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dori saltzman Todai-ji Buddhist temple nara japanA lot of people who know what I do for a living assume I’m such an expert at independent travel that I plan everything on my own and eschew any kind of organized tour. After all, who really wants to be herded from place to place with 50 strangers, some of whom are super annoying? And what “true” traveler likes to be rushed between sites with not enough time to linger and take it all in?

But the truth is I like tours, especially in places I’ve never been before, where English is not widely spoken, the culture is very different and I’ve got limited time.

Doing tours in such places is relatively stress-free. On a recent trip to Tokyo with my husband, I wanted to be sure that I’d get to see all the most important tourist sites in as little time as possible (we only had two days), so we’d have time to explore other places on our own. The easiest way to do that was to book an organized tour.

On one half-day tour with tour company Viator, we visited Tokyo’s most popular Shinto shrine and Buddhist temple, and walked around part of the Imperial Gardens. We also passed by Skytree Tower, the Japanese Diet and the Imperial Palace.

I didn’t mind the zipping-past-sites part of the tour; we ended up going to Skytree Tower another day on our own time, and we were both totally uninterested in touring the Diet. The Imperial Palace is off-limits all the time, so we weren’t going to get too much closer anyway.

12 Best Japan Experiences

I will admit I would have liked more time at the Meiji Shrine. Located in a large park, there are lots of paths to walk, and there was more to see at the shrine itself when our guide started herding us out.

There were plenty of tourists there on their own. But without our guide, how would I have learned how to correctly pray at a Shinto shrine? (Throw a coin in the donation area, bow twice, clap twice, think your prayer, and bow again.) How would I have known that most Japanese people come to Shinto shrines to celebrate good things, like marriages and births, and go to Buddhist temples when someone dies?

Some of what the guide told us I could have read in a guide book, but not all of it. That detailed information that goes beyond guidebook fare is another reason why I like organized tours. A good guide will tell the story of the places you’re visiting, giving you the details and providing the nuances that make each place special. And they’ll answer whatever questions they can.

They also give me an idea of what places I might want to go back to if I’m ever in the area again. With only a day and a half in Kyoto, we chose to spend our entire time on guided tours. I’m glad we did; it was the easiest way to visit all the area’s main attractions. If we ever go back, I know we’ll visit the Golden Pavilion again as there was so much we didn’t get to see. And we’ll be able to explore the rest of Kyoto knowing that we don’t have to run around just to cram in the “most important” sites.

Eight Tours for People Who Don’t Like Tours

Do you do enjoy organized tours when you travel or do you prefer to wing it on your own?

– by Dori Saltzman

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two experiences that will put you in a “purple haze.”

Would you rather…

… wander through lavender fields in Provence, France, or …

lavender field provence france



… see the Imperial Palace in Tokyo at sunset?

imperial palace tokyo japan


The Provence region of France is well known for its sweet-smelling lavender fields, which bloom throughout the summer months (usually peaking in July). The Imperial Palace in Tokyo is home to the Emperor of Japan; on the grounds are a museum, gardens, a moat and the remains of Edo Castle.

12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two places to see colorful spring flowers.

Would you rather…

… explore Japan during cherry blossom season, or …

japan himeji castle cherry blossoms sakura



… see spring blooms in the Swiss Alps?

switzerland swiss alps flowers spring


Japan is famous for its sakura, or cherry blossoms, which flower at various times between March and May (depending on which region of the country you’re visiting). In the mountains of Switzerland, striking alpine flowers add color to meadows and hillsides throughout the spring and summer.

Photos: 12 Best Japan Experiences
12 Places That Shine in Shoulder Season

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

Today’s post is part of a weekly series called “Travel Toss-Up,” in which we ask you to take your pick between two amazing travel experiences.

This week’s toss-up offers a choice of two streets for strolling.

Would you rather…

… wander down this quiet cobblestone street in the Tuscan village of Sorano, Italy, or …

sorano italy tuscany flowers lane



… explore the vibrant city streets of Osaka, Japan?

osaka japan night street


Are you energized by bustling cities, or would you rather lose yourself in a quiet village? Sorano is one of Italy’s many medieval hill towns, home to several picturesque churches as well as a castle, Fortezza Orsini. Meanwhile, Osaka is Japan’s third largest city, boasting endless shops, major museums (including the National Museum of Art) and the country’s oldest Buddhist temple, Shitennoji.

11 Best Italy Experiences
12 Best Japan Experiences

Vote for your preference in the comments below!

– written by Sarah Schlichter

stuffed animal suitcase travelToy travel — paying to send a stuffed animal or doll on a trip in lieu of going on one yourself — isn’t new. In fact, we’ve written about it before. We’ve never been fond of the idea of putting our hard-earned cash toward a trip for an inanimate object rather than ourselves. But then we stumbled across a company doing it for more heart-warming reasons than simply making (or wasting) money.

