Need OAT Japan Suggestions and Optional Excursions

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<p>Will be doing OAT's Japan trip and am interested in any suggestions for the trip as well as advice on the optional excursions. If you have taken the trip, do you recommend them and do you feel the price is reasonable. The optionals are:</p> <p>Day 8 Shirakawa-go &amp; Gokayama - $155 per person</p> <p>Day 11 Nara &amp; Fushimi - $150</p> <p>Day 12 Traditional Japanese Music tour -- $95</p> <p>Day 13 Arashiyama -- $75</p> <p>Thanks very much for your advice and suggestions! </p>

My husband and I took the same trip in Nov. 2007. Both of us enjoyed the optional excursions you list and feel they added to our understanding of Japan and its culture. We also took the pretrip option which allowed us three extra days in Tokyo. Well worth the money. Just remember, prices are high for almost everything in Japan or so it seemed to us. For snacks (sandwiches, drinks, pastries, etc.) we used the vending machines, 7-Eleven Stores, bakeries and the downstairs food markets in the department stores. We had unseasonably cold weather in early November and wished we had brought warmer clothes for layering. Since you'll be taking your shoes off when entering shrines, temples, people's homes, etc. take heavy socks.

November 2008. I took all the optional tours and pretrip Toykyo extension (otherwise I wouldnt' have seen Tokyo at all). Hiroshima wasn't offered on my particular trip -- however, I had to go. I took the bullet train from Kyoto to Hiroshima, a bus to the Peace Park and memorial and stayed at a hostel. It was very easy to do on my own.
Shirakawa-go - we got to see a traditional wedding and drum competition and it is a charming town. Nara was fabulous -- the deer temple -- the deer were eating out of our hands and nuzzles into our jacket pockets -- beautiful trip. Arashiyama will allow you to see the "Memoirs of a Geisha" and the traditional tea houses. If your guides offers you a chance to go to the kabuki, Maiko (geisha girls in training) dance and traditional music - GO - you may only go to Japan once, don't miss any of it!

Thank you very much for your recommendations. Since you've both done the trip, let me ask a few more questions:
1. I know good walking shoes are a must. Is there any need for (light) hiking boots or a trekking pole?
2. Do you recommend taking a swimsuit? Were there opportunitites for swimming at the lake or in hotel pools?
3. Some sites recommend exchanging travelers checks over cash - what do you think about this?
4. OAT suggests duffle-type luggage, but it seems to me the Japanese use hard-sided suitcases with 4 wheels. What is your recommendation for the main luggage piece?
I appreciate your help with these nitty-gritty questions!