Japan is daunting for first-time visitors, so a package tour is a great way to get into the country and find your feet. However, beware of expensive optional tours such as tea ceremonies, theater tours, and night views. Local tourist offices can tell you how to have the same experience without emptying your wallet.
The country can be quite a culture shock, so resist the temptation to book tours that pack in too much sightseeing. Opt for those that include half days of freedom, because just stepping outside the hotel into the local streets is likely to provide some unimagined sights and experiences.
Tokyo and Kyoto feature on almost every tour of Japan, while Hiroshima, Nara, and Nikko are normally the secondary destinations.
Alexander & Roberts. Alexander & Roberts' mix of fully guided and freestyle tours lets travelers choose how much guidance they want during their trip. While tours generally focus on the main Tokyo-Kyoto-Hiroshima tourist route, there are optional side trips that take travelers a bit off the beaten track. 800/221–2216; www.alexanderroberts.com. $600 (4-day Kyoto tour)--$6,000 (11-day Tour across Japan).
Explorient Travel Services. Explorient offers private, customizable tours with a focus on luxury travel. Aimed at travelers who want every last detail taken care of, Explorient tours cover both major tourist destinations like Kyoto and Tokyo as well as more out-of-the-way sights such as the inland sea or Japan's UNESCO World Heritage Sites. 800/785–1233; www.explorient.com. $3,500--$6,000.
Kintetsu. With the motto "You dream. We plan," Kintetsu is a good choice for travelers who do not need a guide, but want someone to take care of all the logistics of their trip. Kintetsu offers package and guided tours but focuses on planning custom vacations, offering expert advice and planning ideas to fit any budget. 212/259–9600; www.kintetsu.com. $500 (a short Tokyo Trip)--$5,000 (10-plus days across Japan).
Smithsonian Journeys. Smithsonian offers small group tours covering Japan's major tourist sites making them a good choice for travelers looking for the comfort and camaraderie of a group. Although less customizable than private tours, they are generally more affordable. There are also some cruise tours for those interestend in traversing the Pacific by boat rather than plane. Tour prices include transportation from the United States. 855/530–1542; www.smithsonianjourneys.org. $6,000.
Japan is overflowing with art—from pottery and painting to the precise skills of flower arranging and calligraphy. Many tours include museums and art galleries, but only some get you right into artist studios with English-language help to understand their skills and the chance to try your hand.
Absolute Travel. Absolute Travel's "Artistic Traditions of Japan" tour offers visitors a chance to experience and learn about the country's long history of art and fine craftsmanship. Tours cover major tourist cities like Kyoto and Tokyo as well as the "art island" Naoshima. All tours are private and customizable with the finest luxury dining and accommodation. 212/627–1950; www.absolutetravel.com. $15,000.
Cycling is popular in Japan, but local bike-rental shops may not have frames large enough for non-Japanese cyclists. For more information on cycling in Japan see the Japan Cycling Navigator.
Aloha Bike. Aloha Bike's experienced cycling guides take the uncertainty out of cycling across Japan. While clients need to be fit, Aloha offers a range of tours of varying routes and difficulties. With everything from 2-day trips around the Mt. Fuji Five Lakes area, to 11-day treks from coast to coast, it is easy to add a short cycling tour to an otherwise self-planned trip. 0558/22–1516; www.alohabike.com. $400 (2-day tour)--$3,000 (11-day tour).
Japan Cycling Navigator. A must for travelers planning a self-guided cycling trip, Japan Cycling Navigator offers information and on cycling routes throughout the country. www.japancycling.org.
Okinawa, Kyushu, and the islands and peninsula south of Tokyo are all popular diving areas. If you are a novice diver, make sure that a dive leader's "English spoken" means real communication skills. Dive Japan has lists of dive services and locations.
Dive Japan. Although rarely updated, the Dive Japan website is still the best English-language resource for information on dive sites around the country. www.divejapan.com.
Whales, monkeys, bears, and cranes—Japan does have fauna and flora to appreciate slowly, but English-language tours are limited. Naturalist Mark Brazil, who writes extensively about wild Japan, leads ecotours through Zegrahm Eco Expeditions.
One Life Japan. With a range of cycling, hiking, and ecotours, One Life Japan gives travelers an inside look at life in rural Japan. A small, independent outfit, it offers a level of personal interaction and community involvement that larger tours have difficulty matching. Focusing on active, challenging, and sustainable travel it is a good choice for those looking for an adventure and a look into everyday life far from the big city. 090/3337–3248; www.onelifejapan.com. $2,000.
Zegrahm Eco Expeditions. Bridging the luxury and ecotour markets, Zegrahm offers tours to off-the-beaten-track locations while pampering clients with top-class dining and accommodation. While it may not offer a look into daily life in the countryside, it is an excellent way to see some of the country's most stunning nature while still being able to sleep and dine in style. 864/264--0821; www.zeco.com. $14,000 (15-day tour).
Japan's love affair with golf does not make it any easier for non-Japanese-speaking visitors to reserve a game unless introduced by a club member. Japan Golf Tours takes guided groups from the United States, and Golf in Japan, put together by golfing expats, helpfully lists more than 2,000 courses that welcome foreign golfers.
Golf in Japan. For golfers, this website offers extensive information on golf courses and clubs throughout the country, including costs, access, and how to reserve time on the green. www.golf-in-japan.com.
Japan has well-marked trails, bus-train connections to trailheads, and hidden sights to be discovered. Millions of Japanese are avid and well-equipped hikers. English information is growing, so check local tourist offices for details. Visit Outdoor Japan's website for all outdoor activities. Quest Japan, run by an experienced British hiker, has a range of tours in all seasons.
Outdoor Japan. Outdoor Japan is the first place to look for information on nearly any kind of outdoor activity, from hiking to snowboarding, to kayaking, www.outdoorjapan.com.
Quest Japan. Quest Japan offers hiking tours ranging from 10 days to more than two weeks. Not for the inexperienced, these hikes offer a look at some of the country's most stunning mountains and historic trails. www.questjapan.co.jp. $2,000.
There is no better way to learn the language than to immerse yourself by studying Japanese in Japan, with classes, a homestay, and cultural tours on which to put the newfound skills into action. Japanese Information and Culture Center (JICC) has good links to schools and procedures for study-abroad programs.
Japan Information and Culture Center (JICC). JICC has a wealth of information about various language programs in Japan. 202/238–6900; www.us.emb-japan.go.jp/jicc.
For bikers, a motorcycle tour is by far the best way to see Japan’s unique countryside. The roads are excellent and Japan has a thriving motorcycle tour culture. Though road signs are often marked in English, this isn’t often the case in rural areas. The Japan Biker FAQ has information on riding in Japan, and Sasa Trails offers customized motorcycle tours throughout the country.
Japan Biker FAQ. The Japan Biker FAQ has everything you need to know about traveling around Japan by motorcycle. www.thejapanfaq.com/bikerfaq-toc.html.