This new series of blog posts will help you with every step of planning your own Japan trip. This time: should you organise everything yourself, go with a guided tour – or a bit of both! I’ve done things both ways, so I hope this will help you decide which works for you.
What’s the difference?
Guided tours are booked through a travel company and they arrange pretty much everything, from your flights and hotels to meals and entrance fees. With a self-organised trip, you book everything yourself and make all the decisions. You can also book shorter tours for day trips or cities.
Many people (including me!) choose a guided tour as their first visit to Japan because it seems too overwhelming. Things are a lot easier nowadays with all the information you can find online, but it was a little scary back in 2006, when we had never traveled outside Europe before. We got to see a lot in a short time (including Tokyo, Mt Fuji, Hakone, Kyoto and Nara) and our free days made us realise it was pretty easy to get around. On our next trip, we booked an evening tour of Tokyo, which was a nice reintroduction. Since then, I’ve organised everything myself, which has allowed me to do totally obscure things like visit the JAXA space center and go to Kiddyland every other day.
Guided tours can be a great option if it’s your first trip overseas, you’re travelling solo or you get lost going to the corner shop. Let someone else use their expertise to arrange everything and you can just turn up and see the best of Japan. There are tours suitable for everyone, whether you prefer traditional Japanese culture or a kawaii overload, a whistlestop tour of the top sights or a fully customised trip.
What’s good about a guided tour?
- You’ll get to see a lot in a short time including places that are more difficult to access with public transport.
- Japanese tour guide to answer questions and explain the history and culture
- You don’t need to worry about getting lost, public transport, finding restaurants, moving luggage etc.
- Many entrance fees, meals etc. are included in the trip price so you only need spending money.
- You could make new friends and will have companionship if you go by yourself.
If you love doing research, bargain hunting and finding places off the typical tourist routes or have very specific interests, Japan is easier than you might think. Much of the signage and ticket machines have English translations, while restaurants and cafes in bigger cities often have English or picture menus. There are also loads of great guides, both online and in print.
What’s good about a self-organised trip?
- You can decide everything: where to visit, accommodation type, flights etc.
- If you have a small budget, you can save money by staying in hostels, eating at konbini etc. – or spend money on things that will make your trip more comfortable.
- You can immerse yourself in one or two cities and get to know them rather than being whisked from place to place.
- You can visit out of the way places or indulge a favourite interest or hobby.
- You can be more flexible and spontaneous depending on the weather, local events etc.
What about day trips or shorter tours?
If you’re still a little wary of organising everything by yourself, considering joining a shorter tour. These are some of the options:
- Day coach tours – e.g. to Mt Fuji, to see the sights of Kyoto, around Hakone
- Short guided tours – e.g. Tokyo at night, Tsukiji fish market
- Walking tours – learn more about a neighbourhood from a local guide
- Specialist tours – e.g. one on one personal tours that match your interests
- Classes – e.g. cooking, origami, flower arranging.
- Homestay – visit or stay with a Japanese family to see everyday life and practice Japanese.
I haven’t been on a guided tour since 2008 so can’t recommend any personally, but I’m including some links for you to research further. If you prefer to organise things yourself, I’ll have posts coming up about flights, hotels, getting around etc.
- Rainbowholic Tokyo Stationery Tours are personalised shopping trips. Kaila also organises journalling workshops.
- Hyper Japan’s J-Pop & Go! Tour looks like a lot of fun. It’s organised by Inside Japan who have a lot of other specialist trips too.
- Hands-on activities guide at Japan Guide.
- Meetrip lets you book local guides.
- Viator have lots of day trips and classes to book. There’s more on Tripadvisor too.
- Magical Explorer has a wide range of Japan tours to give you inspiration. You can find similar travel companies worldwide through Google.
- Homestay in Japan has some information on homestays.
- My Japan Trips master page has tons of links and resources
- My Planning For Japan series tracked preparations for my 2016 trip