Anjali Mehra and Taryn Redfern, both Asia destination specialists at Goway recently visited Japan on separate FAM trips. On their return, we asked them to answer some questions about their experiences and to share insights about visiting Japan and selling it to your clients.
Where did you travel to in Japan?
Anjali: I traveled to Tokyo, Hiroshima, Miyajima Island, Himeji, and Kyoto on a Goway hosted FAM in November 2019.
Taryn: My FAM was to the Toyama Prefecture in December 2019 and was hosted by Toyama tourism. The Toyama Prefecture is in central Japan, located on the coast along the Sea of Japan and includes part of the Northern Japanese Alps. During the FAM I visited Takaoka and Gokayama, and afterwards I extend my trip to visit Kanazawa and Kyoto.
What was your favorites hotel stay and why?
Anjali: My favorite stay was The Thousand hotel in Kyoto. It’s a new modern luxury hotel with a contemporary Japanese design. It’s located steps away from Kyoto station and is very central. There are two breakfast restaurants you can choose from, either Italian or Japanese cuisine (I ate at the Italian restaurant and it was delicious). I did a hotel inspection there to see some of the suites, the spa and the gym. From some of the suites, you have a view of the bullet train station and can watch the trains arriving and departing which was neat.
Taryn: I really enjoyed my stay in Gokayama. I stayed at a traditional Gassho-style thatched roof house, only found in this area of Japan. The houses are recognized by UNESCO as a living historic village. The village is surrounded by the mountains of the Chubu region and located along the Sho River so it is a picturesque area to see. Staying in the house was similar to staying at a Japanese ryokan but more basic. The bedding was futon mattresses placed on the tatami mat flooring and we ate a multi-course kaiseki dinner. The host family did not speak English but they were very welcoming. I was a little out of my comfort zone but I am extremely glad I had this experience. It was one of the most memorable parts of my trip.
Did you learn anything new, or did anything surprise you?
Anjali: I learned about the Shinto religion in Japan which was unknown to me before my visit. We visited Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine in Kyoto and Itsukushima Shine on Miyajima island (the floating red tori gate), which are both Shinto shrines. At those shrines I saw people praying which involves chapping your hands and bowing and the proper etiquette of washing your hands before entering the shrine. I also saw a whole wedding party at the shrine on Miyajima, the bride dressed in a white gown with a cap-like hood over her head, it was very elegant and interesting to learn about this tradition. On our last day in Japan, we got to meet a Shinto priest and partake in an exclusive blessing ceremony which ended with a sake tasting. I like to learn about other cultures when I travel and this part of Japan surprised me.
Taryn: I was surprised by the Toyama prefecture. This is a remote, ‘off the beaten track’ region of Japan which made it very exciting to visit as you feel like you are experiencing the unseen side of Japan. I think it would be difficult to visit this area on your own, without a guided tour because English is not widely spoken, some destinations are only accessible by vehicle and there are limited signs for tourists.
What was your favorite experience?
Anjali: My favorite experience was meeting a Geisha (called a Geiko in Japan) and watching her dance and perform for our group during dinner at a historical ryokan in Kyoto. This was specially arranged for our group but it is an experience we can book for your clients. It was interesting to talk with Geiko (through her translator) to learn about her daily life, especially about her elaborate hairstyles and hair accessories. She has to sleep on a small uncomfortable-looking wooden pillow to keep her hair perfect!
Taryn: Definitely the Sagano Bamboo Forest in Kyoto which I decided to visit on my own in the early morning. I got there just after sunrise, around 7:15am. There was only one family and one other tourist there at that time. It was so quiet and peaceful and I was able to enjoy it without the crowds, a true zen experience!
Food is always a highlight when we travel, did you have a favorite local dish?
Anjali: My favorite food was Okonomiyaki which we had at a local restaurant in Hiroshima. The dish is a combination of batter, a generous amount of cabbage, yakisoba noodles and pork. It is sort of like a savory pancake. I do not eat pork so had a vegetarian version of the dish and it was delicious. We sat at a table with a large burner and each got a spatula type of utensil to serve our individual portions.
Taryn: I also would also have to say Okonomiyaki. It has always been a favorite of mine so it was nice to get it locally again.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Anjali: Japan has a lot to offer for children and adults, it’s a great family destination. I visited Akhibara district in Tokyo on my last day in Japan to pick up some anime souvenirs for my kids. They would love Japan. Walking down Harajuku Street is also quite the experience – a lot of shops, sweets and fashionable youth. I saw children eating rainbow cotton candy and ice cream.
Taryn: I would like to mention that December is still a good time to visit Japan. Kyoto doesn’t really get below 10C/50F. Gokayama was -1C/30F in the morning when we woke up but it warms up with the sun quite quickly. Since this area of Japan is surrounded by mountains it tends to be cooler and it does get snow (unlike Tokyo and Kyoto which usually do not get snow). Obviously, the weather can vary depending on where you go but take a decent jacket and you will be fine. This is also the low season for tourism in Japan so a nice way to avoid crowds and get better prices on hotels!
We can customize a Japan tour to include Gokayama for your clients. Or, we can include a visit to Shirakawago village, the only other place in Japan where you can visit the thatched roof houses. Our 9-day Cultural Japan and 3-day Takayama Holiday group tours both visit Shirakawago. Typically, we only visit this village on a day trip from Takayama or Kanazawa but we can arrange an overnight stay if your clients prefer. As well, our 12-day Explore Japan group tour visits many of the sites Anjali and Taryn mentioned including the two shrines Anjali visited and the bamboo grove in Kyoto. It also visits the Gion district, the heartland of geisha culture in Kyoto. If your clients want to travel soon, we currently have on special our 10- days Spring Blossoms group tour with airfare included.