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After everything the pandemic has thrown at us, we’re wishing things could be straightforward and trouble-free once more. Do you feel the same? Then you may want to direct your pent-up wanderlust into choosing an adventure that keeps things simple as can be, while providing you with the experience of a lifetime. Perhaps you need look no further than our Small Group Tours!
We’ve spent the last twenty years honing the perfect formula, ensuring that our group tours immerse you in everything that’s remarkable about Japan – in the most unforgettable way.
Here’s the secret recipe.
- They’re not too big, and not too small
We’ve found the perfect size for our group tours. And let’s just say, they’re called ‘Small’ Group Tours for a reason.
Most of our tours have a maximum group size of just 14* travellers – just the right amount for a sense of fun, togetherness and meeting new people, but with the added bonus of being able to get around easily and enjoy plenty of intimate experiences.
We find that 14 people is just the right number to be able to fit into smaller, independently run hotels and ryokan inns; it’s easier to book the group into homely eateries rather than the big chain restaurants that larger tours have to fall back on; and it makes taking bullet trains and local transport easy, giving you the experience of travelling Japan like a local.
You’ll always find a mix of people from our different home countries (the UK, USA and Australia), and a combination of families, couples and solo travellers – meaning that you’ll never feel like the odd one out, tagging along with a group of people who already know each other.
- A balance between the well-known and the undiscovered
Everyone goes to Japan with something in mind that they’re especially excited to see – whether it’s the Kinkakuji Golden Temple in Kyoto, the blooms of sakura in the spring, the majestic, red-crowned cranes in Hokkaido, the Studio Ghibli museum, or the floating torii gate on Miyajima island. That’s why each of our tours take in some of Japan’s most iconic sites.
That’s not all, though. In every tour, we like to slip in a place we love but that most people haven’t heard of. This is where you’ll get an unfiltered, authentic experience, with the opportunity to interact with local people – and after years of taking our tour groups to these truly special places, we know they are often the most memorable moments of a trip.
Take Joge, for example: a small town we visit on Hidden Japan between Hiroshima and Kyoto. It’s not on the tourist map, it won’t ever come up in bucket-list recommendations, but if you ask our customers once the tour is complete, visiting Joge is one of their standout experiences.
What makes it so special? Here’s Insider tour leader Richard Farmer…
“Although there are hundreds of small towns scattered throughout Japan’s rural regions, few of them can boast having the same balance of historical importance, preserved cultural heritage, beautiful natural surroundings, and welcoming local population in the same way as Joge.
“A large kabuki theatre, a preserved main thoroughfare (still lined with old wooden buildings), and a beautiful Buddhist temple – far more gorgeously appointed than one would expect in such a small place – betray the uncharacteristic wealth that Joge enjoyed during Japan’s early-modern period.
“However, Joge’s real riches can be found in the people living there now. Every time our Hidden Japan tour groups visit, locals start popping out of their houses, restaurants and shops to welcome us, and proudly introduce the group to the history and culture of their town. It becomes a bit of a panic for the tour leader, as our cohort gets split in every direction, accompanied by whichever friendly local has adopted them!
“Over my many visits, I’ve learned to just let the wonderful chaos unfold; everyone always seems to end up back on the bus somehow, accompanied by a new friend and having discovered a secret corner of Japan.”
- A combination of cities and countryside
Japan’s famous fast-paced, glitzy cities are just one side to life. Equally and beguiling Japanese, is the slow, quiet pace of rural life out in the countryside – places that barely see international tourists. You’ll watch farmers tending rice fields in Togarinozawa Onsen on Walking the Nakasendo and Beyond; visit the aforementioned town of Joge where you’re welcomed like VIPs by the local folks who are so proud to show off their hometown; and on Hidden Japan, you can head deep into the heart of Shikoku to visit the Iya Valley where life has hardly changed in generations and people still live farm-to-table.
