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Choosing the right tour of Japan

Choosing the right type of tour to suits you best.

Choosing a right tour is tricky because each tour company presents their tours differently. This blog aims at helping you to select the very best tour given your preferences and situation.

For the sake of clarity and openness below is a list of tour types and where Journey to the East may be able to help you.

Examples of travel options

Type of Holiday in JapanOffered by Journey to the East?
Self-managed holidayX
Self-guided tripsX
Large group/ Coach holidaysX
Small Group Tours (up to 8 guests)✔
Private/custom/tailor-made/bespoke tours✔

Self-managed holiday

  • Advantages
    • Cost
    • Do as you wish
    • Travel wherever & however you like
    • See/do whatever you like
    • Free and easy (ultimate flexibility)
    • Enjoyment of planning and research
    • Unique experiences
  • Disadvantage
    • Language and communication differences (can be fun though)
    • Some places cannot be accessed without tour company representative
    • No support if something goes wrong
    • Planning errors
    • Booking errors (including fraud)
    • Travel stress
    • Not properly understanding what you see

Self-guided trips

  • Advantages
    • Cost
    • A tour itinerary that is proven
    • Free and easy (excellent flexibility)
    • Enjoyment of planning and research
    • Unique experiences
  • Disadvantages
    • Some places cannot be accessed without tour company representative
    • Limited support if something goes wrong
    • Fixed itinerary
    • Less travel stress
    • Not properly understanding what you see
    • Not usually 100% targeted at your interests

Large group/ coach holidays

  • Advantages
    • A tour itinerary that is proven
    • Timetable to ensure you see what was listed
    • Guide
    • Often good support if something goes wrong
  • Disadvantages
    • Fixed itinerary
    • No independence
    • Limited access to the local people
    • Limited personal access to guide
    • Cookie-cutter style (repeated tours)
    • Not usually 100% targeted at your interests

Small Group Tours (up to 8 guests)

  • Advantages
    • Feels much like self-managed tour (without disadvantages)
    • A tour itinerary that is proven
    • Flexible enough to work around constraints such as weather
    • Themed with limited departures
    • Unique experiences.
    • Almost one on one guide interaction
    • More interaction with the local people
    • Visit places where large groups cannot go
    • Boutique accommodation
    • Little travel stress
    • Support if something goes wrong
  • Disadvantages
    • Cost
    • Fixed itinerary (but with free time)
    • May not targeted 100% of your interests

Private/custom/tailor-made/bespoke tours

  • Advantages
    • The ultimate way to see Japan
    • Its your tour, so guides will spend more time on what interests you
    • Group size of your choice (minimum 2 guests)
    • All the advantages of self-managed tour and a small group tour in one
    • Enjoyment of planning and research with a Japan specialist to help and make it happen
    • Go when you like for as long as you like
    • Flexible budget options
    • Targeted to 100% of your interests
    • Have a guide improve your special experiences
    • Very little travel stress
    • Support if something goes wrong
  • Disadvantages
    • Cost


  • Advantages
    • Everything is pre-arranged
    • You can be as active (or otherwise) as you please
    • Cost
  • Disadvantages
    • Only see ports where the cruise stops
    • Onshore excursions are mostly ‘canned’ format and expensive

You may also find our information about “when is the best time to visit Japan” helpful.

More travel choices to consider

Mode of transport

–  Consider the main form of transport. There are coach tours, private vehicle tours and ones that use local public transport.

Physical activity level

– You can also look at tours based on physical activity level. There are adventure tours, walking or cycling tours, tours include guided walks, and others which transport you from one place to another by bus.

Fully escorted VS independent

– From the point of view of independence and flexibility, you have self-guided tours, small group tours, large group tours and fully escorted tours.

– Fully escorted tour means there is a tour escort with you 24 hours a day. This can be (but not necessarily always) more expensive for an obvious reason. You should consider how comfortable you are being on your own in a target country, and if you prefer having your own time and venturing out on your own sometimes.

Group size

– If you are planning to join a group tour, size of the tour group is a big consideration point. Small group tours can offer you a more personal experience, however, it may also mean higher prices (compared to large group tours) because the cost are shared among less people. The smaller groups will give you a much more in-depth experience with more interactions with locals, however, perhaps the most important point is that small groups take you where the large groups can’t go ( E.g. often where the locals go and so more authentic.)


– Particular things you want to see or do during your trip may only be available at certain time of the year. For example, you can ski only during winter just like you can see cherry blossom only during spring.

– For a better holiday, try to go with tour companies that have expert knowledge of the destination and conduct tours that specifically match these events (rather than going on tours that have no themes and run the same trip 52 times a year.)


– The more places you visit on you trip the more time you will spend in transport. Some tours cover huge distance and cram in many destinations in short period. This means while you get to see a lot (from windows of buses and trains!) you won’t have time to fully appreciate the places, understand culture and interact with people. After all the inside of one bus is much like the inside of another.

