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9 Reasons to Visit Japan

Japan is a country of contrasts. While the society is 98.5% Japanese, it nonetheless encompasses a diversity of subcultures. Japan is home to some of the most densely populated cities in the world, while the great majority of the landscapes remain rural. The culture is quite conservative in many regards, while simultaneously light-hearted in others. Japan’s contrasts and contradictions make it an ideal destination for those looking to have a truly unique travel experience.

Here are 9 reasons to visit Japan:

1. Cities

In many respects, Japanese society is the pinnacle of metropolitanism. From ancient temples to futuristic architecture, Japan offers amazing urban experiences for the curious traveler to behold.

Shibuya Crossing, TokyoMust-see examples include:

  • Kyoto: Japan’s ancient capital, a garden-laden dream boasting some of the country’s most beautiful temples and shrines.
  • Tokyo: Japan’s modern capital, a neon-lit metropolis boasting the world’s tallest tower, the Tokyo Skytree.

2. Landscapes

Cherry blossomsOne of the biggest surprises about Japan may be how rural it is. Almost 75% of the land is covered by mountains and another 13% is devoted to agriculture. Just a short drive or train ride away from Tokyo, you’ll enter a completely different world, with lush mountains, large agricultural fields, and scenic coastal villages.

Some must-see examples include:

  • The Arashiyama bamboo forest: a dense green jungle of towering bamboo trees.
  • The Japanese Alps: a world-class skiing and hiking destination.
  • The Tottori Sand Dunes: massive rippling sand dunes that will make you feel like you’re in a distant desert, not southern Japan.
  • The islands of Okinawa: a tropical break with coral reefs, turquoise water and white sand beaches.
  • Hot Springs (known as “onsen”): Created from water heated naturally under the ground. There are over 3,000 hot springs in Japan. Animal lovers will especially appreciate Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park to see snow monkeys bathe in the steamy natural springs.

3. Animals

Macaques at Jigokudani hotspring in Nagano Photo by YosemiteFrom the snowy mountains to the tropical beaches, Japan claims a great diversity of habitats for a wide variety of wildlife species. Japan hosts approximately 130 species of mammals (including bears, foxes and wild cats) and 600 species of birds.

Here are some examples of some of the most interesting:

  • The Macaque: a snow monkey that lives further north than any other primate (except for humans).
  • The Wild Tanuki: a kind of racoon dog known for their mischievous nature. Statues of the Tanuki are often placed at temples to bring good luck.
  • The Green Pheasant: a large black and green bird found only in Japan. The green pheasant and the red crowned crane unofficially compete for the title of “Japan’s National Bird”.

4. Temples & Shrines

Kinkaku-ji Temple, KyotoMany important traditions in Japanese culture have grown out of the Shinto and Buddhist religions. Shintoism and Buddhism exist side by side in Japan, and the practices of both faiths are deeply ingrained in Japanese culture.

One way to learn about these traditions is to explore some of Japan’s (Buddhist) temples and (Shinto) shrines. There are over 100,000 temples and shrines across the country, and they differ wildly in size and design.

Some examples include:

  • Fushimi Inari Shrine in Kyoto: this Shinto shrine features 10,000 crimson torii gates donated by business owners and shopkeepers in a bid for financial success.
  • Kinkaku-ji -Temple of the Golden Pavilion in Kyoto: this Buddhist temple features the top two floors covered with pure gold leaf.

5. Festivals & Celebrations

Haari Boat Festival in Okinawa © JNTOThousands of festivals are held each year across the country celebrating seasonal changes, the natural world, and the annual harvest. Wherever you are and whenever you go, you’re likely to find a festival happening nearby.

Some examples include:

  • Rice Crop Art Festival in Inakadate Village: locals use different colored varieties of grain to skillfully depict giant images using rice paddies as their canvas.
  • Saporro Snow Festival: at the core of the festival is hundreds of sculptures made from snow and ice.
  • Miyako Odori in Kyoto: this geisha dancing festival translates literally as “Capital City Dances” as Kyoto used to be the capital. In English, the dances are often referred to as “The Cherry Blossom Dances”, because they take place in April when the cherry blossoms are in bloom.

