The insider advice on this page is from one of Wendy’s Trusted Travel Experts for Japan: Scott Gilman of JapanQuest Journeys.
Transferred to Japan while working on Wall Street, Scott Gilman was captivated by the country’s complicated culture and meticulous forms of art and craftsmanship. After seven years spent living in Tokyo and traveling all over Japan with his family, Scott returned to the U.S. in 2004 and started a company that plans bespoke itineraries to both the country’s highlights and its lesser-known corners. His seamless arrangements eliminate the hassle of negotiating a place where English still isn’t widely spoken, and his knowledgeable, personable guides help travelers decode the nuances of Japanese society. But what’s most unusual about Scott’s trips are the fascinating people he can introduce you to: a Zen Buddhist monk living in a Kyoto temple, a family that has been crafting matcha tea whisks for 25 generations, all kinds of artists who will invite you into their workshops. His contacts make nearly anything possible—even opening museums when they are otherwise closed to the public. Scott returns to Japan three to four times a year; his business partner is based in Japan and runs their office there.
What to See and Do
Most overrated place
Hakone is a well-known hot spring region that is convenient to Tokyo but can be very touristy and crowded. For a more authentic experience still near Tokyo, go instead to Shuzenji, on Izu Peninsula. It is a beautiful village where you can relax in hot-spring foot baths, walk along a river that runs through town, explore smaller temples, and enjoy views of Mt. Fuji. Two of the very best onsen (hot spring) ryokans are tucked away there, too: Yagyu no-Sho and Asaba.
Sit just a few feet from the action at a sumo training stable full of Japan’s elite wrestlers in Tokyo, accompanied by a well-known journalist who is an expert in sumo. The air is electrified as 400-pound heavyweights crash into one another again and again. Access to these intimate practice arenas is very hard to secure; sumo-world contacts are essential to guarantee the chance to get up close to these living links to the past (sumo has its origins in the Shinto religion).
Enjoy a private dinner with entertainment by the most accomplished of geisha at an invitation-only teahouse in the Gion district of Kyoto—a quintessential experience that even very few Japanese ever get the chance to see. Relish the superb kaiseki cuisine while watching the geisha’s graceful dancing and enjoying their renowned charm.
Tour a sake microbrewery with the owner, who will explain the process of brewing, as well as the drink’s place in Japanese society. Afterward, the brew master will expertly guide you through a tasting, describing the nuances and subtleties of their sake range.
Or we can take you to Wajima, on the Noto Peninsula, where you can sit down one-on-one with a designer and craftsman of the finest lacquerware in Japan, whose family has been doing this for many generations.
Where to Stay and Eat
Best-value splurge hotel
Araya Totoan is a remarkable inn in western Japan; though no ryokan is cheap, this one is a good value for its fabulous hot springs, amazing food, exquisite local pottery collection (like getting free museum entry with your accommodations), and an upper-floor bar available only to certain guests (including our travelers, of course). Relax in the confines of a simple tatami room, look out at an exquisite private garden while sipping delicious green tea, enjoy an enticingly warm “ofuro” bath, and return to your room for a fabulous kaiseki traditional Japanese meal. The kimono-clad owner welcomes you to her inn (family-owned for generations) with a cautious politeness but a genuine warmth that makes you feel instantly welcome.
Restaurants the locals love
Access to the smaller, local restaurants that serve the finest Japanese food and sake is difficult—if not impossible—unless you speak Japanese. However, we work with a network of such restaurants where the chef will treat our travelers as if they are regular clientele.
Dish to try
For lunch, slurp handmade soba or udon at almost any local soba shop.
Meals worth the splurge
Japan is an expensive place to eat. These three restaurants can easily cost $150–$200 per person with drinks.
In Tokyo: Shiba Tofuya Ukai is a beautiful restaurant built around a large Japanese garden; it specializes in tofu dishes.
In Kyoto: Yoshikawa, one of our favorite tucked-away counter restaurants, serves wonderful, lightly battered tempura using the freshest of vegetables and fish. You’ll b up close and personal with the chef, observing his secret methods.
In Gion: Takumi Okumura serves exquisite and innovative French/Japanese fusion cuisine in a beautiful former machiya, or townhouse.
My favorite months are May (after Golden Week, which starts on April 29) and October; both months bring great weather and vivid colors. In the springtime, you can enjoy the sweet scent and beauty of the cherry blossoms permeating the country (they generally peak in April, but you can still enjoy them in May, and without the huge crowds); the entire nation comes alive to celebrate hanami, or flower viewing, in colorful kimonos. Autumn in Kyoto brings cooler air and bright red maples, magnificent to behold alongside Zen gardens and royal villas.
July and August are hot and humid—though, if mixed with time in the mountains, they can be manageable. Two of the most crowded times are the Golden Week and Obon holidays (early May and mid-July or mid-August, respectively), when Japanese travel a lot domestically.
In Japan, many crafts are done at such a level that they could rightfully be termed an art. Focus on bringing home something handmade—perhaps a fabulous piece of pottery, a beautiful textile, an item of clothing, or some washi paper. Depending on your itinerary, we can guide you to the right place to buy these straight from the producer.
If you are a lover of Japanese gardens, the Adachi Museum of Art in Shimane Prefecture is a must-see. The gardens are gorgeous and perfect beyond belief. It’s a bit off-the-beaten-path, but well worth it.
But really, most of what I do is send travelers to the hidden side of Japan: places like Jigokudani, where you can see Japanese snow monkeys; Matsumoto, with its magnificent National Treasure Castle and a gorgeous mountain backdrop; Shirakawa-go, a 700-year-old village and UNESCO World Heritage Site; Semaida, where a thousand rice paddies cascade into the Sea of Japan; Wajima, where the best lacquer in the world is designed and made; Sado Island and its famous Kodo drummers; Echigo Tsumari, where contemporary art is placed strategically around a 300-square-mile rural area; Yakushima, for a hike through cedar and moss forests; and so much more.
In a country where many signs aren’t in English, or even the Roman alphabet, Google Maps is incredibly useful. However, it can be very expensive to use your smartphone’s data plan abroad; instead, rent a portable Wi-Fi hotspot to connect to your phone or other device to the internet. You can pick one up at the airport, or we can have it delivered to your hotel ahead of time. For $4-$5 a day, you’ll get unlimited access for directions, Skype calls home, and anything else you want to do online.
In general, there is no tipping in Japan. Tips are not expected and, if offered, will in all likelihood be turned down. A ryokan stay is one exception to this rule. In this case, the tip should be offered soon after settling into your room and is given to the nakai-san when she serves you tea and sweets; JPY5,000 (about $50) is an appropriate amount per stay. Place the tip in an envelope, and when handing it to the nakai-san thank her by saying, “oseiwa ni narimasu.”