Incentive Travel in Japan
After your team has spent a hard year producing results for you, why not give them a truly unique experience for an incentive? How about incentive travel Japanese style? Japan has a reputation for being expensive but it doesn’t have to be…. if you see it like the Japanese.
Getting Around Japan
Upon arrival, sure you can opt for an expensive taxi, limousine or airport bus but why not pack lightly and do something more exciting. The first time I went to Japan, I took the airport bus and then a taxi to get to my hotel.
During my most recent trip, I took the advice of a Japanese travel agent. Before departure, I obtained a one week JR Rail pass that will let you travel easily around the country. You need to go to one of the lower levels at the airport to get it validated and then you can hop on the Narita Express and get off at the JR station that was closest to where I was staying. There is no quicker way for your team to immediately feel like they’re immersed in a different culture. Then, it can be a quick walk or short taxi ride to your destination. Almost every taxi in Tokyo has a GPS so, if you download directions in Japanese from the Internet and print them off, you’ll arrive at your destination in no time. The doors open automatically and you’ll notice little touches like the gloves that the taxi and bus drivers wear.
Getting Around Tokyo
Of course, you can reserve a bus or limousine to take your group around but, if your group is small, why not use your JR pass and navigate your way around Tokyo. You can also use your pass to go to Kyoto. If you have a JR pass, just show your pass when entering and leaving the station. Don’t be afraid to take the subway. It’s clean, fast and easy to use. You only need to have someone show you how to do it once. If you use the subway, after you purchase a ticket, insert it into a slot at the fare gate, retrieve it, and keep it. To exit the subway, you will again put your ticket in fare gate slot and the turnstile will open automatically.
What to See in Tokyo
Whether you opt for a self-paced or guided tour option, there are a number of attractions that you can build into a tour for your group. You won’t want to miss an early morning visit to the Tsukiji Fish Market and nearby the Hama Rikyu Garden where the Shogun used to go strolling with their ladies.
There are ponds, beautiful flower beds and a traditional Japanese tea room (pictured above). You no longer have to be royal to have tea there like during the Edo era. The day that I visited the gardens, I had the pleasure of being entertained by jugglers and a koto performer. What a relaxing way to spend an afternoon.(Remember, always leave room for the impromptu.)
Another garden that was owned by the Tokugawa Shogunate is the Koishikawa Korakuen Garden, the oldest in Tokyo. It’s near the Tokyo Dome. You and your team will have an opportunity to relax in a peaceful setting featuring gardens, bridges and ponds.
If strolling in gardens is not your thing, then perhaps you would enjoy something more vigorous like taking in a sumo wrestling match at the Ryogoku Kokugikan. The Sumo Museum is on-site. I must confess that I have never seen see sumo wrestling but I certain saw a lot of sumo wrestlers on my way to and from the Edo-Tokyo museum nearby.
At the Edo-Tokyo Museum, you’ll really get a feel for the history of Tokyo during both the Edo and Tokyo eras. The museum features detailed and intricate life size and miniature replicas of buildings and structures in historical Edo including a full sized replica of half of the Nihonbashi Bridge. Yes you can walk across it. There is also a smaller replica of the bridge with miniatures of hundreds of people depicting the lifestyle and clothing of the era.
My favourite and most memorable experience in Tokyo was going to see Kabuki at the Kabuki-za. It was walking distance from where I was staying. The music was mesmerizing, the sets were stunning, and one can follow the action with little or no understanding of Japanese. Just read the storyline in the English programme and you’re all set. If you want some more background about the performance, you can also rent headsets. If you stay in Ginza, you can easily access Kabuki without having to book a tour or spend money on taxis. Remember, there are no performances at the beginning and the end of the month so time your trip carefully.
Mount Fuji and Hakone
An excursion to Mount Fuji is a must for your group. There are a number of guided tours in English that you can book for your group. Be sure to make your reservations well in advance and don’t be late. Everything departs promptly in Japan.If you are lucky and the day is clear, you will get a beautiful view of Mount Fuji like I did. Here is the result:
Your tour will take you to the 5th Station, 3,776 meters above sea level.That same tour will take you for a short cruise on Lake Ashi and by cable car up Mount Komagatake for a spectacular view of Hakone National Park.If you have a JR pass, you have the option of going to and from Mount Fuji by Shinkansen. It’s quite the experience.
Getting to Kyoto
Even if you are travelling with a corporate group, the best way to get to Kyoto is to take the Shinkansen. With a JR Rail pass you can reserve your seats in advance. You’ll be issued tickets and assigned specific seats. The best place to do that is at the Shinagawa JR station that is smaller and easier to navigate than Tokyo Station. The JR pass is valid on Kodama and Hikari trains but not the Nozomi. The ride is super smooth. If your group is small, when in Japan do as the Japanese do and pick up a beautifully wrapped bento at the station. I found a place that me let me select the sushi. The sushi was neatly wrapped in bamboo leaves to keep it moist, placed in a box and wrapped in beautiful paper. For a large group, bentos can be ordered in quantity from your hotel or a local restaurant.
