So, you wanna go to Japan?
Well, somehow you stumbled here, so I’m guessing that’s the case!
This page serves to detail the annual culinary-focused trips to Japan that I organize and lead. In short, a small group of cool guys and gals goes on a custom-made adventure through Japan, trying all sorts of amazing regional cuisines, partying it up at local festivals, temple hopping, sumo tournaments, whiskey sipping, baseball games, and more.
The next trip is scheduled for: March 9-21, 2018.
Yah, it’s a fun time. But don’t just take my word for it!
Picture arriving in Japan and proceeding to have a whirlwind of a time traipsing around the country with fun people and an amazing guide. That’s what it’s like with Scott. He’s a natural leader and his knowledge of Japan is great. But even better is his love of the country. He’ll seek out unique experiences that you probably wouldn’t even think of on your own.
Scott’s got the hook-ups even my Japanese friends wonder about, and ask how the heck I got in. For example, the finale of the grand sumo match, Michelin star restaurant reservations that are very hard to come by, and much, much more. I consider myself a very well-traveled traveler, but my experience in Japan wouldn’t have been the same without hanging with Scott. So, if you’d like to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience in Japan (that I guarantee you will not have if you travel by yourself), join whatever tour Scott is doing. Yes, he is that good.
I’d been imagining a trip to Japan for years, so when I heard Scott was organizing an adventure there, I had to go. I went in with pretty high expectations, and our trip absolutely blew me away. Of course we covered all the typical spots, but, more than that, Scott packed our days full of incredible sites, adventures, and food that was completely off the beaten track. His beyond-fluent Japanese surprised natives every where we went, which created friendships with locals and opened doors for us all along the way. Between Scott’s knowledge of Japan and his ability to communicate with the Japanese people, there is simply no other way I would have had even a fraction of our incredible experiences traveling in Japan any other way.
I had an amazing time in Japan all thanks to Scott’s in-depth knowledge of the country’s culture and people. And, of course, the absolute must-do activities, sights to see, food to devour, and places to visit. I was so impressed with the thought and detail Scott put behind every aspect of this trip, from the amazing boutique hotels and personalized tours to the local spots you’d never uncover if you were a tourist. It made the whole experience so easy for us–everything was taken care of. Also, the fact that Scott could handle every Japanese conversation was a true blessing given that I do not speak the language.
Scott’s attention to detail makes his Japan tours unique. He plans so far in advance, and so meticulously maintains his local contacts and knowledge that you’ll find yourself the only foreigners at a spectacular local festival or eating the most exquisite delicacies in restaurants you would never have found or been able to book otherwise.
Scott’s guided trip was an amazing introduction to Japanese cuisine and culture. Japan now tops my list of countries for a return visit… I can’t imagine not having him by my side for the next adventure.
Traveling with Scott is a non-stop adventure of fun, laughs, and off-the-beaten-path experiences. The attention and detail he puts into planning the itineraries is second to none. What I most appreciate about Scott’s trips is that I don’t have to plan a single thing and I can just relax, enjoy myself, and truly be on vacation.
Hands down one of the best meal experiences of my life. Amazing food. Even more amazing host and chef. We had the entire restaurant to ourselves. It was pretty much a private dinner hosted by a self-taught chef who’s been running the place for the last 26 years. The food was nothing short of spectacular. One of the featured dishes is baby tuna that’s roasted over a fire in a bucket full of hay outside. Totally amazing.
Table of Contents
Explore Japan through its people, places, history, and of course, its FOOD & DRINK.
Japan has one of the most diverse, amazing food cultures in the world. Think Japanese food is teriyaki chicken and sushi? Does your idea of ramen come packaged in a shrink-wrapped, freeze-dried block? Do you buy your sushi at the local supermarket?
No way—that's not real Japanese food!
And even if you consider yourself a Japanese food-expert, and you know your tonkotsu from your tonkatsu, I'll bet you'll learn a thing or ten upon visiting the holy grail of Japanese cuisine with us.
A fast-paced schedule. Lots of food and drink. Tons of fun with a small, select group of awesome people.
There will be only FIVE spots open for the 2018 trip (not including myself).
I want to keep the group small, thereby allowing access to some of the more intimate restaurants and attractions that are commonly found throughout Japan. Oftentimes a restaurant may only have eight seats available in the entire house, so if you rock up with a large group you're out of luck.
Japan & I
So, why am I qualified to lead such a trip?
Well, after studying Japanese in my senior year of high school, I was given the opportunity to work and study in Japan. I lept at the chance, and ended up taking three full semesters of college classes while also working as a waiter on a replica Mississippi steam-wheeler on Japan's largest lake, Biwako (yah, I know—random). That year completely changed my life, and every year after that I kept returning to Japan to see the friends I had made, keep my Japanese up, and continue exploring the country that I had grown to love so much.
