James' Perfect Introduction to Japan
Japan is the first country I ever fell in love with. I remember the day it happened – I was 7, I was living in Rome and it was a scorching hot summer’s day. It was our school’s sports day and all parents were invited. My best friend was called Tayira Fuzigawa and his mother brought a Bento box filled with sushi and sashimi and seaweed rice crackers – I had never seen anything like it before and I swapped my precious collection of Panini stickers for it. I felt that any country that could create anything as wonderful as sushi and sashimi so beautifully presented had to be one of the most extraordinary countries the world! When I then started to learn about samurais, geisha, bonsais, karate, origami, sumo wrestlers and bullet trains I was completely hooked!
Funnily enough, in the 70 and 80s most cartoons shown on Italian television were Japanese and dubbed in Italian, so when I finally did make it to Japan 25 years later many things were strangely familiar!
I have now been several times and the things I love most about it are:
- It is rare to find a country that is so exotic and yet so first world.
- It has the cultural intensity of India without the shock factor.
- Impeccable manners – the rudest thing you can do is be inconsiderate to others. You will never hear somebody’s personal stereo blaring and they have the best mobile phone etiquette in the world.
- It is unbelievably clean and tidy.
- Sensational packaging and wrapping – the origami classes paid off!
- The most refined and exquisite sense of aesthetics.
- Incredible precision that can be seen in most aspects of daily life.
- And of course the food!
I feel that a perfect 11 night introduction to the country is our Best of the Best Japan itinerary, which captures the new and the old, urban and rural, highbrow and low brow, sampling amazing food and connecting with the delightful quirkiness which makes it such a special place.
Allow me to talk you through the trip: I love Tokyo but the reality is that one normally arrives there pretty jet lagged and it can be quite overwhelming. I therefore like the idea of dipping into it twice – once at the beginning and again at the end of the trip once you have adjusted to the time difference and have a better understanding of how everything works.
We start with two nights at either The Peninsula or Palace Hotel, which overlooks the Imperial Palace. I love to see this huge urban sprawl (it’s the biggest metropolis in the world with a population of 38 Million!) but I also love the combination of the skyscrapers lining the Imperial Palace grounds, knowing that this gigantic park is off limits to all except for the Imperial Family and their household. The grounds are huge – as big as New York’s Central Park – and perfect to jog around.
On arrival the main idea is to enjoy the extraordinary surroundings and gently adjust to the time difference with some relaxed and undemanding sightseeing. Walk thought the wild forests surrounding the Meiji Shrine – if you are lucky you might catch a Shinto wedding – then stroll down the zelkova tree-lined Omotosando with all its flagship stores designed by some of the world’s greatest architects: Tadao Ando, SANAA and Herzog & De meuron, to name but a few. The Japanese have refined the art of shopping and taken it to new heights. We are talking about the big luxury brands, but there is also no shortage of independent boutiques, which have the most perfectly curated and quirky collections.
To see Japanese produce at its very best, head to the food halls in either Takashimaya or Mitsukoshi. They make the food halls of Harrods pale in comparison. On my last trip we went to Mistukoshi for the opening – all the staff were lined in a row welcoming clients with bow after bow. They displayed an earnestness and dedication which is uniquely Japanese – it was surprisingly moving.
When it comes to accommodation, I feel it is best to stay in hotels in town and to save a stay in a ryokan (a traditional Japanese Inn) for a rural setting when one can enjoy amazing views and soak in a steaming onsen. One of my favourite ryokans is Gora Kadan in Hakone, which is a mountain retreat just a few hours from Tokyo with fantastic views of Mt Fuji. Hakone also has one of the world’s most extraordinary open-air museums, which is littered with Henry Moores, Picassos and other great 20th century masters. We therefore recommend this for at least a night if nor two. It is also a great opportunity to enjoy traditional Kaiseki Cuisine and Omotenashi, which is a tradition of Japanese hospitality going back 1300 years.
By this stage after 4 relatively relaxing and undemanding days, it’s time to transfer to Kyoto for 3 nights. Kyoto is the Florence of Japan and has so much to see. I find it is easiest to do this by private car and driver as the different gardens, temples, shrines are spread around the city.
My favourite sites are:
- The Ryoanji Zen Garden – the most famous and celebrated garden in Japan, simply composed of stone and sand.
- Saiho-ji Moss Temple.
- Bamboo forest of Arashimaya.
- Fushimi Inari Shrine with its 4km of orange Torii arches.
- Kazura Palace.
- Kiyomizu-dera Temple.
In Kyoto I love the newly built Ritz Carlton, which is in the heart of town and perfect to explore the area on foot. The design is cutting-edge Japanese with amazing lighting. The Hyatt Regency is also very simpatico, designed by the hugely successful Japanese design team Super Potato.
Next, sticking with contemporary Japan but also for an insight into coastal life, head to the island of Naoshima for 2 nights using a combination of bullet train, normal train and ferry. Once a sleepy island of fishing villages lying in the inland Sea, Naoshima emerged from anonymity in 1992 when the Benesse Group chose it to establish a museum of contemporary art doubling as a hotel. Benesse House is designed by Ando Tadao based on the concept of coexistence between nature, architecture & art. It is truly remarkable.
Once you are on the island there are gorgeous views over the Inland Sea and beyond to neighbouring islands and the mainland coastline. Here most things are reached by foot, bike, short drive or boat, so it is a very relaxing experience. View art by the greatest contemporary artists exhibited in a picture perfect uniquely Japanese setting.
End the trip with 2 nights in Tokyo. I would stay in the city at either the Mandarin Oriental or Aman Tokyo. My recommendation would be to see the fish market, sumo wrestling and possibly a kabuki show, and then to go to as many different restaurants as possible and to shop till you drop. We know some amazing restaurants and, if you want to experience the nightlife, some phenomenal clubs. All of these experiences will be uniquely Japanese and will keep you so entertained you will have no time to experience ‘end-of-holiday blues’!
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