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Q & A with Océane Martinez, Marketing Manager, Oku Japan - offices in the UK and Kyoto, Japan.
“Travel off the beaten path.”
WHAT WERE YOUR FIRST IMPRESSIONS OF JAPAN?
I came to Kyoto - the home of geisha, kimono and 2,000+ temples. This was my first city upon arrival, and from the start I was fascinated. I was also very impressed by the people – everyone was very polite and welcoming even if they knew very little or no English.
HOW DID YOU FIND OKU JAPAN?
I first worked for Oku Japan at their office the UK, when I was completing my Masters degree, and then I joined our Kyoto office a few years later. This company stands out from others I've worked for. Their ethic values are so strong. I really enjoy having a positive impact on both the travelers and the rural communities they visit.
When we send visitors to remote places, we are providing work for the local people. We engage with suppliers of locally-produced food – this reduces carbon output and waste.
WHERE DO YOUR GUESTS ARRIVE FROM?
They are mainly from the USA, Australia, Canada and the UK. We have also seen an increase in bookings more recently from Singapore.
HOW DO TRAVELERS DISCOVER OKU JAPAN?
We try to promote our tours with marketing tools, of course, but we can also count on the loyalty of our guests to share their wonderful experiences with friends and relatives. And because we believe in the loyalty of our guests, we recently created a refer-a-friend program.
We always suggest a small or medium suitcase with wheels plus a medium day pack. One must travel light in Japan as buses and trains have limited luggage space and stations often have many stairs to climb. For an extra fee, we can provide daily luggage transfer.
WHAT LANGUAGES DO YOU OFFER?
Our guides are trained professionals who are bilingual Japanese and English. A few are also capable in German or French.
WHO PREFERS GUIDED TOURS OVER YOUR SELF-GUIDED TOURS?
Guides are often requested by larger groups or for custom-made tours. You may be surprised that many guests come to Japan for the first time using a self-guided tour. They just need to be reasonably fit and to carry the correct gear. Our walks are moderate but not that difficult – mostly you are on village paths and forested trails which are well-maintained and marked with sign posts. We try to provide as much information as we can before departure, and we are available to provide assistance during the visit. We also maintain a 24-hour support number.
Mount Koya is definitely a very special place to me. You can stay in monastery lodgings run by monks and dine on “Shojin-Ryori” Buddhist vegetarian cuisine which is really amazing. The atmosphere in Okunoin's cemetery (the largest in Japan) is very deep. Following the pilgrims, you can make your way through the cemetery to Okunoin temple where Kobo Daishi is enshrined. He was the founder of the Shingon Buddhism sect 1,200 years ago. Kobo Daishi is believed to rest in eternal meditation rather than in death.
SINCE YOU ARE “OFF THE BEATEN TRACK,” WHAT ARE THE OVERNIGHT ACCOMMODATIONS LIKE?
We work mainly with small family-run inns. The three styles you will learn are: Ryokan, Minshuku and Shukubo. Ryokan come in many styles but they are united by flawless service and exquisitely-prepared food. Rooms are always Japanese style with Tatami floors and futons. Minshuku are similar but are family-run guesthouses and with less formal service and simply-furnished rooms. Shukubo are pilgrims' basic lodgings offering the Buddhist vegetarian cuisine.
We often hear guests say they have fallen in love with the beautiful country and its people. It is not unusual for them to come back to repeat a tour or to join another tour. Sometimes guests develop lasting friendships with their host families. There is no question that our tours connect the visitor with rural host communities in a meaningful way.
WHAT CAN YOU SHARE ABOUT THE NEW WINTER TOUR OF THE NAKASENDO TRAIL?
It is truly a different experience! It is designed for small groups with one of our guides. Starting in Kyoto, the group takes a train to an old post-town called Nagatsugawa. The walk begins there. Along the ancient Nakasendo trail they pass through towns and small hamlets with Edo-period wooden housing and stores. In between there are walks through tranquil cedar forests draped in snow and magical winter light. The walks vary from 1 – 5 hours in total per day. Some overnight destinations come with hot thermal pools – the perfect way to end the day. The walk completes in Tokyo with a half-day tour and a farewell dinner.
WHAT CAN YOU SAY TO TRAVELERS WHO THINK IT IS TOO EXPENSIVE TO VISIT JAPAN?
It is the trip of a lifetime. When you come to Japan and experience the genuine hospitality of the local people and explore the beautiful countryside, you will realize that the money spent has made you richer. These wonderful experiences and memories become yours to enjoy and share.
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