Last Updated on July 11, 2020 by Tom Shu
Japan is one of the most interesting and diverse countries in the world with so much to see and offer. Each city you visit has its own unique cultures and traditions that are deeply ingrained in the people who live there, making it feel as if you’re transported to a different world with each new city you take in.
And we love Japan so much that we’ve ended up traveling there on our own a few times over the past couple of years. Unfortunately, though, it’s also not the easiest country to get around if it’s your first time visiting there and you don’t know Japanese.
Although Japan’s public transport network is extremely reliable, punctual and very comfortable, you’ll probably spend quite a bit of time at first trying to understand the different modes of transportation, various timetables, and different routes with varying costs, which doesn’t allow you to maximize the time you have on your trip.
So when the opportunity came up to take a group tour through Japan with a local tour guide, I was intrigued to see how traveling in a group might differ from visiting on your own.
After taking my first group tour, The Dragon Trip’s 13 Day Budget Japan Tour, I can honestly say that it is a comprehensive and ideal way to see a whole lot of Japan, especially if it’s your first time to the country.
If you’re even just a wee bit curious about traveling to Japan on a group tour, then keep reading, because I’ll be sharing all the pros and cons of group travel, accommodation details, cost, transportation, activities, and more in this blog post.
*This blog post is in collaboration with The Dragon Trip, however, all thoughts and opinions are my own. It is based on my experience joining one of their tours, the 13 Day Budget Japan Tour.
Why Group Travel?
As someone who’s primarily traveled on my own or with my partner, I was particularly curious about what traveling with a group of people from all over the world would be like.
The logistics of planning a trip always gives me a headache, so knowing that all the boring behind-the-scenes stuff that is still necessary to help make a trip run smoothly would be taken care of by The Dragon Trip made joining their Japan group tour a no brainer.
With that said, as with anything, there are both sides to the coin. You might have to give up some things you’re used to doing with traveling on your own vs with a pre-organized trip, but I’ve listed them all out for you to decide for yourself if group travel to Japan is right for you.
- No planning on your part needed. The logistical part of a trip is usually what causes the most stress and anxiety for any person traveling (especially for the first time) to a foreign country, but when you are traveling in a group tour with a knowledgeable local guide, you don’t have to worry about the little things and can enjoy your trip to the fullest knowing that everything is taken care of for you.
- Budget accommodations in hostels and home-stays in Japan are usually very nice. It can be a little iffy booking cheap hostels when it comes to some places in other parts of the world, but when it comes to Japan, I have peace of mind knowing that the rooms and bathrooms will be very clean and for the most part, separated by gender.
- Public transportation in Japan is arguably the most efficient in the world, so there is no need to spend extra money on private transport.
- You get to travel with a group of like-minded people who most likely share similar interests with you, so there’s a good chance you’ll come away from the trip with some new lifelong friends!
- With The Dragon Trip specifically, you have the flexibility to choose additional activities to do on a day to day basis.
- You’re on a set schedule, so you usually have to stick with the group, which limits your freedom to explore or wander around on your own. If you’re a slow traveler, you might also find that certain places or activities feel rushed because there’s a time cap of each place you visit to stay on schedule with the itinerary.
- There’s less personal space with group travel. With The Dragon Trip tours, you’ll mainly be staying in hostels, so just be aware you’ll be sharing dorm rooms with the other group members on the trip unless you decide to book a private room at an additional cost.
- You’ll probably be feeling pretty exhausted at the end of each day, but that’s the price you pay for getting to see as much of Japan as possible and maximizing your time on the trip, which I think is totally worth an hour or two of sleep!
Who is The Dragon Trip?
Now at this point, you may be wondering who The Dragon Trip is, and what type of group travel they specialize in.
The Dragon Trip is an adventure tour company that is based out of the United Kingdom and specializes in group tours to Asia, primarily aimed at younger people (or those that are young at heart), who aren’t afraid to go off-the-beaten-track or “get their feet a little dirty” so to speak.
Their tours are fast-paced, very backpacker-friendly, and focus on sustainable travel through the use of public transportation vs private buses, as well as staying in small hostels vs big chain hotels.
Although I’ll be going through the specifics of the 13 Day Japan Tour, they also offer unique adventure trips to China, Southeast Asia, India, Indonesia, and their newest tour destination, South Korea, which you can find more about on their website.
All of their Adventure Trips are also led by expert local guides, (known as Adventure Leaders), who are bilingual and can speak the native language fluently.
The 13-day Budget Japan Tour that we joined is one of their most highly rated and most popular tours that took us all around Tokyo, Kyoto, Hiroshima, Osaka, and a few smaller cities along the way like Kamakura and Hakone.