6. Kawaii & Anime

KumamonWhile Japan may seem like a serious culture, they also have a soft spot for “cute”.

Kawaii is the word for a Japanese artistic and pop culture style that emphasizes all things “cute” using bright colors and animated mascots.

Anime is a Japanese style of film, TV, and video game animation. There are some magical anime films out there that are so creative that they impress even the serious adult (such as Howl’s Moving Castle and Spirited Away).

Across the country, animated mascots adorn everything from food products to local monuments and even government agencies. One of the most famous mascots is Kumamon, a cheeky black bear who symbolizes a bullet train line in the city of Kumamoto.

7. Cuisine

Japanese sushi © JNTOJapanese cuisine (known as washoku) is so special that it’s been added to UNESCO’s Intangible Cultural Heritage List, and it’s so diverse that it deserves its own blog post. The country offers a wealth of culinary experiences from the finest high-end restaurants to rustic food stalls, bustling seafood markets, and creative local sweets. Soup lovers will want to check out the Shinyokohama Raumen (Ramen) Museum.

8. Rail System

Shinkansen bullet train & Mt. FujiFor more than 50 years, Japan’s impressive network of high-speed moving bullet trains (called shinkansen) has zipped travelers and commuters from one corner of the country to the other. The network is incredibly well-functioning, with no accidents involving the bullet train network, even though trains operate at speeds of over 200 miles per hour. The trains are also known for being on time, rarely having delays of more than 50 seconds per train.

All travelers to Japan should take advantage of this rail system at least once. The Japan Rail Pass makes this an affordable option to quickly get around the country.

9. Hospitality

Mother & daughters in traditional KimonosThe Japanese may seem reserved at first, but soon you’ll find them to be kind, considerate and warm, even to those they don’t know. They are hard-working, meticulous, proud of their cultural history, and always eager to help. In fact, the more you learn about Japanese customs (start with a friendly, respectful bow), the more quickly you’ll be welcomed into this amazing culture.

For a traditional take on Japanese hospitality, stay at a Ryokan (inn). Dating back to the 1600’s, a typical ryokan is constructed using traditional Japanese methods, has a communal entrance hall where guests and owners can sit and talk, and most also feature a communal bathing area using water from hot springs.

Japan is a country of contrasts. From ancient culture to modern innovations, from the cities to the natural lands, and from serious cuisine to cuteness and hospitality, a visit to Japan will almost certainly be an experience of a lifetime.

Japan Tours and Packages with Friendly Planet Travel

 

 

 

6 Things to Know About the New Cuba Travel Rules

 

A new era in travel to Cuba has begun, with revised rules for U.S. citizens in effect as of January 16, 2015. President Obama’s December 2014 announcement regarding easing decades-old restrictions on travel generated huge interest and curiosity—but also some confusion.

In reality, it’s actually been legal for US citizens to visit Cuba since 2011, when new regulations were put into place allowing licensed travel under the proper conditions. Since that announcement, the unprecedented wave of calls and bookings is reflecting a poignant indication of the great interest among Americans in travel to the once-forbidden island.

We’ve reviewed and parsed the Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) Cuban Assets Control Regulations, 31 C.F.R. part 515 (the “CACR”), so we can provide you, the traveler, a quick summary of the rules. (Updated Sept. 3, 2015.)

1. You’re still not allowed to spend a week lounging on the beach.

But educational travel is fine! In order to go there, you will still need to certify, by signed affidavit, that you’re traveling for one of 12 categories of authorized travel. You’ll need a full time agenda for each day you’re in Cuba focused on that reason, and you won’t find getting a tan at the beach on the list. “People-to-People” cultural exchange tours fit the new rules, and they will continue as usual. A tour company that’s experienced in Cuba travel can help you navigate all the details and make it easy.

