone ever had any problems with them. The ear piece plugged in via a mini-jack. A few people used their own personal ear buds.

Our bullet train traveled at a top speed of 190mph although it was capable of going significantly faster. It was a very smooth and quiet ride, even at high speed. Even though the bullet train was just a way of getting us from Osaka to Hiroshima, it was a fun experience on its own merit. Kit gave us a 10-minute warning before our arrival in Hiroshima. At arrival, getting off was smooth and quick. We followed our local guide Machiko outside to our awaiting coach with a Tauck sign in the window.

We were on the coach at 10:00am, using the same seating chart as earlier this morning. On our 45-minute drive through Hiroshima to the ferry terminal, Kit talked about many different things. Japanese religion, Buddhism, Shintoism, shrines, sumo, torii gates, Japanese dichotomies, Japanese words. He taught us the Japanese word "Sumimasen", which can be used in many different situations. It sort of means "sorry", or "excuse me". There was a tremendous police presence on the streets of Hiroshima because Secretary of State John Kerry was visiting Hiroshima for the G-7 talks. Kit also told us about Miyajima Island, which is a sacred Shinto island which we were about to visit. The fire at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial came from Miyajima Island.

Then our local guide Machiko took over the microphone. She gave us a lot of fascinating cultural information including weddings, religion, purification, geography, death rituals.

Kit said that we probably have already noticed that Japanese pay great attention to the little details in every aspect of life. But he feels that because of this, they sometimes lose the big picture, and are not always flexible.

We arrived at the ferry at 10:45, and were on board by 11:00. There were a couple of vending machines on the ferry, and restrooms were located on the boarding dock right beside the boarding area. The ferry was enclosed except for the upper deck. Only a few people ventured upstairs to the open deck because it was breezy and chilly. But we did because the view was nice, and this was probably the only time we would ever be here. At 11:20 we were off the ferry and grouped outside the other end, on Miyajima Island. Machiko led us on a leisurely stroll to the famous and sacred temple. This took about 15 minutes, walking along the water. There were numerous tame deer along the way. We were warned ahead of time to keep all our belongings away from the deer or they would steal them.

Once at the temple, Machiko led us along a prearranged route, the same route that all the visitors walked. It took about 45 minutes to stroll the highlights of the temple, with photo stops at strategic spots. We saw a young Japanese couple in wedding attire posing for their professional photographer.

After the temple, we walked about 10 minutes to a restaurant in a nearby hotel for our lunch at 12:30pm. Lunch was kaiseki style, which is a traditional multi-course Japanese meal, allowing us to sample many different small dishes in one meal. This would be the first of many fun kaiseki meals. We were guided to tables for our group, each table holding four people, with everyone choosing their own table mates. Lunch was finished at 1:05pm. We had 25 minutes to walk around the shopping street immediately outside. At 1:30 the group met again outside the lunch restaurant, and we walked back to the ferry in 10 minutes.

At 2:00pm we were on our coach again, and on our way back to Hiroshima. Kit gave us instructions for dinner tonight; choice of either hotel restaurant (Italian or French), with a la carte menu, and we could order anything we want. No reservations needed, but he took a preliminary preference count for each one so he could give the restaurants a general idea of numbers.

We reached our drop-off point in Hiroshima City at 2:30, which was close to the A-Bomb Dome. We were told that the usual scaffolding had been removed from the dome because of the G-7 Summit, so we were lucky to see the unobstructed dome today. We then strolled towards the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Park and Museum. The G-7 talks were in session in a building adjacent to the museum, so police presence as well as crowds were large. The wreaths were still at the memorial, placed there yesterday by the various world leaders. We went into the museum at 3:15, and had one hour to go through it at our leisure. The group met outside at 4:15.

We were back on our coach at 4:20 for our drive back to the Hiroshima Station. During the short ride, Kit discussed the lack of context in the museum, and how this is on purpose. The Japanese feel it is a peace memorial, not a war memorial. We arrived at the station at 4:37. We waited inside the station until 5:00, then walked as a group up and out to our platform. The platform here is very noisy, and not a pleasant place to wait, which is why Kit had us wait inside as long as possible. We soon boarded our train, which left at 5:15.

It was again a 90-minute train ride back to Osaka, and then a 20-minute coach ride back to the hotel. Kit again reviewed the dinner options, and went over tomorrow's schedule. He also reviewed luggage protocol for the rest of the trip. We arrived back at the hotel just past 7:00pm.

We went back to the room to freshen up, although some in our group went directly to dinner. We chose the Italian restaurant. The waiter told us that one pizza was a good size for two to share, and he was correct. We also had small salads and a small pasta course, but skipping dessert.

Dinner was quick, and we were back in our room at 8:30pm. Before returning to our room, however, we stopped at the reception desk to settle our room account so that tomorrow's checkout would be quicker. It was a long day with an early start, so we called it a night.

Hotel: The St. Regis Osaka (4th of 4 nights)

Tuesday April 12 (Day 3) Osaka, Kyoto

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: City sightseeing this morning includes two of Osaka's most popular landmark sights. Once the largest castle in Japan, Osaka Castle has been destroyed and restored several times. A guided tour reveals its massive stone walls, black and white gold leaf trim, copper roof and panoramic views. Enjoy a stroll on Dotonbori Street and lunch at a local restaurant before traveling to the enchanting city of Kyoto. Dinner is at a local restaurant.

Since we were departing today for Kyoto, we packed our suitcases before breakfast. We were at the restaurant at 6:35am, and were the first people there. After breakfast we returned to our room and completed our packing and had the suitcases ready for the 8:00am pickup time, confirming that each of the two bags had the Tauck bag tag attached to it, and our name was written on the tag. As with most Tauck tours, we were instructed to leave the bags inside our rooms (many other tour companies require guests to put their bags in the hallway outside the room).

Our bags were picked up at 8:15. After checking drawers, bathroom, and emptying the safe, we gathered all our belongings and went to the lobby for the designated 8:50 meeting time. We dropped our room key off at the front desk on our way; we had settled our account last night so we had no bill to pay. The group was led immediately outside to the awaiting coach. The coach driver took any carry-on items that guests didn't want to take into the coach, and stowed them in the luggage hold with the other suitcases. The weather today was clear and sunny, but a bit chilly, so most wore or carried light jackets. Our local guide Machiko was awaiting us on the coach.

We drove about 30 minutes to our first stop, Osaka Castle. On the way there, Tour Director Kit told us about the castle, and how to best see it on our own since we were free to tour it unguided. He told us where the coach would be waiting afterwards because it would not be at the same drop-off place. He told us that the castle grounds have a very Chinese feel, and therefore is popular with tourists from China. Kit also talked about the lineage of the current emperor (120 generations), and about the Japanese tradition of bowing (many Japanese bow 250 to 300 times a day without even thinking about it).

We put on our "ear buddies" on the coach, and started using them as soon as we got off and started our 20-minute stroll along the mote to the front castle gate. Kit said that this is where we were to meet at 11:00. At this point we were free to tour the castle on our own. One hour was plenty of time. The top floor of the castle had nice panoramic views of the area. Photographs were not allowed of the inside exhibits.

Back on the coach, and on our way to lunch at 11:30. Kit talked about Japanese writing; symbols vs phonetics. Today's lunch is called a Viking meal; that's what Japanese call a buffet smörgåsbord. We arrived at the Rihga Royal Hotel at 11:50am, and went inside for the awaiting lunch. Our group had two long tables reserved. Kit watched our lunch progress, and let us know when to return to the coach. He recommended using restrooms here because it will be a one-hour drive to Kyoto next. We were on the road at 1:10pm.

At 2:15pm we pulled into our Kyoto hotel. The hotel staff was waiting to greet s outside. Our room keys were inside labeled envelopes on a table just inside the hotel entrance. The keys were on a heavy key chain, meant to be turned in at the front desk whenever leaving, rather than taken with guests. Kit told us that most hotels in Kyoto have separate beds; only a few have king beds. He also said the hotel quality isn't bad, but isn't the best available. It was chosen because it is in a much better location than the nicer Four Seasons or Ritz-Carlton (they are 15 minutes away). Our suitcases were waiting in our rooms by the time we got there. We had 45 minutes to settle in.

At 3:00pm we met in the lobby for a walking tour, led by Tour Director Kit. He led us on a meandering stroll for about 1 hour 15 minutes, narrating the entire time with interesting information. This gave us a good overview of Kyoto, and of the area we were in. We ended the walking tour by a covered pedestrian shopping area. He pointed out a 7-Eleven, informing us that they actually have very good coffee there, as opposed to 7-Eleven coffee in the states. They also have safe and easy-to-use ATMs. Starbucks does not open until 8:00am. Kit then walked back to the hotel. Some guests went back with him, and some (including us) explored on their own from here.

My wife and I walked the extensive covered shopping area. We found a couple of temples tucked in among the shops, and went into each one. We were learning that although the temples are found everywhere, there are some fun and interesting differences that make each one unique. By the time we returned to the hotel, it was almost 6:00pm. We unpacked a few clothing items, did some hand laundry in the sink, and dressed for dinner.

We met at 6:50pm in the lobby. The group walked to the Fortune Garden dinner venue across the street. It was a private facility that specialized in catering. Dinner menu was fixed, mostly Western selections, with a choice of fish or beef for entrée. After we were seated, Kit reviewed tomorrow's schedule. He changed our departure time to 8:45 because he heard from his connections that the crowds were large at the Golden Pavilion. He recommended bringing umbrellas because rain was expected. He said we could stay as long as we wanted for dinner, then make our own way back to the hotel. Many men wore sports coats to tonight's dinner. Kit was also dressed up. Our table had a nice dinner and conversation. We made our way back to the hotel at about 9:15pm.

Hotel: Kyoto Hotel Okura (1st of 4 nights)

Wednesday April 13 (Day 4) Kyoto

Meals: B, L

Tauck booklet description: Begin your four-day exploration of the legendary and enchanting city of Kyoto and surrounding areas. Visit Kinkakuji Temple, fondly referred to as the Golden Pavilion. Also visit Nijo Castle this morning, best known for its ornate interiors and nightingale floors. Built of Japanese cypress by the first Tokugawa shogun in 1603, it is a wonderful example of Momoyama architecture. Following lunch at a local restaurant, the remainder of the day is yours to enjoy as you please.