The next year I spent a few months working at a ski lodge in Nagano, nearby to where the 1998 Olympics were held (I figured it would be a great idea to learn how to snowboard while there, so I taught myself how from scratch, over the course of 50 or so runs down the mountain—it's a funny story actually, ask me about it sometime).
A few years after that my old roommate and I took a shot at starting our own US-Japan consulting company in Tokyo. Had a few projects, but ultimately it didn't work out (Japan isn't an easy place to be an entrepreneur, even to this day).
In total, I've been to Japan twelve times now. I speak fluent Japanese, know my way around, understand the cuisine, culture, and history, and have made tons of friends throughout the country. Japan is like a second home to me, and I absolutely love introducing my companions to the many layers of the country and its people.
We will be eating the entire gamut of Japanese food, from Michelin-star restaurants, to some of the best street food you've ever had the fortune to put in your mouth.
Most of it will be without-a-doubt delicious, but there will be some oddities thrown in to mix it up a little. It is expected that you be an adventurous eater—at least try it before you say you don’t like it.
Have food allergies or intolerances? Well, Japan is not known for being an easy place to be gluten-free, vegan, etc. In 2014 we had a vegan who temporarily decided to become a pescatarian (vegetarian + fish) just for the trip (hey Karol!), as otherwise he was going to starve. For some meals he decided to go off on his own and look for more diet-acceptable fare. In general, he had a good time, and was able to fully participate in most meals. We also had a guy who had numerous intolerances—fermented products (soy, miso, yeast, wine, beer, sake etc.—hi Dan!)—he stayed away from such foods whenever he could, and paid the price the next day(s) when he found something he just couldn’t pass up. Which was often. Priorities!
In short, if you have allergies/intolerances/strong preferences, and are not willing or able to to change or alter your normal diet for whatever reason—even just a bit on certain occasions (e.g. strict vegan, celiac, pastafarian, etc.)—this may not be the trip for you.
One of the most amazing parts of Japanese culture are the festivals—called matsuri. Taking all different forms, many of these religious gatherings (derived from ancient shinto practices) have been going on continuously for hundreds or even 1,000+ years. Matsuri are unlike any festival you have ever been to, guaranteed.
At the beginning of our trip we'll be participating in the Omihachiman Sagicho Matsuri. This relatively unknown celebration, based in a small city on the shores of Japan's biggest lake, Biwako, was first enacted in the 17th century and is one of Japan's "Big Three" fire festivals. It spans two days, and consists of twenty different floats being carried around the city by groups of locals. As they get progressively more tired (and drunk), they start to falter as evening comes. The final show is a "fight" between floats, and one is eventually declared a winner by the city mayor. The festival ends with huge bonfires as all of the floats are burned in the middle of main street.
We'll also be lucky enough to check out a few other important events, such as Hanatoro in Kyoto (where the streets are illuminated by lanterns at night), and one of the oldest festivals in Japan, Omizutori, in Nara.
Every room will be a non-smoking twin room, with two full beds, en-suite bathroom, and free wi-fi access. It is Japan, so don't expect a great deal of space in the rooms (we won't be spending much time there anyway, so I wouldn't worry too much about that).
I've gone to great lengths to ensure not only the quality of the hotels, but also make sure that they are in great locations. All hotels are at least three stars, and are located within walking distance from the closest major train station. This way we don't need to deal with taxis, or with lugging our suitcases long distances to/from the station.
2018 Itinerary: Western Japan
The 2018 trip will focus on western Japan, known as the Kansai region. Kansai is well-known for its humor, delicious comfort food, lengthy history, and friendly locals (it's also where I lived and studied back in 2001). We will be focusing on three major cities in the area: Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara.
From March 9th to March 21th, we will be spending a total of 13 days and 12 nights together, including arrival and departure days. (Please note that if coming from North America this means you will most likely need to leave on March 8th to make it to Japan before the evening of the 9th.)
The first seven nights we will be staying in Kyoto, although during that time we will also be making day trips to other cities in the area. The last five days we will be based in Osaka, which will allow easy access to the airport on the final day of the trip for your return flight.
Below is an itinerary detailing what we will be doing on each day of our thirteen days together. It will be a packed schedule, as I want to show you as much as possible in the days we have, but I've made sure to include a bit of down time to rest after any particularly full days.
Note: although we will be making every effort to include everything that is listed in the itinerary below, the order in which things happen may be affected by weather or other events beyond our control.
- March 9: Arrive in Osaka (KIX), train to Kyoto. Welcome dinner.
- March 10: Leisurely explore Kyoto during the day. Check out the Hanatoro illuminations that evening.
- March 11: Free morning. Head to Omihachiman for the Sagicho Matsuri during the afternoon and evening.
- March 12: Free day in Kyoto.
- March 13: Leave in the morning for Nara. Explore Nara during the day, and watch the last night of the Omizutori festival that evening.
