I was delighted to finally be able to return to Japan last month, my first visit since the Covid pandemic saw the lengthy closure of the country to international tourism. On the agenda was the opportunity to revisit old favourites, as well as to scout out the most exciting new activities, hotel openings and emerging destinations. What followed was a thrilling and immersive journey through Japan, an action-packed itinerary filled with memorable sights, sounds, flavours and experiences at every turn.
WHAT’S NEW IN TOKYO?
My journey began in Tokyo, an old friend to me but one which always has something new to draw you back in. The immersive digital art museum teamLab Planets was a new addition to the city since my last visit and was utterly captivating. The experience of getting lost in a magical world of light and colour was quite unlike anything I have experienced before, and I am already recommending all my clients travelling to Japan in 2024 and beyond to check out the newest immersive experience from teamLab – Borderless.
I also got to experience ancient Japanese traditions with new eyes on this visit to Tokyo. I learned about centuries-old Ninja philosophies from a clan with a heritage dating back to the late 16th century, and then was put through my paces with a Ninja workshop where I was trained in the basics of Samurai swordsmanship. Truly an experience to remember!
Sushi making is another ancient Japanese tradition, with the dish first arriving on Japanese shores from China in the 8th century. On my latest visit to Tokyo I had the privilege of learning the art of sushi making from one of the city’s top chefs, honing my skills and then creating delicious individual sushi and sushi rolls. I highly recommend eating only a light breakfast beforehand!
As far as new hotels in Tokyo go, there has been plenty of activity since my last visit. I was able to familiarise myself with the newest options as well as the very best longstanding favourites in our portfolio. The new Mandarin Oriental Tokyo left a particularly lasting impression due to its arresting views and dazzling array of 12 fabulous restaurants. I was also treated to a rare glimpse of Mount Fuji against a glowing sunset from my balcony at the Palace Hotel.
My second stop was Kanazawa – the perfect place to slow the pace after the buzz of Tokyo. Less than three hours journey from Tokyo by bullet train, this charming coastal city is frequently referred to as a ‘mini Kyoto’ due to its wealth of cultural attractions. It is also known as the seafood capital of Japan, and I can certainly attest to this! The Omicho fish market is one of the most authentic and highly acclaimed in the country - even residents of Tokyo and Kyoto make the journey here to get their hands on the exquisite fresh fish and seafood that arrives here daily. As I settled in for an informal lunch at the counter of one of Omicho’s market stalls, feasting on melt-in-the-mouth prawn noodles while watching local Kanazawa life play out in front of me, I was reminded of the joy of travel in its purest form.
Two other standout experiences marked my time in Kanazawa. Firstly, a walk around the Kenroku-en Gardens. I could finally see why these gardens are considered to be amongst the most beautiful in Japan as I strolled past sparkling streams under the shade of maple trees glowing in autumn copper hues, and feeling a sense of calm pervade as I paused to observe a heron fishing on the banks of a mirror-like pond.
The second was my stay at Asadaya Ryokan. This traditional guest house has been welcoming guests since 1659 and the ryokan’s owner, Mr Qta, is the 16th generation of his family to host visitors here. The 30 small chambers that were once a place for passing samurais to rest their heads have now been consolidated into just three spacious and exclusive guest rooms, surrounded by serene lounge areas and inner gardens. What marks Asadaya out above all is its authenticity, and its world-class cuisine. One of only seven ryokans in all of Japan to boast a Michelin star, the dining experience at Asadaya Ryokan is truly on another level, right down to gold lacquerware bowls – “the price of just one would provide you with enough money to buy a new car”, stated Mr Qta.
From Kanazawa I travelled on to Kyoto, Japan’s one-time capital and widely considered to be the cultural heartland of the country. Like Tokyo, Kyoto for me as a place I can return to again and again and still discover new delights. In fact - despite this not being my first visit - I still ran out of time to get to all the places I had planned to see! If I could summarise what makes Kyoto so special, for me it is the combination of classic beauty, rich history and incredible food.