Breakfast opened at the hotel's top floor restaurant at 7:00am. We arrived at 7:20am. It was already very crowded, and the line was moving slowly. The staff asked for our card, and I assume it was a breakfast voucher. We told them "Tauck" and they gave us a Tauck card for us to write our names and room number. This card was left on our table, as was our bill, which were to be given to the cashier when we left the restaurant.

Back in the room we had a few extra minutes to hand launder a couple items in the bathroom sink. Then we went to the lobby and boarded our coach for a prompt 8:45am departure as scheduled.

We had a 20-minute drive to the Golden Pavilion. On the way, Tour Director Kit told us that, unlike in the U.S., the Japanese 7-Eleven stores have excellent coffee. You pay the cashier, and he gives you a cup. You then go to the machine, set your cup in the brewing area, press the correct buttons, and the machine freshly grinds the coffee and then freshly brews it into your cup. We also were informed of various options for tomorrow's free time. He told us that he and the local guide would be available in the hotel lobby today after we return and would be glad to help anyone with planning their independent time. Our local guide Machiko then told us some Kyoto history and pointed out various city sights that we passed. She briefly discussed the five geisha quarters of Kyoto, and told us that we will be walking through the biggest one later. She told us that Japanese celebrate Christmas, but it is for the ceremony only, not for the religious belief. It is popular to serve KFC chicken at Christmas parties.

We arrived at the pavilion at 9:10am. We were told to take note that we would exit the pavilion from a different location than our entrance. The local guide went ahead to get our "prayers". They were not called "admission tickets" because that would involve taxes. "Prayers" avoids the tax implications. She returned and distributed the tickets to us and led us to the entrance. We showed our tickets and were given a map. She then led us on a definite route through the grounds, stopping at various strategic points for views and narrations. Even though we were there in early morning, it was already very crowded with school kids. The pavilion and the grounds were beautiful; there were many areas begging for a photograph. We exited the pavilion grounds at 9:55, and were given time to use the restrooms in the coach parking area.

Back on the coach, our Tour Director talked to us about more history, especially the Edo period.

At 10:15 we arrived at the Nijo Castle. We strolled around the grounds for a few minutes, then went to the entrance where we removed our shoes. We were told that this was one of the sights where photography was not allowed inside. After an interesting narrated tour, we gathered outside for a restroom break. At 11:30 we left the castle grounds and walked five minutes to a restaurant for lunch.

At the restaurant, we removed our shoes before entering. Our one-hour kaiseki (traditional multi-course Japanese meal) lunch had a set menu with a fun sampling of courses brought to each person. Assorted appetizers started the meal. Then assorted sashimi, soba noodles, and assorted side dishes. Then a main course of fried chicken with vegetables, along with miso soup and pickled vegetables. Dessert was a popular matcha (green tea) pudding.

After lunch we had about 20 minutes to wander around the picturesque grounds and water features of the restaurant. Then we boarded the coach that awaited us outside the restaurant. The coach first went to the hotel (10 minutes drive) and dropped off guests who wanted to finish their sightseeing there. The rest of the group (probably 2/3 of the people) stayed on the coach and went to one of the geisha quarters for a walking tour with our Tour Director. As we walked, we were told all about the Japanese geisha, geiko, and maiko culture. We meandered down narrow pedestrian streets and alleys. We eventually met up with the coach again, and at 2:00pm boarded it for the ride back to the hotel. We were given the option to walk back on our own instead, but most opted to return to the hotel, freshen up, and then make independent plans for tomorrow.

Back at the hotel, many in our group talked to the Tour Guide and our local guide in the lobby, getting individualized help for tomorrow. Many also used the hotel concierge for restaurant help, as tonight's dinner was on our own.

My wife and I asked the concierge for a Philosopher's Walk map, as was recommended by someone else earlier. We then talked to our local guide about other possible stops after we finished the Philosopher's Walk tomorrow. We then went back outside, stopping at a Starbucks a few blocks from the hotel for a drink treat. We also went into a rice cracker shop to purchase a few snacks to take with us the rest of our trip. We then explored a covered shopping area, finding many souvenir choices. We passed a French Crepe restaurant, and decided to have dinner there.

We were back at the hotel early in the evening, and spent the remainder of the evening writing notes, reading up for tomorrow, doing hand laundry, recharging batteries and phones, and preparing a couple clothing items to send out for laundry service tomorrow morning.

Hotel: Kyoto Hotel Okura (2nd of 4 nights)

Thursday April 14 (Day 5) Kyoto

Meals: B, D

Tauck booklet description: Kyoto abounds with a rich legacy of ancient treasures, cultural gems and natural beauty that spans the centuries. From panoramic views at Kiyomizu Temple to origami demonstrations at a home-hosted tea ceremony, today's activities will be quite memorable. Join us for a special dinner tonight featuring a Maiko (Geisha in training) performance, reflecting the true essence of Japanese culture.

We started our morning with a walk to the 7-Eleven store a couple blocks away. We took our Tour Director's advice about their good coffee. It turned out to be quite fun. The owner/proprietor of the store guided us through the process by pointing. The coffee was actually very good, which contrasted to our 7-Eleven stereotype image at home.

Our hotel preferred that guests turn their room keys in at the front desk whenever they leave. When we stopped to get our key upon our return, we chatted with one of the young ladies at the reception desk. It turns out that eight years ago, she spent a semester in our home town studying English, which helped her get her current job. She was thrilled to meet someone from her old home-away-from-home.

For breakfast this morning, we opted for the restaurant on lower B1 level. It was a smaller venue, and quieter than yesterday's upper floor breakfast. The food selections were less Western and more Japanese, which pleased us.

The group met in the lobby at 8:00am, and we left on the coach at 8:05. Tour Director Kit gave us an overview of our morning, adding that he expects heavy traffic today, which is why he requested us to depart 15 minutes earlier than on the previously given schedule. We drove to the Kiyomizu Temple, arriving at the coach parking area at 8:30. Our local guide Machiko led us up the paths and steps to the actual temple, and then around the winding temple grounds. We finished near the top at 9:05, and were instructed to meet at the bottom at 9:30, making our way there on our own. That gave us time to leisurely walk back down until we got to Teapot Alley. This section was by now very crowded, especially with school children. A number of kids asked if they could take their pictures with us.

Once back on the coach, Tour Director Kit talked to us about a variety of topics, including the upcoming tea ceremony, the variety of Japanese Kit Kat candy, Buddhist funeral rituals.

We arrived at the private residence for the tea ceremony. We removed our shoes, entered, and were seated on small stools. We were led through an intricate Japanese tea ceremony with the fascinating significance of every small detail explained to us. Then our host gave is an origami demonstration.

At 11:40 we were back on the coach and headed for the hotel. An origami kit was given to each guest.

The remainder of the day was free for independent plans, including lunch. We were to meet back in the lobby at 6:30pm for tonight's special Maiko dinner.

For our afternoon we chose to explore on foot. We started with a small quick lunch at a bakery close to the hotel. Then we got a taxi at the hotel, showing the doorman and the taxi driver the Japanese name for where we wanted to go, which was the Silver Temple. The driver drove us as far as he could, dropping us off at the end of a block-long walkway; cost ¥2060. The walkway was lined with shops, similar to Teapot Alley. There were not as many school children here. Once at the pavilion gate, we paid our admission of ¥500 each, and followed a somewhat set route that wound through the beautiful gardens, raked sand areas, and past the pavilion itself. It was worth it just for the grounds; more so than the temple itself. We exited and walked back down to our starting point.

We were near the Philosopher's Path, so we started walking it at this point. It was a very pleasant leisurely stroll, with beautiful blossoming cherry trees, meandering creeks. We eventually left the path when we saw a street sign that let us know (from our map) that it was the spot to head towards our next sight, a cemetery. We passed a large Buddhist shrine, and detoured into it. We also went through another temple we were passing; this one had a rabbit theme, symbolic of fertility. Here we asked for directions to the cemetery we were seeking, and were directed to a path in a narrow alley. Working our way uphill, we found the cemetery. We first passed an obviously newer section, and eventually came to the obviously older section. We slowly made our way up the long steep stairway that went through the middle of the grounds, to an old decrepit pagoda on the hilltop. There were a few Buddhas here and there that seemed to have special significance. The breeze caused an eerie sound by clattering the wood board memorial markers against the marble; it was a strange hybrid of horror movie sound effect and peaceful soothing background noise. We could also hear some monks chanting somewhere out of sight.

After the cemetery, we walked to another temple. This one was one of the largest we have seen so far. The torii gate was more than one block away, and was huge. Inside, the ground was covered with gravel, and walking on it was similar to walking on beach sand.

From here we decided to take a taxi back to the hotel. They were awaiting in front of the temple; it cost ¥760. Back at the hotel we freshened up and prepared for dinner. We used the ATM on the hotel's B1 lower floor and withdrew another ¥30,000, which was dispensed in three ¥10,000 bills; it was easy to use.

The group was met by our Tour Director in the lobby at 6:30pm. He arranged taxis to take us to our dinner venue; three people per cab. It was less than 10 minutes drive from hotel. We had a private room where we had four tables for eight people each; we sat where we wanted. There was an open bar, included with dinner. Appetizers were served during cocktails. The dinner menu was set, and was enjoyed by all. Kit introduced our host for the evening, who came in with a maiko and a musician. The host talked to us about many aspects of geisha upbringing, training, history, tradition. Then the maiko performed a dance while the musician played. After this she welcomed questions from our group, and answered them with the help of the host. The maiko and the musician then stood behind each guest for individual or couples photographs. Then she played a traditional drinking game, with our guests taking turns playing against her. Tea and coffee were served.

After dinner, taxis were already arranged and were waiting outside. We were back at the hotel at 9:30pm.

