Travel writer Adam Jacot de Boinod discovers Japan, from the high rise delights of Tokyo, through the historic city of Kyoto and finishing at the Wakayama District, home to temples, hot springs and a glorious coastline.
Tokyo is the ultimate city for shopping with the electronics shops of Akihabara providing a real draw for tourists
Determined to immerse myself in Japanese modernity I didn’t sadly get to visit the gadgets and gimmicks of Akihabara, famous for its many electronics shops but I went instead to Takeshita Street in Harajuku. Here young girls, dressed up as rebel schoolgirls with their ties at half-mast, dream of being snapped up as models. Both kitsch and cute as they acted out their fantasy of perfection for the Instagram age.
In this massive metropolis I stayed initially at the functional, affordable and clean Mercure Tokyo Ginza located amongst all the big brand stores. Luckily I don’t suffer from ‘chokuegambo’, the desire to buy things at luxury brand shops. For the forces of ostentatious consumerism are strong in Japanese society. Interestingly my first port of call was Omotesando a similarly smart shopping area complete with a shopping centre called Omotesando Hills to replicate Beverley Hills.
The Tokyo Imperial Palace is the primary residence of the Emperor of Japan
I had dinner at Peter, one of The Peninsular Tokyo’s restaurants; For my starter I had a ‘red snow crab cake with coriander, tsukemono tartar sauce’ which I drunk with Chardonnay 2016 from the Keller Estate in Petaluma, California followed by a sirloin from Kobe with sancho pepper sauce, spinach and broccoli drunk with Pinot Noir 2015 from the same Californian Estate. For dessert I rounded off a delicious dinner with a chocolate ‘ganache’, ‘namelaka’, crumble and ice cream. An amazing treat.
I stayed at the well-located Candeo Hotels Tokyo Roppongi. The hotel rooms are modern, functional and affordable and the signature distinctive black pyjamas are even worn by some as they come down in the lifts for breakfast.
I had dinner at Signature, one of Mandarin Oriental’s restaurants. On the 37th floor chef Luke Armstrong offered up a wonderful menu of contemporary French food. To start I had a glass of Billecart-Salmon Brut Rosé champagne before tucking into Soymilk Bavarois with marinated Ikura which I drunk with Château Brane-Cantena Margaux 2013. To follow I had the recommended Pan Roasted Fillet of Chiba with sautéed spinach and artichokes and for dessert ‘Gin and Tonic Granite’ being Vanilla and Sake Lees Rice Pudding with fresh Sudachi. A true feast.
The Golden Pavilion is a Zen Buddhist temple and one of Kyoto’s most visited attractions
For further luxury I reached Kyoto to stay at the Kyoto Hotel Okura where smart liveried bellboys showed military precision and timing as my cases were taken to my spacious room that overlooked the river and to the mountains beyond, the lovely bowl of a setting for Kyoto, the former capital before Edo (Tokyo).
I booked myself in to witness the ways of a ‘maiko’. These young women dedicate themselves to five years training in the dying art of becoming a geisha. The maiko I witnessed sang, played table pastimes and explained her yearning to enter this dedicated profession based on a wish to feel fully feminine and traditional.
I loved Kyoto’s famed Golden Pavilion. There’s gold foil on lacquer on the upper two levels, a charming detached teahouse and a pond garden with its reflection perfect for a reflective mind. The stillness and placement of the trees with moss growing up into the bark give a pure sense of oneness and harmony.
I came next to stay at the Hotel Kanra, well-located close to both the river and the station and right beside the mammoth Higashi Hongan-ji temple that’s built on a mammoth scale with its two quiet, empty and massive halls.
The hotel’s front doors opened with grace to a foyer decorated in Zen style with stunning lanterns and a beautiful bonsai tree. I loved my room, my ‘zen den’. All aesthetically pleasing as it came like a house with its own little garden and with the corridor effectively becoming an indoor street.
Maiko are apprentice geisha and train for 5 years to attain the title Image credit: Patryk Kosmider/Bigstock.com
Two floors up a narrow staircase above a shop downtown is where I climbed one evening to watch the Gear Theatre. It bills itself as “not a play, not a musical, not a circus but somewhere in between”. For it’s a non-verbal performance of robotic mime, magic, juggle and dance. Superbly original and fun.
I stayed next at Nest At Kyoto. It’s a great boutique resting spot that opened recently and is part of a new lifestyle hotel group that celebrates Japan’s culture and nature. Nest at Kyoto is contemporary with a charming zen twist, featuring superior rooms, king rooms and tatami rooms.
Most importantly it’s perfectly situated right in the ‘City Centre’ area beside the Nishiki Market whose lengthy arcades cross a number of streets and is more about the presentation than its edgier Tsukiji Tokyo counterpart. Later this year, the Nest at Nest hotel group will be rebranded as Miru Collection meaning “to see, to look”.
Down a back street near Kyoto’s station and standing only in his kimono to greet me was Belgian-born Tyas Sōsen. I had come to this ‘tea master’ to learn all about the formal Tea Ceremony. It’s handpicked otherwise it’s too bitter as the youngest buds of the freshest leaf contains amino acids to give it a sweet flavour. ‘Matcha’ is now very trendy and the powdered green tea ‘koicha’ helps boost the immune system.
Wakayama is home to natural wonders such as waterfalls, hot springs and gorges
I went further south to the Wakayama district and stayed at Hotel Souji-In, a ‘shukubo’ temple lodging originally for itinerant monks but now taking tourists. It’s an enchanting lodging with its own tranquil stone-raked zen garden. My suite of rooms had ‘tatami’ mats and ‘fusuma’ sliding doors of wood and heavy paper.
From the monks’ cassocks of Koyasan to the guests’ green dressing gowns of my new hotel as I moved to the family friendly Kawayu Midoriya. It has a geological thermal marvel that attracts the indiginous visitors to its natural ‘onsen’ on the Oto river. The Japanese bathed in the natural hot pools beneath the clear stars at night and the mist in the morning as the clouds lift like curtains rising.
I stayed last at the luxurious Infinito Hotel Nanki-Shirahama. It boasts both Japanese and Western-style suites and cuisine but its real claim to fame is the stunning panorama out to the ocean scattered with boats, rocks and white-sanded beaches that attract the many Japanese holidaymakers … and me. I’ll be back!
Hayes & Jarvis has a 10-day trip to Japan priced from £2,499 per person including flights with British Airways, two nights in Tokyo, three nights in Kyoto, two nights in Koyasan and one in Osaka. Accommodation, public transport and some excursions are also included.