As well as absorbing the classic sights of Kyoto’s iconic temples and the Nijo castle bathed in the autumn sunshine, part of the joy for me was treasuring the quieter moments which tap into the very essence of what Kyoto is about. A pre-breakfast stroll around the deserted streets of the Gion district gave me a true feeling of stepping back in time. Moments like this reminded me of the magic of Kyoto – a place I fall in love with time and time again.
After Kyoto, new horizons awaited as I travelled to Setoda – a sun-drenched, blissfully serene island on the Seto Inland Sea. Setoda (also known as Ikuchijima) served as a vital port for the salt trade up until the 16th century, and its inclement climate makes it a haven for citrus orchards and lemon growing. Though I did not get an opportunity to try a scoop of Setoda lemon and salt flavoured ice-cream, the island was the place I where I sampled the most delicious glass of orange juice I've ever had!
I found the whole experience of visiting Setoda an incredibly rewarding one. It gives you a completely different perspective on Japan and a remarkable insight into Japanese island life. It is impossible not to slow the pace as you potter around the tranquil streets, perusing the pottery workshops, galleries and bakeries serving up warm lemon cake and cookies. Those seeking a little more exertion could hop on a bicycle to further explore the island or seek out some of the 17 sculptures that form part of the Shimagoto open-air Art Museum.
Where to stay on Setoda?
Possibly one of the most exciting additions to the Setouchi Islands in recent years, 2023 saw the arrival of Azumi Setoda – the latest project from the founder of the AMAN hotel group Adrian Zecha. Having acquired the main hotel building and surrounding estate (one-time residence of one of the most influential salt barons in the region), Zecha has brought his signature contemporary flair and blended this with traditional Japanese design features to create an uplifting sanctuary, intersected by calming courtyard gardens and just steps from the Yubune community bath house which guests can enjoy complimentary access to. The aspects I enjoyed most about my stay at Azumi Setoda were the attention to detail – my blissful soak in the tub where no bath salts were needed due to the natural aroma generated by the hot water and cedarwood – and also the outstanding cuisine. The kaiseki dinner I enjoyed here was one of the best I have ever experienced on my travels.
MY TOP JAPAN TRAVEL TIPS
As you would expect, peak travel times in Japan such as the cherry blossom season (sakura) always require early booking but my advice is to begin the planning process as early as possible, regardless of the time of year you are hoping to visit. With unforgettable places to stay such as Asadaya Ryokan featuring less than five rooms, the earlier you can book the better to ensure you have the full choice of Japan’s most memorable places to stay.
Take a bullet train
This is more than just getting from A to B – travelling by bullet train is an experience in itself. Marvel at the extreme punctuality, recline in an irresistibly comfortable seat, watch the blur of the passing landscapes and – if you close your eyes - feel the sensation of flying as the train reaches speeds of 180 miles per hour.
Embrace public transport in Tokyo
Some people get intimidated by the prospect of taking the Metro in Tokyo but it is actually far easier than you might expect. Signs and announcements are always in both English and Japanese, Red Savannah’s local team will provide you with a SUICA card (a pre-paid ‘Oyster’ card equivalent) which can be used on all public transport in Japan, and they will also provide you with a pocket WiFi router so that you can access the internet at all times. Google maps even advises which of the 200 exits you should take at Shinjuku Station!
Factor in some downtime
With so much to see and do, the temptation is to cram in as much as possible as soon as you land. The impact of jet lag is not to be underestimated, however, and even once this subsides you will find yourself in need of some quieter times to recover and absorb all that you are experiencing along the way. The good news is that destinations to slow the pace can easily be sprinkled in throughout any tour of Japan. Following time in Tokyo with a stay in Kanazawa as I did, for example, is a perfect way to temper the pace. A visit to Hiroshima is always a powerful experience, but we can base you on the picture-postcard island of Miyajima for your time in the area.
The island becomes blissfully peaceful once on all the day visitors return to the mainland, tame deer stroll around the streets and dusk brings about the spectacle of Itsukushima shrine illuminated against the night sky. Finally, should you feel the need for a spot of R&R before you head home, I recommend building in a night in Hakone near Mount Fuji towards the end of your trip. Base yourself at the fabulous Gen Hakone or at Hakone Byakudan and unwind in private onsen baths, surrounded by a backdrop of soothing mountains and lakes.