Travel

Finally Planning that Dream Trip to Japan? Here are Four Tour Groups To Get You Started

The country is once again open to travelers-with some limits.

beeboys/Shutterstock
beeboys/Shutterstock
beeboys/Shutterstock

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.

 Richie Chan/Shutterstock
Richie Chan/Shutterstock
Richie Chan/Shutterstock

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.

For the food lovers: Intrepid Travel

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.

G Adventures
G Adventures
G Adventures

For the adventurers: G Adventures Japan

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.

maruco/Shutterstock
maruco/Shutterstock
maruco/Shutterstock

For the seasoned trekker: Country Walker Japan

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
Contiki
Contiki

For the young guns: Contiki Tours

Contiki caters to travellers 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.

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Vanita Salisbury¬†is Thrillist’s Senior Travel Writer.

Travel

Take a Submarine to the Bottom of the Great Lakes

You too can sink down to the watery grave-er, depths.

Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images
Gail Shotlander/Moment/Getty Images

When the waves of Lake Huron closed over my head as I sank down to the bottom of the Great Lake, I admit I was a little panicky. I definitely thought about drowning. After all, I’d nearly drowned three times in my life.

Though the first two times I was too young to now recall, the third time was in Wisconsin and the sensation has stuck with me. I remember how, as a middle schooler, I got pulled deeper and deeper into a wave pool until every wave sucked me underneath just long enough to choke on a gurgly mouthful of water. Despite kicking and fighting to swim back to safety, I could feel the water overtaking me, bubbling up over my head as I sank down. The pool was choking me, I was suffocating, and the fear of death was right in my face. As you can probably guess, I was eventually saved. Someone noticed and pulled me out of the pool, and that relief was enormous.

But here I was again, as an adult, watching sediment from the bottom of the lake swirl up around me. But this time I wasn’t drowning. This time I was perfectly safe. This time I was in a submarine.

My small group and I were passengers on one of Viking Cruises’ newest itineraries, the Great Lakes Explorer. The expedition allows guests on the Viking Octantis ship to see one of the great lakes from the other side of the surface. Though guests can participate in science-research activities like microplastics research, bird-watching, and weather balloon launches, it’s also just really cool to dive in a submarine. Whether you’re overcoming your own childhood experiences or you’re just an adventurer at heart, here’s what to know about going on a submarine expedition in the Great Lakes.

Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises
Photo courtesy of Viking Cruises

Boarding a submarine

These are-of course-yellow submarines. Can you guess their names? If you picked John, Paul, George, and Ringo‚Ķ you’re absolutely right.

The Beatles can go down to about 1,000 feet and stay underwater for eight hours. Each side of the submarine has three very comfortable seats for passengers, surrounded by glass domes that allow optimal viewing at the dive site. It’s a small space (you can’t stand up straight), but you can hardly tell once you’re in the water. The seat platforms swivel so you can look out over the lake floor instead of staring at the pilot and other passengers.

The submarines are equipped with lights, cameras, and some handy claws to pick up anything valuable the pilot sees on the lakebed. They’re typically used as research vessels to take information back to the Octantis’ science program, which works in collaboration with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). NOAA eventually plans to tack instruments to the bottoms of the submarines to get more detailed information about the water, the lakes, and the lakebed.

If you’re like me (that is, both claustrophobic and afraid of drowning), you’ll be happy to know that the subs are awash with safety features. Onboard, you’ll find directions on what to do if the pilot goes unconscious, supplemental oxygen hoods, a big green button to push if the sub needs to surface immediately, and a program that tells the submarine to surface if it doesn’t detect any activity from the pilot. Up above you, the sub is followed by a safety boat with a team that ensures the surrounding waters stay clear and everyone is safe beneath the surface. (So even when the safety boat radioed our pilot, Peppe from Sweden, and said, “You’re a little close to the rocks, but that’s as good a dive site as any,” I decided to trust the marine scientist.)

Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock
Photo by Jennifer Billock

Sinking down to the depths

Here’s how the dive works. You take Viking-owned Zodiacs (military-grade rigid inflatable boats) to a predetermined dive site that the scientists onboard the ship picked out that morning. For now, the sites will always be in Canadian waters-because Viking is Norwegian, the Jones Act disallows them from deploying subs in the United States. To transfer from the Zodiac to the submarine, you have to hold onto a metal bar, climb out of the Zodiac, and sit down on the edge of the submarine hatch. You swing your legs into the hatch, then climb down a three-rung ladder into the middle of the sub to find your assigned seat.

Once everyone is in the sub, the pilot climbs in, closes the hatch, and then radios to the safety boat to make sure you’re clear to sink. With the all-clear, air is released from outside tanks on the submarine, and thrusters push the entire thing underwater.

For our dive, we went down about fifty feet to the floor of the lake. It had been raining all morning, which stirred up the sediment around us, making everything a mossy green colour that spotlights sparkled through to highlight the lakebed. I saw a few tiny fish and a ton of invasive zebra mussel shells. Depending on the weather and your dive site, you’re likely to see more. But even just exploring the floor of the Great Lakes, something almost no one in history has done before, is an amazing thing.

Sign me up!

If you want to take a submarine dive into the Great Lakes yourself, you have to be a passenger on the Viking Octantis or sister ship, Viking Polaris. As of this writing, no other companies offer passenger submarine trips down into the lakes-especially not in a military-grade exploration submarine that is worth $6 million each. The Great Lakes expedition itineraries start at about $6,500 and can be booked on the Viking website.

Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images
Cavan Images/Cavan/Getty Images

Hike, kayak, or get yourself a cinnamon roll afterwards

What you can see nearby depends on your dive site. On Octantis, the subs went down in Lake Huron and Lake Superior-my dive was in Lake Huron, surrounded by the stunning Georgian Bay UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in Canada. Here, you can kayak in the bay, hike through the surrounding landscape, and enjoy a Zodiac nature cruise.

Or if you can, try to take your submarine dive at Silver Islet in Ontario’s slice of Lake Superior. The small community is historic and completely off the grid, and the general store has some of the best cinnamon rolls you can find around the Great Lakes.

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Jennifer Billock is a freelance writer and author, usually focusing on some combination of culinary travel, culture, sex, and history. Check her out at JenniferBillock.com and follow her on Twitter.

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