2. You can now bring home cigars and rum legally.

Finally, you’ll be able to bring home $100 worth of cigars and/or rum. You’ll also be able to bring home another $300 in other purchases, for a total of $400 in souvenirs. Original art, music and educational materials such as books aren’t subject to the $400 limit, so if you find that amazing original painting (and you’ll have plenty of opportunity to do just that), you can buy it and bring it home legally.

3. Eventually, you’ll be able to pay with a credit card.

Now that’s a big deal. Travelers visiting Cuba have been forced to carry cash and exchange dollars for CUC’s, the Cuban currency. Once U.S. banks have set up the infrastructure in Cuba, you’ll be able to use your credit card to pay for incidentals at the hotel or even that amazing painting you want to hang in your living room. This will take some time to implement the new rules, since as of this moment, one small south Florida bank has officially begun working directly with Cuba. But it’ll be a huge convenience once truly implemented.

4. Flying to Cuba is going to get easier.

It will take a little time for the U.S. Department of Transportation to create the procedures and guidelines to make scheduled service from the U.S. possible. For the moment, no U.S. airlines are flying directly to Cuba with regularly scheduled service, although several are looking at the possibilities. JetBlue, through its association with Cuba Travel Service, a charter operator, is already operating flights from New York and Ft. Lauderdale. And United Airlines has announced that it will soon begin service from Newark and Houston direct to Havana. You can still fly to Cuba via Canada, Jamaica or Cancun, but those routes mean more travel time as well as cost. For now, charters, mostly from Miami, remain the least expensive and most convenient way to arrange the trip.

5. Cruises to Cuba are now legal.

It’s hard to believe that not so long ago, the idea of cruising from Miami to Cuba was a dream unfulfilled. Today, there are already several People-to-People cruises available. However, you’re not going to avoid the full-time educational aspect still required of U.S. travelers to Cuba. Whether they originate in Miami, Havana or Jamaica, these cruises all feature a schedule of activities designed to comply with OFAC rules, including on days at sea. One major advantage of these cruises is that they typically circle the island, taking travelers from Havana all the way to Santiago, and points in between, making it possible to see a lot of the island in a as little as a week. One major disadvantage is that these cruises cost a lot, due to the extensive programming and legal requirements involved in operating the educational program. Keep in mind, too, that you’ll be spending your nights aboard your ship, so dinners, while prepared Cuban style, won’t be in any of those awesome, privately-owned “paladars” that are run by a new breed of Cuban entrepreneur and flourishing thanks mainly to U.S. tourists.

6. Travel with a group is the best way to avoid a lot of hassle and keep the cost down.

According to the new rules, you will need a full time program of activities that comply with your signed affidavit of purpose. The best and least expensive way to adhere to these rules is to book into a group tour that has taken all the rules—and your best Cuban experience—into consideration. These groups book into the most appropriate accommodations for American travelers, and they include the experiences that are hard for travelers to arrange on their own. Considering the bureaucracy still associated with Cuba travel (new rules notwithstanding), having a full-time tour manager, in addition to the guide, goes a very long way toward smoothing out all the unexpected wrinkles and ensuring you have way more fun than you’ll ever believe.

While thousands of U.S. travelers have had amazing cultural journeys to Cuba, it’s still not yet ready for prime-time mass tourism. Until there is sufficient infrastructure, and a lot less bureaucracy, it is proving difficult to handle the growing numbers of general tourists that want to visit. For now, until more hotels are built, more guides are trained, and more restaurants are opened, established group tours operated by experienced tour operators with deep local contacts and plenty of guaranteed hotel rooms will remain the best bet for travelers who want to avoid problems and enjoy the authentic Cuba right now—before it changes forever.

Why Thailand should top your 2015 travel bucket list

Thailand is truly one of the world’s most fascinating countries. Its alluring beaches, tantalizing cuisine, ancient culture, modern cities, and welcoming people make it a must-visit destination, one that all world-travelers should add back onto their bucket lists for 2015.

