Get the 4-1-1 on Booking Tokyo & Japan

A Japanese garden.
A Japanese garden.

Japan, which has been re-gaining popularity with U.S. tourists lately—it won Recommend Readers’ Choice Award for Best Selling Destination in Asia and has come up as an emerging destination in USTOA’s annual survey of its members—is a stunning country that has much to offer its visitors, but if you have not experienced this Asian country first-hand, booking a vacation for your clients can get a little tricky.

To get some details on some of the things to keep in mind before booking Japan, we reached out to Walter L. Keats, CTC, CMP, president of Asia Pacific Travel, Ltd., which offers custom, upscale individual and small group tours. Interestingly enough, Keats comments that the “majority of our Japan clients come to us from travel agents because the vast majority of travel agents do not have much knowledge of Japan and thus can only sell standard package tours. If their client wants something more, then they call us or one of a few other similarly knowledgeable specialists to put together a custom itinerary for them, i.e., we wholesale the itinerary to the agent, who is the one actually selling it to the client.”

Keats notes that their clients normally have 10 to 21 days to spend time in Japan, and sometimes book-end their vacation with a stay in Tokyo, because, as he points out, it’s “still the easiest and best-served Japanese gateway for most visitors from the U.S.

“Fortunately, Tokyo is a great gateway/entry point to Japan with something for everyone. It has the most developed and easy-to-use public transportation system in Japan. It has restaurants serving cuisines from all over the world. It has more and more ‘international’ hotels, bringing a degree of familiarity for international visitors. These international hotels also raise the bar for the local Japanese hotels in terms of service, marketing, amenities, etc. There are also lots of local bus tours, as well as step-on/step-off buses, so one can still take group tours, but customize them more based on their interests and budget.”

A detail of the Senso-ji Temple.
A detail of the Senso-ji Temple in Tokyo.

That said, booking a tour to Tokyo and/or the rest of the country is not as easy as 1-2-3, as Keats points out, because he believes there is not sufficient knowledge of the destination. “I think the most difficult part about booking a tour to Tokyo (and/or the rest of Japan) is the general low level of knowledge of both potential clients and travel agents about what is possible, and a lack of understanding of just how large Tokyo is, even for people from New York, Los Angeles, or Chicago. Tokyo is a city of over nine million people in its core area, 13 million in the Prefecture (equivalent to a U.S. state) of Tokyo, and over 37 million in the greater metropolitan area, reputedly the world’s largest urban agglomeration.

“We find that one of the most important things we and/or a travel agent should do for clients thinking about a tour to Tokyo and/or Japan is to talk to them about what types of things they like to see and do on their travels. Most clients won’t have enough time to ‘see everything,’ so if we know what things they like to see and do we can be sure that those types of things are included in whatever limited time they do have. This may seem obvious, but we talk to lots of clients who ‘think’ they know what to see and do, many because some ‘friend’ of theirs saw and did those things and recommends them. Certainly, some or even all such things may be of interest, but without a more in-depth talk it is difficult to determine what is best for this particular client.”

He says this is even true for those clients who are opting for a group tour, because it will help “find the most appropriate group tour, or combination of tour modules, for them.”

For those clients who want a private tour, there are some surprises in store. For example, a “private car” from Narita Airport to downtown Tokyo can cost $400-$500, and a taxi can cost $250-$300, “while taking the perfectly adequate Airport Limousine Coach or the Narita Express train can be done for about $30. Usually, common sense prevails and they choose the more economical method. This also applies to using private cars for sightseeing vs. using public transportation. Clients are pleasantly surprised to find that public transportation, other than in rush hour, is convenient, comfortable and economical.

“Similarly, some of these clients also are surprised at how expensive licensed guides are in Japan for FITs. If you have a group you can divide the guide cost among lots more people but for FITs it is a lot of money. Thus, we normally recommend only one or two days with a private guide in Tokyo, primarily to help get clients oriented to Tokyo and its transportation system and to give clients an educated local person who can provide them insights into Japanese culture.”

Nakamise-dori, a shopping street in Tokyo.
Nakamise-dori, a shopping street in Tokyo.

That said, Keats notes that “those who were worried about costs are pleasantly surprised by how affordable many things are, including restaurants. For example, breakfasts in a Japanese hotel can cost between $25 and $40 pp, but if one goes to one of the ubiquitous convenience stores, they can have a perfectly adequate breakfast for $5-$8 per person.”

In the January 2016 issue, we’ll have an onsite review highlighting five places to hang out while exploring Tokyo. In the meantime, feast your eyes on this eye candy: Eye on the World: Tokyo Teaser.

For more information on Tokyo and the rest of Japan, visit japan1on1.com or jnto.go.jp/eng.