In 1992 the relatively small Rotary Club of Hamden, Connecticut, took on a huge challenge: to provide a tour service to Rotarians attending the annual Rotary International Convention, and to donate the net proceeds to the Rotary Foundation of Rotary International through the Rotary Club of Hamden Foundation. The success of this bold scheme was demonstrated in 2003 when the club, which at that time had only 29 members, donated $100,000 to the Rotary Foundation’s PolioPlus initiative, making it the world leader in per capita giving. Tour chairman Woody Hoyt and Marc and Allison Bokoff of Bokoff-Kaplan Travel Services in Norwich, Connecticut (which coordinates the tours), are all members of the Hamden club and serve as tour escorts.
Our club first became aware of Hamden Rotary Tours when Past President Jack Reid used the service to book his trip to Buenos Aires, Argentina, for the 2000 convention. Subsequent presidents Joe Bullington, Sheila Propp, and Wendy Pierce traveled with Hamden to San Antonio, Texas; Barcelona, Spain; and Brisbane, Queensland, Australia, for their respective conventions. They all raved about the Hamden tour package and service, so it was a forgone conclusion that we would also book through Hamden. Before it was over, I suspect that Allison may have wished that we hadn’t! Although our travel to Japan was with the tour group as scheduled, we were all coming back at different times (only Joseph and Jeff were returning to the United States with the tour group), and getting information out of us (especially the younger ones) was harder than pulling teeth. Moreover, Allison had to make arrangements for us as a group of 11, one in a wheelchair most of the time. She managed to cover her inevitable irritation pretty well—or at least convey the impression that such complications were all in a day’s work.
In addition to the “Convention Only” tour, several tours of Japan, China, and Hong Kong were offered both before and after the convention. Eventually we all settled on the “Classic Japan” tour following the convention. Although there would have been advantages to seeing Japan before the convention, the timing of the post-convention tour was more convenient for Glenn and Chie, who were just finishing up their teaching year.
As can be seen from the itinerary, the tour included four days in Osaka for the convention (with a tour of some Osaka highlights before the convention Opening Ceremonies), followed by eight days in Kyoto, Hakone, and Tokyo, with side trips to Hiroshima and Nikko and an optional side trip to Nara.
I have to say I was very favorably impressed by the organization of the tour. Not having participated in any other tour of this sort, I have no basis of comparison, but the documentation we were provided before we left was substantial—not only numerous pages of Travel Tips, but a nice plastic folder with our tickets, maps of all the places we would be going, personalized name badges, plastic (airline) and paper (hotel) luggage tags, currency conversion guides, and a concise Tourist’s Language Handbook provided by the Japan National Tourist Organization.
If the tour itself was somewhat overwhelming, that was in large part due to our lack of preparation. If we had done some research in advance on the places we were going to visit, we would have been better prepared to appreciate them. Certainly our tour guides did their best to put them in context and perspective, spending the entirety of every bus ride telling us about what we were going to see or, on longer trips, filling the time with miscellaneous facts about Japanese life and customs. Sometimes it did seem that we spent longer getting to the various attractions than we spent at them, but I suppose this was inevitable. Our tour guides, provided by the JTB Corporation, were very experienced in “herding cats” (altogether, there were over 70 of us on two buses) and all too aware how long it would take us to regroup once they let us loose!
We joked that the tour seemed to have been designed for Bostonians and Texans, since every attraction we visited seemed to be either the oldest or the largest of its kind (oldest temple, longest wooden structure, largest Buddha, etc.). But I suppose this too was inevitable. In Kyoto alone there are over 1600 Buddhist temples and 400 Shinto shrines; without such a claim to fame, how could any one temple or shrine stand out as a highlight?
Although we decided that, if we went to the Chicago convention, we could probably make our own arrangements, we would definitely recommend Hamden Rotary Tours to anyone planning to attend a Rotary International Convention outside the United States.
Our escorts, Marc and Allison Bokoff (click to see larger photos):
Our tour guide, Kyoko Kobayashi: