Inside Japan Tours feedback

Having returned from our Japan holiday, organised by Inside Japan Tours, they emailed me a link to an online survey, requesting feedback on their services. As a matter of record, the text follows.

Package name: Onsen Japan

1. How do you rate your overall satisfaction with the arrangements made by Inside Japan Tours?
Excellent

2. How do you rate the usefulness and standard of information in your Info-pack?
Good

3. Please tell us how you first heard about Inside Japan Tours?
Guardian advert; else online searching

4. Did you receive a printed copy of the Inside Japan Tours’ brochure?
Yes

5. Would you consider travelling to Japan again?
Yes

6. Would you use Inside Japan Tours again?
Yes

Your thoughts on the accommodation and transport provided, and the package in general.

Package in general
Excellent package, we were very pleased. We felt that we were seeing the Japan that local Japanese would go out and see, which is just what we wanted. Went beyond the main attractions. Required some adaptation to local customs, which was fine with us.

Onsen Japan package has good mix of urban and rural sights and activities. Only the one-night stay in Matsumoto felt a little rushed. That is, two night stayovers worked well in Kusatsu, Shirahama, and Hakone. We have mixed feelings about our visit to Matsumoto: pleased to see the castle and surrounds, but one night stay limited our exploration. Location of Matsumoto accommodation awkward.

Accommodation
Following are remarks for each site, rankings out of 5 “stars”. Overall, all sites were very clean and comfortable. We couldn’t fault the staff in any regard.

Asakusa Sunroute Hotel, Tokyo (4/5)
Compact while comfortable. Great location. Appreciated choice of Japanese or Western breakfast (we did both), with its selection of loose leaf teas.

Ryokan Matsumuraya, Kusatsu (5/5)
Most impressive. Thoroughly authentic. Food quality was top class. Professionally run, with obvious experience. Appreciated the warm welcome, with our host serving us tea in our room as he explained the inn’s operation. If I ever go back to this area (say, for a winter’s skiing holiday), I’d want to stay here.

New Kotobuki, Matsumoto (4/5)
Warm welcome. Appreciated the general tour of the hotel and its onsen offerings. For example, we were shown the availability of private hot tubs for hire, which we availed of. Good communal bathing area. A little disappointed about the obstructed mountain view, considering the general vacancy of the hotel. In-room dinner service appreciated (we made friends with our hostess). I think this accommodation (and Matsumoto generally) may be better suited for winter holidays.

Hotel Sunroute Kyoto (5/5)
A compact room, but with pleasing view and an electric massage chair (appreciated bonus!). The reason for top marks is for the professionalism and efforts of the concierge staff, who sorted us out on transport and evening meals. I had the best tempura meal of my life, and at great value. A very good location within the city, and we think Kyoto makes a fine base for day trips. We could have spent another day here, easily, as we wished we had more time to explore Himeji (and then there’s Nara, etc.).

Shirahamakan, Shirahama (3/5)
We took the taxi to Hotel Green Hill, by mistake, and were consequently disappointed by Shirahamakan. Positively, our hostess was lovely and engaging with us (see separate video of her cooking for us). Our room was clean, but we were disappointed by a completely blocked view of the ocean. Sure, palm trees were better to look at than boilers on roofs (New Kotobuki, Matsumoto), but considering the general vacancy (the section with far better views appeared to be empty of guests), we pined for Hotel Green Hill (which appeared vacant?). (However, we wondered how one would get to the main beach from Hotel Green Hill; it’s a long, hilly walk to and fro.) What bothered me was that the brochure for Shirahamakan didn’t match our experience. We would have appreciated a general tour of the facilities, also (as we got at New Kotobuki). For example, my wife discovered, by accident, some good additional onsen facilities; I wasn’t that impressed with them men’s communal bath and didn’t bother trying to discover if there was anything else worthwhile. At least we made good use of the en suite foot hot tub. Retrospectively, the hotel’s video (above) would have been worth knowing about before our arrival.