According to ABC News, Unagi Travel, a Japanese travel agency specializing in tours for stuffed toys, sends fake furry friends to places their owners can’t go due to illness or disability. After paying a fee and mailing their toys to Tokyo, where Unagi is based, clients can track their toys’ travels via the company’s Facebook page. At the conclusion of the trip, the animals are mailed back to their owners at no additional charge, along with souvenir photos. According to Unagi’s website, the entire process takes two to three weeks, depending on the adventure chosen.

Our Favorite Tokyo Hotels

Despite its admirable purpose, Unagi’s services are still a bit quirky, not to mention limited. There are currently four tours available to Kyoto, Tokyo, a traditional onsen (hot spring) and a “mystery” location. Rates range from $35 to $95, not including each stuffed animal’s outbound travel, which could be pricey for clients not living in Japan.

Some might still consider it a waste of money, but for those who can’t get out to explore new places, we wager it’s money well spent. In some of the more fortunate cases, owners of the plush participants have been able to retrace their stuffed animals’ steps when their health improved.

What do you think? Do you have a favorite stuffed animal? Would you send it on a trip without you if you were unable to go? Leave your comments below.

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

hemingway home catHi, my name is Ashley, and I’m a crazy cat lady.

Okay, I like to think I’m not too crazy, but I did adopt a fifth cat last weekend. Of course, I still love to travel, so I got to wondering where my fellow crazy cat ladies and I might go on vacation if we wanted to indulge our passion. Assuming we’re not seeking a fur-free escape, here’s a small list of possibilities.

De Poezenboot (The Cat Boat), Amsterdam, Netherlands
Located along the Singel Canal, this floating cat sanctuary is home to up to 50 cats at any given time. Started by Henriette van Weelde in 1966 when she took a family of stray cats into her residence, De Poezenboot quickly expanded to a barge and then a house boat as the number of cats in need of homes continued to grow. You can stop in to see the kitties, make donations and buy souvenir T-shirts from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. daily, except Sundays and Wednesdays, at Singel 38 G.

Our Favorite Hotels in Amsterdam

Tashirojima Island (Cat Island), Ishinomaki, Miyagi, Japan
Years ago, when silk production was at its peak there, the island’s inhabitants used cats to keep the mouse population to a minimum. (Mice are a threat to silkworms.) Stray cats now outnumber the island’s 100 residents. You can access the island via ferry from Ishinomaki City.

Hemingway Home, Key West, Florida, United States
This one will appeal to crazy cat ladies and literature buffs alike. Home to the late author Ernest Hemingway, this historic building — also a museum — has between 40 and 50 cats in residence. All of the felines are polydactyls (or carry the polydactyl gene), which means many have paws with what appear to be tiny, furry thumbs. It’s said that many of these cats are descendents of Hemingway’s original pet cat, Snowball, who was also a polydactyl. Tours of the house are available every day from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. at 907 Whitehead Street.

Learn More About Key West

The Alamo, San Antonio, Texas, United States
A landmark that housed missionaries in the 1700′s, the Alamo is most famous for its role in the Texas Revolution. Resident cats have roamed the area before, but perhaps the most famous is the Alamo’s current feline, Clara Carmack or C.C. (named after Clara Driscoll and Mary Carmack, who played important roles in the building’s preservation). Visit for a dose of history and a possible C.C. sighting every day, except Christmas Eve and Christmas Day, from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. at 300 Alamo Plaza. (Read about one IndependentTraveler.com reader’s quest to see C.C. the Alamo Cat!)

– written by Ashley Kosciolek

Suffering from the Monday doldrums? For everyone out there facing the beginning of another work week, here’s a little jolt of wanderlust to brighten up your morning. Each Monday, we offer a photo of a spectacular place to spark ideas for your future travels.

Today we’re getting in the mood for spring with a view of Mount Fuji, Japan, with apricot blossoms in the foreground.

mt fuji japan apricot blossoms spring flowers


Our 6 Favorite Tokyo Hotels

Send us your best travel shot! E-mail your most beautiful or captivating travel photo to feedback@independenttraveler.com. (Please put Monday Inspiration in the subject line.)

Top 10 Stunning Spring Destinations

– written by Sarah Schlichter

There are certainly reasons to avoid leaf peeping in its usual incarnation. You could easily overdose on quaintness while choosing the plumpest pumpkin or dearest antique. If you shy away from scores of children wielding candied apples while running wild through cornstalk mazes, you may want to skip the season altogether. Understood.

