The fantastic news first: After being under strict lockdown since 2020—including a stint hosting the 2021 summer Olympics—Japan is once again open to visitors hailing from 99 foreign countries, including the US. But, of course, there’s a stipulation. Leisure visitors must be in the accompaniment of a tour group licensed by Japan. If you pictured yourself wandering solo among the cherry blossoms, catering to your own whims, you’ll have to wait a bit longer—you’ll only be allowed in if you’re chaperoned.
But all is not lost. If you’ve never been to Japan—the country that brought us forest bathing, crying therapy, hot spring onsens (some sake-spiked) and an incredible penis festival, plus the usual suspects of Mount Fuji, Sapporo, Okinawa, and Hiroshima—a tour group is probably the best way to be introduced anyway. They’ll show you the way of the land, the best hole-in-the-wall spots to stuff your face (ramen! Sushi! Onigiri! All of it!), and the most picturesque locations, while grounding it all in the country’s storied history. If you book soon and visit Kyoto in July, you’ll be just in time for the Gion Matsuri festival, one of the biggest, oldest, and most popular festivals in the country, so a tour group could help you navigate that as well (not to mention provide accommodations, which by now would be impossible to get).
For our part, visitors from countries with the “blue designation” are expected to be on fully escorted tours and purchase a tourist visa. Travel insurance must be secured that covers COVID-19 treatments, and you must also present a negative COVID test taken within 72 hours of your departure. No vaccination or quarantine is required, but masks are.
Then, all you have to do is sit back, relax, and get ready for the frenetic, beautiful, ancient, and futuristic landscape that awaits. Here are some guided tour options to get your foot in the door.
Intrepid travel offers tours ranging from a quick seven days to the Ultimate Japan Tour spanning 24 days, taking you from Osaka to Yakushima to Iya Valley. But what we’re interested in here is The Japan Real Food Adventure, where you taste your way through the Land of the Rising Sun. You’ll take cooking classes and visit fish markets, tour sake breweries and dine on regional cuisines. Just make sure you arrive with a sumo-sized appetite.
One great way to get to know a country is to explore its “roads less taken.” On the G Adventures Back Roads of Japan tour, you’ll stray away from the traditional tourist sites while also getting a bit active. On the docket? Rafting and bicycling on some days and hanging with Japanese Snow Monkeys at the Jigokudani Monkey Park on others.
Country Walkers specializes in walking and hiking tours, for those that would rather discover Japan on foot. On their Kyoto, Nara & the Kumano Kodo package, you’ll also be immersed in history, tackling part of the Kumano Kodo route, an ancient Japanese pilgrimage trail once traversed by emperors. It takes you through sunlit forests and stone temples and—because you’ll have earned it—steamy spring-fed onsen baths.
Contiki caters to travelers aged 18 to 35, with spirited offerings to match. Their Japan Unrivaled trip covers 12 days and hits all the major players, including Tokyo, Hiroshima, Kyoto, and Osaka. You’ll check out ancient temples, take a cable car ride with views of Mount Fuji, sleep in a Buddhist guest house, and visit goth castles. And, hey, maybe you’ll even make some friends along the way.