Japan is a trip for the trophy case. Why? World-class food. Luxury accommodation. Ancient culture. Personal safety. First-rate local infrastructure. Unparalleled hospitality. Aside from wildlife (although we can get you to the snow monkeys, too) chances are Japan has it, and—scusi, Italy; je suis desolee, France—Japan does it better.
This being the case, you’ll want to do everything in your power to avoid wasting precious hours during your actual trip. For example, waiting for Google Maps to “recalculate” trying to find a street address that even locals can’t decipher, or the most efficient way to get to the “art island” of Naoshima. Cue Brian Lonergan, the best Japan travel planner you don’t know yet. He’s gotten families into the private studios of master sword makers, honeymooners into the “it” ryokans booked out by locals a year ahead, and travelers ringside at sold-out sumo tournaments. His nuanced understanding of how to get the most out of a trip to Japan is so fine-tuned he gets recruited to plan Japan vacations for other top travel professionals. His expertise is a result of visiting Japan for over a decade and planning hundreds of thoughtful and perfectly-executed trips. He’s the only person you need to make your ultimate Japan trip a reality.
We asked Brian to debunk cherry blossom season, give us the scoop behind the most frequently requested experiences, breakdown what’s worth making time for and what to skip all together, and share why Japan keeps getting better.
Why tuning in to cultural customs will change your trip for the better
Because all of the conveniences of home are at hand, many travelers mistakenly believe getting around in Japan is just like it is at home, too. But, the reality is, how you navigate Japan, from breakfast etiquette to travel by bullet train, can be radically different than what you’re accustomed to.
Case in point: Tipping at home generally means simply handing over cash. Did you know in Japan giving openly displayed cash (especially in the presence of others) can be very embarrassing to the recipient? (Instead: present it in a plain envelope, given with two hands and a modest bow.) Trains can be tricky, too. If you you’ve taken the subway or a train at home, chances are you just jumped on when the doors opened. However, in Japan, riders must cue up in designated lines on the platform and board the train in order. Not knowing these social expectations can leave you feeling confused, flustered and embarrassed.
Brian’s nuanced understanding of both Japanese and Western culture (he even speaks Japanese) means he knows to prep you on these subtle details, can decipher exactly what you want out of your trip, will clarify and effectively communicate what’s feasible and what’s not, and will prepare your Japanese hosts on your needs and wishes. “A good trip planner manages expectations on both sides,” says Brian. “By that I mean managing client expectations of what is possible and what is culturally acceptable, and managing our Japanese partners’ expectations of what American clients want.” This is easier said than done, particularly when it comes to Japan—a destination whose charm and appeal is in part the peoples’ dedication to tradition which can sometimes be expressed through rigid rules and customs. For instance, visiting a sumo “stable,” or practice venue is often high on traveler’s lists. It costs nothing (other than a donation, usually food or beverage, to the stable)—and therefore cannot be bought. But you have to have the right guide—and strictly follow the rules of observing the practice if you do gain entry—to get in. Knowing how to balance these expectations and customs is what makes Brian so good at planning trips to Japan.
WHAT DOES BRIAN’S EIGHTH
VISIT HAVE TO DO WITH YOU?
New hotels, vegan eating, toddlers
Most people get one trip to Japan in their lifetime (if they’re lucky!). Brian just returned from his eighth. This time, he tackled some new challenges: his toddler son, Parker (20 months old) and vegan brother, Michael, came along for the ride. The result? Brian one-upped his own trip expertise and learned how to happily temple hop with a toddler, how to eat well in Japan on a vegan diet, how to connect new bullet train routings, and whether Japan’s latest arrival of exciting hotels—from urban ryokans to minimalist former museums to historical hideaways—are worth your attention. You know his thorough recommendations for your Japan trip are spot on because they come straight from his own experience.
IS CHERRY-BLOSSOM SEASON OVERRATED?
Knowing what makes or breaks a trip
Although cherry-blossom season in Japan is undeniably beautiful, having watched it rise in popularity, Brian tells it to us straight: “It’s increasingly not a pleasant time for a leisure trip to Japan.” The crowds are unrelenting, the hospitality infrastructure is way overtaxed, and if you do not plan very far in advance you likely won’t get your ideal accommodations or guides—two factors that can make or break a trip. But, if you’re dead set on cherry blossom season (we understand if you are!) begin planning about nine months prior—i.e. July—to ensure the trip you want.
Brian advocates you consider skipping cherry-blossom season and time your visit for fall foliage instead. Fall foliage peaks mid to late November, which means you can go and still be home for Thanksgiving. It’s arguably more visually stunning, with fewer crowds, and you’ll have your choice of hotels, guides, and touring. Insider tip: begin planning for a fall foliage trip in January or February (before cherry-blossom season has everyone crazy).
RYOKANS & ONSENS
Do you know what you’re getting into?