But you’d be missing some glorious sights, whether you go simply for the visual treat or allow the colors to enhance a trip with an entirely non-related agenda. Don’t allow the scarecrows to chase you away. Indulge. Here are some places we wouldn’t mind visiting during the autumn months. We may even enjoy a crisp apple or some pumpkin ice cream along the way.

Take the Shin-Hotaka Ropeway up the Hotake Mountains, near Nagano, Japan. From both the double-decker gondolas and the observation deck, you’ll enjoy a glorious view.

hotake japan



Explore the monasteries of Echmiadzin, Armenia. Perhaps sight a few khachkars, outdoor stone slabs carved with detailed motifs, which can still be found although many have been destroyed.

khachkars armenia



Drive the 469-mile Blue Ridge Parkway through the beautiful Blue Ridge and Smoky Mountains. This National Scenic Byway, which runs through Virginia and North Carolina, is bordered with deciduous trees, such as oak, dogwood, hickory, buckeye and ash.

blue ridge parkway



Skip Paris in the springtime and visit in autumn. The fall foliage in Jardin du Luxembourg easily rivals its colorful May blooms.

jardin du luxembourg paris



For more lovely landscapes in autumn, don’t miss the Butchart Gardens, just north of Victoria on Vancouver Island, British Columbia. You’ll find a serenity impossible to locate in a corn maze.

butchart gardens




Eight Unique Ways to Experience Fall


Where will you take in the fall foliage this year?

– written by Jodi Thompson

seaweed brittany franceIt was a hot day, and people walked for hours along a narrow, rocky path because there were no roads to where they were going. Everyone was walking together by the sea, which was very still and calm. They all seemed happy — because they were on their way to a seaweed festival!

The Fete du Goemon, or Seaweed Festival, takes place each year in the western Brittany region of France on the last Sunday in July (mark your calendar for the 29th). Drawn by a small poster in a shop window, I stopped by the festival to watch people drying seaweed in stone troughs, demonstrating how to extract iodine from it and how to use the rest in recipes or as fuel. There was also a band, long trestle tables laden with food and drink, and a stall selling such dubiously useful items as a seaweed comb and seaweed sandals.

Seaweed was once a tremendously important factor in this part of Northern France’s economy, but the money isn’t what it was and the demand for fuels has gone elsewhere. Now the old seaweed stations are mainly grassed over and draw only a yearly crop of curious people like me.

Sound strange? There are even weirder festivals out there! Below are some of the odder ones I found while planning this year’s activities. Hopefully they’ll inspire the more inquisitive among you to go and find your own unusual customs and bizarre gatherings.

Air Guitar World Championships: Oulu, Finland
Forget standing around watching a holographic Tupac flickering onstage. On the 22nd of August, you can watch some of the world’s most extroverted proponents of air guitar plugging in their imaginary instruments and taking to the stage at the 2012 Air Guitar World Championships in Oulu, Finland. The city, home to mobile phone giant Nokia, has been troubling the air waves this way since 1996, with the festival becoming a huge forum for ax men and women around the world to prove their mimesmanship (actual term). Current Finnish champion Puccini Vibre will be looking to continue his current form with a win at the festival, though many eyes are on the 2011 U.S. Air Guitar Champion Nordic Thunder (real name Justin Howard), who is expected to take the crown.

One Summer Festival That’s Not Worth the Trip

Naki Sumo: Tokyo, Japan
A crying baby ought to be bad luck. Not so in Japan, where a yearly festival seeks to oust evil spirits through babies’ tears. Every year, more than 100 babies are brought by their parents to the steps of the Sensoji Temple in Tokyo, where they are made to cry by huge sumo wrestlers, who hold the babies up in the air above their heads. Weirdly, the babies usually seem unperturbed by this and, to avoid the bad luck that would be brought by the babies not crying, the sumo wrestlers end up pulling hideous faces and gently shaking them, with the temple priests even doing their bit to frighten the children with masks. This festival takes place every year at the end of April. Entrance is free.

The Best Places to Stay in Tokyo

Spam Jam: Waikiki, Hawaii
Waikiki draws big crowds to take part in surfing festivals, but those in the know come to check out Spam Jam, one of the biggest street festivals dedicated to Spam in the world! According to the Spam Jam Web site, Hawaiians eat more Spam than anyone else on Earth, and the springtime event aims to celebrate this with great food, dancing and family entertainment on two stages. There are Spam plays and Spam dancers and opportunities to pick up Spam t-shirts. The whole thing is in aid of the Hawaii Food Bank, a non-profit organisation that provides food for people in need. Start thinking about your plane tickets if you’d like to get involved with Spam Jam 2013, which will begin on the 27th of April.

