Our Asia expert Charlotte has just returned from an action-packed trip to Japan, and from Tokyo to Takayama, she tells us about some of the incredible places she visited and gives us just some of the many reasons she fell in love with this beautiful country.
Japan is simply beautiful, and even in the big, bustling cities, you’ll always find a stunning Japanese garden to escape to. Outside of the cities, you really get a sense of the place – Japan has stunning valleys, fields, mountains and countryside. Public transport is really good and easy to navigate, and the futuristic and aptly-named Bullet train is the best way to get around. As for the food – you will not leave Japan without feeling full and bewildered at what you have eaten during your holiday! And then there’s the people: the Japanese have to be hands down the friendliest, politest people I have ever come across.
Wow, just wow! In this city of sky trains, skyscrapers and street food, there is so much to do in Tokyo, it’s hard to know where to start. I would suggest a visit to the famous, sprawling Tsukiji fish market (below), where you will be able to witness the trading going on throughout the day, which is a unique experience, and see all the weird and wonderful fish on display.
After being surrounded by all that fish you may as well continue the theme and go for a private sushi making experience. I went to a local apartment for a private lesson which was great as I got to experience traditional Japanese living as well as learn how to make sushi from an expert. The experience lasted a few hours and I then got to sit down and eat all of my creations!
Other must-sees in Tokyo include buzzing Shinjuku, which really comes alive in the evening, including in an enchanting area called the Golden Gai which is made up of lots of little alleys which host tiny bars, each with enough room for about ten people. It makes you feel like you're in some sort of karate movie!
From above, Tokyo looks just like New York, and has a massive park right in the middle of the city, so it’s not all concrete and skyscrapers. For some peace and tranquillity, head to the Japanese Garden, which attracts lots of tourists for the morning Zen session, and there are also numerous temples and shrines to visit.
Kyoto, once the capital of Japan, is a beautiful, refined city on the island of Honshu, and is home to thousands of classical Buddhist temples, as well as gardens, imperial palaces, Shinto shrines and traditional wooden houses. It’s also known for formal traditions such as kaiseki dining, which consists of multiple courses of precise dishes, and its Geisha, who are often found in the Gion district.
Kyoto is exactly what you imagine Japan to be like, in regards to the architecture, temples, gardens and food. It really is a remarkable city: it’s wonderful to wonder around and you can simply just sit by the river and soak up the atmosphere, and visit the local markets along the riverbanks and the lovely restaurants that jut out over the water.
Kyoto is also a perfect place to experience a traditional tea ceremony (called Chanoyu, Sado or simply Ocha). I enjoyed a private ceremony with a Tea Master (above), who talked me through the process and even let me perform the ceremony. It is a choreographic ritual of preparing and serving Japanese green tea (Matcha), together with traditional Japanese sweets to balance with the bitter taste of the tea. Preparing the tea means pouring all your attention into the predefined movements. The whole process is not about drinking tea, but is about aesthetics, and preparing a bowl of tea from one's heart. The host of the ceremony always considers the guests with every movement and gesture: even the placement and angles of the tea utensils is considered from the guest’s viewpoint, especially the main guests (called the Shokyaku).
At the Ritz-Carlton in Kyoto, I got the chance to become a Geisha, trying out their beautiful costumes and embracing their unique culture, which was another amazing experience. Charlotte (second right), becomes a Geisha for the day
The Baker St Bear enjoying the bamboo forest in Arashiyama
Arashiyama is in the far west of Kyoto, tucked along the base of the Arashiyama Mountains (“Storm Mountains”), a 30-minute journey from the city. The bamboo forest here is an epic sight: it’s amazing walking through it and feeling totally engulfed in the dense forest. There is also a small town which is worth having a walk around and I would also recommend doing a river cruise. The river takes you deep into the forest, and it’s incredibly peaceful. There are even boats that pull up alongside and cook food for you, and the river leads to the lovely Hoshinoya Kyoto, where you can experience old-world Japan with traditional features such as tatami mats and shoji (paper walls), alongside lovely river views.
You should take at least half a day exploring the Peace Memorial and museum here, and the information provided is really interesting. It’s quite a sobering experience visiting Hiroshima but it’s certainly worthwhile as it brings alive some of Japan’s more recent history.
On a lighter note, Hiroshima is also famous for the traditional dish of okonomiyaki, a savoury pancake containing a variety of ingredients. The name is derived from the word okonomi, meaning "what you like" or "what you want", and yaki, meaning "grilled" or "cooked.” They include cabbage, pork, and optional items such as squid, octopus and cheese. Noodles (yakisoba, udon) are also used as a topping with a fried egg and a generous amount of okonomiyaki sauce. I enjoyed a delicious lunch in a traditional building which plays host to about 50 small okonomiyaki restaurants!
Kanazawa sits on Japan’s west coast (which is reached in under three hours on the Bullet train from Tokyo). It escaped destruction by air raids during World War Two, and consequently, parts of the old castle town, such as the Nagamachi samurai district and the Chaya entertainment districts, have survived, and the city is fascinating to explore, including the Geisha area and historic Samurai houses. There are also modern museums that are well worth a visit – if you’re interested in art, make you check out the fantastic contemporary art gallery here. I also went to Kenrokuen, one of Japan’s most beautiful gardens and certainly the most impressive one I visited.
In Kanazawa, I got to try another of Japan's unique food creations - gold-flecked ice cream, which tastes as good as it sounds. From Kanazawa you can jump on a bus for a 2-hour journey to Takayama.
Takayama is in Japan's mountainous Gifu Prefecture. The narrow streets of its Sanmachi Suji historic district are lined with wooden merchants’ houses dating from the Edo Period, along with numerous small museums. The city is famed for its biannual Takayama Festival, which goes back to at least the mid-1600s, which celebrates spring and fall with parades featuring ornate, gilded floats and puppet shows (below).
Don’t miss the Hida Folk Village, between Kanazawa and Takayama. Dozens of traditional houses and buildings were dismantled at their original sites throughout the region and rebuilt here, and the well-presented displays offer the opportunity to envision what rural life was like in previous centuries. There is a viewing platform here, and during clear weather, there are panoramic views of the Japanese Alps.
Japan has some simply stunning hotels in equally stunning locations. Here are Charlotte's top picks!
Aman Tokyo: for sleek luxury, delicious world-class cuisine and panoramic city views. Nearby you can shop in Ginza, visit beautiful temples and stroll in the pretty Imperial Palace Gardens.
Ritz-Carlton, Kyoto: for beautiful interiors and an elegant fusion of traditional Kyoto style and contemporary luxury. Immerse yourself in Kyoto's colourful culture, including the nearby district of Gion, home of the Geisha.
Amanemu: set in the forests of Ise-Shima National Park, three hours from Kyoto, Amanemu is a minimalist haven of peace and tranquillity, with traditional Japanese touches such as private onsen baths. Walk along ancient mountain paths and relax in the spa afterwards.
Hoshinoya Kyoto: for beautiful old-world Japanese style, on the banks of the Katsura River, just half an hour from Kyoto. Enjoy river cruises and Michelin-starred dining, and visit the local Zen temple.