Japan is a land of many contrasts. As varying as the landscapes are, the one thing that remains exactly the same wherever you go is the extraordinary friendliness and welcoming nature of the Japanese people. As business partners, sisters and friends, Deborah and I embarked on an epic journey around Japan as part of research mission. The mission was to find the best that this captivating country has to offer and boy did we have fun finding out just where that was.
Hokkaido-Tokyo-Hakone- Kiso Valley – Kyoto-Koyasan-Wakayama -Osaka
Length of Trip – 12 days
When – April 2018
A word of warning to start; do not attempt this same itinerary in the same length of time as we did. as with all familiarisation trips, they are meant to give you a taste and feel of a place with all the luxuries there to be enjoyed except the luxury of time. Hungry to see and experience as many of Japan’s incredible offerings; we chose to do move around as fast as the bullet train in the time we had.
Packing for three climate changes is no mean feat. First stop was to catch the last of the snow in Niseko, a ski resort in Japan’s second largest island, Hokkaido. Affectionately known to powder hounds as the Aspen of the East and famed for some of the best seafood and fresh fish in the world; Hokkaido sits in the Northernmost part of the country and has four very distinct seasons.
So how to get there? We flew into Tokyo’s Narita airport, then took an internal flight to New Chintose airport, the gateway to Hokkaido. Our driver was there to meet us and take us on the very comfortable two our journey where you can sit back and take in some of the most breath-taking scenery you will ever see. Itching to taste of this infamous fish for ourselves; Deborah and I headed straight for one Niseko’s recommended restaurants where she indulged in the Sashimi platter and I opted for the Seafood noodle soup. Both it turns out were great choices and generous enough to feed a small army (or two greedy western travellers).
Our three days in Niseko were a real highlight. Even though we were definitely on the last bit of decent snow, we found the skiing to be very pleasant with a decent amount of runs for both the nervous (me) and the more confident (Deborah). Our food research took us one of the best soba noodles places on the island where it was arranged for us to visit the chef at 7 am to watch him making the noodles from scratch; including roasting and grinding the buckwheat grains and making the dough. The best part was being invited back at noon to enjoy the noodles themselves in what turned out to be one of the standout dishes of the trip. In one day, we had eaten our way round 4 of Niseko’s best foodie haunts. From the best ramen, to the most outstanding Sukiyaki and teppanyaki restaurant. It was a bit of a “Man vs Food” day but all highly necessary in the name of research. The little black of book of the best places to eat had officially had its introduction written.
Next stop, Tokyo but before I get there, I just want to highlight that New Chintose airport is one of the best I have been to. It’s a giant food mecca where you can enjoy a meal in samples being handed out so it’s definitely advisable to allow some time to explore before departing.
Okay, so Tokyo….as crazy as you’ve most likely imagined it. There is so much information out there on the “must see” places to visit but the only way to make the most of limited time, as we have learnt first-hand, is to have a resident Tokyo guide to help navigate you through the many colourful areas of this vast city. We stayed at the Conrad Tokyo in Ginza district which was to be the perfect location for two ardent shoppers! Best to don some trainers and walk as much as possible, though taxis are relatively inexpensive and there is, of course, the super-efficient subway system if you’d prefer the easy way.
Arriving on a weekend was definitely a good thing. The streets were alive and vibrant with all walks of life. You’ve got temples and gardens and markets and shopping, plus the most incredible places to eat, shop and sit to watch the madness of Japan’s largest and most populated city. We ate sushi off conveyor belts and fresh from the waters at 5 am in Tsukiji Market, navigated our way over six floors of electronics in the famous Akihabara district and watched Tokyo’s twenty somethings eating rainbow coloured candy floss in Hara-Juku. I’d like to cover everything we did but it’s simply asking too much of the reader to navigate through it all. All I will say is that we were on a mission to see as much as we could at the sacrifice of sleep.
From the neon lights and skyscrapers came the tranquillity and calm of Hakone, just a short bullet train ride away and located in Mount Fuji National Park. The heat wave of the city had swiftly been left behind and here the temperature was cooler and the cloudy sky full of rain. Together with our guide, we took a boat ride on a pirate ship, a cable car up to the top of Mount Hakone and took in a sculpture museum where we got our first glimpse of the incredible cherry blossom. To end this magnificent day, we stayed in one of Japan’s authentic Ryokan’s where it was time to enjoy a seven-course set menu of what can only be described as one of the best meals ever eaten. After a late-night visit to the Onsen, we returned back to our room to find two very comfortable futon beds which offered us the best night’s sleep of the trip and turned us into futon converts.