While Thailand faced its fair share of hardships in 2014, with the nation undergoing a significant governmental transition, 2015 will undoubtedly be the year of Thailand’s reawakening. It’s just as beautiful, tranquil, and spiritual as ever, ready to welcome a new wave of guests to its friendly shores.

But don’t just take my word for it; see for yourself why you need to add Thailand to your international bucket list.

What are you waiting for? With 2015 on the horizon, now’s the time to plan the vacation of a lifetime — one that will not only teach you about the world, but introduce you to your true self.

Happy Holidays!

 

All of us at Friendly Planet wish you and your loved ones the best of holidays. We’re grateful for your friendship and for the opportunity to help you explore our world.

This year, we created dozens of new packages to many exciting new destinations and sent thousands of delighted travelers to exotic corners of the world. And we’ve got big changes in store for 2015: adding lots more destinations, giving you more ways to travel, and providing an even easier, more flexible booking experience. Stay tuned as these changes are unveiled!

But for now, in this season of peace, generosity and goodwill, we invite you to join us in lending a helping hand. If travel has affected your life, consider giving back through one of the excellent organizations below. Still looking for a stocking stuffer for someone special? Make a small charitable gift (as little as $10) or micro-loan in honor of someone you love, and you can instantly print or email a card showing your contribution.

  • Trailblazer Foundation: Through our partner in Cambodia, you can help build wells to bring clean water to poor villagers, distribute water filters and cooking stoves, build schools, protect against malaria, and much more.

  • Doctors Without Borders: Help the heroic health workers on the front lines of worldwide illness, including Ebola, with desperately needed supplies and support.

  • Kiva: Make a micro-loan to hard-working, entrepreneurial people in developing countries. 99% of loans are repaid, and you can withdraw your money or relend it.

  • Mercy Corps: Contribute to disaster relief, medical care, vaccinations, clean water, education, sustainable agriculture, and more in developing nations.

May the coming year bring you many new adventures, discoveries and friendships as we continue those explorations together. With warm holiday wishes and thanks for all you do.

Peggy Goldman
President, Friendly Planet Travel

 

How Does the New Cuba Policy Affect Travel and Tourism?

New opportunities for Cuba travel

We are very excited and enthusiastic about the changes in Cuba policy announced today by President Obama. According to our understanding, there will be some changes forthcoming regarding diplomatic relations, commerce, flow of information and, of course, tourism. The new rules have not yet been announced, but several things are clear. 

  • Without an end to the embargo, we will not be able to hop on a flight and spend a weekend at the beach in Cuba.
  • With new rules that are sure to come in the next weeks, there will be many more opportunities and less restrictions regarding how Americans are able to travel to Cuba.

Regarding the second point, we are truly excited to be able to expand our group tours to Cuba. At present, we’re selling three programs with set departures. In addition, we operate many groups during the year covering a wide spectrum of interests. Among them are photographers, architects, teachers, doctors, lawyers and jurists, family groups and many others.

We are hoping to see more relaxed rules that will permit us to offer a wider variety of programs, including participating in some of Cuba’s unique festivals and events. For example, in addition to the marathon in Cuba that brings a large number of participants to the island from many countries, including the USA, we would like to offer opportunities to participate in the music and film festivals, an annual bike race that is similar to the tour de France, and others.

What will likely change, and what will not

Our travelers prepay all their Cuba services in the USA. However, since it will soon be possible to use credit cards in Cuba, we anticipate that traveling to the island will be much easier for our passengers. At the moment, travelers need to take cash with them, to cover any purchases they want to make. In today’s world, it’s not so common to have to carry cash, and that makes many people uncomfortable. Perhaps, although this is not yet clear, it will finally be possible to bring back some of those Cuban cigars and rum, which today’s traveler can only enjoy on the island.

According to the OFAC notice published this afternoon, Dec. 17, some changes will be made to the regulations. “OFAC expects to issue its regulatory amendments in the coming weeks. None of the announced changes takes effect until the new regulations are issued.”