Our Favorite Honolulu Hotels

– written by Josh Thomas

Almost six months after the Great Tohoku Earthquake and subsequent tsunami devastated much of coastal northeastern Japan on March 11, 2011, I found myself on an express train bound for Fukushima, to see for myself what had changed, what stayed the same and what is gone forever.

I lived in Fukushima for many years, in a place called Iwaki City, where I was a participant on an international exchange endeavor called the JET Program. I was fortunate to be placed in Fukushima, for it is a beautiful place full of fascinating people.

In the days and months following the quake, Americans frantically canceled their travel plans to Japan, refusing even to lay over in one of Tokyo’s airports for a brief few hours. As if one of the largest earthquakes in recorded history and the catastrophic tsunami weren’t enough to make visitors leery, the blown-out nuclear facilities at Fukushima Dai-Ichi power plant complicated matters even more. To date, tourism in beleaguered Fukushima prefecture is down more than 60 percent, according to Hisashi Ueno, a director at Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

fukushima rice field overgrown car japan


Taking up about as much land area as the Bahamas, Fukushima is one of Japan’s larger, rural prefectures. But prior to March 11, there were probably even Japanese people who couldn’t find Fukushima on a map. It’s tragic and unfortunate that Fukushima went from relative obscurity to international infamy. But there is a charm and a beauty to Fukushima that must not be overshadowed by radioactive fear.

Autumn in Japan

When I returned to America from my most recent trip, a colleague offhandedly commented that I’d best keep my irradiated self away from her vicinity. She was joking, of course. But her wry sentiment is reflective of a larger social stigma growing around the word Fukushima. And while people’s apprehensions about going anywhere near a place with a melted-down nuclear reactor are reasonable, it’s important to emphasize that Fukushima is not in a state of apocalyptic nuclear fallout.

shoe hirono beach fukushima japan


Half a year after the quake, Japan is back on its feet. It’s not even wobbly. Trains and buses operate to the usual standard of perfect punctuality. The iconic temples of ancient Kyoto (far, far from the epicenter) have remained open to visitors. The neon city of Tokyo still bustles and flows with life and activity, albeit in a slightly more energy-conscious manner. The sumo and baseball seasons are well under way, stadiums packed with cheering fans.

Right now I would not discourage anyone from traveling to Japan — for it is a fascinating country and its people are the most hospitable and generous on Earth.

Fukushima is no exception. As I traveled through the prefecture for one week in mid-September, I saw so much that had changed, and even more that was exactly the same as I left it. Fukushima’s rolling green mountains and warm summer nights were as familiar as Sapporo beer and cheap sushi. The residents I encountered, both foreign and Japanese, did not seem discouraged or beaten, but rather cautiously optimistic about the future to come.

rice field iwaki city fukushima japan


There is a phrase in Japanese — it’s the motto of the elementary school where I worked for three years — Makeji Damashi; an accurate translation of that might be Undefeated Spirit. And spirit is one thing that runs in no short supply in Fukushima.

Hearts of Cherry Blossoms (Japan)

Yes, a significant nuclear disaster took place along the prefecture’s northeastern coast. And today there is still a mandated no-go zone encompassing a 20-kilometer radius around the nuclear reactor. But that area is small when compared to the prefecture as a whole.

Outside of the evacuation zone, life has largely returned to normal for much of the prefecture. Clean-up efforts are well under way, children have been back in school since April, and the shortages of water, gasoline and supplies that crippled the region in the weeks following the quake are all a thing of the past.

So if you make a trip to Japan (and I encourage you to do so, particularly in the spring or autumn, when the scenery and weather are most lovely), do not be afraid of traveling north of Tokyo. For more intrepid travelers, Fukushima might just become the next big thing off the beaten path.

iwaki city sunset japan


Here are a few recommended places to see:

Tsurugajo: An ancient castle in the old samurai town of Aizu-wakamatsu, it’s astonishingly beautiful in the spring when more than 1,000 cherry trees burst into bloom.

Mount Bandai: Topping out just under 6,000 feet, Bandai is a relatively easy hike with rewarding views to be found on any of its six major hiking paths. Make sure you find the old hot spring, bubbling steamy water just off the main route.

Goshiki-numa (Five Colored Lakes): These lakes were formed 123 years ago by a volcanic eruption of Mount Bandai, which deposited minerals into the lakes, giving each of them its own mysterious color that changes with the seasons.

Aquamarine Fukushima: Iwaki’s famous aquarium was hit hard by the tsunami but has reopened to the public, featuring a re-creation of the nearby Shiome sea, where rivers flow into the ocean and meet colliding currents. The result is a diverse and fascinating biome that can be viewed in the 540,000-gallon centerpiece tank.

– written and photographed by James A. Foley, www.jamesafoley.com