It’s an incredibly fun and fast-paced tour, but at the same time, it’s also a good combination of immersive experiences such a sushi-making class and cultural learning, like the Edo Tokyo Museum Tour and a calligraphy class in Kyoto, which I never would have thought to do if I was traveling to Japan on my own.
The 13-day Japan Tour packs in as much as possible with their itinerary, and you might come back from the trip feeling like you’ll need a couple of days to recover from it all. It can be physically exhausting at times, but what’s the fun in traveling if all you do is stay in your hotel room all day, right?
You experience and see SO much of Japan in less than two weeks, (seriously felt like a month or two of activities and experiences!), which would have been very difficult to do if traveling by yourself and trying to figure out all the different transportation modes/time schedules. Now without further ado…
Our Review of the 13-day Budget Japan Tour
Trip Highlights at a Glance
- Local guide/Adventure Leader that is fluent in English and Japanese who is with you the entire trip.
In our case, our guide (Juno), was also fluent in Korean! Not only was Juno an amazing guide that made sure we got from point A to B seamlessly, but he also became someone we would easily call a great friend by the end of the trip.
- Includes a 7-day Japan Rail Pass, which can also be used on your free day (depending on itinerary)
- Tokyo: Get a first taste of what Japan has to offer with 4 full days in the city, including eating the freshest sushi at the Tsukiji Fish Market, exploring Meiji Shrine (like a forest oasis inside the concrete jungle), wander the alleyways of Golden Gai, and partake in an incredibly fun sushi-making class – one of our favorite activities that are included during the trip! Optional activities include The Robot Show and Cat Cafe (two of our favorite experiences!)
- Kamakura: Have a chill day at this oceanside surf town and see the Great Buddha statue at the Kotoku-in Temple. You also have free time so you can check out the incredible Tsurugaoka Hachiman-gu shrine (a UNESCO World Heritage Site) or have a quick surf session, weather permitting!
- Hakone: Take a trip on a pirate boat across Lake Ashi and then hop on the Hakone ropeway for a view of Owakudani sulfur fields. Cross your fingers for an absolutely epic view of Mount Fuji from both the pirate ship and Hakone Ropeway. It really is a magical experience if you get to see Fuji!
- Kyoto: Bike along the Kamo River like a local, hang out with Japanese Macaques at Arashiyama Monkey Park, take a raft ride down the Hozugawa River, have an entirely free day to explore more of Kyoto on your own (I recommend visiting the Fushimi Inari Shrine or Nara Park), and even learn the ancient art of calligraphy.
- Hiroshima/Miyajima Island: Learn about the important history of Hiroshima and explore the magical Miyajima Island all in one day.
- Osaka: See the beautiful Osaka Castle, have a night out in Dotonbori and spend a night at a capsule hotel.
Below are the advantages and disadvantages I found with taking a group tour with The Dragon Trip specifically.
- Travel with a knowledgeable local Adventure Leader who acts as a tour guide. He/she will be able to give you detailed information and a brief history lesson of what you’re seeing, local restaurant recommendations they’ve personally tried, places to avoid, and an inside look into the Japanese culture that goes deeper than just surface level.
- Fast-paced tour with a full, comprehensive itinerary that allows you to see as much as possible in 13 days.
- All the planning, from accommodations to transportation, to the itinerary of each day on the trip is taken care of for you, which means you can focus all your attention on just enjoying your time on the trip.
- A great option for people considering traveling solo as you’ll get to meet like-minded travelers on the trip (most likely become lifelong friends!), and never have to worry about being alone.
- Good value for the price when compared to similar Japan Budget Tours
- Can be a physically demanding trip as you have to carry your own luggage and walk up to 30 minutes between locations at times.
- You will be living in a shared environment so how fun the trip ends up being could be determined by your group dynamic and how much you value your personal space.
- It can sometimes feel as if you don’t get enough time at each location on the trip because of how fast-paced the itinerary is.
Now that you’ve gotten a brief overview of what the 13-day tour includes, I’ve used a rating system to rate the following categories that I feel are an important part of knowing whether or not this tour is right for you.
Tour Guide Knowledge and Skill: 5/5
We honestly got one of the coolest, most knowledgeable, and thoughtful Adventure Leaders in Juno, who was one of the top reasons why we had so much fun on our trip.
He was also like the perfect mama duck and made sure we made it to each destination on time, and without losing any of us ducklings. This in itself was a very impressive feat, and let me explain why.
As I’ve mentioned, each day is pretty full in terms of the itinerary, and all of the transportation is via Japan’s public transit system and walking. Now add in the fact that Japan is one of the timeliest countries in the world.
