John Dunphy and wife Carole decided on Wendy Wu’s Discover Japan Tour for their first visit, in October 2014, to The Land of The Rising Sun. John has previously reviewed Scotland’s Majestic Line for Travel Monitor and has supplied TM with many great photographs from Australia and around the globe on the back of their travels.
Read John’s review!
Inflight with Cathay
This was our first visit to Japan so we decided to book a tour that would give us a brief look at a number of different cities. Wendy Wu used Cathay Pacific for their Discover Japan Tour, which suited us because it is a good airline and we gain Qantas Frequent Flyer points!
We booked Premium Economy as we find it reasonable value for the additional leg room on longer flights. The Premium Economy cabin on Cathay is a small one just behind Business and it is a good choice if you can manage the extra cost. However, Cathay seems to change planes a bit to suit their loadings and not all of the fleet has the PE cabin as we found out when the flight from Hong Kong to Tokyo, Narita was changed. Our advice is to check the detail of the flights with your travel agent or on sites such as Seat Guru or Flight Stats, plus book seats ASAP.
Flying Sydney, Hong Kong and to Narita we decided to have a couple of nights in Hong Kong by adding this stopover to our tour and we enjoyed a first visit to Lantau Island and the famed Po Lin Monastery and Big Buddha, plus a revisit to places such as The Peak and Stanley Markets.
We then had an early morning trip to the airport for our four hour flight to Narita, where we were met by the friendly Wendy Wu representative holding our name card in his hand – always a relief on your first stop when touring.
It was a one and a half hour coach drive to our hotel, the Shiba Park Hotel in Tokyo where we settled in before meeting up with our tour escort and fellow travellers that evening. There was an initial meet, greet, and briefing, before a group dinner in the hotel. Our group turned out to be twenty people, mostly Aussies plus couples from England from Scotland.
We had three nights in Tokyo. Second day saw us touring the Imperial Palace grounds, then up to the observation decks on the Tokyo Sky Tree Tower with its panoramic views of the city, then to Sensoji Temple, Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist Temple. After that it was time for lunch then a visit to a former private garden of the Edo Period Shogun.
That evening we were treated to a river cruise including a buffet dinner (it was about now that we realised we were not going to be short of food on this tour). Tokyo by night was beautiful from the water and our guide organised private taxis to deliver us to the hotel after dinner – very spoilt!
The following morning we had an early start to travel to Hakone and Mt. Fuji and saw how good the Japanese road system is. Our coach was beautifully maintained and spotless with a very competent and careful driver in uniform and with white driving gloves – impressive.
The autumn foliage got more beautiful as we neared Mt Fuji and we drove up the circuitous road to the 5th station, with some of us catching glimpses of the snowy peak on the way. Our tour escort Ayako (Aya) advised us that Fuji was the “Shy Mountain” and unfortunately Fuji did indeed disappear into the cloud and mist when we reached the 5th Station at 2300 metres.
From Mt Fuji we headed to Hakone Geo Thermal area, taking the spectacular cable car to Mt Owakudani over the sulphur fumes and hot springs and hot rivers of the mountain. Afterwards we had an enjoyable cruise on Lake Ashinoko on a “pirate ship” (only the Japanese could do that!) then it was back to Tokyo for dinner and our last night in there.
Our drive the next day took us over the Japan Alpine region to Matsumoto and its famous castle and onwards to our two night stay in Takayama, nestled high in the Hida region. There was a great cheer from our group on the coach when we suddenly saw the crystal clear summit of Mt Fuji on our way to Takayama. Hida is famous for its beef that locals say is comparable or better than Waygu. One of the most interesting stops on the way was at a wasabi farm where we saw how this is grown and were able to try our hands at pickling wasabi, much to the amusement of the locals.
Our hotel in Takayama turned out to be the very large and impressive Takayama Green Hotel with indoor and outdoor Onsen hot baths to enjoy. We were too “shy” to try the “natural” bathing in segregated baths, but many of our group gave it a go. Judging by the numbers of locals wandering the lobby in Yukatas, this is a very popular activity. This hotel has the biggest and best souvenir shop we have ever seen in a hotel and you could buy all your souvenirs at this one shop.
