Product Manager of Asia Hosts FAM to Japan

At the end of November, Brittany Banks, Goway’s Product Manager of Asia, hosted a FAM to Japan in conjunction with Air Canada and Shiba Park Hotel. We sat down with Brittany to ask her some questions about the FAM and to get some tips on selling Japan to your clients. 

What cities/places did you visit in Japan?

Asia Product Manager Brittany Banks

We started and ended the tour in Tokyo. In-between we travelled by shinkansen (bullet train) to Kyoto, Hiroshima, and Himeji. While in Hiroshima we also visited Miyajima Island by ferry. 

As this FAM was hosted in conjunction with Shiba Park Hotel we stayed at both of their hotel properties in Tokyo. We stayed in the newly-renovated building of the Shiba Park Hotel, an affordable option with spacious rooms for Tokyo standards. We also stayed in the beautiful hand-painted rooms at the Park Hotel, a 4-star property and more high-end compared to the Shiba Park. The Park Hotel is a must-stay for your clients who are interested in art. The property even had an artist-in-residence working on a painting in the lobby. I would also like to mention the hotel we stayed at in Kyoto, the newly opened The Thousand Kyoto. This is a 5-star hotel with contemporary and simplistic Japanese design and décor and superbly located only a few steps from Kyoto Station. 

What are some unique experiences that you would recommend?

Japan offers a variety of cultural experiences, which is what makes the destination so unique and fascinating in my perspective. On this trip, we had origami and calligraphy lessons. We tasted matcha green tea in a historical tea house on the temple grounds of the iconic Golden Pavilion. We ate the freshest tuna sashimi from a small sushi bar in Tokyo’s famous Tsukiji Outer Fish Market. We discovered lesser-known types of Japanese cuisine including okonomiyaki and shabu shabu. We also got to soak in onsen baths (hot springs), watch a taiko drumming performance, and have an exclusive Shinto priest blessing ceremony at a small Shinto shrine hidden in modern Tokyo. Japan sounds pretty amazing, right? 

Tuna bowl, Tsukiji fish market, Tokyo

But, there is one experience that really stands out as a highlight and I think my group members will agree. It was our evening with a geiko (geisha) and a maiko (geisha apprentice) in Kyoto—a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Kyoto is home to only 200 geikos and maikos, a tradition that is becoming obsolete, so this was a very special evening. Side note: the popular belief that geishas and maikos are prostitutes is untrue, so get your mind out of the gutter! 

Our evening started with a visit to a historic ryokan for a traditional multi-course kaiseki dinner. When the geiko and maiko entered our dining room mid-way through our meal, everyone was immediately star struck. Then the photo frenzy began. Over the course of the evening we asked questions about their daily lives (which were translated because of the language barrier), watched them dance, play music, and played a game with them. It was an unforgettable evening! 

Goway FAM group with the geiko and maiko in Kyoto

We can customize this type of exclusive geiko experience for your clients and offer the other experiences mentioned as well. 

What is your top tip for agents selling Japan?

1. Travel like a local. Japan’s public transportation is often the best way to travel around. The subway and train system is very efficient, sophisticated, and clean. Although it can be a little overwhelming at first, once you understand how the train system works it is very easy to use (and English signage is everywhere). I often suggest having a combination of guided tours and free time so your clients can discover Japan first with the comfort of a guide and then on their own once they feel confident.

Shinjuku, Tokyo

2. There is more than raw fish to eat! Don’t worry if your clients are not fish eaters. They will have lots of options in Japan. One of our group members had a shellfish allergy and a few other passengers who were not keen on raw fish. Every restaurant we went too was able to offer non-fish choices (although a little less likely at a speciality sushi bar restaurant). Keep in mind, Japan is also famous for its beef and we did indulge in wagyu beef on a few occasions! 

3. Stay connected by portable Wi-Fi. There is Wi-Fi available on the bullet trains but Wi-Fi is limited in other public places. If your clients want to stay connected, I suggest a portable Wi-Fi device. We had one portable Wi-Fi device for our group, which I carried around in my purse. We can arrange to have it delivered to your clients on arrival in Japan and at the end of their trip they can return it at the concierge desk of their hotel. I definitely suggest having it.

4. Stay at least one night at a ryokan in a more remote spot of Japan. A ryokan is a traditional Japanese inn with tatami matted floors, futon bedding, onsen hot spring baths, and Japanese multi-course meals, which are usually served in your room. This is the quintessential Japanese experience. The futon bedding can be uncomfortable for some since the bedding is typically a thin mattress placed on the floor. However, some ryokans have western beds so your clients can sleep in a way they’re more comfortable with. I suggest staying at one outside of the major cities to enjoy the natural outdoor baths and natural scenery (usually the cities only have indoor baths and they might not have real onsen mineral water).  

5. Japan is a year-round destination. Sure, the cherry blossom season, which usually falls at the end of March and early April, is a beautiful time to be in Japan, but it is also the most popular time to visit. Travelling to Japan during other seasons can be just as rewarding and not as busy. If your clients are flower enthusiasts, what about going to Japan to see the wisteria flowers in bloom, which is usually in May, or the blue hydrangeas, which usually bloom in June and July? Our group had the perfect weather at the end of November, when the fall colours were just beginning to appear. We also had a clear view of Mt. Fuji from our hotel lobby in Tokyo (at the Park Hotel), which is not common during Japan’s spring and summer months. 

What do you think are the biggest misconceptions about Japan?

I think there are two: 1) Japan is expensive and 2) Japan is overwhelming with large crowds of people. Of course, Japan can be both expensive and crowded but let me elaborate.

Asakasa Kannon Temple, Tokyo

Although you can certainly splurge and stay at deluxe hotels, have private vehicle services, and eat at Michelin-starred restaurants, you can also travel very affordably in Japan by using a rail pass for unlimited bullet train travel and staying in budget friendly hotels. The budget hotel room size will be very small, but the room will be clean and usually well-located near major train stations. Also, it’s possible to eat very reasonably. Most of the restaurants we went to for dinner cost less than 2,000 yen per person (US $19 / CA $24 per person) with alcoholic beverages included. Plus, there is no tipping in Japan, anywhere

Secondly, Japan is home to approximately 126 million people, so some places can feel very crowded at times (i.e. Tokyo Station at rush hour and Kyoto during the cherry blossom season). However, personal space is respected (which is not the case in other Asian countries) and people line up for everything—I mean everything. The train stations even have lines on the ground to show you where to stand to wait for the train doors to open. So, although there are many people, they are very orderly and polite. I have yet to experience that on the subway in Toronto!

Anything else you would like to add?

I touched on some of the traditional cultural experiences we had, but we also experienced the modern side of Japan. For instance, we wandered through Tokyo’s Shinjuku neighbourhood to see the neon lights at night and attend the popular Robot Show. We explored the pop culture neighbourhood of Harajuku and ate some rainbow food items and also shopped in the high-end department stores in Ginza. Japan is truly a land of contrasts and I think that is what makes it so intriguing as a destination.

We have some new tours of Japan that I’m really excited to announce. For those travellers interested in Japanese cuisine, we have an 11-day Foodie’s Guide to Japan tour that includes soba noodle and sushi lessons, sake and matcha green tea tastings, and other culinary delights. We also have a new 11-day Family tour that visits Tokyo Disney, Universal Studios, and includes a kimono dress-up. For those short of time, we have two new Tokyo stopover options: Tokyo Sumo Stopover and Tokyo Snow Monkey Stopover. And, for those on a budget, there is the Discover Japan with Airfare package currently on special.

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