When planning out your first (or next) group tour of Japan, no matter the season, it can be difficult to decide what kind of tour to take. Whether to explore the rich culture, history, and splendid landscape of the Land of the Rising Sun by train and bus on a land tour, or whether to survey the azure Sea of Japan, hopping from port to port from the deck of a cruise liner: it’s a common travelers’ dilemma. A cruise can be a fun way to travel around the country (provided you aren’t one of those travelers who struggle with seasickness), and you’ll be sure the trip is designed entirely with your comfort and convenience in mind. While you debate with your travel group the merits of taking a land tour of Japan vs. taking a cruise around various port cities, here are some points for you to consider before booking your travel package.
While you contrast the pros and cons that come with taking a cruise or a land tour, I hope you’ll consider the following points.
One of the best things about seeing Japan by cruise is its often bundled together with ports in other countries. A cruise liner might spend most of the tour visiting top travel ports in Japan, but then will wind its way over to Korea, Taiwan, or China. You would find yourself exploring the most eccentric city districts of Tokyo one day and the traditional markets of Seoul the next. Considering you’re paying primarily to cruise around Japan, it feels almost like getting a bonus trip!
This is one of the biggest perks of cruise travel: you don’t have to worry about changing hotels. Upon entering your cabin, you can take out your classy evening wear and colorful Hawaiian shirts, get them ironed, hang them up, then you don’t have to worry about putting them away until the last day of the trip. Only unpacking and repacking once for the entire trip is certainly one of the most convenient things about taking a cruise.
This is a cruising convenience that travelers might not consider right away. You come back from your evening in Osaka, having spent an enriching day at the Osaka Aquarium, eat dinner, and turn in for the night. It seems like you’ve scarcely closed your eyes before opening them to find that you’re now in Hiroshima and can look forward to a wonderful day strolling the stately Peace Park. You didn’t have to take a train and/or bus on a multi-hour trip while you tried to fall asleep in your seat. Traveling in comfort while you sleep on a cruise liner is one of the things those who choose this option look forward to the most.
The most reputable cruise lines that travel around the ports of Japan know how important English-speaking communication is to their guests, so you can bet that all of them staff their luxury liners with a full complement of fluent, English-speaking staff. Difficulties with communication may still arise while in port (although most cruises staff the shore excursions with bilingual local guides), but at least you’ll never have to worry about troubles making yourself understood while on a cruise ship.
The need to return quickly to the ship at night cuts you off from any possibility of the glittering nightlife of Japan’s major cities. There are countless possible restaurants, bars, nightclubs, izakaya, karaoke clubs, and gaming arcades, where you can hobnob with locals while tasting delicious comfort food and alcoholic drinks. But all this is missed while on a cruise! The rigidity of the cruise schedule means that any hopes of experiencing the vibrant city nightlife are spoiled as you grudgingly return to the ship in the evening.
You can’t get a taste of authentic, homegrown Japan cuisine while on a cruise. Because cruises provide all the meals during your tour, the chances you’ll have for tasting Japan’s exceptional foods will be almost non-existent, even within the port cities. The cutesy themed cafes of Tokyo, the street food Osaka’s Dotonbori is known for, the yatai stalls in Fukuoka – all off the radar of the average Japan cruise. This doesn’t mention local foods outside the port cities – regional delicacies that are part of the cultural fabric of each small town. Cruise itineraries most often leave these towns and their delectable cuisines untasted.
For all the convenience of cruise ships, they are severely limiting to their travelers by what port cities they visit. These cities are the major tourist hubs of Japan, so while you might be sightseeing in major cities, a cruise excursion doesn’t immerse you in the real Japan. To get a look at a more native, intimate Japan, you would have to plan a pre or post-cruise land tour to really get the most out of your favorite destinations. You could then take a trip into the interior of the country for a more culturally immersive Japan experience.
By far the best thing about a land tour is a more in-depth kind of tour. While on a cruise, you’re hopping from one port to the next. You just landed in Kobe with barely a day to explore the city before you’re whisked away to Yokohama or Tokushima. It’s like that for the entire cruise, and although the port cities are a lot of fun, you might reach the last day feeling like you never quite got to experience the REAL Japan. Instead, imagine that same scenario, where your land tour of Kobe started off on a hike around the trails of Mount Rokko, followed by a meal of marbled Kobe beef. Proceeding to a local ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), you enjoyed your own onsen hot spring bath! Then, if you wanted to continue to Tokushima, you could travel across the Akashi Kaikyo Bridge (the longest suspension bridge in the world) to Awaji Island, which sits right between the two cities. You could take some time while there to behold Tadao Ando’s gorgeous Hundred Steps Flower Garden at Yumebutai and see the famed whirlpools of Naruto churning beneath you as you pass over the bridge to Tokushima. This is just one of countless ways you can explore Japan in-depth on a land tour.
Even if you take a land tour by private coach bus, you’ll have plenty of time included to stop and take in the sights from one destination to the next. The best itineraries will stop in smaller, local communities to give their guests a more authentic Japan experience. This not only gives you a native vision of Japan that cruises can’t match, but it also offers you the chance to contribute to the smaller communities as you shop for souvenirs and dine in their restaurants. And while I’m sure any reputable Japan cruise line could find you a cup of delicious matcha tea, how can that possibly compare to a cup of locally sourced matcha that a smiling, talkative shopkeeper whisked by hand in front of you as you sat in her little tea shop that her family has owned for generations? You’ll have a greater opportunity to chat with the local people while on your land tour itinerary.
