Sushi, shrines, karaoke sessions and snowy peaks — hit all the highlights in just two weeks with Japan expert Alicia Miller.
Rain pattered outside, slicking the carefully raked stones of the rock garden, tickling the copper leaves of the maples. Shadows danced past the gauze-thin washi (paper) windows that lined our small, square room. Kneeling before me on straw tatami mats, the tea master worked in silence, spooning emerald matcha powder into a glistening tea bowl, ladling hot water over it with a bamboo cup. By the time the elaborate ritual was complete, I had made up my mind: Japan was my favourite place on Earth.
It wasn’t really the tea ceremony that clinched it — though this exacting sequence of measured gestures in historic Kyoto tea shop Bikouen was undoubtedly entrancing. Rather, it was the sheer, mind-boggling diversity of this unique country.
Only a few days earlier, I’d been munching gyoza dumplings in a packed izakaya pub and the next minute bowing in an abandoned ancient temple. Japan is equal parts meditative and frenetic. Early morning, you’ll explore bamboo forests or hike past Mount Fuji; by night, you’ll revel in all-you-can-drink karaoke in a skyscraper. Tradition and modernity; nature and construct; peace and revelry — it’s all here, living harmoniously side by side
It’s exactly these contrasts that keep Japanophiles like me hooked. As with sweet and salty, hot and cold, mint and chocolate chip, it’s a combination that leaves you craving more. I speak from experience: altogether I’ve spent more than a year of my life in this country, but I’ve still not had my fill.
The good news is that you don’t need months to get it right. Whirlwind though it may be, two weeks is enough for a taste of Japan. You’ve just got to plan smart.
My journeys always begin in Tokyo, the heart of modern Japan. You start engulfed by the big, brash, so-now city, then slowly work your way into the past. I’ll never get over the thrill of standing on the famed Shibuya Crossing, where J-Pop tunes blare from loudspeakers, schoolkids dart into shopping malls, and waves of suits rush to backstreet ramen bars. Between trips I pine for the neon lights of Shinjuku, the all-hours nightlife area, and the ordered streets of Ginza, where designer shops and grand old department stores rule.
My current hotel crush? The Palace Hotel Tokyo — it’s right by Tokyo station and overlooks the Imperial Palace grounds, which are almost entirely closed to the public. It’s also one of the few Tokyo hotels with outdoor space — and nearly every room has a balcony. There are historic bits of the capital — Asakusa, with its grand temple, say. There are also parks, should you visit in peak cherry-blossom season: late March/early April. Personally, I prefer early March – you’ll see the equally pretty plum blossom, prices are low and the weather’s mild. But neither history nor parks are the main reasons you come to Tokyo. You come to get lost in the maze of sushi shops, pachinko parlours, and ubiquitous conbini (convenience stores). You come for unbridled hedonism — and then you escape to the country.
Many of these outings are best tackled as day-trips. In fact, I usually spend nearly half of any fortnight-long trip based in Tokyo, with a few days out and the occasional overnighter to mix things up. Some trips, I’ll rise early to ride the Odakyu Romancecar train from Shinjuku; 80 minutes later I’m deposited in Hakone, home to a steaming volcano, Mount Fuji views and a glassy lake. Not to mention numerous onsen, those famously therapeutic Japanese hot springs. First-time visitors can get shy about them, but the etiquette is easily summed up: clothes not allowed (sexes are separated) and washing thoroughly, before you bathe) compulsory, at the taps provided.
In warm weather — Japanese summers are generally hot and sticky — I prefer Kamakura, home to a giant bronze Buddha; or hikes by Lake Kawaguchiko at the base of Mount Fuji. Or Nikko: tucked away in mountains north of Tokyo, it’s home to the country’s most elaborate, gold-laced shrine, Toshogu. Spot monkeys roaming the streets, eat yuba (tofu skin) at an onsen hotel (try KAI Nikko), and nibble a Nikko ‘cheese egg’ (actually a small cake – for some inexplicable reason, nearly every town in Japan seems to have its own signature sweet).
