Comment: Experience the authentic heart of Japan

Saga’s expert holiday creator Joe Sutcliffe reveals the inspiration behind a unique tour of Japan that takes customers to the authentic heart of the country

I first travelled to Japan four or five years ago and to be totally honest it wasn’t one of the destinations that was top of my list. But after my first visit it was truly one of the most special travel experiences that I’ve had, and all my pre-conceptions about Japan were blown out of the water.

I thought Japan would be really busy with people everywhere and tall buildings, so you couldn’t move. In reality the opposite is true. Japan is a land of wide, open spaces. The cities, like Tokyo and Kyoto, are very well organised and the people are the friendliest and nicest people I’ve ever come across. It surprised me, it’s such a lovely country.

There are tours of Japan out there in the market which are quite standard and visit the main tourist places; you get an overview of the country, but you don’t get to the heart of it. So the idea behind this tour was to bring out the culture and the local experiences. And to get our customers interacting with the people and the destinations.

The tour starts in Tokyo and we still see all the big sights, but we do things a little differently. I wanted to make sure the group size was limited to no more than 25, so our customers can more intimate experiences, such as making their own sushi with expert sushi chefs. They’ll have an opportunity to put on a traditional kimono and even walk some of the streets through Asakusa, where kimonos are still worn, to really understand what it’s like to be a Japanese local.

A big highlight for me is when we get out of Tokyo and go and see the wild snow monkeys of Yudanaka; an area full of thermal activity and hot springs and spas where monkeys hang out, swim, play and bathe. You walk along a wooded path and get to an area where monkeys appear all around you. They’re amazing to watch and video.

I wanted to include a traditional Japanese hotel experience, so our customers stay overnight in a ‘ryokan’, a Japanese heritage inn in Yudankana. They stay in a very simple room and sleep on the floor on a traditional tatami mat. It’s a truly worthwhile experience and there’s therapeutic hot baths or ‘onsen’, which the Japanese people love and enjoy.

We travel through Kanazawa which is a Unesco-protected village, miles away from the neon lights of Tokyo, and on to Kyoto, which is the historic heart of Japan with over a thousand temples. The streets are so ornate and you see geishas and maikos, which are apprentice geishas. Our customers will participate in a traditional tea ceremony, which is fascinating, and then in contrast they’ll go to a ninja-themed restaurant.

Next stop is Hiroshima, obviously made notorious by the atomic bomb, so it’s a very poignant place. We visit Peace Memorial Park and learn about what happened and how the people have recovered. It’s a very inspiring place to visit because the Japanese have an attitude of forgiveness – there’s no bitterness or anger, just a real tranquillity and acceptance.

There’s so many great experiences on this tour: a few journeys on the bullet trains, a walking tour at the foot of Mount Fiji, a cable car ride, a visit to a steaming volcano, a cruise on Lake Ashi. Plus, our customers can stop over in Hong Kong for three nights – an amazing add-on to Japan as it has all the authenticity of China, juxtaposed with the neon skyscrapers and colonial heritage of the west. It’s a great city to explore.

This is a fantastic tour which I know customers will enjoy. The pace is good, there’s lots to see without it being too hectic and they’ll get some authentic and surprising experiences.