What’s the most Japanese thing you could ever do? Go on a bus tour

Japanese bus tour guide

I thought going to the holiest shrine in all Japan would be the most ur-cultural experience I could possibly have.

I was wrong.

It was the bus tour that really redefined “cultural experience,” but not quite in the way I was expecting.

Japanese bus tour buses parked
Thanks to TokyoCheapo for this fine bus photo

Right now, the only way travelers can come to Japan is if they’re part of a tour, so let’s see what it’s like to be part of this only-in-Japan experience!

The one I went on with two Japanese friends was aimed at the Ise Shrine (which is a butt-numbing six-hour drive from Tokyo) and it stopped at all kinds of unexpected attractions in addition to the main event.

First (of many) side quests: The Japanese mega-rest stop

Japanese highway rest stop
Thanks to Kumamoto Guru for this photo

Every two hours, whether you need it or not, you pull into the vast parking lot of  a highway waystation that features everything a thirsty (and desperate to pee) bus traveler’s little heart desires.

Each industrial-sized rest stop features heroically large toilet facilities (52, count ’em, FIFTY-TWO stalls in the ladies’ room!)

Japanese highway rest stop toilet map
With a map warning which ones have squat toilets you may wish to avoid.
Toilet sign in Japanese rest stop
And a cheat sheet on how to use the Western style ones, so nobody gets creative

There are platoons of vending machines dispensing all known permutations of bevvies, including the kind that grind and brew specialty coffee

Vending machines at Japanese rest stop
Caffeine for the road

And industrial-sized convenience stores, so you can sample local specialties and buy souvenirs as if you’d actually visited local hotspots, not just a parking lot near them.

Package of red bean and butter toast snacks
Stock up on local delicacies like red bean & butter toast snacks!
Bottles of water with cute sweater wraps
Highway rest stops also deliver the bonus possibility of major swag snags: promo items like these cold green tea cozies are snapped up by savvy collectors within minutes of being stocked in Tokyo convenience stores, but are still available at rest stops in the back of beyond. SCORE!

But no matter how much you may be tempted eat something that counts as an actual meal, do not succumb to the siren song of the fast food counter. Rest stops are exactly twenty minutes long, and your hind parts need to be back in your seat five minutes before departure time (necessities accomplished and drink in hand) or you’ll experience the reproachful looks of your fellow passengers as you perform the walk of shame back to your seat.

Japanese tour buses parked
Buses await your speedy return, doors open, with the departure time firmly Sharpied on a front window placard to prevent any excuse-mongering

But even Japanese travelers have to eat, and the bus tour solution is bentōs, bentōs, and more bentōs.  In order to spend maximum time seeing as many sights as possible, bus tourists survive on the Japanese equivalent of bag lunches (which are, to be fair, better than bag lunches where I come from). These cold snack boxes are passed out at the appropriate time en route, to be gobbled in your seat. Be sure you swallow the last pickle before the tour guide comes through the aisle with the garbage bag.

Next stop: The pearl megastore

The pearl-growing capital of Japan is on the way to the Ise Shrine, so that’s where my trip stopped first.

A castle made of pearls
The tourist megastore in the pearl-growing region of Toba is complete with inexplicable things built from pearls…
Worker stringing pearls
…and an educational demonstration of how pearl things are made

Naturally, there is plenty of time left over to limber up your credit card and load up on anything and everything made of—you guessed it—pearls.

Next: A traditional inn on a small island surrounded by fewer fish than before we came

Bus Tour eating dinner at traditional inn
A ravening tour group that has been surviving on cold bentōs and vending machine snacks can scour these sailing ship platters of seafood clean in less than an hour

And in a feat of guidesmanship that demonstrates leading bus tours is not for the weak, every beer drinker at that table was herded to the island’s dock by eight in the morning to catch a ferry that waits for no man.

Day Two: The main attraction

I’ll say one thing for bus tours: they deliver you to the Ise Shrine in plenty of time to be ready and waiting for the floodgates to open first thing in the morning
Visitors waiting to make offerings at the Ise Shrine
In a bonus Japanese culture move, the main shrine at Ise is so holy, ordinary people aren’t allowed to see it. We faithfully awaited our turn to step up and face the curtain that blocks the view of the shrine beyond while reverently tossing our money into the offering box.

Naturally, even the 1600-year-old shrine that’s rebuilt every twenty years must include maximum opportunities for cash to be hoovered from pilgrims’ pockets:

Amulets for sale at the Ise Shrine
Extra-holy souvenirs for all your exam success, bounteous harvest, and safety in traffic needs.
Shopping street outside the Ise Shrine
They also built in an hour for filling the pockets of local merchants on the shopping street conveniently located right outside the gate

But just because you’re on your way home doesn’t mean your sightseeing is done! There’s one more iconic experience that no bus tour can end without:

The Group Photo

River at Korankei in autumn with tour group assembling for a group photo on the bank
Yes, a group photo must be taken.
River at Korankei in autumn with tour group assembling for a group photo on the bank
A photo of yourself and a busload of strangers standing on bleachers at some scenic spot might be the most obscure only-in-Japan souvenir ever
Red Bridge at Korankei with colored leaves in autumn
Ours was at Korankei, which is not just a legendary place to see colored leaves in the fall, it’s the perfect destination for bus tours because plenty of leaf photos can be snapped only a few steps from the parking lot, enabling the bus to pull back out in an hour.

In short, the best way to describe a bus tour is that it’s like eating a traditional Japanese lunch. Lots of little dishes, all fresh and seasonal…

…but no substitutions. Don’t like cod testicles? Shame on you, try these. Allergies? Keep your meds handy. Gluten free? AHAHAHAHAHAHA.

Going on a bus tour is, in fact, just like living in Japan.

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Jonelle Patrick writes novels set in Japan, and blogs at Only In Japan and The Tokyo Guide I Wish I’d Had

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