Hotel: Kyoto Hotel Okura (3rd of 4 nights)

Friday April 15 (Day 6) Kyoto, Nara

Meals: B, L

Tauck booklet description: This morning, visit Sanjusangendo Temple and its collection of 1,001 statues of Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy, dating back to the 13th century. Continue onward to Nara, the ancient capital of Japan, and enjoy a light lunch followed by a tour of the Todai-ji Temple to see the Great Buddha statue that towers over 53 feet in height. To add to the special feeling of this day, explore Kasuga Grand Shrine, which is accented by thousands of ancient stone and bronze lanterns. At the end of the day, return to Kyoto. The evening is at your leisure to experience one of the area's many inviting restaurants for dinner.
It's very important that you pack an overnight bag for your stay tomorrow night at Kagaya Hotel. Be sure to include all essential clothing and personal care items as the balance of your luggage will be transported by luggage truck. You will not have access to your primary luggage again until we reach Takayama on Day 8.

Like we did yesterday, we started today with a short walk to the 7-Eleven for an early cup of coffee. When we returned to the hotel, we stopped at the reception desk for our key, and exchanged a ¥10,000 bill for smaller currency. We were given one ¥5,000 and five ¥1,000 bills.

After breakfast, the group boarded the coach at 8:30am, and we were quickly on our way to the Sanjusangendo Temple. He briefed us on the temple, explaining that it is the longest wooden building in the world, and it is still an original building (meaning it wasn't destroyed in WWII). It is still an active temple. Shoes must be removed. No photographs are allowed inside building, but bring camera for the outside areas. The "no photo" rule is enforced here, and they can confiscate cameras from those who don't follow this restriction.

We arrived at the Sanjusangendo Temple (Hall of a Thousand Buddhas) at 8:55. We were guided to the entry area first, where we removed our shoes. Then our local guide took us for a slow stroll inside the long log building, stopping frequently for narration of the many statues and temple features. This lasted about 30 minutes, and then we were given another 30 minutes to wander the grounds on our own. We were advised to use the restrooms here since our next drive to Nara is one hour long. Once we left the inside area, there was no reentry. We then exited through the gift shop.

At 10:00am we met at the prearranged spot by the exit gate, and were soon back on the coach for Nara. Along the way, Tour Director Kit spoke about the extent of Japanese education concerning World War II, giving cultural and traditional reasons why it is given so little attention in school (many schoolbooks dedicate only one page in the entire book to this war). Then our local guide Machiko gave us her insightful perspective on this. Then she talked about Japanese education in general, and then many other fascinating topics.

We arrived in Nara at 10:50. Our first stop was the Shinto Kasuga Grand Shrine. We followed our local guide on a slow walking tour of the shrine and grounds, again with numerous stops. The paths were lined with thousands of stone lanterns. Many in the group got side-tracked by the tame deer along the paths, stopping to take photos. We did not have independent time at this shrine. Just before arriving at the parking area, we stopped to watch a Shinto priest perform a blessing ceremony on a new car, which its owner brought here specifically for that purpose. We were back on the coach at 11:55.

We drove for 10 minutes to the Kikusuiro Restaurant. We were seated at tables of six. It had a set menu. The portions were small, but not too much so. We were advised to use restrooms here, as they are better than those found at the next temple.

At 1:30pm we arrived at our next stop, the Todai-ji (Great Buddha) Temple. We were told that it is the largest wooden structure in the world. It survived WWII bombing since Kyoto and Nara were both spared during the war. We were warned that there are many tame deer wandering around here, but be very careful to protect all our belongings, as the deer have been known to grab anything from purses to sunglasses to scarves to food. Our local guide took walked to the main temple, where we went inside to walk around the giant Buddha. This is the world's largest bronze statue of the Buddha Vairocana. Afterwards, we were given 30 minutes on our own, and asked to keep in mind that the walk from temple to coach area is 10 - 15 minutes, and that it is easy to lose track of time when amongst the deer along the way. We indeed found this to be the case. There were many deer, and many visitors feeding the deer and taking pictures with them.

The group was back on the coach at 2:45, and on our way back to the hotel. The Tour Director discussed tomorrow's schedule. He talked about Japanese resorts and onsens. He explained how guests at tomorrow's resort usually wear traditional resort-wear yukata, which is a casual version of a kimono. He said to be prepared to look our best, because our group photo will be taken tomorrow at dinner, when we are all wearing our yukata. He also described Japanese onsens in depth. He highly recommended that we try the onsen experience at least once because it is such a common Japanese tradition, even if we are modest or uneasy about it at first. He also explained how we will be without our checked luggage from tomorrow morning until arriving at our hotel in two days. He also warned us that the next hotel resort is quite kitschy, but it is because Japanese guests like that as part of their resort experience.

The last 45 minutes on the coach ride to Kyoto was quiet time, giving guests a chance to catch a nap, review their photos, read, or just enjoy the scenery out the windows.

We arrived back at the hotel at 4:05pm, slightly later than planned due to an accident on the expressway (that our driver expertly navigated around).

Dinner tonight was independent. Tour Director Kit helped with dinner advice, depending on what type of dinner each guest was looking for. We chose an Italian restaurant that we saw yesterday. Although we have thoroughly enjoyed all the Japanese food, sharing a pizza just sounded good tonight. After dinner, we stopped in a bakery and bought some red bean treats to take back to the hotel with us for dessert.

Once back in our room, we packed our bags, rearranging for tomorrow's luggage pick-up, and keeping items for tomorrow day, night, and the next day, in our carry-on as per Tour Director instructions.

Hotel: Kyoto Hotel Okura (4th of 4 nights)

Saturday April 16 (Day 7) Kanazawa; Wakura Onsen

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: Board the Thunderbird train for a rail journey to Kanazawa, home to winding cobblestone streets, Samurai residences, Geisha houses, museums, gardens, and a flower-filled open-air market. We'll indulge in a tempura luncheon at Chaya Kenjo Tei before visiting the beautiful Kenroku-en Gardens. Proceed to the hot spring resort community of Wakura Onsen, and check into the beautiful Kagaya Hotel, a Japanese ryokan-style hotel. Enjoy a special dinner tonight enlivened with authentic Japanese customs and traditional entertainment. Leave Kyoto in morning via Thunderbird train for Kanazawa

We were shaken awake at 1:20am...literally! There was a strong (7.0) earthquake 325 miles away, and we definitely felt a substantial swaying of our hotel. Luckily Japan constructs buildings to strict earthquake-resistant standards, so there was no damage in our area. Later today, our Tour Director Kim explained some of the impressive engineering involved in constructing high-rise buildings in Japan.

This morning we again repeated our 7-Eleven morning coffee walk. Upon our return to the hotel, we settled our room bill which had a couple of incidentals on it. We finalized our checked luggage for the scheduled 7:30am pick up time from inside our room. We then went to the quieter restaurant on the lower B1 level for breakfast, as we did yesterday.

At 8:30 we joined our group in the lobby. We were given hand luggage tags for our overnight carry-on bags. As the coach pulled away from the hotel, the hotel staff was there holding a "Sayonara" banner and giving us the "long wave goodbye" that we would learn was so common in Japan. We were then on our way to the train station, 20 minutes away, for our journey to Kanazawa.

Tour Director Kit explained the protocol for boarding Japanese trains in general, and our train specifically. He said boarding correctly is important because trains run on a very tight and accurate schedule, and they don't stop for very long at each stop. He said we will go directly to the platform, find the spot where our car would stop, and line up there in an orderly fashion. Then as soon as the train stopped and opened the doors, we would proceed aboard without delay. Once on, we would take any seats in rows 1 - 5 which were reserved for us. Kit also talked about our afternoon stops, handed out a Japan map that had our Tauck tour destinations on it.

Once at the station, our carry-on luggage was given back to each person to carry onto the train. This was where our local guide Machiko said goodbye to us. We all thanked her, and many gave her a separate gratuity for her days and evenings of good service (see notes in Gratuities section later in this review). We then walked into the station, pausing briefly inside to admire and take pictures of the impressive 1/4-mile long modern terminal building. We were then led upstairs to our platform, and shown where to stand when the train arrived. We then had about 20 minutes to walk around before our 9:40 train arrived. There were restrooms available on the platform, as well as some kiosks with snacks, souvenirs, reading materials. Some people got coffee at a 7-Eleven kiosk. Kit said it was completely safe to leave bags at the boarding platform, and the bags would not be stolen.

When the train arrived, we were all in order. This generated a couple of smiles from nearby locals; they probably were appreciative that we weren't slow and disorderly boarding like some Western tourists are. Boarding was very fast. The train took off as soon as everyone was inside the doorway, which was only minutes after it arrived. There was plenty of overhead space for our bags.

The train ride took just over two hours. It was an express train, with no stops. This train wasn't as fast as the bullet train, but still very fast and smooth. We could feel the air pressure changes in our ears as we went through the numerous tunnels. In typical Japanese style, any time a train crew member would walk through our car, they would turn and bow to the passengers before leaving through the door. When there were announcements over the speaker system, it was preceded by a pleasant melody rather than annoying tones. Our group was in rows 1 - 5; the rest of the car was filled with Japanese. The Japanese were very quiet the entire ride. They spent the time reading or listening to music rather than conversing with other people. Our group of Western tourists were not aware of this cultural difference, and were talking rather loudly during much of the 2-hour trip. I saw a couple of Japanese with unappreciative looks on their faces because of this.

We arrived at the Kanazawa station at 11:55am. Since this was the terminus for the train, there was no great rush to get off this time. We were led out to the awaiting coach, and were on our way to our lunch stop by 12:10. We were also introduced to our next local guide, Ayako. We were told that this lunch spot was a new one for Tauck, replacing the tempura one previously used. It turns out that it was only a five-minute drive there, and we could have walked, but Tauck drove us for baggage convenience. Lunch was yuzen-style, which we have had numerous times already. It is a set menu with a variety of dishes; sort of a sampling of many different foods, and a great way to experience Japanese cuisine. We gave the restaurant positive reviews.

We were finished with lunch at 1:05pm. We walked around the corner to board the coach again. Our next stop was the Kenroku-en Gardens, a 20-minute ride from the restaurant. We got our Ear Buddies ready to use. The coach opened the under-storage area for those who needed to access their carry-on bags.

We slowly walked through the beautiful garden as a group, following local guide Ayako. We stopped at a number of strategic spots for photos. There were a couple of ponds/lakes that were quite picturesque. There were many Japanese in the park, obviously thoroughly enjoying the beauty and serenity. We finished walking the park at 2:20.

