Let me say, at the outset, that I have been fortunate enough to have travelled the world, on business & pleasure for some 40 years. I have ‘done’ the Far East (if you said all the Far East - excepting, Australia, New Zealand - and Japan, you wouldn’t be far away), the Middle East, Africa, Europe and North and South America. So, I am not easily impressed.
This year being our 40th wedding anniversary we wanted somewhere special and Japan was our first choice - but where in Japan, there is so much to see? Normally, we are ‘independent travellers’, the only time we’d been on an organised tour , before, was sixteen years ago when we did the (quite brilliant) Nile cruise. What we needed was an overview of Japan - if we liked it, we could always return (on our own) - which is where Riviera Travel came in.
But first a few words about Japan.
A few words: wow and then WOW followed speedily by a WOW and then three!!!
I have just copyrighted a new word: Wowderful ™ - this is only to be used as an adjective for Japan and I am trying to agree a 10 Yen royalty payment, with the Japanese government, for every time my word is used (I am going to be rich!).
Now, let’s quash a few misconceptions about Japan.
Japan is ‘very foreign’: yup, you’ve got me there - Japan is foreign, if you consider a spotlessly clean, litter-free, well organised country as foreign. With a population of 128 million and just 700 homeless people, where the trains run on time - pretty foreign to what I’m used to, wowderfully foreign. If it foreign to be polite and to smile and to say hello to strangers then Japan is very foreign.
The people have few civil liberties: rubbish! the people are marvellous, happy smiling people, always on hand to help a lost stranger or tourist; as one did, spending 30 minutes of his time in guiding us to a recommended restaurant.
And so honest……..when you enter the breakfast room, in the hotel, of a morning and have to “claim” your table before collecting your buffet breakfast, what do you leave on the table? In Japan, you leave a wallet or a mobile phone. Can you imagine? And your wallet is there when you return with your tray laden with breakfast goodies - would that be the case in London, or Paris, or New York? I’ll leave you to decide.
Japan is expensive: perhaps it once was, but no longer. A good meal for two, including drinks, cost us as little as £20 and never more than £50. I would say the prices were akin to - or below - UK prices.
The food is all raw fish: You can have raw fish, or raw meat if you like - but there is much more to Japanese food than uncooked fare. I had many Japanese meals - and I’m a vegetarian. But, if you don’t fancy Japanese, there are Italian restaurants in an abundance - or Chinese, Indian, Mac-a-Donalds (pronounced the Japanese way) or KFC- you’re spoilt for choice.
Japanese hotel rooms are small: not so, rooms are not massive, but we have stayed in much smaller rooms (and paid more for them) in London, Rome & Paris. We stayed in the Hakone Hotel for one night, and our room came with a separate dining room and was as large a room as we have stayed in.
Japan is overcrowded: yes, it is crowded; but because of the respectful nature of its people, it is not push & shove & let-me-get-there-first. Due to no fault of anyones, we were delayed one time and ended up in Tokyo, travelling by their ‘underground’, in the rush hour. Yes, it was crowded, but, unlike London, people waited for passengers to get off the train before they got on, people were given ‘space’ and no-one pushed or shoved or pressed against you. It was a far more comfortable experience than I have ever had on the London Underground.
One night, my wife and I were in the busy shopping centre of Ginza, with a million neon lights and thousands upon thousand of locals and tourists enjoying their favourite pastime: shopping. As I looked around, I was struck by one overriding sensation - the one sensation I least expected: it was peaceful. Peaceful. I mentioned this to my wife and she thoroughly understood. How strange is that?
Now, back to Riviera Travel.
First off - mission accomplished! We wanted an overview of Japan, to encourage us to return, and that is exactly what we got. There was so much crammed into such a small period of time, it was almost breathtaking - but it worked.
Our guide for the entire trip was Paul O’Connor, who via his cheerful good humour, and obvious experience, held our motley group of 40 or so people together. Paul had time for everyone - and each and every request, no matter how daft, was dealt with sympathetically. Thank you Paul, I know you have a couple of challenges ahead, but I think I speak for the entire group by hoping you’ll come out the other end stronger and healthier - I’m sure you will. Then there were local Japanese guides to guide us around Tokyo, Mount Fuji, Hiroshima and Kyoto. These guides were knowledgeable and helpful - but most of all they were great fun. I really didn’t expect that on one particularly long coach journey, Kyoko, (our Tokyo guide) would have 40 or so people (the vast majority won’t see 60 again) singing Japanese nursery rhymes and doing (very basic) origami. I am sure that sounds unbelievably naff and tacky - you had to be there; it really was fun.
Generally the accommodation was good - my favourite was the Marriott Courtyard in Ginza, Tokyo and my least favourite the Hakone Hotel - rather tired, in my opinion; but, still immaculately clean, and they do serve a good dinner and breakfast (shame the bar was as dead as the proverbial dodo - no, it was deader than that).
We had to fit so much in, that all the visits were a bit whiz- bang, 45 minutes here, 45 minutes there. But, the organisation involved in getting this group of tourists here and there - on time, was impressive. We were always back at the hotel by late afternoon, giving us time to freshen up, so that we could explore the local sites and then have dinner at a reasonable hour.
My least favourite excursion was the visit to the fish market- did we really need an hours ‘free time’ there? Couldn’t we have spend more time at the next shrine (don’t forget I’m a vegetarian - I was never going to like it!)?
My favourite? I almost hate to say it - was Hiroshima. We nearly didn’t go. I object strongly to making a theme park from horror & tragedy. But, Hiroshima now stands for peace. The message came across loud and clear: war is awful, nuclear war more so, everyone is guilty, no-one is innocent. Enough is enough: Hiroshima stands, now, for peace - no more war; who can argue with that?
My abiding memory? Could that be Paul, our guide’s, face when he realised that after safely negotiating all our luggage onto the inter-terminal bus at the airport, that the driver - keen to stay on schedule- was pulling away, leaving his luggage on the pavement. (Yes, I guess you had to be there - but it was insanely funny: hope you got your bag back, Paul).
No, it must be the sea of laughing, waving school children calling ‘Hello’ to us, asking, with genuine enthusiasm “Where are you from? - really? Eng-ger-land? Do you like Japan?” Yes, we like Japan very much.
Thank you to those school children, and the chap who spent half an hour of his life trying to guide two, lost, tourists to a restaurant, and Paul and Kyoko and Heroko and the other guides whose names I can’t remember, and all the other Japanese folk we came across, and, yes, thank you, Riviera Travel - we had a wonderful time.
Japan - we will return!
Review by R Neil & Ann Davies on 4 June 2016