The suitcases have been dragged out of the closet, and the Japanese-language CDs are in rotation in the car. Our trip to Japan is upon us, and we've hired a travel agent to guide us.
We just received our travel documents via a FedEx box. Inside were maps, a guidebook (with relevant pages tabbed) and a pretty fabric pouch with a booklet, personalized, with our names on the cover. The packaging captured the excitement we feel about our upcoming adventure.
Over the past few months I've received a lot of helpful advice and suggestions from friends and agents about choosing the right travel specialist. And despite my last column about the roadblocks I encountered trying to find a true Japan expert, we ended up with a couple of great choices that made the decision difficult.
Still, I felt I'd struck gold when I started talking with Elaine Baran, president of Esprit Travel, a former full-service agency that switched to a narrow focus on Japan in the early 2000s. It has three Japan planners, a team of guides and an impressive (that's an understatement) network of connections in the arts and creative worlds in Japan.
I found Esprit's name through a fairly conventional source: Wendy Perrin's annual list of top travel specialists in Conde Nast Traveler.
But it turned out Esprit and I had another connection. On my first trip to Japan, for the naming of the Diamond Princess, I traveled with about 30 other writers and travel agents. We were in the hands of three excellent guides, who introduced us to artists, monks and performers in Kyoto and led unobtrusive walking tours through Tokyo via radio and headsets.
I figured this company probably dealt just with groups, and/or was far beyond our budget. Still, I sent an email to my contact at Princess Cruises, asking for the agency's name. "Esprit Travel and Tours," she responded.
So I sent them my standard "need hand-holding!" email, adding that I knew of them from the Princess trip. Soon after, I received a response from Baran, who said she specialized in family travel and had traveled within Kyushu, the southern island to which we were headed.
As our relationship evolved, I found there were a lot of things about Baran's style that I liked and respected:
1) She made bold suggestions. At the beginning of the trip, I was like a buoy -- anchored to a specific event (my brother's wedding) but adrift in all other respects. Should we go to Tokyo first, or to Kyoto? Before or after the wedding? Train or plane? What other sights could we take in?
Baran dragged out maps and train schedules and took time to ponder the options. Her conclusion: Skip Tokyo.
Once we got over the surprise, it made sense. Tokyo is an incredible city but tough to see in a day or two, especially with a baby in tow. Our budget was being stretched to the max as it was. And Baran was taking other things into consideration, as well, such as how we might ship our bigger suitcases from hotel to hotel, per Japanese custom.
A different proposal stuck: We would fly directly to Fukuoka and work our way to Kyoto after the wedding, with an overnight stop off the beaten path in Kurashiki. As it is, our itinerary includes five hotels (one of them twice), so especially in hindsight, the suggestion to bypass Tokyo was a smart one.
2) She worked late. I figure we're like many busy clients. Between work; collecting the baby from day care, feeding, bathing and putting her to sleep; plus getting dinner on the table, there really isn't a spare moment until 10 p.m. Luckily, that also suited Baran's schedule. If she'd conducted a traditional 9-to-5, we certainly could have kept in touch during the workday, but I wouldn't have had nearly as much time for extended conversations about ryokans vs. Western hotels.
The late hours weren't just for my convenience: 10 p.m. Eastern time is 7 p.m. in Las Vegas, where Baran is located. More importantly, it's morning in Tokyo, which means she can keep in contact with suppliers and travelers in Japan.
3) She charged a fee. We had proposals from different agents with different compensation plans, ranging from a flat fee to straight commission. Esprit's proposal was a bundled price, which included hotels, a guide for the day and the planning fee. Esprit's trip-planning brochure explains: "We feel that the package price that we quote to you represents the full value that you will receive from this unique and singularly enjoyable way to experience the real Japan. We have found that travelers who are looking for a budget trip ... are usually better served by arranging their trips themselves."
To this day, I don't know how much Esprit charged me for Baran's services. But I felt Baran was sympathetic on price. Given the poor exchange rate and the level of detail I wanted, the trip price ended up beyond the high end of our initial budget. But we went with it anyway. As so many people say about travel, it's about the value and the experience. I've joked to a few people that a photo of the baby in a kimono is worth the cost of the trip, and it's kind of true.
4) She really seemed to enjoy planning this trip. One of the reasons I wanted an expert was because I didn't want to leave logistics to chance. For example, in the "customized itinerary" booklet: "At Okayama Station, exit the Shinkansen concourse toward the regular JR trains. The following train is scheduled to depart from Track 2." Actually, I knew all of this already, because Baran had gone over it on the phone, in painstaking yet friendly detail, a week prior.
On the same call, she asked what we wanted to do during our guided-tour day in Kyoto. Fun choices! It was like being a kid in the candy store. Or an adult at a Buddhist vegetarian lunch, which happens to be on our agenda. We're also visiting with the abbot of Daitokuji Monastery, and maybe meeting a local artist.
When she and I talked or emailed, Baran was clearly invested in our trip. She remembered the details, was active in making suggestions and spent a lot of time explaining some of Japan's unique cultural expectations.
5) She's a specialist. Her knowledge of our destination was remarkable. The only downside in this regard is that since Japan is what Esprit does, you can't call them up for a guided trek through Peru or a wine-tasting trip to Bordeaux. It turns out I wasn't the only one who felt this way.
"People come to us, and they have a good experience, and then they say, 'We'd like to have this experience in other countries,'" Baran said. So she has been working to forge a network of travel companies that specialize in other destinations but share Esprit's commitment to immersion travel.
"There's a certain type of clientele that likes to travel kind of how Esprit does it," she said. "They're intellectually curious, they have a budget to get more in-depth services than a regular company might provide, they want personalized service."
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CLARIFICATION: Rebecca Tobin wrote that she sent an email to Esprit Travel after she found its name in Conde Nast Travelers’ annual list of top travel specialists. However, that list is of individual agent experts, and as such Tobin originally contacted Nancy Craft, the Esprit specialist named in the list. She received an email response from Craft's colleague, Elaine Baran, who has a subspecialty in family travel to Japan. Neither Baran, nor Esprit itself, is on the Conde Nast Traveler list.