While on a land tour, an itinerary can be tailored precisely to fit your vision, so you can spend as long as you want in a given destination. Most often cruise stops are for a single day, two at most, per port city. Even if you are given time to explore by yourself, your timing is limited to whenever your cruise ship departs for the next destination. Private land tour itineraries can be planned with your preferences in mind for how long you want to stay in a given destination. Also, a land tour can give you perfect control over where you go on your itinerary. As a cruise hops from port to port, its only natural you encounter destinations that you have no interest in. On a land tour itinerary, you can avoid wasting your travel time visiting destinations that don’t fascinate you.
Although you have more room to move on a cruise ship, you definitely see more of the country on a land tour, and in a greater variety of ways. Many land tour operators have private coaches to service their group tours, but those looking for more of a transit adventure has myriad possibilities available. For one, the train system of Japan is so well known that one might say you’ve really missed out if you’ve not traveled by rail there. Their bullet train, or “Shinkansen”, is world famous, and every traveler should experience how speedy, smooth, and comfortable it is. There are also luxury trains that take travelers on a mesmerizing adventure through the countryside. Within the big cities there is the convenient bus system, and their taxi cabs are courteous and clean. For more eccentric modes of transit, you can also travel by ropeway in an airborne gondola, be pulled through traditional stone-flagged streets on a rickshaw, cross a river a little wooden boat the size of a washtub, and hike the numerous trails throughout the country.
A good native guide can be one of the best parts of a land tour. While cruises often employ a legion of local guides to help you navigate these port cities during shore excursions, you only really get to see each one for a day or so before you’re off to the next port. Guided land tours will keep the same guide throughout the whole tour, even if you’re traveling from one end of the country to the other, so there are more opportunities to get to know them, their sense of humor and stories, and enjoy a more consistent tour experience from beginning to end.
This one is largely dependent on the type of tour you take. Many land tours have all your meals planned out for you, just like a cruise, and this option is understandably preferrable to those with more demanding dietary needs. But for those who take pleasure in eating adventurously, a wider variety of cuisine becomes available if you take a land tour that includes some free time to choose your own meals. If, while exploring one of Tokyo’s small market streets, your nose is captivated by an aroma coming from a small hole-in-the-wall ramen shop, free time on a land tour affords you the opportunity to enter that shop and order that tantalizing tonkatsu tanmen. And most of the restaurants you go to, especially in the larger cities, have English menus, menus with pictures, and even miniature plastic displays of their food in the front window, to help you know what you’re getting.
The massive luxury cruise liners may be convenient in many ways, but it is well known that they guzzle a lot of diesel fuel getting you from one port to the next. Land tours to Japan have more options for eco-friendly travel. The country is on the cutting edge when it comes to environmental concerns like using less petroleum and controlling carbon emissions. Travelers can travel at ease on Japan’s more eco-friendly buses and trains. In addition, Japan has well-maintained walking, hiking, and cycling routes for travelers looking to stay in shape while protecting the environment.
Did you know there is actually less chance of getting sick while taking a land tour? Setting aside obvious seasickness, the thought of ruining the vacation with a flu or stomach virus is a real worry for travelers. While reputable cruise companies are sure to do their best in putting health and safety first, large luxury cruise liners unintentionally serve as viral incubators, causing sickness to easily spread across the whole ship during a two-week or three-week cruise. On a land tour, you will usually be only in a group of 25-35 people, with less chances for possible sickness, and much of the tour will be spent outdoors enjoying the fresh air. Add to that the fact that few countries are more concerned with cleanliness and sanitation than Japan, where they commonly wear facemasks in public even when they aren’t sick and work hard to maintain cleanliness in public facilities and transit systems.
A land tour can be as enriching and personal as you would like it to be. You might encounter a few activities on a cruise that are in line with your interests, but on a land tour you can plan your entire itinerary to cater to the specific hobbies of your travel group to be found in Japan. Beyond seasonal tours for cherry blossoms or autumn leaves, there are small group tours that feature gardening, tea, pottery, birdwatching, anime, and countless other interests. You could also plan a private group tour that is designed entirely to what you and your group want it to be. This facet of land tours is truly what sets them apart from cruises; the limitless possibilities for customization for a way to make a vacation to Japan entirely your own.
The primary drawback of a land tour is the fact that you will have to move from one hotel to the next as you progress through destinations on your travel itinerary. While how often you must change hotels depends on itineraries, part and parcel with the thrill of arriving at your itinerary’s newest must-see locale (or departing for the next one) is the admitted chore of repacking your luggage and getting it ready to go for the next trip. The good news is that most group itineraries offer expert assistance in getting it from one hotel to the next, so you won’t be burdened with luggage as you travel.
There is a third option for those who are still unsure of which is more right for their group. You could always plan an additional week or two before or after your cruise, to get that more local experience in addition to the comfort of a cruise. Perhaps you intend to book the cruise around the various ports of Japan, beginning (or ending) in Tokyo. Tokyo also makes for the perfect departure / ending point for a land tour and can be an excellent travel hub to visit the Japan’s fascinating mountainous interior. The same could be said of Osaka, which provides easy access to Japan’s gorgeous southern regions. Consider adding a pre or post-cruise land tour to get the most out of a trip to Japan.
Every well-planned trip to Japan, cruise or land tour, leaves you with the same thought: “Is it over already? Just one more day!” With a cruise, you’ll travel in comfort, with good meals, an English-speaking staff, and good customer service. But with a land tour, you have a chance to travel deeper into the heart of the country, visit smaller locales, with more time spent in each destination, more options for travel (including more eco-friendly ones), and a richer, more in-depth Japan experience.