Japan-solo travel vs. group tour

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I am trying to put together an affordable trip (even more of a challenge since airfares have increased) to Japan and I am debating between trying to do it independently on my own or go with a group tour (and paying a single supplement). I have the added challenge of needing non-smoking accommodations because of allergies. I am primarily interested in the heritage areas of Kyoto, Takayama, Nara, etc. and I do not care if I see Tokyo or not. So far I've found two tours that include the festival in Takayama--one with Dragon Fly Tours and one with All Japan Tours. There is another tour with Globus that does not include the festival. I would like to hear from anyone who has used any of the above mentioned tour companies and/or anyone who has traveled alone in Japan.

Since your main interest is Kyoto, you might think about doing the group tour then spending an extra week or so in Kyoto on your own at the end of the tour. There is a good British company The Oriental Caravan (www.theorientalcaravan.com) that offers more unusual tours of Japan. The information on their website could help you plan your independent time and you could go over your plans with the group tour guide. Kyoto is lovely and there are many nearby areas that you would want to visit too.

All of the hotels I stayed in last year had non-smoking rooms, so this probably won't be a problem.

Greetings from Kyoto.

Obviously if you can do both you can take advantage of both types of travel. But if you do not have the time, money or desire to do both, given that your main interests are Kyoto, Nara and Takayama I think it would be easy for you to travel solo and base yourself in Kyoto. Nara is only about an hour away from Kyoto on the train and could be easily explored in one or more day trips. Takayama can be done as a side trip as well if necessary. By doing this you can probably save money.

There is really a lot to see in and around Kyoto and by travelling solo (if you have to choose between the two) you could decide which places to visit and visit them at your own pace. Many tours can be rushed -- when I did a half day Kyoto tour with friends a few years ago it was way too rushed. Moreover, travelling solo allows you to explore many lesser known places than you would be able to visit on a tour.

As for accommodation, business hotels are a really good option and usually run between 5000 to 8000 yen for a single. A number of hotels now have non-smoking rooms.

Moreover, more and more places have been introducing non-smoking areas -- although Japan still has a very long way to go. If you travel with a group you may not be able to choose eating or other places, etc. which you would be able to do if you travel solo. (I am extremely allergic to cigarette smoke and therefore have to choose where I eat and go carefully so I know this is a very important consideration.)

One situation where a group tour may be an advantage is if you would like to visit a place during a festival when accommodation would be very tight. However, if you book accommodation in advance or commute to the festival from a nearby place, the problem can be overcome.

A really good source of information for tourists who want to visit areas of Japan on their own is the JNTO (Japan National Tourist Organization)'s practical travel guides, which give detailed information on getting to specific areas, which sites to visit once you get there and a list of accommodations. There's a guide for walking around different areas of Kyoto. (www.jnto.go.jp/eng/location/rtg/pdf/pg-503.pdf) I have used the guides on numerous occasions and have found them very useful.

As for Kyoto itself, another very good source of info is the monthly Kyoto Vistor's Guide - www.kyotoguide.com

I hope the above info is useful. You will enjoy Japan if you visit.
Japan is suffering now from a big drop in tourism because many people do not realize that places outside of the Tohoku region are fine, so it is a really good time to come.

Moderator note: Websites added.

Thanks to both of you for your suggestions. I will look into both ideas.

I really don't see any need for a tour in Japan. I spent three weeks there traveling solo last fall, including Kyoto and Takayama (trip report here: http://www.fodors.com/community/asia/thursdaysds-east-asian-excursion.cfm - entries with bold type headings). You could save some money on a shorter trip by using a rail pass - I was traveling too slowly for it too work. Besides the excellent JNTO web site, the Japan Rail site is very useful - http://www.hyperdia.com/en/

For accommodation I liked the Toyoko Inns. They have an English language website: http://www.toyoko-inn.com/eng/index.html - while the rooms are small, they have everything you could need. For more interesting places you could try: http://www.japaneseguesthouses.com/index.htm

I would not pay a single supplement. There are some small group tours which do not charge a supplement if you are willing to share a room, e.g. Intrepid.

Depending on how much time you have, it is relatively easy to travel solo in the popular areas you want to see (though I have never been to Takayama). I lived in Japan for two years and NEVER took a tour anywhere and got around fine, even with very little Japanese language.

As long as you have a good map in a language you can understand, and you take your time, you should be fine in the main centres like Kyoto and Nara. The tourist information places in each place are helpful, though the one in Kyoto is a little hard to find. You have to go inside the department store in the train station and go up many levels in the elevator to find it, as the one at the top of the escalator is for Japanese speaking people only.

Outside the train station there are big hoardings with clear information about buses to all places of interest, but be warned, they are usually very crowded, and since they are, in fact, local buses, they are slow to reach their destinations, as they stop all the time along the way. You should get an all day pass at the bus ticket office just outside the main train station, as it is cheaper than paying for each trip separately.

