In the words of a poet (actually, it was the 1980s band The Vapors) I think I’m turning Japanese. Then again the whole world will be turning Japanese as the country hosts the Rugby World Cup next year before the 2020 Olympics lands in Tokyo.
My love affair with the Land of the Rising Sun began nearly 30 years ago. I was lucky enough to travel to Tokyo as a 19-year-old model, and I even lived there a few times in my 20s but I hadn’t been back since. And so when my fiance George said how much he’d love to visit Japan, I jumped at the chance to go back. I was intrigued to find out how much it had changed over the years.
From the moment we arrived at the capital’s Narita airport, it was immediately obvious just how different things were. There are now signs in English and the arrivals process is easier to navigate. On a previous visit, I was met by a chaperone and whisked away by coach on a two-hour journey to the centre of Tokyo. Now there is a direct train that takes less than an hour.
Buying a Japan Rail pass is a great idea, especially if you plan to move around the country and take lots of shinkansen – the famous bullet trains.
After a short walk from Tokyo Station in Otemachi, we noticed a tall building wrapped in a chic iron cladding and realised with delight that this was our hotel – the Hoshinoya Tokyo. As it was a Sunday, the area was quiet – nothing like the usual fast-paced bustle.
As soon as the 300-year-old cypress wooden doors opened to the ryokan (a traditional Japanese inn), there was a wonderful aroma of incense that blended with the natural scent of the interiors – bamboo, chestnut, cedar and cypress.
With our shoes off and stored in the boxes that line the walls like an art installation, the warm feel of the tatami mats underfoot was nothing short of blissful.
A delicious cup of matcha was served while we checked in, and as we were about to head to our room, a woman sprayed me down with anti-static. She had noticed (oh, the shame!) that my trousers were clinging to my thighs after the long journey from the UK. How’s that for customer service?
After we stepped out of the lift and walked along the hotel’s elegant corridors, sliding doors opened to reveal a ryokan within a ryokan – our spacious yet understated room. Sunlight streamed through the windows to reveal futons and tatami mats. This was my idea of heaven.
Having got settled, we popped out for a walk around the Imperial Palace and down to Ginza, a cool shopping area where we stumbled upon the most delectable sushi restaurant.
After feasting on the freshest fish, we walked back to the hotel and succumbed to our jet-lag at five in the afternoon. We woke up six hours later, ready for our next taste of Japanese cuisine.
Dressed in the comfortable, modern-day kimonos provided by the hotel, we went to explore the Ochanoma lounge – a large communal area on each floor of the hotel. It felt like having our own living room. Beautifully decorated and with soft, subtle lighting, it was quiet at that time of the night.
We snacked on noodles and radish rice crackers, as well as bite-sized ice creams from the fully stocked freezer.
The next morning, with our spa treatments booked, I was eager to see the onsen – the natural hot springs that, while common throughout Japan, are a rare find in a city centre hotel.
Still dressed in our kimonos – maybe we’d overpacked? – we set off. Men and women bathe separately in the onsen, which had an open roof, so you could watch the clouds sail by. This was followed by a shiatsu massage, by the end of which I was completely relaxed.
Our Hoshinoya experience was unforgettable. We also did a sake tasting, took part in a tea ceremony, enjoyed an eight-course tasting menu, and even tried our hand at the martial art of kendo.
Leaving Tokyo, we headed to Takayama in the Gifu prefecture – a long train ride to the centre of the country. The mountains were bursting with vibrant shades of red, orange, and purple. Bright blue skies and sunshine, stunning cloud formations, and maple trees exploding into autumn’s fiery shades made it a magical journey through the countryside.
We walked from the station to our hotel, where that night we had tempura and beef with vegetables.
Takayama is like a little Kyoto without the millions of tourists, and its perfectly preserved buildings date back to the Edo period.
It is the home of hida beef, and there are some fabulous spots to sample this dish.
We walked around and shopped, buying miso paste and matcha green tea and sipping yuzu sake – a Takayama speciality.
A visit to the Museum of History and Art is also a must, as is a walk through the park.
Then we headed towards Hiroshima, arriving in Onomichi. We stayed at the Hotel Cycle, where you can pull up on a bike, if you have one, check in and then ride to your room.
The hotel is in an old fish warehouse sitting on the waterfront and is a super-cool, modern structure with simple rooms. There is much more of a Western vibe – there are no kimonos or chopsticks in sight. There is, however, the most delicious bakery where we headed each morning before setting out on our bikes.
Our next stop was Karuizawa. Located in the middle of the country, it feels more like Aspen or the Hamptons. We stayed at the Hoshinoya Karuizawa Resort, which is completely different from its Tokyo cousin. It felt like a hidden village, surrounded by forests with the Yukawa river running through it, and with Mount Asana in the distance.
The hotel’s contemporary design features lots of glass, as well as bridges and paths that wind throughout. Stunning pavilions with outside spaces are dotted around the village-style grounds. We sampled our first pork shabu-shabu (a soup with sliced meat and vegetables) in our room, which had views of the mountains. Be warned – any food left outside your hotel will be taken by monkeys.
Wearing our kimonos and wooden slippers called geta, we headed off to explore Karuizawa, stumbling across an ice rink with a visitor centre/bar serving beer and hot apple juice. It is owned by a company called Picchio, which is passionate about the conservation of wild animals, especially the black Asian bear.
The following morning we headed to the onsen – there are two in the grounds of the resort and we opted for the meditation spa. The staff opened this early so we could experience it as a couple. There was a light room and dark room, and we were encouraged to be silent and rely on our senses. It was an utterly tranquil experience, setting us up for the day.
That evening we set off back to the Picchio bar to meet for a flying-squirrel-spotting tour. We had an extremely knowledgeable guide, and it was a brilliant way to spend a few hours. The squirrels crawled out of their little wooden homes, crept into the night and took flight.
The next morning, we left early with our Picchio guides, who showed us the wildlife living all around Karuizawa. It was an exhilarating day. Asian black bears are huge and will charge if they feel threatened, so these magical creatures should be observed from a safe distance.
We were lucky enough to see a female bear that the guides had named Shaka. She was pregnant and had settled down somewhere warm to nest.
Hoshinoya Fuji was the final stop on our tour. We were taken up to our room, which had views of Mount Fuji and Lake Kawaguchi.
I have longed to visit Mount Fuji for years, and the blue skies, cherry blossom and sleeping volcano didn’t disappoint. I would happily have stayed in our room all evening, but George had booked us dinner at the hotel’s alfresco Forest Kitchen restaurant.
We stepped out into the chilly, night wearing warm, padded jackets provided by the hotel. Climbing what seemed an endless set of stairs, we reached our romantic dinner spot.
There were only four tables, and we had wild boar and venison, which we cooked ourselves in little Dutch ovens and on skillets. We sauteed mushrooms and grilled delicious venison, all while drinking wine under the stars.
After dinner, we made our way up to the Cloud Terrace, where we found a Japanese whisky bar, a mini-music festival and open fires.
That night I kept the curtains open, gazing into the vast skies. Stars and Mount Fuji were reflected in the lake.
It was the perfect end to our phenomenal journey.
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