Few experiences sound more romantic than a stay at a ryokan with a private spring-fed onsen in the Japanese countryside. Ryokans can be one of the most serene and beautiful elements of your Japan experience. However, before you book your stay, there are a few essential pieces to consider:
The set up?
Even contemporary, luxury ryokans adhere to traditional practices including minimalist interiors, futons to sleep on, an emphasis on contemplation and relaxation, and meals served privately in your room. Dinners in your room are often non-negotiable, so consider that you’ll be spending significant solo time or time alone with your travel companion. A wonderful experience, yes, but not for everyone.
Ryokans traditionally have mainly catered to couples; they aren’t necessarily opposed to families but they also are not primarily family-oriented. Adjacent rooms are possible, but finding connecting rooms are unlikely. That being said, because bedding is usually futons on tatami, they are easily rearranged meaning suites can become triple and even quadruple occupancy. Brian has even done quintuple occupancy on occasion, when the ryokan suite was large enough!
At most luxury ryokans you may have a private onsen in your room. However, almost all ryokans will have a public hot spring, and some will only have a public hot spring. If you’d like to experience the traditional way of communal bathing and soaking, know that genders are separate, you will be completely unclothed, and those with tattoos will not be able to partake.
Worth the hype?
There are a couple of ryokans in high demand with the international crowd. Although they are beautifully designed, you may have a more immersive experience if you book your stay at one of the lesser-known ryokans. Consider whether you’d prefer to stay at a buzzy ryokan but primarily be with other international travelers, or at an equally gorgeous, but more under-the-radar ryokan, and be primarily with Japanese guests. Brian has a few favorites he’ll let you in on.
What to know before you board
New bullet train sectors are changing the landscape of tourism in Japan. Now, a typical first-time itinerary including Tokyo, Kanazawa, Kyoto and Hakone can be done entirely by train (mostly bullets) meaning you can avoid stepping foot in a domestic airport. Considering checking out Hokkaido? Skip the airport and ride the Hokkaido shinkansen (bullet train). The route includes a 14.5-mile stretch under the seabed between Honshu and Hokkaido islands. Although bullet trains are making travel through Japan more seamless than ever, don’t neglect these easily overlooked logistical considerations:
Luggage is a big one. “Luggage storage in Japanese trains (and many hotels) is very limited. What works at home for a ten-day to two-week trip in terms of luggage will likely be considered oversized on a bullet train,” Brian cautions. Luckily, Brian has the intel needed for a smooth transition of your oversized goods, so your bags are waiting for you when you arrive. He’s made a science out of knowing when it makes sense to bring a day bag, and has all your bases covered when it comes to same-day courier services, shipping ahead, and overnight delivery of your oversized luggage. He’ll make recommendations based on your needs, budget and schedule.
WHAT’S BOLD, INNOVATIVE
“Another question I get a lot is why we don’t recommend the rail pass,” he continues. The Japan Rail Pass is a reduced price ticket that allows travelers unlimited rides within a one or two-week period. “It is great in theory, and can be a significant cost savings but at the expense of precious time during your actual trip,” says Brian. For example, the Japan Rail Pass does not include the Nozomi bullet train, the fastest one on the Tokyo-Kyoto corridor. Also, if you want assigned seats – crucial during high season, when trains are full and you want to be enjoying your bento box and beer and not standing for three hours – you need to wait in line to reserve seats at a JR ticket counter (whose staff likely speak very minimal English). Furthermore, if you don’t get an assigned seat, your guide or driver will not know where to meet you on your arrival platform, and you can quickly be swallowed up by the one of the enormous train stations (think Grand Central on steroids).
& EXCITING RIGHT NOW?
We’ve got you covered
“Government tourism marketing slogans are usually rather uninspiring,” says Brian, “but in the case of Japan, their ‘Endless Discovery’ slogan is actually spot-on. I’ve now been eight times and feel like I’ve still only scratched the surface.” Each visit is an opportunity for serendipitous discoveries – local boutique shops where you’ll need to have a trusted companion confiscate your AMEX lest you get into serious trouble; unmarked noodle bars so hyper-local that they elude guidebooks but you instantly know are residents’ favorites. “And, with the supercharged pace of development leading up to Tokyo 2020 Olympics, there are guaranteed to be new hotels every time you visit – like the Hyatt Centric coming to Tokyo’s swanky Ginza district in 2018.”
Straight from his personal travel log, here are Brian’s picks for a first-time highlights trip and an off-the-circuit repeat visit:
First-timer to Japan? Here’s where to go.