So, for the moment:

  • We still need to carry cash when we visit Cuba
  • We still need to participate in a licensed program, according to present rules
  • We still have to leave the cigars and rum in Cuba

But if the changes are as sweeping as President Obama suggested in his speech, we at Friendly Planet will be very busy adding hotel rooms and plenty of new travel programs to our menu of offerings.

See the REAL Cuba while you can

One last thought. For anyone who is anxious to see the “real” Cuba, do it now. In time, the island in a time bubble will become something else. And while it will always be a fascinating and wonderful experience to visit Cuba, banking, high speed internet and all the other changes that will take place will make Cuba another country. We expect many people will want to see it before any of those changes occur, and we’re ready to help them do it.

Friendly Planet Travel Cuba Tours and Travel Packages

Top 7 destinations all 20-somethings need to visit

Millennials,

Now’s the time to ditch your desk jobs (at least for a week), and go experience the wonders of travel. There’s no better time than in your twenties to throw caution to the wind and experience the incredible world around you.

But what exotic destinations should you visit? Have no fear. Here’s my list of top destinations for 20-something travelers.

1. Spain

Want to party? Spain’s the place for you. Tapas + discotecas + churros and chocolate = the ultimate Spanish getaway.

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It’s your second chance to save on EVERY Friendly Planet tour!

Our blowout Cyber Monday Sale was a huge success, with travelers booking hundreds of once-in-a-lifetime trips to exotic destinations. Since our sale was such a big hit, we’re giving travelers that missed out on these incredible savings (or want to plan another trip) a second chance to book an unforgettable international getaway! 

During our Second Chance Monday Sale, we’ll be discounting EVERY Friendly Planet Travel package up to $300, allowing travelers to choose from tours to more than 40 counties, spanning Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and more!

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Discounts on EVERY Friendly Planet tour during 24-hour Cyber Monday Sale

The holiday season is a time of giving, so this year, we’re giving the gift of travel — at a tremendous discount! This Cyber Monday, our team at Friendly Planet Travel is discounting EVERY tour by up to $500 (plus additional savings from early booking discounts) making international travel extremely affordable for globetrotters with serious wanderlust.

While our last Cyber Monday Sale offered massive discounts to 36 world-class destinations, this year’s sale is even bigger! Travelers can now visit more than 40 countries, spanning Europe, Africa, Asia, South America, the Caribbean, and more, at discounts between $100 and $500 per person.

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Friendly Planet featured in Thailand TV commercial

We were honored to be selected by the Tourism Authority of Thailand to be only one of two companies they chose to partner with in TV commercial campaign.

The goal was to increase awareness and knowledge of Thailand, and keep it top of mind for people looking for exotic vacation destinations. We think Thailand truly is an amazing place to visit, with its beautiful beaches and islands, fascinating culture, traditional architecture, and ancient ruins.

For the most memorable vacation, explore the world with your family

When it comes to international family travel, it’s amazing how times have changed. My parents never even thought of taking me on a trip overseas, and while I took my children on international trips when they were younger, I suspect it was only because I worked in the travel industry. Most of friends told me I was crazy to take my five and eight year olds “overseas.” But today, international family travel has almost become the norm, as more and more parents, children, and grandparents embark on multigenerational journeys together.

A recent AAA survey found that multigenerational travel is one of the hottest trends in the travel industry today, with about 36 percent of travelers planning to take a multigenerational trip in the next year alone. Families are seeking new ways to form life-long bonds and create lasting memories, and nothing does that better than sharing in the joy and excitement of international travel.

Here at Friendly Planet Travel, we’ve seen this trend firsthand, as more grandparents and parents continue to turn to us to help them book unforgettable family excursions. That’s why we’ve just unveiled our latest family-friendly travel packages that take families to some of the most exotic destinations in our world. Our tours visit seven countries — Costa Rica, Japan, Thailand, Kenya, Greece, South Africa, and China — at special, family-friendly departure times and rates, with discounts up to $950 for children under 12.

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