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An Excellent Way for a Woman to Explore Japan

Evelyn Hannon

i heart japan becauseIt's not easy to understand Japan and the Japanese culture. It is a complicated country steeped in more than 2000 years of history, tradition and ceremony. The pleasure of visiting this country is in viewing both its ancient and modern sides. You must really delve beneath the surface, visiting with the locals and learning directly from them what you are seeing and experiencing. Otherwise, though you may have visited Japan chances are this country will still remain a mystery to you.

Yes, as a solo traveller you can visit the sites your guidebook recommends. Yes, you can pop into restaurants in malls that offer English menus and of course, you can wander at will taking wonderful photographs. But, will your visit be all that it can be? Absolutely not.

I had to visit Japan three times in three different ways in order to come away feeling satisfied. The first time (1982) I travelled as a young wife accompanying her husband on a business trip. It was one week of 'the wives' being herded on to sightseeing buses while the men negotiated in boardrooms. I remember being utterly disappointed because I wanted so badly to meet the locals but the only people I had access to were the other North American wives.

The second time I arrived by ship and had a mere two days in a suburb of Osaka where I was the overnight guest of a young, English speaking Japanese couple. The time spent together was delightful as I shopped with them, cooked, talked and had meals with them. Our visit was short and sweet. My disappointment? I saw little of the country; I left wanting to come back and explore.

The third time I was invited to experience 'Japan's Cultural Treasures' 13-days with Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT). Bingo! I hit the jackpot. This tour combined all three of the reasons I love to travel. Accompanied by a skilled guide we visited major landmarks in major cities, we learned about and experienced first-hand aspects of life in Japan, and we had interesting opportunities to interact with the locals. I was in Journeywoman travel heaven.

This post is not so much about each city or landmark I visited. You can easily see that itinerary on their website. Rather it is about why I feel that travelling to Japan with OAT is an excellent choice for women travellers.

OAT history, trip preparations and online presence...

According to their literature, Overseas Adventure Travel was founded in 1978. They became the first US travel company to fully create, operate, and sell adventure trips to Americans aged 50 and over. Today, they are billed as America's leading soft adventure travel company.

I was most impressed with the the pre-trip literature that was sent to me covering everything from the documents I needed to packing suggestions to notes on the destination and suggested reading prior to the trip. There are phone numbers to contact in the U.S. should you need additional information. I tested that option and was pleased with the attention they gave my problem. Similarly, we also received contact information for the OAT Tokyo office should the need arise. A week before I left I received a personal email from my guide welcoming me to the group and outlining what to expect when I visited. Needless to say, I arrived in Japan feeling prepared and protected.

A visit to OAT's site will confirm that they have all bases covered. There are videos for each trip itinerary, introductions to the guides, the ways for travellers to save money on trips and a section called, 'Top Solo Adventures' which I naturally made my first stop. I learned that 'Japan's Cultural Treasures' was their top solo adventure of the year. And, with free single supplements on all their adventures they offer excellent value for your travel dollar.


Group size...

Part of OAT's philosophy is in creating a strong social experience for their travellers. Group size ranges between 10-16 members and that number is always guaranteed. As a result you get to know everybody (both the couples and other solo adventurers) which means some very pleasant friendships are born. When I travelled with them, even on the nights that we were free I had acquired enough pals that I never ate alone except by choice. And of course, smaller groups meant shorter bathroom stops, and less waiting on the bus for stragglers. It's a number that seems to work perfectly.


Guides...

It's often been said that a tour guide can make or break your time in a country. In the case of OAT Japan, our tour leader, Hiroko Shirotsuka gave us an absolute Gold Star experience. In fact, I can say without a doubt that Hiro (her nickname) was the most thorough and committed guide I have ever had the opportunity to travel with. Each day we received Hiro's Newsletter. In it she described the weather for each of the destinations we would cover, our mode of transportation, what we would see and where we would eat. If there was a free evening with no formal activities planned, Hiro would seek out free events in town and offer to lead us by public transportation. She explained the food, prompting us to try everything. She drilled us on what to do if we got lost (I did once and her written advice worked) and where to leave our shoes when entering a building. She answered with extreme clarity all the questions we asked about Japanese culture, tradition, religion and daily life often using her own family experiences as examples. She remained calm, cool and collected even under duress. Hiro was our teacher, translator and official 'fun maker' and we all had complete confidence in her.


Accommodation...

Each of the hotels chosen by Overseas Adventure Travel (OAT) was well located and the staff extremely friendly and helpful. I liked the fact that in the cities we were accommodated in Japanese owned hotels that matched our 'soft adventure' style of touring. The rooms were never huge but always perfectly clean and well appointed. The toilets and showers were western style with many additional knobs and settings that made 'the cleansing experience' puzzling (sometimes) but interesting and fun (always). Visiting in the mountains, we enjoyed a traditional Japanese style room at our ryokon (inn) complete with a futon (mattress bed) resting on tatami mats. At this stop we shed our western clothes and felt very Japanese wearing our yukata cotton kimonos (a casual form of kimono) issued to us when we checked in.

Hotel Memory One That fun afternoon the group learned how to make interesting choices during a visit to the on site onsen (community baths). Each bather was given a tiny towel and all the women puzzled about which body part they wanted to cover most as they showered and, sans bathing suits, entered the inn's wonderful hot spring water.

Hotel Memory Two Throughout our Japan stay the extreme efficiency and attention to detail in these hotels was hard to fathom. At Hotel Sardonyx in Tokyo the maid accidently rolled my socks in with the bed linens which were sent off the premises to be laundered. When I told the front desk about it they took my complaint very seriously. Two days later my socks had been located, washed, folded , wrapped in plastic and returned to me with great ceremony. Can you imagine that happening anywhere else?

Hotel Memory Three In Kyoto our tiny hotel was located right across the perfectly modern train station and around the corner from a Starbucks (for those who wanted to start their day that way). How is that for convenience?


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