Timeless Japan

10 day tour, from $4,799


Blazing a Trail Through History in Kyoto, Japan

I had been looking forward to visiting Kyoto during my entire tour of Japan.

The former imperial capital of Japan is now considered the country’s cultural capital. Throughout the years, Kyoto has tried to preserve its incredible historical heritage while, at the same time, growing into a modern and vibrant city. I was ready to explore that strange contrast – the balance between the modern and the historical – as soon as I stepped off the train.

Kyoto is bright, clean, and inviting, like almost every location in Japan. It looks very much like Tokyo, even if the buildings don’t reach quite as high into the sky. Our tour manager told us that just under the surface ancient tradition could be found, and so I set out to find it.

Nijo Castle

The first stop was Nijo Castle. Not only is this sprawling fortress the home of the first shogun, it’s also one of 17 historic monuments of ancient Kyoto. All are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, which means they are regarded as special places in the world and carefully protected and preserved. Nijo is unique because it is the only castle among them; the rest are shrines and temples.

It’s also unique because of its nightingale floors, the legendary architectural marvel that kept the shogun safe while he slept. You can’t cross the floors without making the floorboards squeak, or sing like a nightingale, and so no one could sneak up on the sleeping shogun, whose bed was squarely in the center of the wide floor.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple

After Nijo Castle, we left the city for a temple. Growing up in New England, I thought I knew the beauty of autumn since I had seen so many crisp, colorful falls. Standing on the wooden deck of the Kiyomizu-dera Temple, looking out over Kyoto, I realized how wrong I was. I felt like I had never seen reds, yellows and oranges this vibrant in all my life.

Kiyomizu-dera Temple sits atop a hill, and from its balconies you can see over the colorful sea of treetops and take in all of Kyoto at once. It’s an awe-inspiring sight, magnified by the shimmering colors of the changing leaves.

Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine

We left Kiyomizu for the Fushimi Inari Taisha Shrine. There, I found something vibrant enough to rival the fiery oranges of the autumn leaves: the crimson-colored torii gates that line the path through the forest to the inner temple. Stone fox statues crouched everywhere around the shrine. We found out later that foxes were thought to be messengers for the gods.

Walking through the mountain paths, under the torii gates, I discovered a smaller shrine. This was a sub-shrine, I found out later, and there were three more scattered across the mountain. Some were so far away that the hike there would have taken two hours, and the sun was dipping down behind the autumn trees. I decided heading to the base of the mountain was the smartest course of action.

Hiroshima

The next morning, I took a train to Hiroshima and explored the Peace Memorial Museum before returning to Kyoto. After the modern ride in a bullet train to Hiroshima and back, coming back to Kyoto felt like traveling in time. The city is so quiet, filled with shrines and temples and gardens, that you can’t help but let the tranquility wash over you. It’s easy to find a bench and watch the falling Japanese maple leaves swirl in the wind.

Noodles and dumplings in Kyoto

I had the evening free, so I decided to just walk the streets of Kyoto and simply follow wherever my feet took me. I thought I was following my feet, but I ended up following my nose, instead. The savory scent of ramen led me into a small noddle shop, where I sat and ate delicious pork and noodles in broth, along with some tasty dumplings. It was a crisp, cool evening, and the steaming ramen warmed me up.

The Gion District and geisha

The Gion District was magical, watching traditionally dressed geisha meander down the cobblestone streets under paper lanterns. Every narrow alleyway seemed to hold a secret teahouse, and every park seemed to hold an ancient shrine. There was a weight of history and tradition and culture everywhere.

The geisha that walked the streets, however, weren’t geisha at all. Some were maiko, geisha-in-training who are learning the craft of being one of the elite entertainers. Some are simply women in costumes, posing with tourists. Kyoto has the highest concentration of geisha in Japan, but there are less than 100 in the whole city, and they almost never walk the streets. Instead, they play instruments and sing in quiet, personal ceremonies.

The Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival

As night fell, I heard drumming and shouting. The 300-year-old Nihonmatsu Lantern Festival had begun, with torch-bearing men marching down the street, singing and chanting to the beat of drums. As it got darker, I saw the lantern floats: huge wooden structures lit with hundreds of paper lamps that slowly sailed down the streets as the drums thundered on. The floats spun as dancers jumped wildly atop them. I watched in awe as the party – one of Japan’s largest lantern festivals – continued into the night.

Japan through the seasons

Each season in Japan has a special flair all its own. In fall, the vivid landscape and cooler temperatures beckon. You can watch the snow fall gently outside while taking part in a tea ceremony in the winter, or walk through the parks in spring as cherry blossoms swirl and blanket the ground in a pink-hued carpet. In the summer, you can catch the world-famous parade of the Gion Matsuri Festival as people pack the sunny streets.

