Tauck Tours certainly knows how to showcase the “Essence of Japan” on a 14-day cultural immersion which comes highly recommended. If you’re like me, you’ll want to visit during the cherry blossom season (from January to May) for even more of Japan’s inimitable “wow” factor.
We flew into Osaka and checked into the St. Regis Hotel for a reception dinner with our Tauck Tour Director. While I had boned up on a few Japanese phrases, it was nice to know a friendly, English-speaking expert would travel along with us. Waking wide eyed along Midosuji Boulevard, the Champs-Élyseés of Osaka, I grabbed my camera and headed for the Nozomi Super Express. It whisked us off to experience the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum and later we were on our own to fully indulge in the neon-lit exuberance of Dotonbori Street.
“Kuidore” or ruining yourself through culinary excess is de rigueur in this dazzling entertainment complex on Dotonbori Canal, so I allowed myself to sample everything from takoyaki (octopus balls) to konomiyaki , the “Japanese pizza” that tempts Osakans to frequent their favorite food stall. While in Kyoto, my fellow travelers and I enjoyed macha tea and sweets at a traditional tea ceremony, learned the art of origami and attended a Maiko performance by geishas in training. On our last night, the dinner conversation was all about the “chirping” nightingale floors at Nijo Castle. Imagine a crafty security system installed by a nervous shogun bent on thwarting attacks by stealthy ninjas!
In a country brimming with beauty, Nara stands out like a shining jewel. I filled a memory card with indelible images of vermillion temples, enchanting geisha houses, peaceful gardens and the largest Bronze Buddha in all of Japan. And Nara’s visual extravagance was only rivaled by Kanazawa Castle and the magnificent Kenruoku-en Garden at the height of the cherry tree bloom.
I had always dreamed of staying at a Japanese ryokan (inn), so I was filled with anticipation for our trip to Kanazawa and Wakura Onsen, a hot spring resort on Nanao Bay. At the Kayaga Hotel, we left our shoes at the door, donned yukatas (casual kimonos), soaked in the spring-fed baths, dined on Japanese specialties, and slept on traditional futons. It was heaven!
The second week of our trip had us exploring Shiragawa-go; sampling sake; sightseeing through the Japanese Alps; overnighting in Hakone; glimpsing Mount Fuji from a gondola; cruising Lake Ashi and spending three nights at the Mandarin Oriental, Tokyo, named the 2012 Top Hotel in Japan by Travel + Leisure magazine. It’s a long list of attractions and activities but our itinerary was a brilliant balancing act and I was always ready for more. That’s a good thing because Tokyo was an endless whirl of sights and sounds. Our guide took us to all the must-see museums, temples, palaces and shrines while offering free time for shopping and adding a sprinkling of cultural activities from Taiko drumming to sushi-making and hands-on calligraphy.