Our very own Abi Hanks has just come back from travelling around amazing Japan, one of the most coveted backpacker destinations in the world. Her incredible two-week Japan Highlights tour is run by Topdeck Travel, a tour company which specialises in taking 18-30-somethings on the trip of a lifetime.
Along the way she experienced the frenetic metropolis of Tokyo, toured temples in Kyoto, dressed in traditional geisha attire, discovered the history of Hiroshima, and donned full cosplay for a karaoke night out.
We caught up with Abi to ask her a few questions about her trip.
Welcome back, Abi! Tell us your first impressions of Japan…
I had been to other parts of Asia and South East Asia before, but never Japan. And it was so different! On the surface it has similarities to places like Thailand and Vietnam, and even London when you’re pushing through the crowds of Tokyo, but so quickly I realised it wasn’t like anywhere else I had been before. It’s such a unique place.
And Tokyo is a bubble that’s so different to the rest of Japan. We went from there to Takayama, which is in the mountains just a couple of hours away. That felt much more like ‘old-fashioned’ Japan: older streets, older buildings, and real sense of history. We stayed in a traditional ryokan inn, where we slept on floormats and the rooms had rice paper walls. We sat on the floor for dinner. It was all very traditional. So the contrast between that and Tokyo was huge.
And how about your tour group and guide, what were they like?
My tour group was really varied. We had ages all the way between 19 – 38, though most were somewhere in their 20s. There were a couple of solo travellers, some friends travelling together, and even two sets of siblings. Most people came from Australia, and there were a few Americans. Surprisingly, I was the only British person on the tour! Apparently, that’s quite unusual. It didn’t matter because we all got on really well.
Our guide was excellent, really nice and informative. We had both our main trip leader, who was with us the whole time and sorted out trains, accommodation, and generally looked after us. That made it so easy to get around. Then in some locations, like Tokyo, Hiroshima, and Kyoto, we had local tour guides who were destination experts. They knew so much! It was great to learn from locals who really knew their stuff. It was also really useful to have them there to help us read menus and work out what we were buying in shops. I wanted to try some weird food, but I wanted to know what they were first!
What was your favourite part of the trip?
It’s so difficult to choose. The whole trip was the coolest experience! Doing the Japan Highlights tour meant I got to see everything I wanted (though at the end I didn’t want to leave).
I loved Tokyo. It’s so big and crazy and unlike anywhere else in the world, even if a lot of it is tourist-orientated and gimmicky. One of the optional activities was to visit the Robot Restaurant, and it was such a weird assault on the senses! But when you go to Tokyo you want to see something weird and crazy.
Kyoto was my favourite city though. It was still busy, and had loads to do, including good restaurants and bars. But it wasn’t quite as full-on as Tokyo. Kyoto felt more like a normal city. I could see myself living there.
Sounds amazing. Any other highlights?
Visiting Hiroshima and learning about the history of the nuclear strike there was an incredible experience. It was a heavy day, but it was so interesting. I was glad to have the opportunity to pay respect to something that is such a big part of Japan’s history. It would have felt wrong to go there and miss that.
Do you think it was easier travelling Japan as part of a group tour than if you’d been travelling independently?
Definitely. We travelled so much, particularly by train. To make that work we each had the Japan Rail Pass, which meant we could use the trains freely. A friend of mine visited Japan alone a few months ago, and to get a pass she had to apply for it ahead of time, have it sent to the UK, and set everything up herself. With Topdeck, they just sort it all out for you and hand it over when you arrive.
All the transport was sorted, so I never had to think about how to get from A-B. A solo traveller could definitely do it, but the language barrier would make it harder, and they’d need to spend a lot of time planning to make sure they got it right. The tour took us to so many places in Japan, and I don’t think I could have planned all that by myself. Topdeck made it totally stress-free.
Any special tips for somebody thinking of doing this experience?
I definitely recommend downloading the Topdeck Travel app to your phone. It has a chat group so you can talk to other people on the tour before it actually begins, and even arrange to meet up early if you have extra days. It includes your full itinerary, downloadable maps, a currency converter, and other useful stuff like that.
The trip includes a night where you send your stuff ahead of you, so you’ll be without it for a day. So make sure you take an overnight bag! Just big enough to pack your toiletries and any other essentials. Doing it this way made it so much easier, because there were a few train changes, and not dragging my backpack the whole way was a relief.
The last night in Osaka is spent at a cosplay karaoke night. It’s easy to buy a costume in Japan – they’re everywhere – but if you already have something at home it might be worth bringing it with you.
Finally, what would you to say to people who are considering this trip?
Definitely do it! On paper the tour looks expensive, but it includes so much. You’ll visit so many places, have your hotels, Japan Rail Pass and other things included… actually, I can’t really understand why it doesn’t cost more! I stayed an extra night at either end of the trip, and I couldn’t believe how much a basic hotel cost. I think this tour saved us a lot of money. Everybody in the group agreed it was worth every penny.
And Japan is such a unique place. If you went to South East Asia, there are lots of similarities between Thailand, Vietnam, and Cambodia. But I’ve never been anywhere else like Japan. If you’re debating whether or not to go, this is really a once-in-a-lifetime experience.