The most common circuit includes Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa. “You don’t want to miss these stops on your first visit,” Brian tells us. It’s easy to get distracted by all the options Japan has to offer, but this is the go-to sequence for a reason. And just because this is a classic Japan itinerary doesn’t mean your trip has to be typical. Brian elaborates, “I never get tired of designing Tokyo to Kyoto to Kanazawa trips because each vacation I put together reflects how the client wants to see these iconic destinations. Some of the most creative and fun Japan tours I have planned have been along this path. For food fanatics I’ve skipped the routine sushi-making classes and instead arranged private soba-noodle making or a tour of legendary noodle shops. For travelers who love artisan experiences, we’ve arranged ikebana flower arranging courses in private homes, hands-on lessons in gold-leaf workshops, a private tour and meeting with a bonsai master at his personal museum, and a private visit to a sword-maker’s atelier in Tokyo, where our clients met the master and watched six apprentices at work. For families, I’ve had them circumvent the over-crowded arcades in favor of real-life martial arts sessions including wooden sword fighting.”
If you’re into hotels, then take note: the buzziest hot-spots on this route are HOSHINOYA Tokyo and Four Seasons Hotel Kyoto.
Been before? Go again for this.
For a repeat visitor who has a grasp on Tokyo, Kyoto and Kanazawa, Brian advocates taking a cue from resident Japanese and heading to the spots they escape to. “Tapping local favorites means getting to places most tourists don’t go,” Brian confides. Go to Shikoku and Kyushu, the third and fourth of the main islands. You’ll find very rural countryside, volcanos, seriously secluded ryokans and some of Japan’s oldest onsens and Buddhist pilgrimage routes. Wild Japan is found here: expect hiking trails through misty green mountains past natural reflecting pools dotted with temples that only see a handful of visitors each year. If you’re looking for more, visiting Sankara Hotel & Spa on Yakushima Island is the pinnacle of off-the-circuit experiences. “This is Japan’s little secret, for now” says Brian. Yakushima is a UNESCO World Heritage site, covered in ancient forest of cedar and moss, as untouched as Japan gets. There are turtle-nesting grounds and moss-laden trails that lead to waterfalls. “You’ll need to take a flight,” cautions Brian, “but this means it’s really out there, and all the more worth a visit.”
If you’re hoping to avoid domestic flights, there are plenty of brand-new experiences that don’t require airport security. HOSHINOYA Tokyo just opened its doors. It introduces the concept of “urban ryokan” and is just blocks from Aman Tokyo and Palace Hotel Tokyo. Amanemu, perched above Ago Bay in Ise Shima National Park, gives repeat Japan visitors big reasons to go back. Beyond the onsen experience you can witness the pearl rafts and oyster divers in the bay, visit the holy Shinto site of Ise Grand Shrine and hike the UNESCO World-Heritage designated Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails. The rooms are stunning in their minimalist design. Another big reason Brian is excited to go back right now is Setouchi Aonagi. This ultra-modernist hotel is design fodder for architecture buffs. There are only seven suites, all incredibly spacious (in Brian’s words, “ginormous!). It’s a perfect addition to a trip including Benesse House and Naoshima Island.
Of course this is just a start. Put Brian’s knowledge to the test.
GEISHAS & SUMO
The right way to do it, from experience
Let’s begin by demystifying the geisha experience. Historically, part of the geisha role was to be a courtesan. Not anymore. These days geishas are skilled entertainers, masters in the arts of traditional song and dance, who will sweep you up in the moment and keep you captivated with songs and games, artfully pouring drinks, and generally making you feel like you’ve time-traveled. You’ll get dressed up to go, enjoy gourmet kaiseki cuisine, and have fun claiming your private traditional dining room. Wear your nicest socks, too, as your shoes (and worries!) are checked at the door.
As for how to see sumo wrestling in action, we’re setting the record straight. The idea of going behind the scenes and seeing a sumo practice sounds so exciting. It’s doable, but here’s the scoop: you can’t pre-arrange this experience which means you’re depending on a sumo den to be willing to let you observe their practice on a given morning. “We can usually make it happen,” says Brian, “but even if we do get you an invite it may not be what you’re expecting,” he concludes. Sumo practices are filled with ritual, you must be a silent observer and there is no videoing. It’s also a misconception that visitors may have the opportunity to learn some moves and get in the ring with a bone fide wrestler during the practice. The sumo ring is a sacred space and stepping into it would be an insult. What to do instead? “Go to a tournament!” exclaims Brian. “This is by far the best way to see sumo wrestling. You can get close to the action and really join in with the crowd—cheering, taking photos, and asking your guide as many questions as you like. You’ll have a riot and learn a ton.” Tournaments only happen six times a year, and the fans are avid, which means you’re in for a great show. Although tickets are hard to secure, we have your back and will pull every string to get you in!
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If you’re considering a private trip to Japan, Brian is your guy. He’ll transform your trip, offer ideas even the most cutting-edge magazine hasn’t covered yet, ensure you won’t waste a moment, and answer every question you can think of to prepare you for a trip that will be one of the most epic journeys you’ll ever take—just ask any of his loyal clients.