We drove about 20 minutes to our next stop, a samurai house, arriving at 2:45pm. This was a quick stop. Eight-minute walk to the house; a short walk through it; then back to the coach at 3:30. Although the house was interesting, we enjoyed the grounds outside the house, and the walk to and from the house, more than the house itself.

On the drive to our resort, Tour Director Kit talked more about the onsen. Specifically, how to use the one at our resort. Our local guide passed around a printed onsen etiquette guide. They explained that many guests at the resort put on the resort-supplied yakuza as soon as they arrive, and wear it the entire time they are at the resort.

At 4:50pm we arrived at the resort hotel, and were greeted by a large number of staff outside. Our carry-on bags were taken to our rooms while we were given a brief 10-mionute orientation tour of the resort. Each guest was then escorted to their room by a hotel attendant. The attendant returned to the room 10 minutes later with fresh green tea, and helped us put on the yakuza properly. At this time, some guests took a quick onsen dip, but we didn't.

As instructed, the group met at 6:30pm in one of the bars for "happy half-hour". Everyone was wearing their yakuza. After drinks we were taken to a private room for our dinner. The tables were set up in a "U" shape, with a small stage at the other end. Each table place had a name card with the guest name written in English and in Japanese. Before sitting down, we stood on the stage for our group photo. Then we had a wonderful dinner, consisting of many separate courses and dishes, sampling very many traditional Japanese foods and cooking styles. Our local guide helped us by explaining what some of the various dishes were. Towards the end of dinner, we were treated to an energetic drumming show by six performers, lasting about 15 minutes. Dinner was finished about 8:40pm. After this, some people in our group went to the popular Elvis Presley variety show. Others went to the magic show. Others went to the onsen, or retired early. Yes, the resort was a bit kitschy, but in a wonderful and memorable way, and very much welcomed by the Japanese who were staying here.

Hotel: Kagaya Hotel (One night)

Sunday April 17 (Day 8) Shirakawa-go; Ogimachi; Takayama

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: Travel to Shirakawa-go, a UNESCO World Heritage Site of villages with traditional thatched-roof farmhouses. Stop for a typical Japanese lunch before visiting a 400-year old family home. See the Mboro Dam en route to your mountain resort in the 16th-century town of Takayama.

Waking up early, we decided to start our morning with a visit to the resort's onsen. We grabbed our "modesty towel" from the room, put on our yakuza, and went to the separate men's and women's onsen. Even at this early hour, it was quite busy. Other than myself, there were no other Westerners. I tried to follow the protocol, stealing glances at others to watch how they did it. After the requisite showering, I tried all the pools, from the 105.6F hot pool to the cold water plunge. It was very refreshing, and I'm really glad I did it.

Breakfast was in the same room as last night's dinner. It opened at 7:00am. This was one of the few times there wasn't a buffet breakfast. The meals were already set up at each place setting, with a large variety of breads, fruits, vegetables, cheeses, eggs, sausage, yogurt, and coffee. It was more than adequate.

The group met in the lobby at 8:20, and as our coach pulled away, the staff did the "long goodbye wave" outside. We would drive about 40 minutes to a local farm.

We arrived at the farm at 9:00. The owner was there waiting for us, and he walked us along a rice paddy, explaining about rice planting and harvesting. He spoke and our local guide translated. He then walked us to his home. After removing our shoes, we went in and he led us through most of the rooms. This gave us a good experience of a true Japanese home. Our home tour was completed at 10:10.

Back onto the coach, we were on our way to Takayama. We pulled into a roadside rest stop that had restrooms only. It also was a great viewpoint of the nearby sea and mountains. Although the early morning started with rain, it was now blue sky, but humid.

We continued driving through many tunnels, and around the sea towards the alps. Our local guide explained why there is an absence of public trash cans in Japan. This is primarily due to the Japanese culture, and their attitude that any trash generated outside of their homes should be brought back home with them for disposal. Also, they consider it poor manners to eat or drink outside, although this norm is changing. She also mentioned that Japanese carry their own handkerchiefs for drying their hands after using restroom facilities.

At 11:15 we stopped for a 15-minute "comfort stop" at a small store. There were vending machines, as well as a gift shop.

Just before noon, we arrived at our lunch location. The restaurant was located at a scenic overlook at a ski resort, with good photographing opportunities. Lunch was a preset menu with multiple plates, including soba, trout, mountain vegetables, tempura, beef in miso paste. They proudly announced that the miso was made by one of the lunch servers. After lunch there were a few minutes to take more photos. We were back on the coach at 1:00.

After a 15-minute drive, we were at the Toyama Family house, an old farmhouse that shows how people lived in this challenging climate a couple of centuries ago. After learning about the house, we had 30 minutes to walk around the town area on our own.

At 2:15 we met back on the coach. Our Tour Director Kit was playing his banjo and singing to us as we boarded. We were then on our way to Takayama.

We arrived at Takayama at 3:00pm. Our room keys were ready for us on a table in the lobby. Our checked luggage was awaiting in our rooms. We had a couple of hours, so it was a good time to do some hand laundry in the bathroom, and the bathroom had a good layout for doing laundry.

At 6:00pm the group met in the lobby for a ride to the dinner restaurant. It was only an 8-minute drive. The restaurant was Le Midi. The proprietor owned the restaurants on three of the four corners of this street intersection. Our group took up almost the entire restaurant of this one. We ordered a la carte off of the menu. I had a Hida beef steak, which was truly one of the best steaks I have ever had, and I would highly recommend it to anyone else who goes to this restaurant.

The group was finished at 8:15, and returned to the hotel by coach.

Hotel: Hotel Associa Takayama Resort (1st of 2 nights)

Monday April 18 (Day 9) Takayama

Meals: B

Tauck booklet description: Our local guide will lead you on a walking tour today of the quaint mountain valley town of Takayama. The farmers' morning market, the Festival Float Museum, and the dozens of small antique shops and galleries are among the sites that round out your morning, followed by a tour and tasting at a sake brewery. Enjoy lunch on your own, and spend the afternoon at leisure exploring and discovering all that this mountain valley town has to offer. Dinner tonight is yours to enjoy as you please.
You will again pack an overnight bag for your stay tomorrow night at the Hyatt Hakone. Be sure to include all essential clothing and personal care items as the balance of your luggage will be transported by luggage truck. You will not have access to your primary luggage again until we reach Tokyo on Day 11.

We had breakfast at 7:15am. There were a number of other foreign tour groups here, especially from China.

We gathered in the lobby at 8:40, and left for a tour of Takayama town. Our first stop was at the Festival Float Museum to see the wonderfully-constructed floats on display. From there we were led on a slow stroll along the river to the morning market area, with numerous stops to learn about the food and other items being sold. We were given a short time to look and shop on our own, then regrouped at an ice cream shop. Our Tour Director treated each of us to an ice cream cone; the ice cream flavors were very interesting, and some very Japanese. I chose the sake flavor.

Next to the ice cream shop was a 7-Eleven where the group used the restrooms, and some bought coffee.

From there we walked to a sake brewery. Inside we were shown how sake is made, followed by two sake samples.

At this point, the group was given the choice of leaving our guides and continuing the rest of the day on our own, or continuing with our guide to another museum, then having the rest of the day free. Some chose one, some chose the other. We chose to go independently at this point.

We decided to walk all around and explore the town on foot. We walked along the canal, and onto a walking trail that we found on one of our maps. We made our way to a large cemetery on a hillside, with a pagoda on top. We continued on the walking trail, and found many other temples and shrines. We found a new path going up a hill behind one of the temples, and it led to a hilltop park with good views. We worked our way back into the central area of town. Our lunch today consisted of buying many small sample-sized items we passed all along our way. We made our way to a hotel shuttle pickup area that our guides pointed out to us this morning. There was a shuttle there waiting when we arrived at 4:20, and the schedule said it was to leave at 4:30. We boarded, and observed as the driver kept checking his watch, and left at precisely 4:30:00. After closing the door, the driver stood and bowed to all of the passengers before departing. It was a 10-minute drive to the hotel. Back at the hotel we traced our route on a map, and were surprised by how far we actually walked today.

As was lunch today, dinner was also independent. We were both tired, and so for dinner we decided to go to the 6th floor hotel spa cafe for a small casual dinner. Since it was in the spa, we reached an area of wood floors where we needed to remove and leave our shoes. At the spa cafe, since we were paying with cash, we were instructed to use the vending-style machine to select our desired menu items, pay for them, and present the resulting tickets to our server. The spa cafe was quiet. When we were finished and leaving, we saw a few others in our group arriving for dinner here also.

Back in the room, we again prepared a carry-on overnight bag, because they would again be sending our checked luggage ahead, this time to Tokyo.

Hotel: Hotel Associa Takayama Resort (2nd of 2 nights)

Tuesday April 19 (Day 10) Takayama; Honshu; Hakone

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: Today enjoy a beautiful journey through a region often referred to as the "Japanese Alps," past majestic mountains and winding valleys offering views of breathtaking landscapes. En route visit the Michelin Guides 3-star-rated Itchiku Kubota Museum. We then travel on to the Hyatt Regency Hakone Resort & Spa, where dinner tonight is at your leisure within the hotel.

Before leaving for breakfast, we prepared our checked luggage for the scheduled 7:00 "luggage pull" pick up from inside our rooms. These bags would not meet up with us again until tomorrow night in Tokyo.

Breakfast restaurant opened at 7:00 this morning. We were there waiting at 6:50am, as were others from our group.

The group met in the lobby at 8:15am, and the coach was on the way at 8:20. Today involved more travel time than most other days. We were crossing the country, through the Japanese Alps, to the east side, with a stop at the kimono museum. Our local guide was with us, and she spoke to us on many subjects...mostly Japanese culture, manners, taboos, eating habits, etiquette.

At 9:20 we stopped at a roadside rest area for our "biologic stop". There was a small store for snacks, and clean restrooms. We were back on the road at 9:40. The roads at this point became very winding; it might have affected someone who is prone to motion sickness. There were also many tunnels. Our local guide continued with her educational narrative. Then our Tour Director played a few songs over the coach speakers demonstrating the variety of Japanese music. Then he talked about the Japanese view of death, and the traditions involved. He recommended a wonderful foreign film called "Departures". He described the importance of cherry blossoms, and their symbolism as beautiful, fleeting, and transient. Then our local guide handed out origami paper, and guided us through a project that resulted in an origami Mt. Fuji. She then continued her stories, and gave us her view of WWII and how it is presented in schools to students.