- March 14: Free morning. Explore Kyoto in the afternoon, starting with a trip to the market and then a cooking class. Special dinner at night.
- March 15: Climb Hiei-zan mountain to visit Enryaku-ji Temple Complex. Picnic lunch. Climb down to visit Biwako Lake and Otsu City, where I used to study.
- March 16: Free morning and afternoon. Head to Osaka for a baseball game that evening.
- March 17: Explore Osaka City all day, including Osaka Castle, markets, and the knife-making district.
- March 18: Food tour day in and around Kyoto and Osaka! Field trip to a local whiskey distillery, green tea factory, and a sake brewery.
- March 19: Free morning. Sumo tournament in Osaka during the afternoon. Sumo hotpot (chanpon) dinner.
- March 20: Visit Himeji and Himeji Castle during the day. Send-off dinner in Kobe that evening.
- March 21: Fly home, or continue your journey through Japan on your own.
Just because our trip has ended doesn't mean you need to go home! Feel free to head on up to Tokyo to check out all the cool stuff up there, or maybe stick around for another week and see the cherry blossoms start to bloom at the end of March.
I'll be sticking around for a bit after our trip, so happy to assist in planning any additional adventures you might have in mind (or perhaps you'd like to join me in some post-trip fun? details TBA...).
If you do decide to travel a bit more around Japan I'd recommend purchasing a JR Railpass, which will save you some cash when taking the bullet train around the country (one way from Osaka to Tokyo is $130 or so, so it quickly adds up!).
If you do decide to stay longer, I highly recommend you plan out your accommodation far in advance, as the end of March is when the Japanese school holidays start, so prices start going up on hotel rooms, and availability can quickly go down, even months in advance (those Japanese sure are planners!).
THIS IS NOT A BUDGET TRIP. If you're looking to Japan "on the cheap", you'll have better luck elsewhere.
That being said, the trip is not prohibitively expensive—especially since it is a private, small group trip chock-full of amazingness.
In order to secure your spot there will be a non-refundable $1,700 deposit required. First come, first served. (The deposit will be applied to the trip balance, and is non-refundable as it goes directly to the non-cancellable hotel room costs, non-cancellable event reservations/tickets, etc.)
The balance for the entire trip—one more payment of $1,700—will be due 60 days before the start date of the trip (before 11:59pm ET on January 8th, 2018). If your payment is not received by that time you may lose your initial deposit and place on the trip.
What the $3,400 payment includes:
- 12 nights of accommodation in 3 star (or equivalent) hotels*
- *Double Occupancy in twin-bed rooms. If you are not traveling with someone you will be matched up according to gender. (If you prefer your own room we will be able to make that happen for an extra $500.)
- 13 days of tour guide and translation services by yours truly
- Breakfast every morning at our hotel
- Public transport in Japan, post-airport shuttle (including trains, buses, subways, etc.)
- Entrance to all attractions (baseball game, sumo tournament, temples, etc.)
- All of the time it took to plan this out, make necessary reservations, and set up everything (many, many hours)
What the $3,400 payment does NOT include:
- Flights to/from Japan
- Transportation to/from the airport (about $40 round-trip)
- Food & drink (beyond breakfast)
Accepted payment methods include cash, check, money order, PayPal (fees are paid by you), Dwolla, Venmo, or Chase QuickPay. If you need my address to send a check/money order please contact me.
NOTE: Your initial deposit of $1,700 is non-refundable under any circumstances. However, if you need to opt-out of the trip and would like to recommend someone to take your place, this may be able to be done on a case-by-case basis. Please contact me directly if you need to transfer your spot to someone else.
How Much $ Should I Bring?
Besides the $3,400 trip cost, you'll need money for food (beyond breakfast), drinks, train tickets to/from the airport ($40 round-trip), and souvenirs. That's about it.
Here's a rough breakdown on what costs may be:
- $1,000 - Food (incl. three high-cost "fancy" dinners)
- $??? - Souvenirs
- $??? - Alcohol
So, $1,000 or so should get you through the entire trip (depending on if you join us for a couple fancy dinners or not, and depending on how much you drink—see below for both).
As far as alcohol goes, some of us drink more, some drink less, some don't drink. Those of us that drink more will be spending quite a bit more cash during the trip. That's how it goes! Prices for drinks are roughly equivalent to prices in the US, but there aren't usually any Happy Hour prices in Japan, unfortunately. Figure about $5-6 for a pint of beer in most spots (or the equivalent pour of sake/shochu/spirits).
Credit cards are accepted pretty much everywhere, and debit cards can be used at almost any ATM to withdraw yen. It is recommended to always have cash on you, as splitting up the bill at restaurants becomes a huge pain (if not completely impossible) if we have multiple credit cards to split it into (actually, most restaurants will just refuse to split the check in the first place—it's just not a Japanese thing to do).
