Head for Ja­pan in blos­som time

The Irish Mail on Sunday - - MORE - By Lisa Snow­don

IN THE words of a poet (ac­tu­ally, it was the 1980s band The Va­pors) I think I’m turn­ing Ja­panese. Then again the whole world will be turn­ing Ja­panese as the coun­try hosts the Rugby World Cup next year be­fore the 2020 Olympics lands in Tokyo.

My love af­fair with the Land of the Ris­ing Sun be­gan nearly 30 years ago. I was lucky enough to travel to Tokyo as a 19-year-old model, and I even lived there a few times in my 20s but I hadn’t been back since. And so when my fi­ancé Ge­orge said how much he’d love to visit Ja­pan, I jumped at the chance to go back. I was in­trigued to find out how much it had changed over the years.

From the mo­ment we ar­rived at the cap­i­tal’s Narita air­port, it was im­me­di­ately ob­vi­ous just how dif­fer­ent things were. There are now signs in English and the ar­rivals process is eas­ier to nav­i­gate. On a pre­vi­ous visit, I was met by a chap­er­one and whisked away by coach on a two-hour jour­ney to the cen­tre of Tokyo. Now there is a di­rect train that takes less than an hour.

Buy­ing a Ja­pan Rail pass is a great idea, es­pe­cially if you plan to move around the coun­try and take lots of shinkansen – the fa­mous bul­let trains.

Af­ter a short walk from Tokyo Sta­tion in Otemachi, we no­ticed a tall build­ing wrapped in a chic iron cladding and re­alised with delight that this was our ho­tel – the Hoshi­noya Tokyo. As it was a Sun­day, the area was quiet – noth­ing like the usual fast-paced bus­tle.

As soon as the 300-year-old cy­press wooden doors opened to the ryokan (a tra­di­tional Ja­panese inn), there was a won­der­ful aroma of in­cense that blended with the nat­u­ral scent of the in­te­ri­ors – bam­boo, chest­nut, cedar and cy­press.

With our shoes off and stored in the boxes that line the walls like an art in­stal­la­tion, the warm feel of the tatami mats un­der­foot was noth­ing short of bliss­ful.

A de­li­cious cup of matcha was served while we checked in, and as we were about to head to our room, a wo­man sprayed me down with anti-static. She had no­ticed (oh, the shame!) that my trousers were cling­ing to my thighs af­ter the long flight. How’s that for cus­tomer ser­vice?

Af­ter we stepped out of the lift and walked along the ho­tel’s el­e­gant cor­ri­dors, slid­ing doors opened to re­veal a ryokan within a ryokan – our spa­cious yet un­der­stated room. Sun­light streamed through the win­dows to re­veal fu­tons and tatami mats. This was my idea of heaven.

Hav­ing got set­tled, we popped out for a walk around the Im­pe­rial Palace and down to Ginza, a cool shop­ping area where we stum­bled upon the most de­lec­ta­ble sushi restau­rant.

Af­ter feast­ing on the fresh­est fish, we walked back to the ho­tel and suc­cumbed to our jet-lag at five in the af­ter­noon. We woke up six hours later, ready for our next taste of Ja­panese cui­sine.

Dressed in the com­fort­able, mod­ern-day ki­monos pro­vided by the ho­tel, we went to ex­plore the Ochanoma lounge – a large com­mu­nal area on each floor of the ho­tel. It felt like hav­ing our own liv­ing room. Beau­ti­fully dec­o­rated and with soft, sub­tle light­ing, it was quiet at that time of the night.

We snacked on noo­dles and radish rice crack­ers, as well as bite-sized ice creams from the fully stocked freezer.

The next morn­ing, with our spa treat­ments booked, I was ea­ger to see the on­sen – the nat­u­ral hot springs that, while com­mon through­out Ja­pan, are a rare find in a city cen­tre ho­tel.

Still dressed in our ki­monos – maybe we’d over­packed? – we set off. Men and women bathe separately in the on­sen, which had an open roof, so you could watch the clouds sail by. This was fol­lowed by a shi­atsu mas­sage, by the end of which I was com­pletely re­laxed.

Our Hoshi­noya ex­pe­ri­ence was un­for­get­table. We also did a sake tast­ing, took part in a tea cer­e­mony, en­joyed an eight-course tast­ing menu, and even tried our hand at the martial art of kendo.

Leav­ing Tokyo, we headed to Takayama in the Gifu pre­fec­ture – a long train ride to the cen­tre of the coun­try. The moun­tains were burst­ing with vi­brant shades of red, orange, and pur­ple. Bright blue skies and sun­shine, stun­ning cloud for­ma­tions, and maple trees ex­plod­ing into au­tumn’s fiery shades made it a mag­i­cal jour­ney through the coun­try­side.

We walked from the sta­tion to our ho­tel, where that night we had tem­pura and beef with veg­eta­bles.

Takayama is like a lit­tle Ky­oto with­out the mil­lions of tourists, and its per­fectly pre­served build­ings date back to the Edo pe­riod.

It is the home of hida beef, and there are some fab­u­lous spots to sam­ple this dish.

We walked around and shopped, buy­ing miso paste and matcha green tea and sip­ping yuzu sake – a Takayama spe­cial­ity.

A visit to the Mu­seum of His­tory

A MAG­I­CAL MIX­TURE OF BLUE SKIES AND TREES IN FIERY SHADES

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