At 11:20 we arrived at our lunch stop, which was at the Beniya Hotel restaurant on a lake in Suwako. We were encouraged to keep lunch short and quick so that we would have more time at the Itchiku Kubota Museum. The menu was fixed and mostly Western cuisine; vegetable salad, soup, bread, chicken, ice cream. There were a few minutes after lunch to walk along the lake.

At 12:20 we were on the coach, and the hotel staff was outside giving us the long wave goodbye. Next stop would be the museum. Our Tour Director told us that usually the museum is closed on Tuesdays, but they are opening it today just for our admission. We were shown a 30-minute DVD movie about the artist Itchiku Kubota and his show in Washington, D.C. which was helpful in understanding what we would see at the museum.

About this time, we got our first glimpse of Mt. Fuji in the distance. It was still beautifully capped with snow, which apparently melts off every year. Also, it apparently is only visible 30% of the time due to weather, so we felt very lucky to see it. When we arrived in the museum's town of Kawaguchi-ko, we pulled into a viewpoint along a lake, and were given 20 minutes to take photos with Mt. Fuji in the background. This was a spectacular spot, and probably where many Christmas card photos were taken.

The Itchiku Kubota Art Museum was a 5-minute drive from this viewpoint. We had one hour at the museum, which allowed a brief orientation by the staff, followed by self-guided tour at our own pace. The kimono art was a gem in the rough; simply amazing work. There was a camera crew there, and they interviewed a few of our group for a news piece about the museum.

At 3:40 we were back on the road, headed for Hakone. Tour Director Kit read us our dinner reservation times that each person had previously selected (6pm, 7pm, or 8pm). But he said we could change it with the maitre d' with no problems. We were able to choose between the hotel restaurants, one of which was more Japanese-oriented food, and one which was French cuisine but overall more Western.

We arrived at the Hakone hotel at 5:00pm. Guest room keys were awaiting us on a table just inside the lobby entrance. We went to our room, quickly unpacked and freshened up, and went to the lobby bar ("Living Room") for the complementary happy hour by the fireplace.

At 6:00pm, we went to the French restaurant. We soon saw three other couples from our group who had also made 6:00 reservations for two, so we all decided to dine together. The menu was fixed, with the entrée coming with chicken, fish, and Wagyu beef steak.

Hotel: Hyatt Regency Hakone Resort & Spa (One night)

Wednesday April 20 (Day 11) Hakone; Tokyo

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: Weather permitting, get a glimpse of Mt. Fuji as you travel by gondola on the Hakone Ropeway over the mountains, and drive back down for a cruise on Lake Ashi. Before journeying to Tokyo, visit the Hakone Open-Air Museum to view sculptures from the post-Rodin period, as well as art by Pablo Picasso, Renoir and Miro. Dinner is at a local restaurant.

At 7:00am we went to the lobby for coffee; it was tranquil and quiet. Breakfast opened at 7:30. It did not have as large of a selection as some previous breakfasts, but what they did have was very tasty. After breakfast we caught up on our journal notes, and read the newspaper.

We met in the lobby at 9:30, and the staff gave our coach the long wave goodbye.

The drive to our first stop, the Hakone Open Air Museum, was only a few minutes from the hotel. We were off the coach by 9:45. We were given maps of the museum grounds, and had 1 hour 15 minutes to explore it by ourselves at our own pace. The large outdoor sculptures were fascinating, and the indoor works by Picasso were also interesting.

From the museum, the coach drove us to the place where we would board our Lake Ashi cruise, arriving there at 11:25. First we would have lunch at the Il Miraggio restaurant in the Hakone Hotel. It had an extensive buffet with both Japanese and Western selections. The Japanese refer to all-you-can-eat buffets as "Viking buffets". Other tour groups arrived shortly after we did, but the service was efficient. Some of us ate quickly, then wandered the waterfront for a half hour.

At 12:30 our group met outside of the hotel, then walked to the cruise pier right next door. We walked on board our cruise ship about 12:45. The cruise took us across Lake Ashi. It was breezy and chilly on the open upper deck, but the lower decks were enclosed. The ship makes various stops around the lake. After taking in the views, we got off at the second stop, about 25 minutes after we started. Because of the high clouds, we didn't see Mt. Fuji from the ship. Our coach met us at this pier, and we were back on our way to Tokyo at 1:30.

During the afternoon drive to Tokyo, Tour Director Kit talked to us about the last day procedure. He said the drive from our hotel to the Narita airport usually takes 1.5 hours, but he allows 2 hours in his scheduling to build in buffer time for the unexpected. He says leaving the hotel 4 hours prior to departure is plenty for Narita, and 3 hours prior for Haneda airport is fine.

Upon our 3:15pm arrival at the Mandarin Oriental, we went to the lobby which is located on the 38th floor.

At 5:30, the group met in the lobby, and then onto the coach for a ride to dinner. This was at Happoen Garden, a stunning privately-owned garden with a banquet facility. We first were led on a stroll around a large pond, admiring the extremely old banzai trees. We then had a 30-minute happy hour outside, adjacent to the water, complete with appetizers and a musician. Then we went inside for our dinner. The menu was a set menu, having many courses with wonderful presentations. After dinner we were treated to a demonstration by two sumo wrestlers, and then given an opportunity for individual photographs with them.

At 9:15 we finished dinner, and the coach returned us to the hotel.

Hotel: Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo (1st of 3 nights)

Thursday April 21 (Day 12) Tokyo

Meals: B, L

Tauck booklet description: After breakfast, depart the hotel via motorcoach to enjoy a drumming experience that beats with local cultural traditions! Later visit Asakusa Kannon, the oldest of all the temples in Tokyo. Our guided tour reveals the bustling energy of worshipers coming to pray for health and good fortune, as well as the centuries-old Nakamise shopping arcade. Drive to Ginza for lunch at a local restaurant, followed by a visit to the Edo Tokyo Museum. Dine at your leisure this evening.

Breakfast opened at 6:30am. There was a buffet, plus guests could order from the menu.

After breakfast I went to reception desk and changed a ¥5000 bill for smaller ¥1000¥s.

At 8:50, the group met in the 1st floor lobby. Our Tour Director told us that the next two days will not follow the exact schedule he handed out at beginning of tour, but we will be doing all of the listed activities.

First activity today is the Taiko drumming lesson. We arrived at the Taiko academy at 9:10. We were each given drumsticks, and led into the music room where we each had our own drum. The energetic instructor showed us a beat, then had us repeat it. She would build in more and more beats, and have us repeat each time. She added some lyrical words to go along with it. We ended by drumming to an entire song. She made sure the entire experience was fun and comfortable. We were finished at 10:30.

We went next by coach to the Meiji Shinto shrine, arriving at 10:50. It is located in the middle of a forest in the middle of Tokyo. It is a popular shrine for locals to come and receive blessings. Our group had an appointment for a blessing. This was a true blessing ceremony, not something set up for tourists. We strolled along the path through the forested area, to the shrine. While waiting outside, we watched as a Japanese couple were taking their wedding photographs. Inside the shrine we removed our shoes and went into the main area. We sat directly on the wood floor, although there were a couple of chairs for those who had trouble sitting on the ground. There were a number of other Japanese also receiving blessings along with us. The 20-minute long solemn ceremony started with drumming by the Shinto priest, then chanting. At one point we could make out the word "Tauck", so we knew this was us receiving his blessing.

We returned to the coach at 12:15, and headed to lunch. Our Tour Director referred to it as a Shabu-Shabu, meaning "swish swish", lunch because it involves guests cooking, or swishing, their thinly-sliced food items in the boiling broth at the table. It was a lot of fun.

Done with lunch at 1:30. Two people in the group separated and went on their own way from here. The rest boarded the coach. The coach drove 10 minutes back to the hotel and dropped of three people there. Then the rest of the group was taken to the Asakusa Temple.

The Asakusa Temple is the oldest Buddhist temple in Japan. Our local guide walked us for 20 minutes through the grounds and to the main temple. We were then given 40 minutes on our own to explore the temple and surrounding grounds. We met again at the side entrance, and walked back to the coach.

We were returned to the hotel at 4:00.

Dinner tonight was independent; advice was available from our Tour Guide, the local guide, or the hotel concierge. We chose to walk a block away to an upscale department store just to explore the local feel. We then made our way back towards the hotel, and went to the Coredo Muromachi across the street. This is a retail and food complex with a variety of selections, from fast food to fancy eating. There is also subway train access on the lower levels. The Mandarin Oriental Tokyo website has a good page describing things to do around the hotel area.

Hotel: Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo (2nd of 3 nights)

Friday April 22 (Day 13) Tokyo

Meals: B, L, D

Tauck booklet description: Visit the Imperial Palace Plaza and Meiji Shrine, honoring the spirits of the Emperor Meiji and his Empress Shoken with eternal serenity and tranquil manicured gardens. As a special treat, see a live performance showcasing age- old Shinto music and ancient Kagura dance. Sushi making is an art here; see how it's done (and try your hand yourself) at a culinary demonstration followed by lunch, then spend the afternoon as you wish. Your journey ends with a flourish at our farewell reception and banquet at the hotel.

Today is the last day of scheduled group activity. Breakfast opened at 6:30am.

At 8:50am the group met in the lobby for our coach ride to the Edo-Tokyo Museum. We drove about 25 minutes to get there. On the coach, our Tour Director mentioned that Tauck's "Hope and Trust" cards will be delivered to our rooms today, along with the group photos. He asks that everyone fill out the customer survey because every single one of them is read by Tauck, and their future tours are modified according to these guest comments.

The museum opened at 9:30, and our local guide led us upstairs to the museum, and walked us through it for 35 minutes, stopping at select areas to explain the significance. We were then free to wander on our own until 10:45, when we were to be back on the coach in the coach parking area where we arrived. I must admit that I didn't have high hopes for the museum, but it was well done, and I enjoyed it. There is a gift shop in the museum, but there is another one adjacent to the coach parking lot that has a larger selection and accepts credit cards.