The tourist information place at Nara is easy to find at the station and the people there speak English. Most people just go to the Park as there is enough to see there to keep you busy for a whole day. Both the Kyoto and Nara tourist info. places will give you English maps. it is easy to walk to the park from the station.

I stayed in a 'weekly mansion' in Osaka as a base (cheaper than Kyoto) and you can cook for yourself, or not, whatever takes your fancy. By Japanese standards it is reasonably priced and close to a train station. Check out http://www.wmt-osaka.com/otemae/index.html weekly mansions can also be found in other parts of Japan. I actually prefer them to hotels, as you have the option to self-cater.

From Osaka, it is easy to get to Kyoto, Nara, wherever by train, and you don't need to book ahead.

Of course, if you prefer company, and have little time, a tour is a good option, but usually you pay a lot for these.

My previous comments emphasized the Kansai (Kyoto-Osaka-Kobe-Nara) and Takayama areas, but I agree entirely with thursdaysd and ceebee that one generally does not need to take a tour in Japan, especially in well-trodden areas. One can travel to out-of-the-way places as well without difficulty. I have travelled extensively all over Japan solo without any trouble. It is very easy to ask someone at the accommodations where you are staying, the tourist office, etc. to write the Japanese and pronunciation in romaji (so you can say the names yourself) of the places you want to go to if necessary.

Based on tour information I have heard about or seen, organized tours are generally using public transport, including the Shinkansen, to travel around Japan so travelling solo is not very different in that respect.

To avoid having to change accommodations, I usually base myself in one place and radiate out (for example, Shingu for the Kumano Kodo and Fukuyama for inland sea sites, to name some lesser-visited areas). To save time, for places that are harder to get around (I do not drive), I have occasionally taken half-day or one-day Japanese-language or less frequently English-language tours. (To allow the most exploration time, I find out the departure time at each site and then wander around the site on my own.) For example, I once took a sightseeing tour to get from Kumamoto to Beppu on Kyushu Island; among other places the tour visited Mt. Aso.

As I said in my earlier post, I think Kyoto is a good place to base oneself for sightseeing in Kansai. (I really prefer it to Osaka and it is more convenient if one is doing sightseeing mostly in Kyoto rather than Osaka.) Re ceebee's comments, more and more cheaper accommodations have recently opened in Kyoto. Also, the tourist offices in Kyoto Station have moved and been combined -- there is now one big convenient office next to Isetan Department Store on the 2nd floor that handles inquiries in English, Japanese, Chinese and Korean. They have a lot of material and staff there.

There are also a number of good inexpensive walking tours in Kyoto. One good one with a licensed English-speaking guide that goes around the Gion area on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in the evening(currently from 6 PM)costs only 1,000 yen per person. Another one on the same days (from March to November)starts at 10:15 AM in front of Kyoto Station and ends up near the Kiyomizu Temple at about 3:00 to 3:30 PM.(I have not taken the latter but have heard that it is good; it costs 2000 yen per person for an adult and 1,000 yen each 'for children 15, 14, and 13 (, with) small children free'.) There are also walking tours in Nara, if one wants one. (See, e.g., www.narawalk.com)

Therefore, even if one is not on an organized tour, it is easy to hook up with some short ones while one is in Japan. One can also easily arrange to be guided by a volunteer, often a retired person or university student. Although it is best to make such arrangements in advance, sometimes one can get an impromptu tour at a site. The other day when my friend was visiting from Tokyo we went to the Kiyomizu Temple and were surrounded by 5 university students from Osaka who were members of a guiding club and they showed us around the temple, taking turns reading information from their notes. Although many organized tours to Japan often include some free time, it is much less likely that one would have such an opportunity to mingle with locals if one is on an organized tour.

One other point I'd like to make concerning travel in Japan is with respect to rail passes. If a person plans to travel a lot throughout Japan or even from Tokyo to Osaka or vice-versa a JR rail pass is a must. However, if one is really concentrating mostly on one area, such as the Kansai area, a JR rail pass may not be necessary. Moreover, sometimes it is more convenient to get around using other train lines, buses or other forms of transport. (For example, the Kyoto subway goes directly to Nara for a large part of the day and there is a very good door-to-door shuttle van service -- MK Taxi -- to and from Kansai International Airport.) If staying mostly in one area and radiating out, my advice would be to research whether a JR rail pass (national or local) would be cost effective.

As before, I hope the above info is useful.

Thanks to all of you for the great detailed suggestions. I have decided to do this solo and already managed to snag to a reservation in a hostel/guesthouse in Takayama for the Festival dates at a great price. I agree basing myself in Kyoto for several days and day tripping from there is a good idea. There seemed to be lots of lodging choices near the train station and there is so much to see in Kyoto and the surrounding area. I can then move on to Takayama for the festival and beyond later.