So when the schedule says your Shinkansen is leaving at 1:03 pm, you better be on your platform waiting for your train well before 1:03 pm, because that train is leaving at exactly 1:03 pm, whether you’re there or not!
Because The Dragon Trip packs in as much as possible on a tightly scheduled itinerary, there were countless times where we had very short connections between trains, buses, and ferries.
And I can say with almost 100% certainty that if we were to do the itinerary on our own, we wouldn’t have made it to all the stops.
However, with our fearless leader Juno, there was not one single time during the trip that we missed our ride. But being on time isn’t all that’s important in a good tour leader.
What made Juno great is that at each location we went to, he was also our history teacher, food critic, and a local friend who we could grab a drink or two with after a long day of exploring.
I know I’ve just raved on and on about our adventure leader, but I don’t want you to start thinking that you can only go with Juno to have such a great experience.
The good news is that although there is only one Juno, I am very confident that all the other Adventure Leaders with The Dragon Trip are just as amazing.
Before I get into this section, the one thing I do want to say is that I usually stay in hotels most of the time I travel.
I’m not saying this to sound like I can’t stand the thought of sharing a bedroom or a bathroom with another traveler, but more that my opinion is skewed based on my past travel experiences.
In general, all the hostels and the ryokans we stayed in during the trip were in great locations, and the accommodations seemed to get better the further along we were on our trip.
The hostel in Tokyo was only a 10-minute walk to the closest metro station and a 10-minute walk to the Golden Gai area, which is known for its unique bars/drinks and made it very convenient to get back afterward without needing to hail a cab.
Our hostel in Kyoto was a short stroll away from the Kamo River and within walking distance of Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
And in Osaka, our capsule hotel was situated in the heart of Dotonbori!
Even so, the Tokyo and Kyoto hostels were not the best compared to the rest of the accommodations, and we ended up staying there the most nights.
To come up with a rating that was as fair as possible, I wanted to make sure that each location’s score was properly weighted based on how many nights we stayed there.
So each night during the trip was individually scored 1 – 5, and then a total average was taken for the 12 nights we were on the trip.
I will add though that even if a couple of the hostels we stayed at could have been better, you barely spend any time in them except to sleep at the end of the day as you’ll be out and about exploring most of the day.
Scoring of the hostels
- Tokyo hostel* – score 3, nights 4
This hostel had a great location, but there was nothing special about it other than that.
*For The Dragon Trip 2020 Japan tours, they will no longer be staying at the same hostel we used in Tokyo, so this score would most likely change. As we only had experience staying at this one though, this is the score we ended up giving it.
- Kamakura hostel – score 5, nights 1
This was probably my favorite hostel during our trip. The rooms were clean, the space was open and airy, they offered yoga classes in the evenings, and even had a large onsen style tub in addition to normal showers!
- Hakone ryokan – score 4, nights 1
I know it’s not for everyone, but personally, I will never get sick of staying at a traditional Japanese ryokan and sleeping on a tatami mat. This one was no exception.
- Kyoto hostel – score 3.5, nights 3
The Kyoto hostel was much cleaner than the Tokyo one, but it felt like I was back in a college dorm. I did like that the rooms had a desk in it though, and the common area was nice.
- Hiroshima hostel – score 5, nights 2
Another one of my favorite places we stayed at. This hostel was modern, clean, and had private bathrooms in each room.
- Osaka capsule hotel – score 4, nights 1
It was my first time at a capsule hotel and I was a little nervous I’d feel claustrophobic; however, this place blew me away with its thoughtfully designed facilities given its small space.
I don’t think it’s necessary to spend too much time on this section since all transportation is via Japan’s incredible public transportation system and the JR Rail Pass.
All I can say is that if you have never been to Japan before to see its public transit system in person, you are in for a treat.
Everything – buses, bullet trains, metro trains, you name it – are almost always on time.
Plus it’s extremely clean, comfortable, and convenient.
But most importantly, the Japanese people are always so considerate and respectful, meaning that everyone waits in line in an orderly fashion. (why can’t the rest of the world be like this??)
The only reason why I didn’t give transportation a score of 5/5 is that there is still a good amount of walking that takes place on this tour.
I personally view walking as one of the best ways to truly see a city, so I didn’t have a problem with the amount of walking we did on the tour.
However, if you’re expecting a “coach bus” type tour where you stop briefly to see an attraction before getting back on the bus, this isn’t that type of tour. You’ll be carrying your own luggage while commuting between cities and walking up to 30 minutes at times which can be physically demanding for some people. I’d advise packing light to make commuting easier on the trip.
There were a few meals included on the itinerary, but for the most part, we paid for our own meals. And let me just begin by saying that the food in Japan is AMAZING. I cannot stress this enough.