On the coach, our "Ear Buddies" were collected. Our next stop was at a Japanese cooking school. During the drive there, we were told many trivia tidbits by our guides on many topics such as wasabi, Datsun cars, giraffes, drivers licenses.

At 11:25 we arrived at the cooking school. To get to it, we walked a couple of blocks up a small hill, then into the building and elevator up two floors. We were seated in a classroom-style area, and watched the chef demo as she made sushi. Then we went to the adjacent kitchen area where there were workstations set up for us, and we repeated on our own what we had just seen. We then took our sushi creations back to our classroom table and ate them for lunch. In addition to our homemade sushi rolls, we were served additional items of chicken, beef, pita roll, and barley tea.

At 12:55 we were back on the coach, and back at the hotel at 1:15. This is the last that we would see Ayako, our local guide for the second half of the tour, so everyone thanked her and said their goodbyes. Many gave her a gratuity also, even though Tauck says that gratuities for local guides are included (see notes in Gratuities section later in this review).

The rest of the afternoon was free for independent activities, until tonight's dinner reception.

It was a splendid afternoon, so we chose to take the subway to Ueno Park, an old beautiful park popular with the locals. We walked all around exploring this park. We then walked to the Ameyoko Market, also called the black market, which our Tour Director had told us about. It is busy and colorful, and near the Ueno Station. We just went for the experience and photos, but it would be a good spot to get cheap souvenirs if so inclined. We then used the Ueno Station to board the subway back to our hotel. Our Tour Director had already explained how to use the subway in Japan. Go to a ticket vending machine. Determine where you are going. See how much it will cost. Put that money into the vending machine. Get the ticket. Use that ticket to gain entrance through the gates. At destination, use the ticket again to get out of gate; it will tell you at that point if you have not used enough money for the ticket and you will pay the remainder at that point.

Back at the hotel, we were enticed into the Gourmet Shop by the lobby for a couple of take-away treats before returning to our room.

We then used some time to go to the business center so we could check into our flight for tomorrow, and print our boarding passes.

We then dressed up for tonight's Farewell Reception and Dinner. We joined the group at 6:30pm in the 38th floor lobby. Our Tour Director Kit then led us down to the third floor, through the hotel to the adjoining building, to a reception room prepared to receive us. We started with a cocktail half-hour, ordering beverages at the open bar. Appetizers were brought around. Guests gave Kit the completed guest surveys ("Hope and Trust"), as well as giving him a gratuity. A paper was circulated for people to write their names and email addresses if they wanted to share them with others; copies were made and later given to us. Tour Director Kit said some nice words about our group and our tour. He then led us back to the main hotel, up to the main lobby, and to the Italian restaurant. The menu was fixed, with an entrée choice of fish or duck. Kit did not stay with us for the actual dinner, but returned later to say his final goodbye during our main course. Most guests finished dinner around 9:30. Since this was the last scheduled get-together, there were many long goodbyes exchanged between the guests before retiring for the evening. We admired the view from our hotel room one last time.

Hotel: Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo (3rd of 3 nights)

Saturday April 23 (Day 14) Tokyo; Travel Day

Meals: B

Tauck booklet description: Today, bid farewell to Tokyo. We hope you will return home with fond and vivid memories of the "Essence of Japan." Complimentary transportations to Tokyo's Narita Airport is provided from your Tauck hotel today. If you are traveling by air, please note that it may be necessary to arrive at the airport up to two hours before your flight's scheduled departure, as the time required to clear security can vary. Your Tauck Director will provide you with the current recommended airport arrival time, and advise you of your airport transfer departure time, so you may plan accordingly. If you are extending your trip with one or more additional nights at the Tauck-designated hotel, you will receive complimentary transportation to the airport, regardless of your day of departure. Please see your Tauck Director to confirm these arrangements prior to the conclusion of your Tauck itinerary.

We arose at 6:30am and had leisurely coffee in the room. We went to the buffet breakfast at 8:00am, and saw most of our group there. We were able to say more goodbyes, and returned to our room after breakfast to pack our suitcases.

We went to the hotel business center when it opened at 10:00am and checked in for the last part of our flight itinerary. We checked out of our room at 11:30, and waited for our Tauck-arranged transportation at 12:40pm. There were four other people in our group that were taking the same transportation to the airport with us. We were very surprised to find out that our transportation was a full-sized commercial coach, just for the six of us! We watched our suitcases being loaded onto the coach, and then we got aboard ourselves. The drive to Narita airport took just over one hour. Being a Saturday, traffic was lighter than usual.

At the airport, two Tauck representatives with Tauck signs were awaiting our group, right where the coach stopped at the passenger drop-off area. One representative escorted my wife and me to our Delta Airlines check-in desk, waited while we checked in, and then escorted us as far as the security area. We passed through security, and then immigrations, without any problems. They checked passports and boarding passes. We then went to our departure gate, which was very crowded. We then did something very out of character for us...we went to McDonald's for lunch. Our arrival back in the U.S. was also uneventful, and we were soon back home, planning our next wonderful journey.



Connecting With The Tour Group; Orientation

There was a welcome packet from our tour director (whose name was Kit) delivered to our hotel room the day before the tour. This packet contained more details about when and where to meet for the reception. It also contained a booklet made by Kit that had a Forward, General Information (phone numbers, safety, food and drink, money, tipping, shoes, bus, luggage, shopping, hotel keys, internet), Money Matters, and a brief day-by-day itinerary that contained times (breakfast, morning meet, destination arrivals, lunch, dinner) and helpful information specific to each day.

Our first official gathering as a tour group was on Day 1 at the Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner.

Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner

As instructed in our Tour Director Kit's handout, we went to the 11th floor (banquet and business rooms) for the Welcome Reception at 6:00pm.

Our Tour Director greeted each person as they entered the banquet room, giving them a sticker to write their names. This would be the only time that name tags were suggested on the tour. Kit also handed out a card that was printed with each guest's name and hometown. There was an open bar for cocktails or soft drinks. Once everyone was in the room, Kit walked around and gathered the information sheet that was in our welcome packet and we were asked to fill out and bring to this reception.

Kit talked to us a little, and then he asked each guest or couple to introduce themselves, telling where they are from, and how many prior Tauck tours they have been on. Our tour group numbered 20 people, but there were two last-minute cancellations. We noted that there were more first-time Tauck travelers on this tour than we found to be the norm on our other Tauck trips. We were then given time to mingle and get to know each other.

Most men were dressed in sports coats. Only one wore a necktie. About half of the women wore dresses; the remainder wearing nice slacks.

At 7:00pm we were escorted to another room for our dinner. We chose our own table seats at the tables set for eight people each. We had a choice of entrée of wagyu beef tenderloin or lobster; the rest of the menu was set. Grilled salmon appetizer, pumpkin soup, bread. Tapioca with fruit sorbet for desert. Coffee and tea afterwards. Right after the first course, Kit talked more. He gave more details about tomorrow's schedule. He excused himself shortly afterwards for the rest of the evening. Most everyone left as soon as coffee was offered since many in the group were still weary and jet lagged.

Farewell Reception and Dinner

The group met for a Farewell Reception and Dinner on Day 13 after a partial day of sightseeing.

Dress for this reception was about the same as the Welcome Cocktail Reception and Dinner; perhaps a little more dressy. Business casual is appropriate.

The group gathered in the 38th floor lobby at 6:30pm, and were led down to the third floor. We walked through to the adjoining building to a banquet room. An open bar and tasty appetizers awaited us.

Everyone mingled and reminisced about the past two weeks. Tour Director Kit said some short words. This is when most guests gave him their gratuities and said their personal "thank you", and also gave him the Tauck post-tour survey.

We were then led back to the hotel, and up to the Italian restaurant on the main lobby level. We had our entrée choice of fish or duck. The rest of the menu was fixed. Kit didn't join us for dinner, but came in and said his final goodbye during our main course. Most guests finished dinner and got up to leave around 9:30pm. There were numerous long goodbyes between guests.

Tour Director; Coach Driver; Local Guides

Tour Director: Kit Loose

Kit was an excellent Tour Director. He has many years of experience in Japan, both as a Tauck Tour Director and in his personal life. He was very organized, kept the group informed, maintained a perfect pace, solved problems, and was always open to questions or comments. He has a wonderful and warm personality. I would consider him one of Tauck's top tour directors.

Fellow Travelers

We signed up for a Small Group Departure which, according to Tauck, averages 24 guests. At our Welcome Reception we learned that there were 22 signed up, with two last minute cancellations, so only 20 were present for this tour.

There were two couples from Australia; the rest were from the United States. Most were husband-wife. One gentleman was traveling by himself because his wife simply didn't enjoy international travel. Two ladies were long-time friends and enjoyed traveling together.

This tour was the first Tauck tour for almost half of the group. The rest had done multiple Tauck tours. My wife and I had done the most; this tour was our eighth with Tauck. On other Tauck tours we have been on, there were not as many first-timers; and it was not unusual to meet other guests who have done literally dozens of Tauck tours in the past.

Ages probably ranged from early fifties to mid-eighties. Most were well-traveled and had many stories to share. Most everyone was in good physical shape, and had no difficulties navigating the occasional longer walks or steeper stairs. We had no smokers in the group.

We had a very congenial group. Everyone was always on time, which is very important with group travel.

Interesting Customs and Cultural Differences We Noticed

Tipping is generally not expected in Japan.

It is customary to take off one's shoes when entering certain places. Wear nice socks; at least matching socks without holes. Wearing shoes that are easy to remove and put back on can be helpful.

Chopsticks

Bathrooms

Pointing at things or people with one finger is considered rude. Use the entire hand if possible, and with palm upward.

Eating while walking down the street is considered vulgar.

Talking on the cell phone while walking down the street is considered rude.

Japanese are not loud. They prefer soft talking. They consider Westerners as loud talkers. Take note of your surroundings, and use the people around you as your guide to loudness.

Tardiness is not tolerated.

Japanese avoid coughing and sneezing openly in public. It is a matter of routine for Japanese to wear a mask if they have a cold.

Many Japanese behaviors are performed because of tradition rather than having a logical basis.

Japanese culture is quite homogeneous, as opposed to Western culture which is very heterogeneous with many subcultures.