There’s always something to do in the Land of the Rising Sun. I was already mentally planning for my next trip to Japan, and I hadn’t even left yet.


Planning Your Asian Holidays: How to Travel to India for the First Time

Home to 1.3 billion people, India it is a melting pot of languages, religions and cultures that entice visitors from around the world who plan on spending their holidays in Asia. India can induce culture shock, even for seasoned travelers. We’ve rounded up our top tips for traveling to India for the first time in order to make the most of your Asian holidays.

Play it safe on Asian holidays

Tourists can be victims of pickpocketing anywhere, but the overwhelming sites and sounds of India’s cities can distract even experienced travelers. Men, get in the habit of placing wallets in your front pockets instead of back pockets. Ladies, if you opt for a purse, a petite cross-body is safer than a large tote and should be kept in front of your body. The best option for either gender is a travel belt that can be tucked underneath the loose pants you’re wearing to cope with the Indian heat. If you carry a backpack, using a backpack lock is highly advised. This advice will serve you in India and beyond if you extend your Asian holidays to travel elsewhere in the region.

We also recommend studying this list of scams you may encounter in India to avoid them during your trip.

Dress conservatively

Beyond covering up when visiting places of worship, it is advised that tourists dress conservatively while spending time in India. India’s heat might make you want to wear your skimpiest garments, but shorts and short dresses will attract uncomfortable attention. Generally, bare shoulders are acceptable, but visible knees can be considered risqué. Play it safe by choosing loose-fitting, long garments that will keep you cool. Always carry a light scarf with you to keep away the heat and cover up if you feel you’ve missed the mark.

Avoid gastrointestinal issues

Traveler’s diarrhea is an all too common malady that can ruin your Indian vacation. Before you go, consult a travel doctor and make sure you have all the necessary immunizationsfor visiting India. Getting travel medical insurance is also advisable in case a simple stomach bug turns into something more severe.

Your travel doctor may suggest you purchase over-the-counter probiotics to take regularly during your trip. Probiotics help balance your gut’s bacterial composition and can help thwart traveler’s diarrhea in conjunction with avoiding certain foods.

In general, you should avoid consuming tap water, ice, street food, salad and fruit that you haven’t peeled yourself. Many travelers opt to go vegetarian while in India to avoid stomach ailments caused by spoiled meat, which tend to cause the most egregious of gastrointestinal issues.

Be aware of hygiene customs

In many parts of the world finding a clean toilet that is stocked with toilet paper and has a place to wash your hands is a luxury. While modern shops and restaurants in India’s cities will have these western comforts, you will run into difficulties on the road or in India’s more rural towns.

Outside of India’s major cities you will likely encounter squatter toilets and the local toilet paper alternative – your left hand and a water jug. For this reason, it is considered improper to eat with your left hand. Carry toilet paper and hand sanitizer with you on your travels in India and take take extra precautions by applying hand sanitizer before meals.

Make plans, but be flexible

There is so much to see and do during your Asian holidays in India that going in without a plan can be overwhelming. It is important to be flexible because obstacles are bound to pop up in this exciting-albeit-chaotic country.

You could get stuck in a rickshaw traffic jam, spend an hour haggling with a merchant to get the right price for a souvenir and arrive at your destination just to find that it’s closed due to a religious festival. Things happen, but they’re all part of the magic of India.

Make plans, but be flexible. Going in with this mindset will help you live in the moment and can turn mishaps from your Indian adventure into your most-cherished memories.

AAA can make your Indian holiday and the rest of your Asia travel a breeze with our travel search engine. You can book your flights, hotels and tours all in one place.


Travel in Asia: 20 Tips for Guided Tours in China

One of the best ways to explore a totally different culture is through the experienced guidance of a local tour guide. When you travel in Asia, a continent that is vastly different from many Westernized regions of the world, it can be helpful to plan your trip through an Asian tour company.

In order to get the best out of your experience, here are 20 tips for guided tours in China – and many are applicable when you take an Asian tour in other nearby countries.

1. You will need a visa

If you book travel in Asia with a tour in advance, the organizers may be able to secure a visa on your behalf (although it’s not required for travelers to all Asian countries).

2. Book your tour well ahead of time

It’s best to book your tour well ahead of time to give yourself the chance to find the best tour company for your needs, and to make sure that there’s room on the tour for you! Planning ahead will also help with securing the documentation you’ll need to get a visa.