Ichinoyu Honkan, Hakone (4/5)
We were most impressed with our top floor, corner room assignment and its incredible view of the river. The en suite onsen bath was very much enjoyed. The Japanese room was high standard, and a welcomed improvement from Shirahamakan. After so much in-room dining, we were actually happy to have communal dining, as it enabled us to share the experience with others (we were starting to feel isolated, but not in a discriminatory way). Only matters of concern was my confusion during check-in about desired room services. I thought I was waiving bed changing, etc., for the first night, but alas it was for the whole stay. A suggestion perhaps is to presume full room services for the likes of us international travellers, unless we advise otherwise. This was the only accommodation where this matter came up at all. Another matter you may not like to learn was our discovery of (large) cockroaches (or the Japanese equivalent): one in the lobby and one in our room. Now, I appreciate that this ryokan is half way up the mountainside and in a forest, and we weren’t that perturbed, but other Western travellers might be shocked. To end on a positive note, we appreciated the shuttle bus service to Hakone town.

Kadoya Hotel, Tokyo (4/5)
Can’t beat the location in Shinjuku. Courteous and professional staff, who advised us well for our shopping excursion. Wise choice of hotel and in Shinjuku for last day of Japan holiday.

Transport
While the Lonely Planet guide book may not deem first class rail service in Japan as a worthwhile upgrade, we certainly did! Best £100 spent on the journey. We were so glad we went for the Green Car service. The extra leg room and less crowded carriages made the journeys even more comfortable. While having to head into the ticket offices from time to time to get the required seat reservations was a slight hassle, it was worth it.

Generally speaking, train and bus punctuality was near frighteningly precise: 30 seconds late and your service is away.

Some comments about the transport guidance provided by Inside Japan Tours:

Japan Rail Pass
Our Info-pack advised us (boldface red ink) to specify the start date as Friday, 3rd October. Actually, I calculated that there was no harm in having the start date from our day of arrival, Thursday, 2nd October (with the 14-day pass valid through our day of departure, 15th October). The advantage with this was that we were able to use the JR rail service (versus Tokyo Metro) for free during our first day of exploration.

Green Car Reservations
Yes, I can verify that our seat reservations were checked by train staff on all but one journey. Taking my cue from the office where we exchanged our vouchers for the passes themselves, every office was content to provide us reserved seat tickets for 2-3 rail journeys in advance. This reduced the amount of times I had to do this.

Tokyo to Kusatsu
I was anxious about the connection times from the train to bus service (7-10 minutes), until I realised that the bus service is waiting for the train. There were buses going to several destinations; just tell/ask the driver where you’re going, and you’ll be fine.

Kusatsu to Matsumoto
A pleasant journey through the mountainside. When on the bus approaching Karuizawa, don’t be tempted to get off in Karuizawa town (not knowing where/how large the train station is); wait for the obvious stop at the large train station. Thankfully our bus driver kept us right.

Matsumoto to Kyoto
Journey straightforward enough, but we struggled to get out of Kyoto station. Never found a sign for the “Karasuma Exit” (or at least I never knew the Kanji/Hiragana for it). There are many exits at Kyoto station. After a stressful 5 minutes, I figured out that the “Central Exit” would get us out to the front. We made a mistake of walking to our hotel, in that hotel signage was not obvious and we missed it, forcing a backtrack. Taking bus is an option, but bus system was confusing: same bus service number went to two different locations. One night, I boarded one to the wrong destination. Essentially, Kyoto is a large enough city to justify taking a taxi to the hotel, at least in the first instance. Also, subway/tram/rail lines complicate the multi-day pass system; experience proved that a bus-only pass was sufficient.

Kyoto to Hiroshima
Very grateful for the suggested timetables. We went for Kyoto-Hirashima, with a quick one-hour stop at Himeji on our return. Without the provided timetables, I don’t think we would have attempted this.

Kyoto to Shirahama
Again, single train journey was straightforward. We loved the front row view (see video). My fault for reading wrong confirmation sheet from yourselves regarding Hotel Green Hill versus Shirahamakan. I didn’t mind taking a taxi, but I was confused about what bus shuttle service was available. We received a complimentary service from Hotel Green Hill to Shirahamakan, but when one arrived on our day of departure to collect some guests at Shirahamakan, when I asked if we could use the service, we were told that it was “reservation only”. I don’t know what this means (who is eligible to make a reservation?). We took a taxi back to Shirahamakan station.