Japan is very much a "we" (groupist) culture, as opposed to Western "me" culture.

To lose face in Japan is to lose one's dignity, self-respect, and prestige. It is simply not an option, and is to be avoided at all cost. As visitors, we must avoid creating or allowing situations where loss of face could occur in ourselves or in someone else. To do so is considered shameful and embarrassing.

Expressing affection in public (holding hands; kissing; patting backs or hands; any physical contact) is frowned upon, except perhaps by the upcoming younger generation.

Expressions of gratitude are much more plentiful in Japan. We should also express our thanks more frequently, more so than we would at home.

Avoid conversations about the Second World War, the Emperor system, outcasts (Bujumbura), mafia (yakuza).

Money

In Japan, the official currency is the Japanese Yen, which is the ¥ sign, and coded JPY for short.

As an extremely loose rule of thumb, giving a rough estimate, take the Yen price and remove the last two digits for the rough conversion. Example: ¥1000...take off the last two zeros...that leaves "10"...thus ¥1,000 is very roughly 10 U.S. dollars (as of this review, it is $8.78 to be precise).

We withdrew Yen at the airport upon our arrival, easily finding an ATM with English as a menu option. There were also many ATMs seen throughout our tour. The most convenient ones were in 7-Eleven stores.

We notified our bank in advance of our travel dates and locations so that we would be able to use our credit cards without triggering a security freeze.

Tips, Gratuities

Tauck includes gratuities for motor coach drivers, local guides, hotel bellmen, and restaurant staff.

I got the impression from talking to other guests on this tour that many tipped our Tour Director more generously than Tauck's recommended $8 per traveler per day. Some were substantially more than this. On previous Tauck tours, I have noticed that it is fairly common for guests to tip more than the recommendation, because they are very pleased with the quality of the Tour Directors, and sincerely feel that they deserve the higher gratuity.

Even though Tauck documents for this trip said that gratuities for local guides were included, many people gave gratuities to our two local guides. I think this is because our two local guides accompanied us for many days and evenings on this tour, where on many other Tauck tours there might be many different local guides, perhaps a new one in each different town or on each day.

Tipping in general does not exist in Japan as it does in the U.S., and tipping can actually be seen as somewhat insulting. Tipping is not expected for taxis, hotel bellboys, and most restaurants.

Extra Expenses

Not included in the tour price:

Tauck includes so much with their tours; there are no optional excursions offered, which is a refreshing contrast to many other non-Tauck Tours.

If any hotel room charges are incurred for incidentals, it is wise to settle the bill at the front desk the night before departure, or plenty early the next day. That way, any problems or issues can be managed without time pressures.

Shopping

A much-appreciated difference with Tauck Tours is that they don't make specific shopping stops as a group at any tourist traps (where tour guides commonly receive kickbacks from sales).  This is a big advantage over other companies; those shopping stops can be quite a waste of time, overpriced, and boring.

There was independent time that could be used for shopping in many places we visited. Depending on the schedule and the location, this could be anywhere from twenty minutes to many hours. Our Tour Director let us know what items might be best purchased at certain locations.

In Japan, if you see something you like, you should buy it then. You can never be sure you will find it again later in the tour. There is plenty of shopping time in Kyoto and Tokyo.

Hotel concierges can give helpful advice if a particular item is desired.

The informational packet that our Tour Director gave us at the beginning of the tour included helpful shopping information for each day of the tour.

Water

In contrast to many Asian countries, the tap water is considered safe to drink in most of Japan. There are many bottled water brands available that are familiar and recognizable. There was no hesitation drinking water from glasses at any of the hotels or restaurants where we dined.

Complementary bottled water was available in most hotel rooms, and was supplied on our coaches.

Food

The food was very safe everywhere we went.

We thoroughly enjoyed the meals on this tour. Most breakfasts were buffet-style in the hotel, and offered both Japanese and Western choices.

Most lunches and dinners were either a set menu or limited menu. They usually contained a large variety of courses and dishes, so even if one had particular tastes, there was enough there to satisfy them.

Non-alcohol drinks were always included with meals. Alcohol was occasionally included; the Tour Director let us know ahead of time.

There were some opportunities for independent dining. This was welcomed, and allowed each guest to further explore Japanese cuisine as the desired...authentic Japanese or strictly Western; casual or fancy; small or bountiful. These are the days when meals were on our own:

Public Restrooms

Restroom availability was not a problem. Restrooms in Japan are plentiful, and very clean. Our Tour Director informed us of the most convenient places to use the facilities everywhere we went, and allowing adequate time.

On days when we were on the coach for extended periods, stops would be made regularly for restroom opportunities. Our Tour Director called these "biologic stops". I have heard other Tauck Tour Directors refer to them as "comfort stops".

Luggage, Suitcases, Purses

Many tour companies routinely have guests place their luggage in the hotel hallway for pickup. I was never very comfortable with this. Tauck, however, has agreements that allow guests to leave the luggage inside the hotel room until it is picked up by hotel staff. We appreciate this extra security measure taken by Tauck. We always tried to assure this system worked by placing any bags that were to be picked up just inside the door, so it is abundantly obvious which ones go. The ones to be picked up should all be checked for Tauck tags by the hotel staff, but every precaution helps. We also keep any carry-ons well away so they are unlikely to be also picked up by mistake.

Tauck literature requests that guests restrict suitcases to one per individual. This is primarily due to space limitations on the coaches since luggage is stowed in the lower level luggage compartment. We were asked to keep a colored Tauck luggage tag on each piece that we want taken from our rooms to the coach, and that we inform the Tour Director if we ever add another suitcase. He keeps a precise count of how many pieces of luggage should be gathered from the rooms on departure mornings, and counts them before they go on the coach. He also counts them when they are removed from the coach.

We saw luggage of various sizes, shapes, designs. None were huge; all were easily manageable by the hotel bellhops and coach drivers.

Even though the luggage was quite safe during its journey from inside the room to the coach luggage compartment, we still locked it every day. It was easy to do, and simply adds one more layer of protection.

There are two occasions on this tour where our larger checked luggage is sent ahead of us, and so we are without them for one night and two days. When we took a Tauck tour in India, this also occurred. In India we were given sturdy duffel bags to use during those two periods. On this Japan tour, however, the bags were not supplied. Guests used the carry-on baggage that they came with.

Packing

This generic packing list is a helpful start for some travelers. As a general rule, we always try to limit how much we bring, and finally have learned to bring less than we think we will need. It is rare that we wish we had brought more; but we have wished we brought less on a number of trips.

Some general travel packing tips we follow:

Once we arrive at our first hotel, we repack both suitcases, so we each have our own suitcase for the remainder of the trip.

At the hotels, we never completely unpacked the suitcases. When we arrive at a new hotel we usually get out the next day's clothing so the wrinkles would be minimal. If we were staying more than one night, we hang a few items up. We try to keep the suitcase organized at all times rather than throwing things in, or having to paw through it to find something. Having a few extra plastic bags is useful for dirty clothes or laundered items that might not be completely dry yet.

Laundry and Ironing

Most travelers who have taken long tours know to bring a laundry line and laundry soap. The 2-night hotel stays that Tauck schedules makes it easy to do some hand laundry and have it dry by departure time. I've found the lines with hooks on each end work best. We have found the individual Tide detergent packets to be convenient.

When on longer tours, we usually send a few items out for laundering along the way; we simply consider this one of the normal expenses of our trip. For us, the convenience of having freshly washed and ironed clothes is worth the higher costs that are typical in hotels. Most hotels on this tour had dry cleaning and/or laundry service available, but a few had time restrictions that didn't work with our arrival/departure schedule. If you need laundry service, it is best done at one of the 2-night stay hotels, and best if it is sent out as soon as you first arrive.

Some, but not all, of the hotels on this tour had ironing boards and irons in the guest rooms.

Clothing

Our tour was in the spring, so we packed for all weather. We had a couple of chilly days and evenings, but these were offset by pleasantly warm days at other times. Planning our clothing in layers was helpful.

We only encountered mild rainfall, so our lightweight water-repellent coats with hoods, and our umbrellas were plenty adequate.

People in Japan tend to dress nicer than other Asian countries. We chose black slacks and pants rather than jeans, and blended in very nicely. We did not bring shorts. Besides the weather not being warm enough for shorts, they also tend to label Westerners as obvious tourists, which we try to avoid.

Comfortable shoes that are broken in are a must. There is a fair amount of walking, some on uneven ground. For cleaning dirt, dust, and grime, we brought these KIWI shoe shine wipes.

Shoes are removed very frequently in Japan before entering certain buildings, homes, areas, temples, shrines, hotel rooms, and on tatami mats. It is helpful to have traveling shoes that are fairly easy to remove and put back on. Usually there are benches to sit upon while doing this, but not always. Be mindful to have socks without holes in the soles, and that will be adequate for walking around in. The informational packet given to us at the beginning of our tour informed us of where shoes would be removed each day.

Bring a sturdy umbrella. Umbrella use is common in Japan.

Swimsuits were not needed at the onsens since the men and women's areas are separate, and the Japanese tradition is to use them with no clothing or swimsuits.

Attire was more dressy for the Welcome Reception and the Farewell Dinner, but still not too dressy. it would be fine to forgo suits, jackets, or dresses on these nights as long as nice slacks and shirts/blouses are worn. There were also a couple of other evenings where dressing up a bit more was appropriate, such as our special Maiko dinner in Kyoto.

Passports, Visas

No visa is required for U.S. citizens staying less than 90 days in Japan.

Registering with U.S. Embassy in Japan:

Passports are required for U.S. citizens. The passport must be valid for the entire length of your stay in Japan. Many countries require the passport to be valid for 6 months past your return date, so keep this in mind if traveling through any other countries to or from Japan. Check this well ahead of time; I have seen people with valid passports denied travel because the expiration was too soon. Names on travel documents (Tauck paperwork; airline tickets) must EXACTLY match the name as it appears on the passport. The passport should have at least one blank page available. It is suggested that a copy of each passport's first page is carried in a place other than with our original passport, and another copy is left with an adult back home.

We locked our passports in the hotel safe at every location. We keep our passports (and chip credit cards) in an RFID-resistant pouch to minimize chances of the information being scanned by unscrupulous thieves (also known as wireless identity theft, or contactless identity theft).