Most meals are extremely affordable, and we probably ate at 7-Eleven more times than I care to admit.
This might sound odd to you, but if you’ve never been to an Asian 7-eleven, please go! The food there is good quality and very inexpensive.
Cheap ramen shops were also plentiful, and you could easily get a very delicious and filling meal for about $10.
What’s nice about The Dragon Trip is that our Adventure Leader gave us so many great suggestions of places to try out, and he joined in on a couple of our meals as well!
Since he had the first-hand experience of all the best food spots that locals go to, we never felt like we were falling into a tourist trap when it came to where to eat.
You can tell that The Dragon Trip spent a lot of time researching, testing, and designing their itinerary for this trip. I loved that each day is well thought out and contained a good variety of different types of activities to suit all types of people.
For example, on day 2 in Tokyo, we started the day off with a fun and slow(er) paced sushi-making class. Then a couple of hours later, we were in the middle of Akihabara, Japan’s Electric Town, browsing through manga and vintage video game stores.
On a crazy day 10 of the tour, we started the day off biking along the river in Kyoto on the way to our meditation class at a Buddhist Temple hundreds of years old.
We then ended the night in Okonomiyaki Town in Hiroshima where I had the best Okonomiyaki of my life cooked right in front of me!
I do feel like we could have cut out a day in Tokyo and added an extra day to see more of Kamakura, Osaka, or Hiroshima, but overall it was a fantastic itinerary.
Price and Value: 4/5
The Dragon Trip’s 13-day Budget Japan Tour is a pretty great value for what you get.
Although I felt like the accommodations provided could have been better for what you pay for, the well-planned itinerary, optional activities, and knowledgeable Adventure Leader more than made up for this.
The total cost of the 13-day Japan Trip is $2,384, or $2,145 with my discount code (witandfolly/TDT19), which includes all accommodation, transportation, tour guides, and some activities and meals. You can find out more and book the 13-day Budget Japan Tour or there are Japan tours here, and check out all of their other tour destinations here. And if you use the code above, you’ll get 10% off any trip you book.
Now if you’re wondering whether or not you’ll save a ton of money by joining The Dragon Trip versus taking the same itinerary by yourself, the short answer is no.
But when you consider how The Dragon Trip books all your hostels, arrange all transportation and ensures you are seeing all the sights in the most efficient way possible to get the most out of your vacation time, I think the extra cost is justified.
By joining the tour, you will be traveling around Japan with one of the best and most knowledgeable local tour guides possible, and you don’t have to spend any time figuring out how to do the itinerary, let alone plan one all on your own (on top of other stressors from being in a new environment – not knowing the language, customs, getting around, etc.)
For me, ease of mind like that when you’re in a new country is priceless.
Fun Factor: 5/5
One of the most important aspects of any tour is how fun it is, and The Dragon Trip doesn’t disappoint in this category!
What I liked the most was that the vibe of the tour was really casual, so it felt like you were traveling around with a great group of friends.
It was super easy to find at least one or two people in the group with which you have shared interests, and by the end, we were all cracking up at inside jokes that had formed during the trip. We still keep in touch now through the WhatsApp group chat that was created during the tour!
I believe that most travelers have a passion to see and experience a new country, and the people that signed up for The Dragon Trip tour is no exception.
For me, this is an extremely well-thought-out adventure tour that takes into consideration many different aspects of what makes a good tour in Japan and allows you to see as much as possible in a relatively short amount of time.
If you’re looking for a fast-paced budget adventure that provides unique experiences, has no tourist traps, and provides a knowledgeable local guide, then I would highly recommend The Dragon Trip’s tour.
In just 13 days, you get to spend enough time in both Tokyo and Kyoto to get a sense of these two extremely different cities.
Plus, unlike comparable tours, you get to spend a night in Kamakura, which was one of my favorite days of the trip.
If you’re looking for the kind of tour where you spend very little time in your hostel because you’re out exploring and so don’t mind if the places you’re staying at aren’t the best value, then The Dragon Trip tours are something you should check out.
But don’t just take my word for it, either. Check out some of these other reviews I found online:
“I was able to see so much more than I could have done on my own” – Christian, November 13, 2019
“Had an amazing time on this tour! Fast-paced but full of fun and activities…..I wish the tour was a few days longer so we could stay in each city for more than one day. Great intro for the first time to Japan.” – Danielle, November 4, 2019
“Excellent mix of activities, great locations, knowledgeable and approachable guide. got under the skin on Japan, so think we saw and experienced more than the average tourist.” – Louisa, 4 months ago
If you have any questions at all about my experience on this trip, just let me know in the comments and make sure to pin these to save and read later!