And now, a special note about our "fancy dinners"...
I will be arranging at least THREE "fancy" dinners, at Michelin-starred restaurants (or equivalent). These meals run from USD$150 or so, on average (although the priciest run up to about $300). They're costly, but it's also some of the most amazing food and presentation/service I've ever experienced in my life. Definitely highly recommended.
That being said, I understand if someone might elect to save some cash and go off on their own for dinner. I hope you can join for at least one though! You'll need to let me know if this is the case when you pay your FIRST deposit though, as I need to make reservations on average two to three MONTHS in advance.
Weather & Packing
Weather will run the gamut, as we are there during early spring, so it could be cold, or it could be warm—it's a toss up. There will probably be a few days with rain, so bring a light raincoat (we can buy cheap umbrellas at any convenience store if needed).
Average weather conditions can be found here—just type in the name of the city you are wondering about (Kyoto, Osaka, etc.). I would bring a winter hat, maybe a scarf, and a winter coat as well. You know best how cold you get, so be prepared for any kind of weather conditions.
The trip will more often than not be casual dress, but bring a nice outfit or two for the nicer restaurants we will be visiting (button up shirts, dresses, etc.). Nothing too fancy is needed, it’s just that you wouldn’t want to wear a T-shirt and shorts to these places.
As I mentioned before, this trip takes a whole lot of time to plan out and execute properly. For most of you this will be your first trip to Japan, and I'm serious about making it an amazing first time for you. This requires quite a bit of work, both pre- and during-trip. In case you were wondering what added value you're paying for in regards to the $3,400 trip cost (excluding all of the items listed above in the Money Stuff section, such as hotels, etc.), please see the list below:
- I begin approximately a year ahead of time by spending dozens of hours thinking of an itinerary, picking out the best date ranges based on local festivals, Japanese school holidays, National Holidays, weather, etc.
- Once I have the dates and general direction we'll be traveling in for the almost 2 weeks, I go on a few web sites and search for the best hotels within our price range. They need to 3 stars or more, and located close to the main train station for the city we are in. They need to have 3 separate, non-smoking twin rooms available. Must then pay deposits (or full price) on all rooms.
- Once hotels are booked I research where the best restaurants are located in each city, and make a general itinerary consisting of a variety of food choices, including regional specialties. Some restaurants are must-sees, while other times I just want to have a decent list of selections based on what the group if feeling that day.
- For the more exclusive restaurants (Michelin-starred ones, for example), I need to make reservations months in advance, by phoning Japan and making the RSVP in Japanese.
- I need to contact my connections in Japan as far as tours, sumo tickets, baseball tickets, meeting up with us for meals, etc., and make sure everything is available when we are in town. Usually all tickets need to be sent to a Japanese address.
- Find a willing group of adventurers, collect monies, coordinate everything in regards to flights and payment schedules, arrange pick-up/meet-up times and places, send various e-mails individually and to the group as a whole leading up to your arrival in Japan. Deal with inevitable schedule changes and questions along the way.
- Coordinate and "collect" everyone on the ground
- 24/7 translator and tour guide (well, hopefully I can sleep *a little*...)
- Figure out transportation schedules, assist with buying tickets
- Ordering everything at the restaurant. Itemizing and splitting up checks—written in Japanese—at the end of every meal
So, that's what I do! This time around I've built in a few 'free days' where I (and anyone else who needs it) can get a bit of rest, so that none of us burns out. Be forewarned that it can be a demanding schedule at times—I want you to see and do as much as possible during your short tenure in Japan!
This is travel, and unexpected things may happen. Although I will do everything in my power to assist if something goes wrong, you get sick, etc., I am in no way legally responsible for your well-being during the duration of the trip. By signing up for this trip you are acknowledging this fact. Medical costs for routine visits, prescriptions, etc. are relatively low in Japan, but you may want to buy travel medical insurance just in case something more serious befalls you.
This also goes for the itinerary. Although we are pretty set as far as the schedule because hotels are booked already, there may be things we may not get to see because of weather, natural disasters, etc.—who knows.
This is first-come, first served. We only have FIVE spots available, and there is no option to add more people (as rooms are already booked, and most hotels are sold out for those dates/locales at the price points we are shooting for).
Enrollment is you sending the first half-payment of USD$1,700/person to me via Chase Quickpay, Dwolla, Venmo, or PayPal (please pay any fees on your side) to email@example.com. If you are sending a check or money order please let me know ahead of time and I'll send you the relevant details.
Once we reach a maximum of five people the trip will be closed to new sign-ups, and I will refund any money sent my way (and you will be added to a waiting list if you'd like).
Please press the Join Us! button below and fill out the form and I'll get back to you with more info ASAP.
If you have any questions please send me an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, use the form above, or send me a Facebook message.