When venturing to parts of the world unknown, a little nervousness is natural. Especially when it is for the first time. Which is why it only makes sense for many to consider joining a tour group. After all, going to a foreign land with an organized tour group makes everything easy. But as we all know, easy isn’t always the best. Read on to help figure out if you should go to Japan by yourself or with a tour group.

Easier than using chopsticks

On our foodie night tours, we’ve seen a number of people struggle with chopstick usage, so perhaps the comparison is not apt. However, there’s no disputing the sheer ease of taking a trip with a tour group. They’ve selected the cities. They’re selected the most popular sights. And of course they’ve got your hotels all lined with as appropriate for your selected star level. They’ve also got a bunch more money of yours than you would have spent had you done the planning the yourself. But there’s the rub: Planning a tour by yourself takes time and can require significant expertise. Time is money, and if you’ve got more of the latter, than maybe the cost is a non-issue. But you, dear reader, are likely not to be a person who’s cash is limitless.

What you lose on the traditional group tour is flexibility. Often you see only the most mainstream of sights. Meals are predictably less adventurous. And interactions with locals can be near nil. That said, if something goes wrong, someone from the tour company will be there to fix it for you. In sum, taking a group tour means peace of mind and convenience, but at a higher price tag. And for many, especially the more senior travelers out there, this is a bargain that suits them. Indeed, for some travelers, sticking with a regimented group tour is going to be best.

Roughing it in Japan is not so rough

Strolling about Kyoto’s Gion district.

Imagine the above scene with your busload of newfound friends (or people you may not usually be friends with) accompanying your stroll. There goes the peaceful atmosphere. And please don’t dawdle. The bus leaves in ten minutes, and a queue is already forming for the restroom. If only you were exploring the area on your own.

Exploring on your own means keeping a low profile. There’s a whole lot to be said for keeping under the radar as you traverse Japan and absorb the wonders surrounding you. This is especially true when it comes to neighborhood strolls and local restaurants. But it’s also true about having a seat at a café and watching the denizens of this foreign land go about their days.

Floating about and seeing where your feet take you is all fine and good, but what about safety? There’s fantastic news on that front. Japan is an exceedingly safe society that welcomes visitors, particularly ones looking to get to know local culture. You don’t need to worry about lurking danger on an independently planned trip to Japan. The worst that could happen is an insurmountable language barrier, but that’s part of the fun of international travel, right?

It’s true one of the best things organized tours do is how they prevent you from getting lost. Usually that’s good, but really isn’t “getting lost” akin to “getting off the beaten path”? You may be getting the gist of our perspective by now. We’re not very good at being sly. But not everything about independent travel is a dream. FOMO can create a lot of anxiety for some. Which is fair enough. After all, most of us have a limited amount of time to enjoy our trip and we want to make the most of it.

So… Should I go to Japan by myself or with a tour group?

Our answer is: Yes. Sorry about that. But it’s just too difficult, in absolute terms, to choose one over the other. In truth, most visitors to Japan would be best served by doing the overarching planning themselves, but then gently peppering their itinerary with day and evening tours. Absorb independently, take a tour, rinse and repeat.

Just the two of us.

Preferences vary, but in our experience, spending half or a bit less of your time with half day, full day, and night tours is the recipe for success. The time you may spend on tours enriches your trip with knowledge and insights regarding the surrounding areas and culture at large. These are the types of things you might miss if you were to just walk around and follow your nose so to speak.

All the above said about balancing tours and free time, it’s important to note that the type of day/night tours you take make all the difference. Quality is king. Some cheap tours use guides that aren’t worth their weight in mochi, and sometimes don’t speak English all that much better than mochi does. A stellar tour company (by the way, have you visited our tour list yet?) will show you the highlights but also provide you with memorable local insight. The tour will be private, or kept small. Here at Pinpoint Traveler, we pride ourselves on keeping our night tours down to six guests (eight for private tours) or less. This allows us to really get local and not change the mood of the restaurants and other spots we visit.

Create a framework, get the lay of the land, then follow your heart

Reflections provided for your reflection.

Quiet moments and local connections often are some of the best memories people take home with them from a trip to Japan. Well, that and wagyu (Japanese beef), the eating of which is a very high priority for some. Sure, there are the big ticket items you’ll want to check off your list. But if we’re being totally honest, Kinkakuji (the “Golden Pavilion”) may not be as moving as you might expect.

Travel is about enjoying experiences that strike a chord with you and those you travel with. Set yourself free from package tours. It won’t be nearly as scary as you might fear. Organize a short duration tour or two in each destination, and then let yourself be free. You are, after all, on vacation.

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