Japan has an excellent public transport system, so it’s perfectly possible to sightsee without needing a guide. This means there is no need to book day tours, but some people like doing these, and there are occasions where a day tour is useful. Let’s look at when to book a day tour, some of the options available, and what to check before you book.
Why take a day tour?
- Everything is organised for you and having a guide ensures that you don’t get lost or miss something. This can be reassuring when there are different forms of transport involved, as at Hakone.
- Day tours may offer the opportunity to see something special that an individual tourist wouldn’t see, for example a craftsman at work. A good guide can also provide insights into Japanese culture and history that enhance your experience.
- Some tours can be quite social, making them particularly good for solo travellers. These include walking, cycling or food tours where the tour participants tend to mingle and talk a bit more than a bus tour.
Day tour options
There are many different day tour options, and it’s worth thinking about what suits your travel style and preferences. Day tours can be expensive and time spent on choosing an appropriate tour for your circumstances will avoid wasting money.
Group tours can be large or small group tours.
Small group tours can be walking, cycling, or minibus tours, and offer the opportunity for more personal attention from the guide. They can also go to smaller places that may be off-limits to larger tours. They tend to be more expensive because the cost of the guide is covered by fewer people.
Large group tours are often coach tours and can be a useful way to go to major tourist sights if you don’t have time to plan. For example, if you only have one day to visit Kyoto and want to see Arashiyama, Kinkakuji, Kyomizudera and Fushimi Inari in that time, there are bus tours that will save you the bother of figuring out the transport system and where to go. While these tours will get you around the sights efficiently, there will be little flexibility around timing and minimal personal attention from the guide.
Private tours offer personalised attention and the opportunity to have a customised itinerary. This will cost more than a group tour, but the expense can be worth it in terms of learning more from your guide and maximising your time. To get the most out of a private tour, brief the guide on your interests and preferences, and specify any sights that you particularly want to see. Also, be open to suggestions from the guide as they will know places that you don’t know, but also don’t be afraid to say no to something that doesn’t fit your interests.
Japan has a system of volunteer guides, also known as goodwill guides. These guides are often retired people or homemakers wanting to show their local area to foreign visitors, while maintaining their language skills. Although there is not a charge for the tour, you are expected to pay costs for the guide, such as admission charges, transport and any meals. The JNTO has a list of volunteer guide associations and their websites where you can book a guide. Volunteer guides may also be found waiting in front of major tourist attractions, or may lead scheduled group tours from local tourist offices.
Hop-On Hop-Off (HOHO) buses are less useful in Japan than they are in other countries. The Tokyo HOHO buses go around a limited selection of sights, and the bus stops are not always conveniently located. Kyoto’s HOHO buses only operate weekends and public holidays.
Booking day tours
There are various ways to book day tours – through a travel agent or your hotel, on a travel website such as Japanican or Viatour, or on the tour company’s own website. Booking via your travel agent or hotel may be more convenient, as someone else will take care of arrangements and you can pay as part of a larger travel bill. Booking through the tour company’s website is likely to be the most economical.
Whichever way you book, it’s wise to check the details of the tour before committing to it.
- What’s on the itinerary? Mostly sights you want to see or something else? And how long do you spend at each place?
- What are the tour inclusions – admission charges, meals, something else? You may need to allow some extra money for admission charges and meals if these are not included. Tipping is not usual in Japan and normally you would not be expected to tip the tour guide.
- What time does it start, and finish? Some tours can start early in the morning or finish late in the evening, which doesn’t suit everyone. You also want to be certain that you can get to your tour at the starting time. Punctuality is valued in Japan and tours may wait only 5 minutes for latecomers, or even not wait at all. You should aim to be there before the start time.
- Where does the tour depart from, and return to? Is hotel pickup available? Make sure that the starting point is convenient for you, and that you know how long it will take to get there.
Looking at reviews is also helpful, not just on the company’s own website but also on TripAdvisor or Google. This can reveal things not mentioned in the description, and give a sense of what the guides are like.
A well-chosen day tour can be a great opportunity to expand your horizons, and give you a break from the details of itinerary planning. I hope that these guidelines will help you make choices that suit you. I have not given links to tour operators or travel websites because I don’t want to give the appearance of recommending or endorsing certain providers. Some bloggers do earn income from affiliate links where they recommend certain products, and that is not what I want to do for you. I would rather provide you with the tools to become a more informed and discerning traveller.
Do you have any questions about day tours? Please feel free to contact me.
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For further information, the ebook Japan Just for You is a practical step-by-step guide to planning your trip to Japan, starting with developing your own personal trip concept. It’s now available on Apple, Amazon and Kobo, and other stores.