Listening Devices

These devices were handed out to each guest at the beginning of the tour, and returned at the end. People love them, or people hate them. There is a small battery-powered receiver which fits in our pocket, and a disposable corded earpiece. The guide speaks into a microphone, and it is transmitted to each guests listening device. Our Tour Guide and the local guides used them extensively on this tour. Our guide called them "Ear Buddies". I have heard other guides refer to them them as "Whispers", "Vox".

This system has a lot of benefits. It allows guides to narrate in a normal voice volume, and not disturb others. It helped us to hear the guide more clearly, especially in crowded locations. It allows us to wander a little further and still be able to hear the guide's narration or instructions. If powered off in between uses, one charged battery can last the entire tour.

The system can have some drawbacks. It is an electronic device, and sometimes is finicky. It depends on a rechargeable battery, which can lose power at inopportune times. If not powered off in between uses, the battery will quickly drain, and will not last the entire tour. Sometimes the transmission can be dotted with static, especially if the guide does not have their microphone adjusted properly. Those people who had trouble with theirs, or simply couldn't adapt to it, stayed close to the guide and usually heard everything adequately.

Phone, iPad

Before leaving home, we activated the AT&T international roaming plan for our iPhones. We had decent to excellent cellular service in almost all areas we visited.

We also had global text messaging, which was also very reliable in most areas we went.

We also activated a Data Global add-on package for our iPhones. We primarily used it to sync documents and notes between iPhones and Apple Cloud. We also used it for checking weather, researching destinations, and reading news. We were careful to turn off our iCloud sync of photos we took, because that would have used up the data allotment very quickly.

Free Wi-Fi access was available at most hotels we were at. Speed and connectivity quality varied, but was always adequate to at least get basic emails done. Some required a login password; others were unsecured. For security reasons, we avoid public unsecured Wi-Fi, so we use a VPN service on our iPhones and iPads for extra security any time we connect to a Wi-Fi network.

Any time we left our room without our iPhones or iPads, we locked them in the safe. We never left them out for hotel staff to see. Japan is a very safe country, and the people here are extremely honest, but we simply don't take any chances.

Cameras

We took a full-sized 35mm Nikon D750 camera with a zoom lens and a pocket-sized Sony DSC-RX100 on our travels.

Memory cards: You will take more pictures than you think; there are lots of beautiful things to photograph in Japan. Bring more memory cards than you think you will need. On every tour we go on, there are people who need to buy additional memory cards for this very reason.

When we fill up a photo memory card, it becomes very valuable to us. We either lock it in the safe, or keep it in my wife's purse. We know of one person whose memory card was packed in her suitcase, and it didn't make it home; all of her cherished photos were lost.

Batteries: We make sure our batteries are fairly new so they will hold a long charge (old rechargeable batteries tend to deplete faster). Having two batteries adds convenience, takes away the worry of running out of power, and might eliminate the need to recharge every evening. On more than one occasion, we have heard of someone who couldn't take all the pictures they wanted because their battery was old and would run out of power too soon.

We recharged our camera batteries every single evening, whether they were run all the way down or not. That way, we knew that we were starting every day with full power, and running out of power would never be an issue.

Camera: People on this tour had all styles of cameras. Bring the one that you are likely to use the most, and know how to use. If you are not completely familiar with it, it is helpful to bring the manual also; if not for yourself, then for someone else to read about how to solve a problem you might be having. I have a PDF version of our manuals stored on both the iPad and iPhone.

Photos Not Allowed

UNESCO World Heritage Sites seen on this tour

Group Contact List

Towards the end of our tour, one of the guests passed around paper and pen so everyone who wanted could write down their name and email addresses. This sheet was later copied with the assistance of our Tour Director, and a copy handed out to each person. It is Tauck's policy not to give out personal information about guests, so it is up to the guests themselves to initiate this list for those who want to participate.

Group Photo

Our Tour Director arranged for a professional photographer to take a group photo at the Kagaya Hotel in Kanazawa. It was taken in the private room where we went for dinner, and we were all dressed in our yakuza, which is the traditional Japanese attire for resorts and onsens.

At the end of the tour in Tokyo, an 8" x 10" printed group photo was delivered to the hotel room of each couple or individual. The photo was complementary by Tauck.

Electricity

Electricity in Japan is 100 volts, 50 or 60 Hertz. Electrical plugs and outlets are Type A or Type B, like in North America. Here are some web sites with good adapter information:

Most of the hotels had adequate outlets. A couple had only one or two outlets available, but all worked out fine. We brought this Belkin outlet multiplier/surge protector. It allowed us plug in both phones (into USB plugs) and two camera battery chargers all at the same time, plus provided some surge protection.

Many electronics are made to operate on either 120v or 230v. Read the label on the charger of each of your gadgets to find out. Our iPhone, iPad, and camera battery chargers were all okay with 100v (labels say something like "Input 100-240v").

Here is a good summary of the difference between adapters and converters.

Physical Activity; Health

This tour probably rates as "average" as far as Tauck tours go. It still requires average to good fitness and good mobility. People depending on walkers would not find this tour a good match. Canes would be fine, but if this is an indication of limited mobility, then one must be realistic about the ability to participate in this tour. The Tour Director and the local guides were excellent at maintaining a slow walking pace.

Vaccines: Check the CDC "Vaccines and Medicines" website to determine your vaccination needs. For most travelers, routine vaccines suffice.

The CDC has an interesting "Healthy Travel Packing List for Travelers to Japan" page.

Medicine alert: The Japanese Government has some strict restrictions concerning medications (even non-prescription ones) that can NOT be brought into the country. This includes some of our over-the-counter common cold medicines, pain pills, or any medication with any psychotropic effects. There is more information on the Japan embassy website. This Japan Ministry of Health, Labour, and Welfare website describes the Yakkan Shoumei application for bringing in restricted medications.

If taking prescription medications, bring enough to last the entire trip, plus a few extra days in case there are delays. But the Japanese government restricts you to no more than one month supply. Order them at home well ahead of your travel date to allow plenty of time for doctor review, refill request, and pharmacy order filling. Bring a list that details every prescription name (generic and brand name if possible), strength, daily dose, and reason prescribed. This will help a foreign pharmacist and/or doctor if an emergency refill is needed for whatever reason.

It is wise to bring a spare pair of prescription glasses also. Imagining losing your glasses, and having to go without them for weeks. Again, better safe than sorry.

Just like with any group travel, colds and other illness tend to spread quickly on a coach tour. There are a couple of practices that everyone can take, whether ill or well, that will keep everyone healthy.

If you find yourself ill, try to avoid spreading it to others. In addition to the above practices, use cough drops or cough medicine. Don't initiate a handshake. Stay away from other people when possible. Consider having food brought to you instead of going to the dining room. Use the bathroom in your hotel room instead of the public restrooms.

Hotels

Read a more detailed description of the hotels on the separate Hotels and Overnight Accommodations page.

All in all, the hotels were typical of Tauck tours. They were excellent quality and good locations. For the few that might have been very good quality instead of excellent, this was usually chosen for well-thought-out reasons, usually location-related.

Room Safes

All of the hotel rooms had safes. Any time we left our room, including going to the hotel restaurant for meals, we locked our passports and other valuables in the safe. This minimized the concern about pickpockets, purse snatchers, hotel staff. We have had room safes that we weren't comfortable using, but we were fine with all of them in Japan.

We tend to error on the side of caution. We also used the safe to secure other items we didn't want to lose. Our cameras; camera memory cards (specifically the ones with photos already taken); iPhones and iPad (contained private names/addresses and personal information); cash (our U.S. currency, and Japanese Yen); occasionally our wallet and purse.

Personal Safety

All in all, Japan is one of the safest countries we have ever visited. The people there are extremely honest. Japan has little violent crime. It has the second lowest homicide rate in the world (Singapore has the lowest).

But even though we felt quite safe the entire time, we still paid attention to our universal travel safety precautions:

We have found that when traveling frequently or on long trips with multiple destinations, it is easy to forget the name of the hotel where we are staying on a particular day.  When we get to our new room, we look for something with our hotel name and address on it, and put this into our wallet or purse.  If we ever get lost, we can show this to a taxi driver, another hotel concierge, or a tour guide, and they will help us get back.

Flexibility (and other wisdom)

I have heard various Tour Directors through the years give different bits of advice. Here are a few samples worth repeating here, as they apply to most group tours.

Courtesy

We have heard multiple Tour Directors comment about keeping smalltalk to a minimum while he/she or local guides are speaking on coach. Even though you might not be interested in what is being said, others around you might want to hear. This is especially important when schedule, meeting times, and locations are being discussed.

Tour Directors also like guests to know how it improves the entire tour when people are prompt and on time. Not only is this a courtesy so that other people aren't kept waiting by a tardy guest; it also allows the tour director more schedule flexibility, and sometimes they can add in extras.

Cell phones are commonplace nowadays, but can be an annoyance to those around you. Phone conversations should take place when you are not with the group, especially not on the coach.

Smokers should be considerate of non-smokers. Smokers frequently do not realize how much their smoke bothers non-smokers. Standing downwind rather than upwind of the group will avoid offending them. This can apply to any place the tour group assembles, such as outside the coach, outside the hotel, outside a restaurant, at a rest stop, or at a viewpoint.

Keep others healthy. If you have a cold, or cough often, use sensible personal hygiene to prevent others from catching your bugs. Cover your mouth. Wash your hands frequently. Carry hand sanitizer. Avoid touching things that others might be touching also. Colds and other illnesses can spread rapidly among a tour group. If everyone uses precautions, the risk of illness will be minimized.

Smell good, but not by using perfumes. Refrain from using your perfume, cologne, and aftershave. Wearing scents, even in small amounts, on a coach can be extremely irritating to others around you. Some people get painful headaches when forced to breathe perfumed air. Keep this in mind even if using the coach just to travel to an evening restaurant.

Follow the Golden Rule, and the rest will fall into place.

Books, Movies

Web Sites

In Summary

We absolutely recommend this Tauck "Essence of Japan" Tour! Japan is a beautiful country with a fascinating culture, and very friendly polite people. After our Tauck tour, Japan is on our "must-go-back-and-see-again" travel list.

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