Where to Stay in Kyoto
Kyoto has a range of accomodation everything from 5 star hotels to traditional and luxury ryokans. I stayed at a charming ryokan with a beautiful garden up in the hills overlooking Kyoto.
Small groups could have the whole property to themselves. It was a pleasure to take long walks in the cool of the evening before dinner. Take a closer look at where I stayed the first time I went to Kyoto. It had a traditional Japanese bath and, due to my modesty, I got the nephew of the owner to tip me off to when it would not be busy. He even let me lock the door. (He’s in the video):
There are a number of ryokans where small groups can have exclusive use if you make your incentive travel arrangements well in advance.
What to see in Kyoto
While you will definitely want to build enough time into your itinerary for some exploration on your own, the most convenient and informative way to get a feel for Kyoto is to take a guided city tour. There are a number of options. There is a morning tour, afternoon tour and full day tour that combines the 2. In the morning, you’ll have an opportunity to visit the Nijo castle where the Tokugawa Shoguns resided, Kinkakuji Temple (Golden Pavilion) with its picturesque gardens, Kyoto Imperial Palace, Heian Shrine, and a number of temples.
In the afternoon you’ll see Sanjusangendo Temple, Japan’s longest wooden building, the Kiyomizudera Temple and the shops that line the path to the temple, and the Heian Jingu Shrine, a partial replica of the Imperial Palace. There is even a tour that will give you an opportunity to stroll along the Philosopher’s walk, participate in a tea ceremony, and have your photo taken in a Maiko’s kimono.
The first time I was in Kyoto, I was fortunate enough to meet an American couple at my ryokan. The husband had been to Japan a number of times and they invited me to join them. We parked near the Yasaka-jinja Shrine and spent a fabulous evening strolling around the back streets in the Gion district, and finally discovering a traditional Japanese restaurant that backed onto a stream and dining in the tatami room upstairs. Your group can have a similar experience through the Kyoto Maiko Night or Kyoto Special Night tour. You’ll have dinner at a traditional Japanese restaurant and enjoy dancing and music at Gion corner or Chion-in Temple. My only regret is that I only arranged for 2 nights.
At one of the shrines they were building a stage for a Noh performance. I missed it by just a couple of days. While I eventually did get to see Noh in Toronto, with more careful planning, I could have enjoyed a truly memorable experience.
When you are planning your itinerary for Japan, be sure to build at least 3 nights in Kyoto into the itinerary for your group. Think outside the box and explore the traditional. You’ll save money and have a trip to Japan that is a lot more memorable than staying at a hotel chain.
Spring: At least once in your life, everyone should visit Kyoto when the sakura are in bloom. If you want to treat your team to this experience, you’ll have to plan and book early to ensure availability.
- In April, enjoy Miyako Odori featuring Japanese dance performances by “Maiko”.
Kyoto is quite hot and humid during the summer. You’ll you may want to spend most of your time at a mountain retreat. I have only included Kyoto
as some famous summer festivals take place there.
- July 16 – 17 Gion Masturi, Kyoto’s largest festival, has been celebrated since the 9th century.
- August 16 Daimonji Bonfire takes place on the hills overlooking Kyoto
Where to Stay
Japan has a wide range of accommodation available for group travellers. Sure you can stay at a 5 star hotel or resort but why not be a little bit more adventuresome and opt for a traditional ryokan (Japanese style inn) for even part of your stay.
I even found a ryokan in the heart of the business district that was the perfect blend of modern and traditional touches. The tatami rooms were large, there were 2 Japanese style baths on the top floor. You could lock the door for privacy. Yukata and towels were provided.
A traditional Japanese breakfast was served every day as part of the surprisingly affordable room rate (starting at under 10,700 yen per night). There was even a comfortable multi-purpose room in the basement that would be perfect for small meetings. If your team is small (10 maximum), you can take over the entire building and still have 1 room left over for your guide.
You can arrange to have dinner at your ryokan or try any of the establishments that are nearby. Even if you don’t speak or read Japanese, there are many restaurants with photo albums or miniature replicas of the meals. There are a number of ryokans throughout Japan. Arranging for your group to stay at a ryokan for all or part of your time in Japan will be a memorable experience that they will talk about for years:
Mountain & Countryside Resorts with Onsens
Remember, Japan is suitable for incentives year-round. During the summer or winter, opt for locations outside of Tokyo. We can even build some team building and team into your itinerary. Here are our other blog entries focusing on Japan:
Focuses on Mountain & countryside adventures
Here is a sneak preview of what awaits you if you decide to venture into the moutain and rural areas. You’ll be in Japan already. It’s WELL worth adding 2 nights to your trip to give your team the pleasure of this experience and a lot cheaper than booking another trip.
Same Resort in the Winter:
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Anne Thornley-Brown is the President of Executive Oasis International, a Toronto based firm that regularly organizes incentive travel and executive retreats in Asia. They provide one stop shopping service with a personalized approach to incentive travel for corporate groups of 10 to 60. Customized itineraries include travel, transfers, hotel, tours, team activities, and special events.