3. Find the perfect tour package

The best tour packages to travel in Asia have everything for the price that a round-trip flight would usually cost. Finding something with flights, hotels, ground transportation and tours included means that all you have to worry about is showing up and enjoying the experience!

4. Avoid traveling during Chinese holidays

Check China-briefing.com to find out when the major Chinese holidays occur. Avoiding these will make for a much more enjoyable travel experience when you travel Asia.

5. Learn some basic Chinese words and phrases 

Study up ahead of time, or ask your guide. The locals will appreciate your efforts, even if you can’t exactly achieve fluency before your trip!

6. Don’t schedule tours for your entire trip

Save some time to explore China on your own, outside of your tour group. Many tour packages offer activity options for every day, but you need to allow for some time to check out the local scene on your own to really get the full experience.

7. Figure out public transportation

Though your guided tours will likely be on an air-conditioned charter bus or something of the sort, you’ll want to figure out the local public transportation options for when you want to get out on your own outside of tour time. Your tour guide will be an excellent resource for figuring out where to go and how to get there.

8. Guided tours are more expensive than self-guided tours

Guided tours will definitely cost more than you seeing an attraction on your own in China, but the price you pay covers easy entry (sometimes ahead of individuals who didn’t come with a tour group), expert knowledge you may not otherwise have, and transportation, which may be tough to arrange on your own – especially if it’s outside of a major city.

9. Be inquisitive

Don’t be afraid to be inquisitive about what’s going on around you during an Asian tour. Tour guides are happy to tell you all about their home – all you have to do is ask. It’s also OK to dig past the surface and ask about the tough stuff. The more you understand about the world around you, the better a global citizen you become.

10. Ask your guide when to visit popular attractions on your own

Your guide will have the most expert insights as to the best dates and times to check out popular attractions during your trip, to avoid the worst of the crowds. As far as planning travel to the country, off-season in China is late October through March, with less crowds and cooler temperatures. Additionally,  most tours groups go to popular attractions in the mid-morning and mid-afternoon hours, which are best avoided when venturing out on your own.

11. Don’t talk about the three Ts

There are three Ts that will set off any government official who may be happening to listen: Tiananmen, Taiwan and Tibet. Your tour guide will warn you if there are places where government spies (yes, really) may be hiding. In general, don’t say anything bad about the Chinese government in public. Save the politics for talk back home.

12. Make friends with people in your group

There’s safety in numbers when going out on your own. And though China isn’t necessarily an unsafe place, having a group can make it easier to figure out where to go and how to get back to your hotel when all is said and done.

13. If you have blond hair, you’ll become a paparazzi target

The Chinese people are a bit taken with the traditional American look – especially with blond hair. The locals may swarm you, asking for photos. Indulge them and feel like a movie star.

14. Trust the tour guide when it comes to drinking water

Though you should stick to bottled water when it comes to regular hydration, tour guides usually know to bring tourists to places that are careful with water. So if a dining host offers you juice or something similar, it’s likely ok to drink without worry – just make sure to ask. Hotels will always have water and juice that are safe to drink, even if it’s not bottled.

15. Your guide will know the best markets

Ask your guide for their recommendations, especially if you’re looking for a specific item or luxury product (like jade). They’ll let you know where you might get ripped off, and what markets are actually worth your time.

16. Don’t feel compelled to buy something during a factory tour 

If you’re on an extensive, multi-day Asian tour, you’ll probably be taken to a silk or jade factory (or something of the like). These places offer ridiculously expensive goods at the end of the tour, so don’t be afraid to just appreciate – and not buy. That said, they are some of the best places to find authentic goods, if you’re into that.

17. Tour stop restaurants aren’t always something to get excited about

Restaurants where tour guides take larger groups won’t be the most authentic, so make sure to ask your guide for dining suggestions for when you’re on your own, outside of the tour.

18. Tour guides can help you find what you forgot to pack

Forgot to bring a special converter plug? Your tour guide or tour mates may have an extra one you can borrow. It doesn’t hurt to ask!

19. Don’t overexert yourself

China (and its many historic attractions) wasn’t built with accessibility or disabilities in mind. Don’t feel like you have to walk the entire Great Wall in order to get the full experience. Sometimes, just being in the presence of these historic monuments is enough.

20. Don’t forget to tip your tour guide 

Your tour guide likely doesn’t make a lot from the tour company, and depends on tips. It’s customary to tip for this type of profession, so make it good!

If you’ve ever been on a guided tour in China or elsewhere, you’ve already lived many of these tips. If that’s the case, share your knowledge in the comments below.

What are your best tips for guided tours in China, or Southeast Asia, in general?