The heart of Japan

WT Writer
Feb 21, 2018
Her husband wants a serene, switched-off honeymoon. Laura Goulden needs more exotic adventure. Hoping for both, they journey to Japan, but will they still be a happy couple on their return?

On the first morning of our honeymoon, at 6am we felt the earth move. The pendant lights in our room, on the 26th floor of a Tokyo tower block, were swinging. Our jet-lagged brains took a few minutes to process what was happening before our anxious gazes met. We leapt out of bed into our fluffy hotel bath robes (very practical in a natural disaster) and fled…

Down in the lobby, we discovered, via other jittery tourists’ iPhones, that the earthquake measured 7.4 in nearby Fukushima – whatever that felt like. The hotel staff looked up at our panicked pyjama party blankly and got back to laying tables for breakfast. ‘At least we can start the day early!’ I said brightly as we all padded barefoot back up to our rooms. My new husband, Steve, sighed. As he’d feared, our honeymoon was not going to revolve around lie-ins.

I felt for him. Steve was tired. The fastidious one, he’d tasked himself with most of the wedding arrangements. But while he’d been dithering over canapé fillings and Portaloo price comparisons, I’d nailed down the honeymoon – to Japan, the weirdest place on the planet, for what I hoped would be the most romantic holiday of our lives. Except that, a couple of weeks before the big day, I caught him late one night looking longingly at his laptop. There were pictures of a hammock in the Maldives next to his wedding spreadsheet. ‘Is it too late?’ he whimpered.

Tokyo's busy skyline

Tokyo’s busy skyline


So why Japan? This was a special trip. I didn’t want to come back with a tan, and I wanted to return with a stack of memories for souvenirs, stories that would get us through the mundane Sunday-night-Ocado-shop moments of marriage. I’d been to Japan and knew its life-changing potential – to push you out of your comfort zone.

The earthquake was a good example of everyday Japan living that would ruffle feathers back home. Sure enough, before our first day was through, we experienced scores more: eating raw fish for breakfast; changing into specially designated slippers to use the loo; and being encouraged to eat as noisily as possible. The last was to show our appreciation of the world’s most delicious food: a bowl of liquid roast-chicken ramen at Kagari, a hole- in-the-wall restaurant in the glitzy Ginza district.

‘Room service?’ Steve suggested hopefully that evening back at the hotel. Bless him. You can do many things in the Japanese capital, but relaxing isn’t one of them. Instead, Tokyo offers exhilaration to the jet-lagged and weary: it’s the holiday equivalent of a vitamin B injection. On your first night, you do not crash out at your hotel, you put on your best outfit and hit the town. I said words to similar effect as I shoved Steve, his T-shirt on back to front, into the lift and out into the neon-lit night for dinner, then a show.

Tokyo offers exhilaration to the jet-lagged and weary: it’s the holiday equivalent of a vitamin B injection

Shinjuku – the neighbourhood you’ve seen on guidebook covers – specialises in exhilaration, with its luminous signs, karaoke booths and intensely irritating pachinko game parlours, not to mention restaurants. Tokyo has more Michelin-starred restaurants than any other city on the planet – but for Brits like us, used to bland M&S sushi boxes, even the cheapest mouthful of raw fish in Japan is mind-blowing. Stumbling across a branch of Tsukiji Sushico, a mid-range sushi chain, we bagged a counter seat and ate piece after piece of perfectly vinegared rice topped with sea urchin, mackerel and umpteen varieties of tuna. Mesmerised as the chef squeezed, sliced and flipped with the dexterity of a brain surgeon, we agreed we’d had one of our best meals ever.

Perked up by protein and carbs, we went on to the show at Robot Restaurant, misleadingly named since the only dish served is a sweaty pre-packed bento box. But that’s OK, because you’re here for the spectacle, which is unlike anything you’ve seen in the West End or indeed on planet Earth. Entering is like walking into a giant glitter ball, furnished with gold seashell armchairs and a silver robot playing ‘Isn’t She Lovely?’ on the sax. The show itself has a storyline of sorts – something about robot Armageddon – but no-one cares because they’re oo busy gawping at giant remote-control robots and fire-breathing fish. By the end even Steve was enthusiastically waving a glowstick.

Much to his relief, I’d anticipated Steve’s fatigue and booked two nights at Tokyo’s newest five-star hotel, Hoshinoya, which promised peace after our shaky tower block. It had the feel of an elegant, traditional Japanese ryokan (sliding screens, tatami-mat floors), but in a sleekly modern high-tech high-rise. There was a Zen tranquillity, as well as a steaming bath on the roof, and a restaurant serving dishes so beautifully elaborate, they could only have been prepared using tweezers. Steve shuffled, beaming, between hot tub and communal lounge in his complimentary cotton kimono, savouring tiny cups of tea and flipping through the pages of black-and-white interiors magazines, absorbing tips on how we could reconfigure our furniture back home to make married life just that bit more Japanese.

The restaurant served dishes so beautifully elaborate, they could only have been prepared using tweezers

Diplomatically (because that’s how marriages work, right?), we divvied up the sightseeing. And so, on our second day (a Saturday) Steve guided me onto the subway (efficient, all in English). We emerged at Harajuku station into a pink cloud of squeaky teenagers in layers of chiffon. With orders to ‘Keep moving’ through the sugary scent of pancake stalls, Steve led me to the Meiji shrine, under its calm blanket of evergreen: a timber-and-copper sanctuary in one of the most hectic parts of town.