What we love about visiting rural places is the warm welcome you get. People are so grateful that you’ve trekked off the standard tourist path to visit their quiet corner of the country – and even though they might not speak fluent English, the interactions are so memorable and genuine. We also think it’s important to contribute positively to a small family-run business or community in rural areas, rather than simply focussing our economic impact on big chain hotels and restaurants in the cities.
One of the enchanting things about Japan is the cultural, historical, and geographical differences across the regions. The cities are fairly cosmopolitan, and it’s easy to miss regional differences while you’re there. The smaller towns and countryside are where you get to experience the culture that’s unique to each area. Think: Awa Odori dancing in Tokushima on Shikoku (Hidden Japan), taiko drumming on Sado Island (A Northern Soul), the historical importance of Nikko (Spirit of Honshu, Japan Enchantment), and the rare wildlife on Hokkaido (Winter Highlights). If you just stuck to the cities, you’d miss a lot of this!
- A blend of Japanese-style accommodation and Western hotels
Ryokan stays are a must for any trip to Japan. Owner-run, they are where you’ll get a true sense of omotenashi: the famous Japanese hospitality. The simplicity of a ryokan stay is intoxicating; soak in an onsen bath, dine on exquisite, seasonal kaiseki meals in your yukata, and drift into a sound sleep on a futon mattress spread on tatami mat flooring. We pepper our trips with stays at ryokan we’ve known and loved for years (and you can find out more about a few of our favourites here).
Of course, though staying at a ryokan is a real joy, you may not want to do it every night of your tour (you can have too much of a good thing!). We tend towards ryokan stays outside of cities, where the accommodation truly forms a part of your overall experience of a destination. In cosmopolitan areas where the hotel is simply a place to stay for the night, we opt for the convenience of central, Western-style hotels.
- The perfect amount of guided sightseeing and free time
One of the standout benefits of a group tour is the experienced Insider tour leader who can lead you effortlessly one place to the next, sharing their passion, knowledge and entertaining stories while you’re out sightseeing as a group.
However, we know you’ll have your own ideas and places you’ll want to visit and things you want to do on tour, so we build in free days in the cities like Tokyo and Kyoto. We’ll arm you with as many or as few logistics and recommendations as you’d like. Or, if you’d rather be shown around a little more, you can always join your Insider tour leader for further guided exploration.
- An Insider Tour Leader who really knows their stuff
You can have the perfect itinerary and a fantastic group of people to share your Japan holiday with – but what separates good from great is the quality of your tour leader.
Fluent in Japanese culture, history and traditions, every one of our Insiders has their own unique stories and passion for Japan. They chose to make this country their home, their knowledge and enthusiasm are infectious; believe us when we say that they will bring your Japan experience to life!
Hear about the dramatic life of the leader of the Tokugawa shogunate before you visit his shrine in Nikko; the origins of Buddhism in Japan as you arrive at the atmospheric temple complexes of Mount Koya; get handy tips on cultural dos and don’ts ahead of meeting an apprentice geisha for an afternoon tea in Kyoto. Not only that, but they can save vegetarians from accidentally choosing pork dumplings at a restaurant, or helpfully point out when you’ve done up your yukata robe the wrong way before dinner at your ryokan (depending on how you fold it, you can accidentally dress yourself in the way that bodies are prepared for funeral rites!).
At the end of the day, our Tour Leaders just want to share with you what they most love about Japan – and that’s at the heart of what we do here at InsideJapan.
- Finally… we need YOU
We’ve been leading Small Group Tours for 20 years, and in that time, we’ve met the most diverse, interesting and engaging people from all over the world. And so will you!
The people who you’ll meet on our Small Group Tours are people you’ll share once-in-a-lifetime holiday experiences with; people who are just as passionate as you are about seeing everything that Japan has to offer. If you want to do, and experience, and get involved in your Japan holiday, then one of our Small Group Tours will be perfect for you.
Got a Small Group Tour in mind that you’d like to hear more about? Get in touch with the team to start planning your 2022 Japan adventure!