The remainder of the trip took us through such varying landscapes. Kiso Valley for the Nakasendo Trail which even undertaken in the rain didn’t dampen our spirits. The Cherry blossom was out in full force the along the short trail from Magome to Tsumago which we completed in 31/2 hours. It was enough to have given us a fair taste of the famous route travelled by the samurai to reach the Shogun some 450 years ago with the postal town of Tsumago retaining much of its original charm.
From there it was Kyoto which was definitely somewhere we found ourselves wanting a lot more time. The former capital, the birthplace of tea ceremonies and geisha girls moves to a completely different rhythm. This compact city was spared from the bombing and is home to more than 2,000 temples, a mere three of which we managed to fit in within a half day tour. We enjoyed a beautiful tea ceremony, followed by a walk through the famous Geisha district Gion (both day and night for a completely different experience.) There was shopping, Philosophers walk and ryotei restaurants. A very timid Geisha girl brushed past us, but sightings are rare; we were lucky.
We could have spent so much longer in Kyoto; we barely touched the sides, but we had a unique opportunity to visit Koyasan and stay at a temple to experience traditional “Shojinryori” Buddhist vegetarian cuisine which was just too good to pass up. 800 metres above sea level and a few degrees cooler than its urban neighbours; Koysan is home to an active monastic centre founded 12 centuries ago by a great monk known as Kobo Daishi. It’s the headquarters of the Koysan sect of Shingon Buddhism which is widely practiced throughout Japan. This is a hugely spiritual and beautiful place and quite like anywhere else we visited in the country. We did a night walk through the Okuno-in Cemetery, a 2km stretch of towering cedar tree lined paths where there are over 200,000 gravestones and memorial pagodas to see lit up by lanterns. The temple where we stayed offered us the chance to get up at 6 am to chant with the monks which was something not to be passed up. Again, it was our lovely private guide Arisa that really brought Koyasan alive for us in showing us the highlights and of course the best places to eat (we became vegetarians for 24 hours and loved it). Having arrived on one of the steepest cable trains in the world, we left by more traditional means of transport; the fast train from Hashimoto to Osaka, a mere 50 minutes journey.
If we thought Tokyo was crazy, Osaka took us to a whole new level of dizzy!! That famous Japanese expression “a nail that sticks out must be hammered down” was well and truly turned on its head here. The younger generation felt louder and edgier and the lights just a bit brighter and more garish. Just getting out of Umeda station to our hotel was an achievement (and of course we had to pass a number of really cool shops, so it took way longer). Its location, location, location in a city like this and whilst much smaller than Toyko, there is still a good amount to see. We stayed at the fantastic Hilton Osaka which was perfect for… you guessed it…. Shopping. Less touristy than the Dotonbori area which is a mecca for street food and shopping, Umeda is quieter and more civilised but a great base to see of the highlights, namely Osaka Castle and Shinsaibashi area. Save your suitcase space for Osaka where you can fill up with incredibly well-priced crockery items, kitchen knives and all sorts of traditional treasures. Well worth buying a cheap second suitcase too which we did to accommodate our impulse buys. Two nights here was enough at the end of a very busy but highly intoxicating itinerary, but we could never say the food was enough. With the help of a private guide we had found the best place for the famous “Takoyaki” fried octopus balls, the best “Okonomyaki” Japanese style egg pancake, udon noodles and Kobe beef. Our black book was full to the brim.
The beauty of our route meant that nowhere was too far or too arduous to reach. Travel is positively enjoyable around Japan where efficiency is taken to a whole new level (they could teach Southern Rail a thing or two!) Our waist belts tighter and wallets looser, we had eaten our way one of the gourmet capitals of the world. We climbed mountains, drank in underground bars with the locals, skied, hiked, chanted with the monks and sat in many onsens but the real magic was experiencing traditional Japanese culture. If there had ever been a glass ceiling on our expectations, it had been well and truly shattered. The people were amazing, the toilets with their heated seats and bottom washes even more amazing and don’t even get me started on the shopping………