This was a Japan moment to share with the grandchildren one day: rinsing hands at the water station; tossing a coin into the offering box; bowing and clapping as the locals do. Then, as we rose to leave, a Shinto wedding procession slid silently, cinematically through the courtyard, the bride in a thick white kimono and the rest of the congregation a beautiful trail of origami silks and hair flowers. Moments of urban calm like this were the honeymoon highs that united us – so, one afternoon, we retreated to the quiet, low-rise streets of Daikanyama and pressed pause on Tokyo…

Hoshinoya hotel cuisine

Hoshinoya hotel cuisine

This was where we’d live if we ever upped and moved to the city. The cute, tree-lined streets and chic boutiques lent a dash of San Francisco to the neighbourhood. The incredible jeans shops, though, were unmistakably Japanese – each with a resident denim geek on a sewing machine, customising turn ups while you wait. We cooed over the sea of indigo in ur favourite, Okura, picking out matching keepsake jackets. Well, if you can’t dress like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake circa 2001 on your honeymoon, when can you?

There was time for more classic ‘postcard’ outings: to Tsukiji fish market for slivers of shiny sashimi fish; Shibuya’s world-famous cat’s-cradle zebra crossing for a selfie; and the 52nd floor of the Park Hyatt, for a spangly view. Then, just when we’d found our rhythm, it was time to leave Tokyo, the cityscape melting away as we exhaled on the bullet train to Kyoto.

Well, if you can’t dress like Britney Spears and Justin Timberlake circa 2001 on your honeymoon, when can you?

For first-timers, the ancient capital is the antidote to 21st-century Tokyo. I was worried that things might feel tame by comparison, but I needn’t have. Away from the bright lights and high-rises, Japan does interesting and easy-going in equal measure. Steve was by now into his sightseeing stride, whereas secretly I was ready for the gentler pace – and in Kyoto we found real honeymoon harmony. It feels as dramatically old as Tokyo does new, with an astonishing number of temples – more than 1,600 –although so far, no-one has completed the count.

Slowing to local time, we cycled among some of the big hitters – our favourites the golden Kinkaju-ji temple and 15th-century Ryoan-ji, with its absorbing rock garden; then stopped at Pass the Baton, a diminutive tea shop next to the river in Gion, the geisha district. Over green tea with caramel-flavour shaved ice on gold-edged tableware, we watched the world go by from our window seat. Three geishas shuffled past clad in shades of red and gold, a glimpse as extraordinary as it was effortless – and another magic moment for the memory bank.

By the time we moved on from Kyoto we were halfway through our honeymoon: just one week away from facing the realities of marital bliss. Luckily, Japan does island idylls every bit as romantic and remote as the Caribbean: next stop Naoshima, a dreamy outcrop in the Seto Inland Sea, only hours south of Kyoto but light years from the workaday world.

It was our honeymoon within a honeymoon, home to three galleries of great art, spilling beyond the walls: Yayoi Kusama’s much-photographed spotty pumpkin sculpture stood on the jetty, endlessly splashed by the sea, with Hiroshi Sugimoto’s serene seascapes dangling precariously from cliffs… Naoshima is the result of a very special creative relationship between a billionaire art collector and Japan’s most famous architect, Tadao Ando. For Steve, its obvious appeal lay in its serenity, seemingly laid on exclusively as a gift for us newlyweds. At some stage we found ourselves alone in a vast white room filled with Monet’s water lilies, the two of us spellbound in different ways. ‘All the colours,’ I exclaimed, as we sat afterwards in the cafe. ‘And no queue,’ he murmured, looking out at a sea view as enthralling as the art.

Naosima Coast

Naosima Coast

Thus blissed-out we drifted to our last port of call, Kinosaki, a pretty pile of wooden houses and weeping willows as relaxing as any Maldivian resort — for the simple reason that all you do here is immerse yourself in balmy waters. The village was built around a mineral-rich hot spring that has been funnelled into seven pools, known as onsen. Trust the Japanese to take the daily ablutions and turn them into a memorable occasion.

Men and women simmer separately (cozzies aren’t permitted for reasons of hygiene), so it’s not that romantic, but it is a fascinating ritual. In one, I got chatting to a backpacker in a barrel tub; in another, I drifted off to the sounds of three teenagers gossiping in an outdoor cave bath, and in the last I was quizzed on my bathing technique by a gang of grandmas in a gorgeous rooftop pool.

Fingers pruned, I dried and waited for Steve in the reception while a panpipe version of Auld Lang Syne warbled, and figures clopped by in wooden slippers, clad in colourful kimono-style yukata. It was a trickier look for men to pull off than women. Steve demonstrated as much, emerging from the changing rooms as if off to a fancy-dress party as ‘old dame in dressing gown’.

I fell into a fit of giggles but Steve, dribblingly relaxed after three long soaks didn’t bat an eyelid, merely lending me a powder-blue arm as we shuffled back to our ryokan. He might not have won first prize for hottest honeymooner, but the photographic evidence will get me through many a day in the more routine times ahead.

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Lauren Goulden/The Sunday Times Travel Magazine/News Licensing