Festive Japan

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The company recently introduced two innovative packages for 2009 that will give first-time visitors a stimulating perspective. Most of the tours are small affairs, limited to no more than 20 persons, and offer an in-depth look to the fascinating culture that lies deep in the psyche of Japan, including tea ceremonies and learning about the complex artistry of the kimono.

Its Japan Sampler tour (from $3,099 pp dbl, airfare not included) is an 8-day adventure that includes 10 meals—including a specially arranged meal with a geisha—sightseeing, cultural activities, transportation and deluxe accommodations, including private-balcony, Pacific-view rooms at the Hilton Odawara Resort & Spa near Hakone.

It begins in bustling Tokyo where in late May one of Japan’s most famous festivals, Kanda Matsuri, takes place in odd-numbered years. There are parades through the central districts of the city and the sight of portable shrines, where Shinto priests on horseback and flowered floats give the sprawling, modern metropolis the mood of an ancient and festive Japanese medieval town.

From Tokyo, the tour moves on to Mt. Fuji, Kyoto and Nara before stopping in Kyoto, considered one of the most exciting cities in Japan. Travelers have the option of continuing on to Osaka or stopping in Takayama, a quaint, charming town deep in the mountains in an area commonly referred to as “the Japanese Alps.”

Incidentally, a special July 12 departure coincides with Kyoto’s famous summertime geisha festival.

General Tours World Traveler also features a 9-day tour (from $6,999 pp dbl, airfare not included) called Traditions of Japan. It begins in Tokyo and winds through the central section of Honshu, the largest island in the archipelago.

It includes stops in the ancient city of Takayama, Lake Chuzenji and Kyoto, as well as visits to the centuries-old alpine farmhouses of Shirakawago, a World Heritage site.

Accommodations are in top-notch hotels such as the Park Hyatt Tokyo, transportation is by private car and express train—offering plenty of opportunity to have intimate encounters with the people, daily rhythms and landscapes of the country—and well-versed, bilingual guides give in-depth descriptions of Japanese culture.

Visitors to Kyoto in the spring will have a chance to see the 1,200- year-old Gion Festival, a citywide revelry that stretches through most of July and climaxes in a massive parade. During this time, the city’s central area is closed to traffic and open exclusively to pedestrians. Some private houses in the old district, which was once home to kimono merchants, open their doors to the public and exhibit valuable family heirlooms in a custom known as the Folding Screen Festival. This is a precious opportunity to visit and see first-hand the traditional and ancient residences of Kyoto.

This year, the city known for its shrines, temples and blazing hillsides, celebrates the millennial anniversary of the publishing of “The Tales of Genji,” an ancient book by Murasaki Shikubu, which is considered to be the world’s first novel.

The author’s ancestral home on Teramachi Street will be the center of music festivals, chrysanthemum-doll competitions and magnificent geisha exhibits.

A different look at Japanese culture is offered by Asian Pacific Adventures, a California-based company that leads tours through the most popular Asian destinations including Vietnam, Burma, China, and Mongolia, among others.

Its Samurai Legacy tour ($7,170 pp in a 6-member group) takes visitors to Tokyo, Kyoto and Kameoka. Two tours—which, the company says, are suitable for families with children ages 5 and up—are scheduled for the spring: one running through late April and early May; the other in July.

This adventure focuses on the samurai culture. Along the way, the group will receive instruction on Zen meditation by a priest, observe Japanese sword dances, visit castles and meander through Kyoto’s geisha district.

Travelers have the opportunity to lodge in an inn from the Edo period and enjoy classic Japanese cuisine and traditional baths.

In the town of Kakunodate, the group will see a parade of 500 samurai warriors on horseback and later cool off in the mineral baths of the resort towns of the Japanese Alps. The tour includes stops in the craft markets of Takayama and visits to classic Noh drama theaters.

The caveat to individuals traveling to Japan in the spring is that from the end of April to early May, the country celebrates Golden Week, a festive period when many government offices, businesses and facilities close for about 10 days. The entire country seems on holiday, as the week is like Christmas and the Fourth of July rolled into one.