Sites and activities

– The most tours in any given country or region go to the similar locations. Take the case of Japan, most tours go to Tokyo, Kyoto, Hakone, Takayama, etc..

– Within the same city, sites or activities included in a tour, can vary from a tour to tour. So, you should choose a tour that suits your special interest. In addition, make sure enough time is allocated for each item so that you won’t be rushed. Some tours offer unique activities off the regular tourist trail which may also appeal to you.


– This is where the pitfalls start to materialise. Obviously if the price is way above your budget that is not the right tour for you. When you see the advertised price, you need to know what is included, or just as importantly what is not included. Either way doesn’t mean the tour is bad. It simply means you should set out to compare them on a level playing field. Here are a few pointers.

– Check if the tour is land only or it includes international flights. You may be able to access better airfare if it is packaged, however, you will lose flexibility of choosing airline or route of your preference. You may also want to stopover somewhere on a way too.

– Prices may differ depending on departure time. Watch out for the small print “Prices from”. Room arrangements also affect price. If you are single traveler, check if there is a single supplement. If there is a single supplement be sure you will get the same class room as a double occupied room.

– Next, check how many meals are included. Most tours include daily breakfast but the rest varies. Obviously, this affects your budgeting, but it also impacts on quality of tours. If food is the part of experience, you are after, you should look for tours that demonstrate the variety of local cuisines.

– You should also check how much guide time is included. Some tours arrange a guide who works exclusively for you or your group, which gives you a greater flexibility. If a group is small, it will give you even greater one on one contact with the knowledge of guides. On the other hand, there are tours that book you a seat on a larger sightseeing coach tour, where you share a guide with coach full of other tourists.

– Transport is the next measure. Some tours exclude certain transport cost such as rail costs.

– Entry fees, tips and other sundries also need to be looked at.

Accommodation standard

– Where there is a big difference in price it may be because of the difference in standard of accommodation. Things to look out for in terms of accommodation include;

  • Standards such as cleanliness and comfort
  • Western style versus local style
  • Small boutique hotel or large generic hotel
  • Locally owned or international chain
  • Location, is it near where you want to be (public transport or sites), room size and facilities such as private bathroom

An analysis of Journey to the East’s tours for you.

Based on the above: –

  • Group sizes are extra small (typically maximum of 8 guests) giving you good access to the breadth and depth of the guides’ knowledge. Also, the extra small size means that the tours can be more flexible.
  • We use public transport as a main mode of transport with occasional use of private minibus to get to less accessible places. It aims to show travelers everyday life in Japan. We don’t conduct cruises or coach tours.
  • Although not adventure tours, you would need reasonable fitness as the tours involve walking on guided tours every day. This means you will be on your feet for a couple of hours at a time with some breaks. With the use of public transport, you need to be able to climb a flight of stairs at stations (there are lifts at most stations for those who are not able to get up the stairs).
  • Generally, we do not offer “fully” escorted tours. Guides will lead you during guided tours at each location and assist you to use public transport and restaurants. However, they are not with you 24/7.
  • Japan’s four seasons are their forte! Our tours take you to the best places to appreciate the season, so much so in fact that each of our spring tours has totally different itineraries to capture the peak of cherry blossoms and yet they are run just a few weeks apart.
  • Each tour focuses on specific themes or areas, avoiding long transfers and maximizing time spent at destinations. Plenty of time is allocated at each site or activity for the fuller experience rather than skimming through many items in a day.
  • The prices are for land only. We have guests from all over the world and our escorts meet them on arrival in Japan. All local transport is included in a tour price but not international flights.  Prices are fixed for each tour with single supplement. Food is a big part of the tours so usually about 80% of the meals are included to highlight many locally specific cuisines in Japan. All entry fees and activity fees stated in an itinerary are included in the prices.
  • Guides work exclusively for our small groups (people for other tour operators do not join our tours). Guides usually join you in the morning at the hotel and stay with you until dinner unless a free afternoon is scheduled.
  • Accommodation is generally equivalent of 4 – 4.5 stars. As a rule, locally owned and operated small scale accommodation is used with a mix of different types of room, such as western style, Japanese style (ryokan), modern and traditional etc. to give you a variety of experiences. Accommodation is all clean, comfortable and with private bathroom (unless otherwise specifically stated in the published itinerary for some remote tours).

The travel bug is an enjoyable disease and I think more people should be infected. Understanding what makes people tick in other parts of the world is fun, and that is why I think you should try to maximise your chance to interact with local people.

I hope my blog is some help to you choosing right tour for you and you will come home with the special holiday stories you can talk about for many many years. Have a great holiday!

Click to view some of Journey to the East’s Small Group Tours or our Private Tours of Japan.