Welcome back to the Spotlight, the feature that gets to the bottom of what really goes on on our amazing group adventure tours. This week, Erin Rigg, Round the World Expert at STA Travel Portsmouth, is ready and raring to tell us all about a 9-day tour that will take you the length and breadth of Japan called, appropriately enough, Japan Express.
Fresh sushi at 5AM, warm sake at 5 PM, perfectly marbleised grilled Hida beef, okonomiyaki, taco yaki(octopus balls) and wasabi ice cream! Oh yes, I love Japan.
Then there’s domesticated deer sniffing their way through your backpack, trying to scoff up your coffee-flavoured Pocky; black hard-boiled eggs, cooked in the sulphur pits in the shadows of Mt. Fuji; and gothic Lolita girls hanging out in trend-tastic Harajuku. All a little bit weird and wonderful, and just a few of the sites you’ll see on the Japan Express tour.
On this 9-day whirlwind of a trip, you get a whack of sensory stimulation around every shrine, mountain, and bend in the Shinkansen tracks. Hang onto your Japan Rail Pass, and tighten the belt of your Yukata robe – you’re about to dive into Japan head-first and come out onsen-scrubbed and fully saturated with all things Japan!
The trip begins in the cosmos of Tokyo where we head across the electric Shinagawa Station to an intimate downstairs izakaya, where we order grilled meats on sticks, salty soybeans, and bowls of yakisoba (noodles) and get to know each other over a few beers.
Kailie from Michigan, Stephanie from Sydney and Keiko from Tokyo (a leader-in-training) are a star trio from the get-go. We have a group of 11 adventure enthusiasts in total, and we’re all getting up the next day at 4am to experience the Tsukiji fish market. But us ladies decide to drink beers and play number games with a group of Japanese business-men until the middle of the night (of course).
No matter, we all still got up for the market, ate the freshest sushi we’d ever had, and managed not to get run over by the men on segways smeared with fish guts! Nice work, ladies!
Hang out in Hakone
Next up is a bit of luxury in Hakone. We stay in traditional ryokans, sleeping on cushiony futons in a zen-like setting, while getting treated to an 8-course dinner (all included).
We also get to try our first onsen, or traditional communal bath. If that’s not your cup of tea, then don’t worry, you don’t have to, though girls’ and boys’ baths are separate where we stay. And come on, what’s a better facilitator for group bonding than relaxing naked together in hot pools under waterfalls, looking at the view of Mt. Fuji?
The next day we have a transport trio of cable cars, funiculars, and pirate ships, while we snap pics of the symmetric beauty known as Mt. Fuji. We stop in Owakudani to have some of those afore mentioned hard boiled eggs! Eat one, and you add 7 years to your life!
Mmm! Hard boiled egg, fresh from the sulphur pits, anyone?
Faster than a speeding bullet to Kyoto
Day four, and it’s a bullet-train, or shinkansen, to Kyoto. There is a lot of travel on this trip, but since everything runs precisely to the second in Japan (the opposite of Southern Rail), transitions are smooth. The train journeys are times to relax, eat a bento box, sip a coffee in a can, and watch the countryside fly by.
En route we stop in Himeji to explore the massive castle, and grab a wasabi-flavoured ice cream to tide us over until Kyoto, where we spend two glorious nights. Hallelujah!
Explore the magnificent castle in Himeji (followed by wasbai-flavoured ice cream)
Me and the girls rent bikes on our free-day, and go out to visit the Inari shrine, where a Japanese family spontaneously invited us to sit under a cherry tree and sip sake with them. Supreme kindness! Kyoto has over 2,000 temples and shrines, so it’s up to you to see how many you want to fit in. Keep an eye out for geishas in training, parading the lanes in full regalia.
Header to Hiroshima
Next stop is Hiroshima, where dairy lover Kailie happily discovered that cheese is staple part of the Japanese diet, showcased by okonomiyaki – a kind of do-it-yourself Japanese pancake loaded with bacon, veggies, and cheese if you fancy! Who said Japanese food is all raw fish?
Hiroshima’s optimistic motto of promoting peace is so nice to see, as it is heavy with memories of the atomic bomb. My favourite thing was walking through the tributes to children in the Peace Park, where thousands of paper cranes are strung together. A moving sentiment that delivers a powerful experience.
The paper cranes in Hiroshima's Peace Park are a really moving experience
From Hiroshima, we hopped on the ferry over to Miyajima Island, home to the infamous omnivorous deer. We all decided to climb the 530m Mt. Misan, located in the middle of the island. But if you’re a little bit lazy, you could take a cable car to the top. Whichever way you get there, it’s worth it: you’ll be greeted by incredible views over the sea, including the oyster traps in the bay (try the slimy guys grilled with tobasco sauce!) and the iconic orange Torii Gate – awesome at sunset.
Experience Buddhism in Koyasan
Two more days to go! By now the group are in the groove, cameras fully charged up in the mornings, as there’s so much to see every single day. Our next visit is Koyasan, where we stay in an actual Buddhist temple, spend the afternoon walking through the forests admiring the decorated shrines, and eat a perfectly presented vegetarian supper, just like the monks do!
Check out some of Koyasan's beautiful shrines
Our last port of call is Osaka, where everybody splits up: some to Universal Studios, others to the aquarium, and others, like us ladies, go to Amerikamura, sport pink wigs and hang out like funky Japanese hipsters.
The last night the group sits around the dinner table one last time. The common consensus is that this tour of Japan made the absolute most out of a long week here. Everybody saw something they’d never imagined they’d get to see, and we all left the trip pleasantly buzzing with Japanese energy.
About Erin Rigg: I left my native California in 2003 to teach English in Xinjiang China, which nurtured a love for meeting new people, discovering the world’s street food, and post rice-wine dancing. I’ve used those passions in my work as a tour leader, taking small groups of adventure enthusiasts through 13 countries! I’m now leading a new adventure with only one passenger — an Englishman from one of my Tibet trips, who’s turned into my husband. Proof that anything can happen on a group trip!