Shirahama to Hakone
Yet again, timetables and train journeys to Odawara were straightforward. We took the local train service from there to Hakone Yumoto station, then to Tonosawa station. This was a good idea, with our small cases. However, we would like to suggest better wording of your subsequent directions, “from [Tonosawa station] you need to walk down the long winding path to the street, cross the bridge and the Ryokan is just on the other side of the bridge”. The problem is that there are two road bridges, as displayed on your map, and the bridge crossing the river from Tonosawa station (marked in the upper left corner) is not the “long winding path” (which is not shown on your map). Consequently, I read the map for us to take left turn at the end of the path, which led us back towards Hakone town. My suggestion would be to delete the superfluous river bridge north of Ichinoyu Honkan (the bridge doesn’t link to Tonosawa station anyway), and insert some winding line from Tonosawa station to the main road. Perhaps rephrase the directions, to read, “from Tonosawa station, exit to the left, walking down the long winding path to the street, then turn right (uphill, facing traffic); the Ryokan is immediately to your right as your cross a bridge over the river”.

Hakone to Tokyo
There is a bus shuttle service that will collect you from Ichinoyu Honkan, for a small fare (as I recall). While Hakone Yumoto station is undergoing renovations, there are signs in English. The train journey was straightforward and pleasant. From Shinjuku station’s West Exit, head left towards pedestrian crossing lights. Cross and head straight towards Plaza Street, from which it is easy to navigate. If you walk past a Starbucks on your left and/or notice a large post office on your right, you’re heading in the correct direction.

Tokyo to Narita Airport
Just to mention that it is worth giving yourself a little extra time, which we were glad we did. Entering Shinjuku station was easy; the walk to our actual train took a few minutes (remember, don’t be late!).

Miscellaneous
As suggested by the Info-pack and other guides, do bring postcards and other mementoes from home (e.g. coins, pins). On the postcards we wrote basic messages of thanks, in Hiragana with English translation. These went down very well with our hosts and hostesses.

I’m sure that Internet cafes are plentiful, but I wasn’t about to take time and effort to hunt them down. Plus, my poor Japanese conversational skills scared me. Both Sunroute hotels offered complimentary wired Internet service; bring a short Ethernet cable to avail of this. Yet I was lucky to find free wi-fi connections in three of our accommodation sites. (Best service was relatively remote Kusatsu!) The Sunroute hotels also provided complimentary computer kiosks for Internet access. Overall, there was a good enough balance, for me, of access. I just point out that if you bring a laptop that is wi-fi enabled, you could get lucky too!

While some restaurants offered Western cutlery, using chopsticks isn’t that difficult. The lesson a Japanese high school girlfriend taught me all those years ago paid off: wedge the bottom stick between your thumb and middle finger, and hold the upper stick with the fingertips of your thumb and forefinger, like you’d hold a pencil. (Bottom stick stays fixed; motion is with top stick.) This enables you to pick up both chunks of rice as well as individual pieces of corn.

The Info-pack was a valuable resource, one much relied upon. Physically, however, the 2-part, hard plastic-bound system was awkward (hard to keep pages open, having to switch from one part to another). I would have preferred a single volume in a comb binding. Perhaps with a wider, heavier weight first and last pages that could be used to bookmark inside pages. See “AA Spiral Guides” for inspiration. For interest, the Lonely Planet Japan guidebook, while thorough, seems aimed at the experienced, solo backpacker. We found Time Out’s Tokyo guidebook to be well edited, with direct, relevant advice and information.

Finally
I hope we don’t leave you with an impression that we didn’t thoroughly enjoy our Japanese experience; we did. It’s only because we will fondly remember this holiday that I wanted to be as thorough as possible, while memories were still fresh. We wish Inside Japan Tours success, and look forward to our next trip with yourselves.

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