Self-driving in Japan is do-able, but there’s no point. This country’s train system is the world’s envy, both extensive and punctual, while buses are reliable and easy to use in the few tourist hotspots where trains are scarce (say, the Japanese Alps, home to picturesque mountain towns such as Takayama and Matsumoto Castle). Train costs mount up, however, so a Japan Rail Pass (japanrail pass.net) is essential. You must buy it before you travel, online or from your tour operator; it includes the most popular train lines as well as the capital’s Yamanote metro line.
Kyoto, another Japanese pin-up, comes next. If Tokyo is all towering buildings, neon billboards and raucous bars, Kyoto is quiet lanes, creaky, tiled-roof houses, and serene, multi-course kaiseki dinners served by ladies in kimonos. Tourists flock here for the historic temples, for the chance to spot geishas (traditional performers), and to join a tea ceremony. Kyoto is the Japan of postcards, full of culture and mystery, and it’s here that you should base yourself for the second chunk of your trip.
This ancient hub is easy to get wrong, mind. Too many visitors rush through, staying only long enough to tick off the biggest, flashiest temples – Kiyomizudera, Kinkakuji and Higashiyama Jishoji – before wandering through the photogenic red torii gates of the Fushimi Inari shrine and hitting historic Gion district to spot geishas.
But there’s no need to stick to the crowd-pleasers: there are thousands of temples and shrines in Kyoto. Pluck almost any one off Google Maps – the smaller or more remote the better – and you’ll be delighted. Because the real pleasure in these places is their serenity — catching a quiet moment alone among the wafts of incense, stone statues and ringing gongs is a uniquely Japanese pleasure.
In the city’s far west, Shodenji Temple entranced me with its cloak of bamboo forest. An old lady let me into its tatami-lined rooms, filled with precious Japanese old-master paintings close enough to touch. The small rock garden was beautiful in its simplicity and I gazed out to snow-capped mountains. On the March day I visited, I was the only one there. It was so peaceful that I could see why David Bowie was moved to tears when he visited.
Kyoto hotels aren’t cheap, but here a swish stay is worth the cash. First, there’s the added atmosphere: there’s no better place to try a traditional ryokan (inn), preferably in Gion, so you can explore in the early morning before the crowds hit. With original wood walls and tatami rooms, luxurious Sowaka has all the old-world vibes, but with essential modernities (proper heating, a great restaurant). Just as important, you’ll have the contacts: if you want to meet a geisha or try a tea ceremony, Kyoto’s luxury hotels know all the right people (the former is almost impossible to book direct). At the secluded Aman, for example, such exclusive experiences are available at a finger-snap.
Two or three days is enough to ‘see’ Kyoto; then, as with Tokyo, take advantage of the day-trips on your doorstep. Temple lovers will adore nearby Nara – older than Kyoto and more compact, with roaming deer. A 15-minute bullet-train ride away, the gritty city of Osaka has the best street-food scene – roll up hungry for fried octopus balls (takoyaki), then shop for ceramics on Sennichimae Doguyasuji Shotengai, aka ‘kitchen street’. Uji is famous for tea plantations and gardens; further afield, Iga is fun if you’ve got kids in tow – it’s the home of ninja culture.
Reserve your final days for one last stop: Hiroshima. Nothing quite prepared me for the tragic, but unmissable, Peace Memorial Museum, filled with remnants from the atomic-bomb blast. From here you can hop to Itsukushima Island and visit its shrine, the Instagrammers’ favourite, its red torii gate mirrored in ripples. It’s as spectacular in reality as it is in pictures.
If you’d rather end your trip with a dash of on-trend Japan, there is an alternative. Naoshima Island, west of Kyoto, has been turned into an art hub, with alfresco Yayoi Kusama pumpkin statues, installations in village homes, world-class galleries and a Bond-villain-worthy design hotel, Benesse House. Spend a day or two here, and another on one of the quiet Seto islands next door.
After that, it’s back to Tokyo by rail: mission complete. I say complete, but in Japan, that’s never really the case. With more time on your hands, you could visit the ski resorts in Hokkaido; the white-sand beaches of tropical Okinawa; the forest-clouded rope bridges on Kyushu; the secret alpine towns of Gifu; the creaking shrines in Kusinaki…But don’t fret – there’s time for all that. Because, if you’re anything like me, you’ll fall in love with Japan. And you’ll be back.
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