Domestic Travel Tours
While it might seem silly to use a tour company to travel Japan, there are times when it actually makes the most sense. Japanese tours booked at any travel agency have package deals that save you money while taking you to the cultural highlights off the beaten trail that locals like to visit. Other English tours make navigating around big urban areas like Kyoto and Tokyo much more manageable, particularly if you are not confident in your Japanese (or if you are traveling with someone -for example parents- who isn't confident in your Japanese).
Japanese Tour Companies
There are tour agencies literally everywhere, particularly around train stations. Most tour agencies put out seasonal pamphlets highlighting different package deals to various locations. The prices vary depending on the day, type of hotel you want, and number of people in your group (group rates are always cheaper, usually to a max of 6 people per group). All these package deals include airfare and lodging. Lodgings even in the lowest tier still tend to be decent business class hotels. As always, traveling during peak times like Golden Week or Winter Break or to peak travel locations like Okinawa or the Sapporo Yukimatsuri can be pricey and fill up quickly. However off-season deals can actually be very cheap!
Tour packages from all tour agencies fall into two basic categories:
- Free Plan (フリープラン / パック): offers airfare and lodging only
- Course (コース): offers airfare, lodging, tour guide, bus transportation, most meals, entrance fee to advertised events and locations
In places where transportation is difficult to come by or expensive (like Hokkaido), Course tours are the way to go. Sure you will find yourself surrounded many eldery Japanese (the ones most likely to book these tours), following around the archtypical guide with flag, and making long stops at omiyage stores or rest stops. But the adavantage is you'll likely be visiting places off the beaten tourist track. These are the little-known cultural heritage sites that the Japanese know and love that most foriegners don't even know exist. It's also a great way to practice your Japanese and make friends with the elderly.
While there are countless tour agencies to choose from, we'll highlight a few of the most well-known ones.
http://www.jtb.co.jp/ (Japanese only)
JTB is probably Japan's most well-known travel agency (they also have several overseas offices). Look for the red and white banner. JTB offers a wide plenortha of free plans and course tours every season. They also specialize for the region they are located in. For example, the Matsuyama JTB will only offer tours that depart from Matsuyama. If a tour is avaialable from say, Hiroshima only, the Matsuyama JTB won't have the advertisements or pamphlets for this tour. However, if you have a information for a tour that leaves from another city, then Matsuyama JTB can book it for you. This little loophole gives you lots of flexibility. You'll notice that the bigger cities like Hiroshima or Osaka have twice as many tour options than Matsuyama does (this also means that if a tour is booked from Matsuyama, you could still go on it if you leave from a different city).
Webmaster's Note: This might seem really confusing and unnecessay information, but I once saw a pamphlet at the JTB in Hiroshima advertising a 6-day tour through Hokkaido for the Yukimatsuri that included traversing all over Hokkaido and visiting 5 different Yukimatsuris, among other things. By chance I kept it. When I went back to Matsuyama I was shocked when I couldn't find the same pamphlet. When I questioned the travel agent she said it was because the tour didn't depart from Matsuyama. So I showed her the pamphlet I had gotten from Hiroshima and she was able to book it for me (departing from Hiroshima). For the record it was the best trip I ever had.
This little known travel agency is located near Matsuyama Shieki station. From Shieki walk north toward Matsuyama-jo and turn left at the frist street. Go past HIS Travel and you'll see this agency tucked away on the right. This place is worth mentioning because they specialize in incredibly cheap 1-3 day bus tours. This is the place to go if you want to make day trips to famous festivals like the Yosokoi Festival in Kochi, the Awa Odori in Tokushima, or the Kobe Luminarie. For example, the day trip to the Yosokoi Festival costs as little as 3,500 yen (includes bus ride to and from)! You could also take a 2-day bus tour through Gifu and Kanazawa for as little 20,000 (including all transporation, lodging, and entrance fees).
English Tour Companies
If you want to get the main highlights of Japan with as little as hassle as possible, then there is no reason you can't go with an English tour. They're particularly beneficial if you have friends or relatives visiting from overseas who want to maximize their vacation time. There are also many volunteer guide associations that offer free tours for English speakers. Google 'goodwill guides' and you'll find loads. While there are many services, we'll just list a few highlights. Most of these places offer easy on-line booking (in English of course!). (Thanks Annamarie Ruelle for this information!)
Please note that these are in-Japan tours. None of these companies offer airfare.
Private as well as longer 1-2 week tours. Intrepid tours offer many scripted activities as well as lots of free time to explore on your own.
Pretty much identical to Intrepid.
Specializes in private low-cost city tours, plus hiking/cycling.
JTB Sunrise Tours
A Subsidiary of Japan's number one travel agency, JTB Sunrise Tours specialize in a vareity of group and private tours to everywhere in Japan.
Specializes in short 'experience- based' trips--wear a kimono, tea ceremony, etc.
They are a consolidator, which means they take your booking & will outsource the trip to another company. It's usually JTB who runs the trip, but not always
A big bus tour company. They run some tours in English.
Small Group and Family Adventures.
Small Group and Family Adventures.
Trekking and Adventure Holidays.