Next day turned out to be wet and cool ,but this didn’t stop us enjoying the local morning markets and the old district of Takayama with its famous festival floats museum. The group then headed to the Sake Brewery to escape the rain (or so they said), and we were able to sample many different types of sake for a small fee.
Our next stop was Kanazawa driving the beautiful and impressive road over the mountains with vivid autumn foliage, spectacular scenery and dozens of road tunnels carved through the mountains. One of the highlights of the whole tour was our stop at the UNESCO World Heritage village of Shirakawago on the way to Kanazawa. This village is famous for its Gassho-Zukuri thatched farmhouses, some of which are more than two centuries old.
The old Samurai district of Kanazawa was fascinating after which the world famous Kenroku-en Gardens was our next stop. Again it was raining, but our escort had borrowed umbrellas from the hotel and we spent a long time admiring the beautiful garden with its old pine trees supported against the heavy snows this area experiences in winter. A short walk away was the Museum of the 21st Century with it amazing simplistic design and interesting exhibitions. This was to be our stop for delicious coffee and a “gooey” cake.
The following day we walked from our hotel to Kanazawa station to board the beautifully-named Thunderbird Express to Kyoto. This is not one of the super-fast trains but our journey to Kyoto (2+ hours) was very interesting and we enjoyed a lovely Bento Box lunch – which in itself was a beautifully presented work of art – on the train. Needless to say with Japanese punctuality the train left at 12.53 precisely, so don’t be late for any Japanese trains!
Our three nights in Kyoto were taken up with visits to the Zen Buddhist Golden Pavilion, Kyoto’s most popular tourist attraction as we found out when we joined the thousands of visitors there on a lovely sunny day. There were hundreds of school groups and the school children practiced their English on us visitors by saying “Hello” and “where do you come from” etc.
We met a group of older school kids that obviously had projects to complete in English and we were “interviewed” by many of them and then asked to sign their project books. It was so refreshing to see beautifully dressed, polite and enthusiastic schoolchildren; that interaction seemed to be a highlight for many of our group.
In the afternoon we were taken to a private house to meet a lovely group of local ladies in traditional costume, who gave us an insight into the Japanese cultural activities of the Tea Ceremony, Calligraphy, Ikebana and Origami.
Nara, the old capital in the 8th Century, was our tour destination for the next day and on the way back to Kyoto we visited the Fushimi Inari Shrine famous for its 10,000 Torii gates and being featured in the film Memoirs of a Geisha. This shrine is a photographer’s paradise, assuming you can get some pictures without the thousands of fellow visitors inside!
Koya-san – Osaka
From Kyoto we journeyed to Koya-san also a world heritage site and headquarters of Shingon Buddhism with its many temples and Japan’s largest cemetery.
Visiting a cemetery may not seem to be a normal tourist thing to do but this one is amazing with its beautiful shrines, huge Japanese Cedar trees and lovely autumn colours of the Maple and Gingko trees. Our accommodation for the night was the Fukuchi-in Temple Lodge, with futon bedding and amazing vegetarian meals. This lodge also had hot spring baths but again, not for us. Koya-san would be worth a longer visit as there is much to see.
The final night of our tour was spent in Osaka, which we found to be a lovely modern city with amazing shopping, buzzing food streets and wide boulevards. Our hotel in Osaka was the Hotel Nikko, probably the best hotel on the tour and very central.
Overview of the tour
- We found Wendy Wu to be excellent. All connections went like clockwork. Transfers were a mixture of coach and private taxis. Hotels were very good and all spotlessly clean and comfortable.
- The tour included breakfast, lunch and dinners and we found we had to cut down on our courses to avoid getting too fat! We had a wonderful variety of Japanese food, much of it in local restaurants with great atmosphere.
- Ayako, our tour guide, was probably one of the best we have ever had on any tour. She was organised, friendly, very knowledgeable and enthusiastic about her country.
- Japan is a friendly and welcoming country that is amazingly clean and safe. We were impressed by how everything was so well organised, taxis were reasonably priced and the drivers beautifully presented in suit, tie and white gloves. There is no tipping, which took us a little while to get used to, but that’s the Japanese way. The presentation of the shops, especially the packaging of fruits and sweets is worth the visit alone.
- The popular sites were very crowded so an early morning visit would be good if you have flexibility.